Chike Emembo is an art entrepreneur and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) branch Chairman of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA). The alumnus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, having organised two solo exhibitions, said artists need to take advantage of technology in improving their works and also see art as a business.
Tell us about your journey into art
My journey towards art started in secondary school. I am from a creative family. I was doing art in the class while I take science subjects. I was drawing superheroes like every other kid. Things got serious when I was to register for my WAEC. I registered for eight subjects but I was informed by the Guidance and Counselling Unit that I needed one more art subject, so I took art. This is the hand that God used. I did not pass my entire science subjects but passed all my art subjects.
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When did you get your first pay as an artist?
I made my first money from art as an undergraduate at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. There was an ASUU strike and we were home. A catholic church in Onitsha was planning an award ceremony and I was recommended with one of my friends to make effigies. The church invited us and we requested N100,000. We had expected them to negotiate but they did not. We got N20,000 as the first instalment meanwhile the cost of producing everything was less than N10,000. The money was more than enough and we employed all our friends. I had about N44,000 to myself after work. We got other jobs as well but I was not given in to art after I left school. I wanted to move with my contemporaries.
Everybody was looking for a bank job because the pay was good. But it changed during my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) though I worked for an architectural firm for about two years before resigning to concentrate on art.
How will you describe the journey into art?
I had my first solo exhibition in 2009 at Ceddi Plaza in Abuja. I had no big expectations but I just felt I should showcase my work because they were piling up and I was not showing it to anybody. They were Christian-themed works. The show was successful and the outcome encouraged me a lot, especially the comments from people. I was encouraged and by 2010, I did my second solo exhibition. By then, I was already deep into art.
Tell us about the genre of your art?
My style is representational (essentially realism) oil on canvass rendered traditionally in the manner of old masters since the core of my inspiration is drawn from that era.
Over the past four years, as I stopped shelving ideas and began to offload works off my chest, I began to witness a switch in my works. Initially, it seemed scattered but with time I began to see their interconnectivity. Besides all of them having a Christian faith-based theme, one witness a breaking up and reassembling of some sorts in my works. It started with details of tiny rocks on the seashore, cutting up foam in squares to create semi-abstract collage works. My interest in breaking rocks and reassembling square foams is also connected to my early days working with a floor finishing firm, dealing in granite and marble tiles and slabs. So, my repertoire includes representational works in oil on canvass, mixed media collages on canvass, charcoal drawings, coffee art on paper/canvass, and digital art. I am also an avid portrait artist and handle a lot of commissions in that genre. I also sculpt; that is what is written on my certificate. But I only do it on commission, I don’t sculpt and keep.
Do you plan to develop this?
For now, it will remain like that. I have a couple of ideas but not enough to organise a show. I know it is something I would get back to especially now that I am offloading things off my chest. The problem I have with sculpting is space. It commands and demands a lot of space which I don’t have right now. If I move to a bigger studio, maybe I will be encouraged to try my hands on sculpting. For now, it is basically painting.
Do you think artists are taking advantage of technological advancement to improve their works?
I used to be a victim of that for a very long time. Everybody is afraid of something they don’t know and that fear stops them from trying new things.
For a long time, I feared technology. I just don’t want to have anything to do with it because I had people around me that helped.
I was afraid of technology for a long time. I started embracing it recently. I don’t think many artists are taking advantage of technology. Younger artists do but the older ones are fixed in their ways and still see technology as a shortcut. Digital arts before now had no serious value. It affects exclusiveness and control. The younger ones are willing to learn because they are born into it, unlike the older ones.
Do you think older artists should be concerned?
They should be. If you are concerned with numbers. A young artist has several followers on Instagram and is making sales on social media including to foreigners. It does not cost anything extra than uploading pictures. It is cheaper and easier and it is something you can do at your convenience. When I posted my work on Instagram, someone in the US bought it few hours after it was posted. I sold it at a higher rate. Older artists should be concerned. Technology boosts trade; it creates a platform for wealth creation. People are moving there and they should be concerned. Most artists are struggling, so any avenue to get more market should be welcomed. Technology is removing middlemen, making artists deal directly with their clients.
If you are still waiting on the old model of going to a gallery to organise an exhibition before you sell your works, it might be difficult. But now, you would want to be in charge of your life. You can still deal with gallery but I don’t think they should not be out there trying to use what is available.
Do you think it is ideal when Nigerian artists just do their work as a means to survive?
It is not a Nigeria thing; it happens all over the world. Very few artists survive on their arts. Most of the artists in developed countries hold on to another job to survive. Some of them teach, do factory work to pay bills, and be able to buy supplies to do the art. Many of them have scheduled themselves to be able to accommodate that. They also have a social structure to help them do that. So, you can get any kind of job, and then society is wired to accommodate that. Everything is timed- when you leave your office you know that it is okay if I take the bus to get home in the next thirty minutes. So, you can plan your life like that. But here, you do not have those kinds of guarantees. So, it is not a Nigerian thing. Artists want to produce works they can sell.
What can be done to support artists?
Institutions can help. Artists do not mind committing hours to their works. I have a passion to see people succeed in this art we are doing. You do not want to leave a bad image for upcoming generations. So, children are coming up now, they see daddy struggling. Okay! Daddy is an artist, and everybody just believes the artist is a struggling guy, he is starving. He struggles to produce, struggles to sell them, and struggles to make ends meet. Most artists do not want their kids to study arts because of what they are going through. If an artist wants to be successful, he has to live a balanced life. I want artists to have a balanced life that is why I am going in this direction. Most times I find out that our problem is actually the inability to run art as a business. We are in business and we are manufacturers, we are like an entrepreneur. Sometimes, we do not have that mindset; instead, your passion takes the best of you, and then you forget that you are in business.