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How I turned my childhood fear into inspiration – Akachukwu Benjamin

Akachukwu Chukwuemeka Benjamin PHOTOS: Akachukwu Benjamin
Akachukwu Chukwuemeka Benjamin PHOTOS: Akachukwu Benjamin

Akachukwu, Chukwuemeka Benjamin is a studio artist based in Abuja. He went through the tutelage of the Nsukka Art school as an undergraduate at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. He recently exhibited some of his current art style and spoke to Daily Trust on Sunday about it.

You recently exhibited works in a new technic you have been exploring. Please tell us about them.

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The works were inspired by the formation of clouds in the sky. These were my childhood fear, turned to inspiration source. My plan is to make a hundred works in the series. I have 70 so far. Producing one piece is time and energy consuming but with dedication and fulfilment, I drive the process. The works are my personal reaction to my environment. I focus on politics, religion, gender, sexuality, family, spirituality and conflict. I follow news and trends and comment on them through my art.

What was it about clouds that scared, but now inspire you?

When you look at the cloud in the evenings, you see all kinds of forms from human, animals to trees. They are always evanescent and require a good imagination to get them stamped in your memory. I began observing them as a little child in Nsukka. Back then, we used an open-air toilet in the 70s and early 80s due to frequent industrial actions, by night soil men. Then, I always got scared of the silhouettes of the trees against the ‘threatening’ clouds, at night.

In university, partially from due to lack of fund to buy oil paints which was very expensive then and the desire to experiment, I began looking for a cheaper but quality way to make my art. I had also been dyeing cloths for students and decided to start experimenting with vat dye on canvas. It turned out to be a wonderful medium for me to use in building narratives about my perception of my environment.

I started looking closely at the sky to admire the cloud. I later came in contact with Salvador Dali’s powerful compositions and Christopher Okigbo’s poems. With my orientation from the Nsukka art school on conceptual art forms, I started exploring ways to build strong compositions in my works to give voice to my poetry. I began using vat dye to create my own metaphorical cloud. Acrylic paint has become a better medium to bring out the forms, and since I see an artwork as a window through which the artist shows the audience his/her perception of the world, I create a platform for the audience to stand and view my world and give their own interpretations.

Today in most major cities round the world, the trees have disappeared and the cloud is invisible because skyscrapers have taken over the skyline. They are blocking the sky view and obstructing viewers from absorbing the ephemeral art, performed by the cloud.

Why did you decide to try this technic?

It gives me freedom to explore or push my imagination to eternity. It allows me to be one with the creative process. If you understand the creative process, it becomes less challenging when you face a blank canvas. Earlier in my career, I discovered that oil paint is a very expensive medium if you are an artist from a poor family. And to be able to fulfill my dream as an artist, I had to find alternative and cheaper, but still high-quality medium, to express myself. That is why I opted for tie and dye on canvas. It is easier to build my narratives with this medium without unnecessary repeating of composition.

Did you think this new style would be something your audience would have to struggle with?

It is very natural for people to struggle with the comprehension of something new and unique. It is like a huge object dropped in the river, some people would appreciate only the splash, some would settle for the calm after the splash. Yet, some who are deep in the thought process would become the object after the splash and descend to the bottomless river, savoring the beauty, serenity, and peace it brings. I expect some people to be rattled with the style of my work. I also expect them to feel the need to understand my point of view through a constant review in their mind and their encounter with the works, which is one of my purposes. I want the audience to be absorbed in the work. To be lost in its legend. I want anybody who stands in front of the works, to feel like someone who has entered a holy altar, temple, or shrine according to his/her spiritual disposition. I want the works to keep the audience standing in front of them as long as possible. I see this as a communion with the works.

What other art forms do you engage in?

I write poetry, which to me is making artworks with words. It is a twin to my canvas works. I paint my poems or write about my paintings and that is why some of my paintings and poems have the same titles.

I am also a photographer. In fact some people see me only as a recent photographer. Photography is another wonderful medium of building narratives about my society. Every shot has a potential of changing a particular perception or a stereotypical point of view faster than one may anticipate.

Please tell us about the themes you focused on in the works you presented at the exhibition?

The exhibition is like a book and each work is a chapter that can stand alone like a short story yet, an integral part of the book. Each theme is linked to the other themes, yet it addresses a particular issue. Let’s start from ‘Forms from My Sky’ 13, which talks about the strive to belong to a ‘class’ in our society. We struggle to identify ourselves with a particular group in the hope of reaping the benefit of the association. The world is filled with such association and we believe that to belong to an influential group politically, socially, religiously, economically, is an easy way to attain our aspirations in life.  Amongst the societal cliques are inner cliques or inner caucus of the group in which there are further inner circle that determines how the group is run. ‘Forms from My Sky’ interrogates the need for these cliques. Is it a natural human disposition to belong to a clique for hope of protection, economic gain, or to achieve an aspiration?  Can’t an individual achieve his/her dreams without belonging to a clique? In schools, students belong to clubs, sororities, and cult groups, etc just to be identified as a brother or sister with benefits. Even artists have their clique or associations to cater to their interests. Countries belong to associations for the benefits attached, and the society has been fashioned in a way that cliques, society groups or associations have become a compulsory part of it and to make a head way in whatever you do, you must identify with them.

‘Forms from My Sky,’ 14 captures the concept of the red cap chiefs in the traditional Igbo context, in form with the red cap priests of religious organizations. My people have a proverb that says that a lawless society is profit to the red cap chiefs. In extending this proverb to religious organisations, I question the importance of this group in our society, today. Have they outlived their importance and thus, sponsor illiterate and half-educated young men or brainwashed youths, to threaten the society with violence in order to maintain their grip on society?

The red cap chiefs are the decision-makers in the traditional Igbo society and are held in high esteem. Today, all kinds of rats and roaches are becoming red cap chiefs and the question remains, are they bastardizing their roles in society? In the religious organizations today, we have all types of red cap chiefs ‘bishops’ who claim to be called from heaven to serve God, yet, their dispositions are nothing to emulate, considering their brazen dalliance in the political arena or powers that be. The question on my mind in making this art is whether the red cap chiefs, in whatever guise, have outlived their importance in a society like ours or do they still have nuisance value.

Please share with us what your creative process is like.

I approach my work like contemplation or meditation. My creative process follows a couple of stages. The first is the conceptual stage in which I become aware of an idea. The next stage is to look at the idea critically. I play it like a record in my mind, until it sinks in rationally, emotionally, psychologically etc, and that is when I make a choice on the rendition of the work. I have to decide the size of the canvas, the effect I want it to have on the audience, though I may not be in control of the final effect, and the dye pattern to apply.  After the dyeing of the canvas, I either follow the accident of the pattern created, impose my drawing on the pattern, or combine the pattern with my drawing. It is a long process but with commitment, each piece will come out fulfilling. I dye my canvas to create a pattern and paint on it with acrylic.

Is there anything about your younger years or childhood that have influenced you?

My secondary school art teacher Emeka Amaefuna encouraged the students to developed their creative skill. He always frown at students copying images from magazines or books. I believe that it impacted on my reliance on my imagination to in making my art.

What has been a most touching or impactful experience you have had in your career?

The most touching experience in my career, is when I see the audience lost in front of my work. I feel fulfilled that something that come through me is able to hold someone spellbound.

If you were not an artist, what else would you be doing?

I love spirituality. Maybe I would be in one shrine or monastery in perpetual communion with the gods and the universe.

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