Papercutting, an adventure to self-expression – Abigail Nnaji

Abigail Nnaji

Abigail Nnaji is a studio artist in Abuja who graduated from the University of Nigeria Nsukka. She has created an identity for herself with her paper cutting technique and the unique features of the characters in her works. She speaks about her creative process and her love for being an artist.


Your use of vibrant colours and lines are very strong. What is your love for them?

I am inspired by lines and fascinated by colours as they spur my imagination into creating most of my works. For me Lines reflect bond and continuity of life, a force which brings us close to each other as friends, in relationships and as communities. Colours reflect our realities, despite using them in abstract forms in my art, each one represents different emotions. As an artist I love using bright and contrast colours because they evoke a form of happiness. This creates a calming and soothing experience while expressing myself on canvas. This is the reason I was drawn to painting in the first place.

Nnaji explaining her papercutting technique to an audience in Florida, USA

At what point did you decide to become an artist?

I decided to become an artist when I realized I had the flair. While growing up, I had one of the best art grades from elementary school and participated in various competitions in secondary school. It was clear from then that my future would be in the arts.

Please share with us how your work has evolved especially from the time you decided to become a studio artist.

Prior to becoming a full-time studio, I had worked in other capacities after graduating from university. Over those few years, my work has evolved tremendously because as a studio artist I have been able to progressively experiment various medium. I started using oil colours to paint with palette knife initially and later on used acrylic paints. What is important for each artist is finding the medium one is most comfortable working with. In recent times I have been experimenting with paper from one type and style to another. I find coloured paper, precisely interesting. For me they are quite malleable and easy to use. What I do is to fuse the paper into the painting depending on the work created. My experiments with paper are an adventure through continuous study to find better ways I can express myself, without limit to its form. After learning the Chinese paper cutting technique in China, I adopted the technique and recreated the designs to suit my work. The process includes folding, cutting out designs and gluing the paper cut out to my painting and running colors over them. This technique creates a unique style and distinguishes my work from others.


What was it like migrating from the Nsukka Art School to create your own unique identity? Or do you still have some residue from then?

The core ideology of being an Nsukka artist is experimentation. So leaving school to begin my own journey was into the unknown. It was challenging initially to find my identity, because each work I created initially, was totally influenced by the style of the Nsukka movement. However, with time and constant practice, I was able to get a grip on what I wanted to achieve and decided to create my own niche. Although I have created my own style of art, I am still in tune with the use of the motifs and symbols of the Nsukka Art School like ‘uli.’ Its use is symbolic and connotes various meanings. I try to use these motifs in a stylized manner to create my style while identifying its symbolism.


What are your favourite themes to work on and why do you consider them so?

My paintings depict everyday life as I try to capture nature and beauty, while highlighting human struggles. However, I predominantly focus on themes that relate to women. This is because socially, there are more issues I can refer and relate to on the female gender as it affects them in the society. This is also triggered by certain experiences since art in itself is self-expressive. Also, physically, because of the beauty that surrounds being a woman and how intriguing it is to recreate these forms in an art work. Especially from the adornments, the clothing, hair and so on. In addition, because I am intrigued by colours, it is much easier to find an outlet to play around with so many colours.


Please tell us about the features of the characters of your works.

My works are characterized by gentle strokes and textures interlocked with ‘uli’ motifs and patterns. In order to achieve this, I employ both abstract and semi abstract styles of painting to create an alluring mix using lines and colours to create contrasts as well. Most of the textures are smooth in nature, but sometimes I introduce rough surfaces using paint and brush. The lines I use in painting are sometimes carefree or deliberate, depending on what I create. I also introduce paper which has been carefully design to form the integral part of my work.

You seem to deemphasise makeup and highlight natural features. Could you speak about this?

Most times the subject matter is the focus of the painting, and not necessary the figurine. For example, in the painting ‘Blue Book,’ the focus of the painting was not on her hair per se, and that was why her afro was not stylized like those in the ‘Afro Series.’ This is because the subject matter was the book. Her face was painted blank with no much emphasis on her expression. Another example is ‘Day Dream.’ The face was expressive as I highlighted the young girl’s depth in thought as can be seen on the expression from her face. So, the subject matter determines if the face will be blank or expressive, showing details.


What it is about the big headgears and hairdos of the women?

The big hairdo was based on a story about women I had previously worked on called, ‘Underneath the facade.’ It talks about how women hide all their feelings, pains, struggles and issues through a facade of makeup, hairdo and clothes. They attempt to create an imagery that all is


well and beautiful with them, even when a storm is raging within or around them. So, the big hair seems to hide all this underneath. I recreated this story when I started using the papercutting technique to become the ‘Afro Series.’ In addition, because the style is unique, it became a signature with my art. The headgear I create symbolises the occasional big party in the commercial city of Lagos – ‘Owambe.’ The women attend these parties fully geared and adorned in various attires and headgears. The parties are colourful and glamorous and highlight a society mixed with different social classes. As far as a lot of women are concerned, the bigger the better.

Blue Book, Acrylic and paper on canvas (using papercutting technique)

What is the most challenging part of being a fulltime studio artist and running a business?

Each business type comes with its perks and so does being a full time studio artist. The most challenging aspect in the business is driving sales. It could be draining sometimes to be the producer and seller. Although this has been the norm in this part of the world, it is better to get a manager or gallery representation. That way you will have time to think and create more.


Who or what has been your most inspiration with your work?

I would say Chike Obeagu. He has been one of my biggest motivators in the art and a mentor. He uses recycled magazine paper to create his own art. I believe we share certain similarities as well as being influenced by the Nsukka Art School. Reviewing his style of art inspires me and he is what I call a contemporary legend.


You work with different textures and mixed media. Please share with us what this process is like and how you decide on what to mix and match to achieve your goal.

In order to create an art work. I first do a sketch of what I want to paint. Though the initial idea is borne in my head. I then choose the colours and placement of each object completely before I start the pencil sketch. So mentally, the painting is complete before I put it down on paper. Before each painting is done on canvas, I decide how to place each colour in order to create contrasts and how the strokes and lines will be defined. Eventually, I decide what aspect of the figures or objects on canvas will have the paper cut design on it depending on the subject matter I choose to paint. After painting as I want, I include the paper aspect and then design with my colour choices to achieve the effect I want.


You have participated in various art forums. How have these experiences challenged or defined you?

In 2017 I attended a seminar at Yangling, China on papercutting technique which helped me to create and develop my own style of art. It has also given me the ability to discover new ideas and ways one can be creative. Also, in 2018, based on my style of paper cutting technique, I was invited as the first African to attend the Invited International Artist at the Great Gulf Coast Arts Festival at Pensacola Florida, USA. It was a turning point for me as I was happy to know that my style was appreciated beyond my borders. Based on this, I was spurred to challenge myself even more and break more boundaries.

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