Few things move me more than the arts and history.
Stumbling across REWA's bold, luminous portraits, radiating with regal energy was enough to leave me stunned. However, what absolutely bowled me over about her proud, dignified depictions of her muses, often close relations of hers, was the captivating narratives behind the pieces. Stories brimming with ancient tradition, rites of passage and customs of the Igbo people of South-Eastern Nigeria, preserved and thriving in spite of centuries of external subjugation and being undermined.
What struck me most was the knowledge that whilst the Igbo in recent years have been famed for their artistic prowess in the arts, chiefly, literature, where giants such as Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have highlighted the ancient culture and customs of their people to contemporary global audiences, the visual arts are yet to have an Igbo talisman, or taliswoman, for that matter.
It was with this in mind, and my art historian senses in overdrive, that I was extremely keen to learn more about REWA's journey as an artist to date, and uncover the story behind her practice, and of course, her personal odyssey too.
1. How long have you been painting, and at what point did you consider yourself a professional artist?
Formally, my journey began in 2016 when I was living in Johannesburg but informally, it began much earlier than that. I’ve always had a relationship with art. Growing up, my dad encouraged my creative drive and his expansive art collection from West Africa provided further impetus for my development. I’d always doodled and sketched but it wasn’t until 2016 that I truly discovered my artistic style and began to create consistently and in earnest. Because I am self-taught, I sometimes struggle internally about whether or not I will ever be considered a professional artist but I’ve since come to realize that I am doing my associated galleries and collectors a disservice by dwelling on such misplaced insecurities.
2. Tell us a bit about your background. Where were you born and raised, and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Nigeria and moved to England when I was 11 years old to join my mother, grandmother and sisters. Life in Nigeria and life in England were worlds apart from culture to climate to cuisine. My upbringing was much like that of anyone who has ever had to undergo such a huge geographical shift; adaptability was key to societal acceptance and survival.
Fast forward a few years and I went on to receive a BSc. in Physiology and Pharmacology from University College London (UCL). I began my career as a Management Consultant at Accenture in London. After a number of years, I joined Old Mutual and was repatriated to the Lagos office where I served as the Strategy Manager for West Africa. I was nominated for the company’s Leadership Rotation Programme and this is when I then moved to Johannesburg. I absolutely love South Africa but it was a very lonely time for me and this is why I began painting. My subsequent job as the Group Head of Investor Relations for a Private Equity company based out of Zimbabwe saw me living and working between Harare and Johannesburg also.
3. Where do you currently live, and work now?
Today, I go between London – as my family is still there, except my older sister who is now Singapore-based - and Lagos where I live with my husband, our perfect baby boy and our English cocker spaniel – she’s a pain in the proverbial.
4. Your work today pays homage to your Igbo heritage and customs, why was it important for you to depict your culture in your work?
For context, the Igbos are one of the three major tribes of Nigeria and comprise the largest group of people living in the south-eastern region of the country.
As I already mentioned, I spent my formative years in England, raised with my biracial mum and white grandma. It was only when I returned to Nigeria in 2014 and rekindled with my dad that I began learning about my heritage in earnest. With my personal learning, it was important to begin to express that in my art in tandem, drawing on elements of cultural awareness with my work because I didn’t just want to create art for art’s sake, which, by the way, is perfectly ok too. In this way, I educate an audience and in the process, educate myself. My dad provides a lot of my source material on the history and traditions of Igboland, specifically Onitsha which is our ancestral village. It was quite dismaying to see that without his materials, there wasn’t much I could get my hands on by way of educational material on this subject matter so I decided I would make it my opus vitae to bring this to the fore. This is why I prefer to label my work as Igbo Vernacular Art because it is drawn from life itself and deeply anchored in the place and culture from which it was derived.
How a culture survives depends on its people’s capacity to learn and transmit it to succeeding generations. Post-colonialism, we, imported Western practices and customs. Many of the older Igbo traditions and rites, from aspects like marriage to naming ceremonies, have since become obsolete as cultural customs faded to the pervasive western systems.
Through my art, I would like to provide viewers with an understanding of who we are as a people, educate about our rich legacy and educate a wider audience on the symbolic practices of our forebears before it is lost entirely.
It is my hope that one day, my work will be included in art historical dialogue about Africa, beyond the confines of the wide-reaching Contemporary African Art designation, and therefore, the edification of my culture plays a huge role in my narrative.
5. How do you reconcile the age-old customs and traditions of your Igbo heritage with contemporary culture and modernity?
Onitsha has a very long history and set of traditions, which I am firmly rooted in. There are entrenched behavioral codes of conduct and societal norms that still pervade modern living. On the female side, this life playbook is propagated by institutions such as the ikporo-Onitsha, a group of women and community mothers, who are the custodians of culture within their individual quarters of the village. There is also the aspirational Otu-Odu society which signifies wealth and leadership in the individual communities for the women.
I give these two examples because for young women, these two institutions, amongst others, lay out the do’s and don’ts of life. For a young married woman, there are expectations on you and ceremonies you must undergo in society and these guiding factors mean that my behavioral patterns are maintained within certain moral and societal parameters. In modern society, this mandates the need for respect and regard for certain institutions such as those of education, marriage and family. The evolution to womanhood and transcendence into larger society assumes that a lot of discipline and respect are brought to bear.
What this means in practice is that there are norms and ethics that I am guided by. So, I must get a good education, enter into a good marriage, which I hold with the utmost sanctity and raise a well-rounded family. Tick, tick, tick on those three counts – my ancestors would be proud!
6. It is well documented that the Igbo people have long had a great sense of ethnic pride and celebrate their identity. Do you think the same is still true today or has a greater push for a Nigerian national identity and allegiance taken root?
The former is largely the case. We are still firmly who we are. There may have been such modifications and things we have let go of because of Christianity and other external tribal influences, which are an add-on and not a distraction. However, the fundamental pillars still remain. As I mentioned earlier, these fundamentals have guided us in terms of family union and in terms of commerce and enterprise. Importantly, these factors remain a unique identifying factor of the Igbo race. We assimilate with other ethnic groups and respect their culture but neither absorb theirs nor impose ours on them.
7. As an artist of African descent, what are your views on the surge of interest in modern and contemporary African art?
I think momentum and interest over Contemporary African Art that has built up over the past few years will continue to snowball and a number of emerging artists will be key in putting Nigerian art on a global platform – hopefully including me. I believe the arts are now being taken more seriously with the grandmasters such as Ben Enwonwu now fetching millions at international auctions and the likes of Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a modern, living artist, winning genius grants and fetching similar sums. I believe this is why platforms such as ArtxLagos are so key, to further drive the importance of the creative industry in Nigeria. I see our creative output eventually taking center stage and becoming an invaluable export, much the same way that music (Fela Kuti, Wizkid to name a few) and commodities like petrochemicals have, and I hope that this isn’t wishful thinking.
8. Where have you exhibited your work to date, and what has been the reception so far?
To date, my work has been exhibited in Cape Town (Zeitz MOCAA), Lagos (ReLe Gallery and the Nigerian National Museum), London (the Gallery of African Art – GAFRA), New Orleans (the Contemporary Art Centre of New Orleans – CACNOLA and the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery) and in New York (MoCADA). I was also invited to work on the Nike Women’s World Cup campaign last year and the Unilever Vaseline pop up during Essence Fest in New Orleans.
The reception has been nothing short of overwhelming and positive, which has given me a lot of motivation to keep on going. Viewers are drawn in by my explosively colorful women and subsequently go on to enjoy the underlying narrative. Although come to think of it, I don’t think anyone would ever be so unkind or forthright as to tell you to your face at an exhibition that your pieces are ugly. Or would they?
9. Nigeria and South Africa have been considered hubs for contemporary African art on the African continent, what has been your experience of being exhibited and collected in these hubs?
It has been an absolute honor. Showing at the Zeitz MOCAA was one of my pipe dreams. One of my observations of Nigeria is that collectors tend to value your work a tad bit more when they view you as an export; that is, you are more so international than homegrown. In my experience, there is a premium placed on your work when you are deemed to be international. That said, one of my biggest and most supportive collectors is in Nigeria. I’ve also found that my narrative is better appreciated outside of Nigeria, which is probably understandable given that much is already known about Igboland in Nigeria. As far as exhibitions go, the turnouts and caliber of the audience are always fantastic – ReLe Gallery in Lagos does a really great job of this.
10. What is next for you as an artist, and what can we expect in future?
I’m working on building my network within the curator community and working on new representation – there are some conversations ongoing in this space so I’m keeping all ten fingers and toes crossed. I’m also working on a new body of work called Umu Ada, an ideology that was created by tradition during the pre-colonial era where women were held sacred and they participated in collective decision making on political and social issues. The Umu Ada are defined as the powerful daughters in Igbo culture. My proposed exhibition will highlight and acknowledge the various roles that this group plays in the life of the societies within which they operate despite their limited access to resources and paternalistic domination. I am very excited by this collection as it is challenging me on a number of levels both in size and scope. Needless to say – watch this space!