Innocent Chikezie is a quintessential Nigerian artist who’s unique in blending colours to produce a delightful splash of hues, recreating the dynamics of rural life against a backdrop of an indigenous African landscape. His bright art career almost went dim when he was assaulted in 2011, losing one eye in the attack. But the award-winning and UK trained artist well versed in traditional paintings that embodied the essence of his native land, could no longer work with the brush due to his partial loss of sight. He was however rescued by the pallet knife in what now defines his style. He holds a Higher National Diploma from the IMT Enugu and a Master of Art from Nottingham Trent University. He speaks about his struggles with art due to his sight and his plans to stay relevant in the art industry.
How did you end up as an artist?
I became an artist by circumstances. I started drawing at a very tender age. My dad wanted me to be an engineer. But when I visited IMT Enugu to enrol in a preliminary program to study engineering, I stumbled into the Fine Art department and I immediately knew it was where I belong. I took a while to convince my dad, but it was not easy. Art is everything to me. It means a lot to me because I can just be very sad but when I start painting, the sadness disappears. Art is a therapy for my heart and brain.
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What impresses you about colour?
My works are colourful. That is my style. I have been through a lot of dark moments in life. I do not want to keep anything dark around me. So, I paint my world the way I want it to be – happy, bright, beautiful and colourful.
Technology is changing the art space; how have you been using this to remain relevant in the industry?
Technology is out there for everyone. We are all experiencing what is happening. This is a modern world, a lot of things have changed and we need to use that to our advantage including the social media, for an example, for us to explore it, know what is trending and what people like across the globe and not just your immediate environment. We need to make friends with a lot of people. We need to keep working and we need to find our own market. You must know the kind of people that like the kinds of things that you do. You must do the kind of things that they like, you must find a way to make it look modern. It is not about painting and making art. You must make things that appeal to people at this moment and technology has made it clearer for us to get in contact with a lot of people.
Do you think Nigerian artists are making the best of this and several opportunities in the industry?
In life, we cannot make opportunities for ourselves. We can do all we can as humans but creating opportunities for ourselves might not be possible. People try their best but to be lucky or to be successful is not something someone can guarantee. But there are certain things we can do as humans and expect to get good results. Technology has exposed us to a lot of things. Opportunities abound so artists are trying to catch up with these. If they do not succeed, we have to keep doing what we are doing and hope God will bless our effort.
Is art fulfilling to you?
Aside from the money made from selling a piece of work, there are so many things art does for me. I have a lot of childhood memories and stories that I had always wanted to tell but through art I have been able to tell the stories, express myself and have a voice. People can look at my paintings and tell where I came from. I have been able to use art to pass messages from one person to another. Through my work, I have been able to give people hope and art is therapy. Art is fulfilling, seeing colours make me happy and the fact that I can create something that people appreciate is something that is charming. Art is fulfilling and rewarding. I am wondering in a couple of years when I am old, the works will still be out there blessing people and making them happy.
You have had joint or solo exhibitions, tell us about them?
I have had several exhibitions in Nigeria and the UK. I have done two solo exhibitions in Port Harcourt and one in Lagos last year. The exhibition held in Lagos was titled ‘Memorable glimpse’ I took my time to travel to my village and took some pictures and I tried to get a flashback of things that happened when I was in the UK. The experience was good. It is something I will like to do again in the future. I have gotten a particular story I am telling about the village because of my experience in the UK, and the culture shock I had. The things that I took for granted in Nigeria became what I cherished. So, returning to Nigeria, I decided to explore this. I am going to continue telling these stories of my village, and childhood through the canvas and also keep telling the stories that matter to me.
Tell us about your style, what informed it?
Something bad happened to me in 2011 when I returned to Nigeria. I was assaulted in Abia State and in the process, I was brutalised and lost one of my eyes. The incident led to frustration. I did not do anything for four years. I was just indoors and traumatised and just being there alone when I try to paint, I paint dark images of people praying, alone, lonely and I painted them almost black. It was a sad part of my life, then eventually I had to come over it but I couldn’t work. It was tiring so I had to pick my pallet knife and out of anger and frustration, I started throwing colour at the canvas and eventually I picked something from there. That is what I have been doing since then. I did not plan to paint like this. I used to paint with a pointed brush and detail my work to a realistic level and all of a sudden, I am no longer interested in painting with a brush. I just want to use the pallet knife and spread my colours, throw the colours however it comes to my mind. Sometimes I can’t see properly. Looking at the screen of a phone can be troublesome for me and when I go out in the sun coming back inside everything seem different and very dark. I have serious challenges with my sight and I try to manage it and I do not like to spend too much time trying to detail some things because I might not be able to get them correctly. So, the pallet knife is just a way of escape for me to throw colours to things I can see easily and be cheerful. And this style, I think will stay with me for a very long time.