Chike Emembo is an art entrepreneur. He exhibited some of his works at the Orisun Art Gallery, Abuja after 12 years. The exhibition was the third solo exhibition by the former Federal Capital Territory (FCT) branch Chairman of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA). It was themed Blackouts and curated by Susa Rodriguez-Garrido. The alumnus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in this interview provides an insight into his new style.
By Taiwo Adeniyi
This is your third solo exhibition coming after 12 years, why blackouts?
The theme is most relevant now. There has been a movement of some sort against racism. If you look across the globe especially with the black lives matter that was galvanised, there has been a concern for racial injustices in one form or the other. I felt that this will be a good time to tell the story.
All through my professional career, I have been pushing this particular theme but not as bluntly as I have done now. This is the right time but the works also is a new style that I am also launching. It is not only that the theme is blackouts but it is also it is a new style launch.
What it is about this new style?
This style has been in my mind for a long time but because I paint, professionally, oil on canvass, I tend to suppress it. I do tell myself that is contradictory to what I am doing especially when everybody knows me as a representational artist. I kept pushing it aside but about five years ago I changed. I started executing them bit by bit. At the time, it wasn’t making sense. I changed the medium twice, researched and do other things but I did not give up. My earlier job at the floor finishing company also influenced this new style. So, I am trying to recreate the surface of marbles. That is what I am trying to recreate. It is trying to imitate the marble surface and create a new texture.
Will this style be unique to your works henceforth or it is just for this exhibition?
I don’t want to stop it though I see this continuing for a long time in the foreseeable future. But I am not closing the door to evolution because the style is not stuck. There is a lot that I can do with it. I have in my head some sculptures to make out of them too. Within the same medium, I might play with it in so many ways, the possibilities I see in this style are endless and inexhaustive. I am staying here but how I play with it is what I can’t tell.
Why is a religious theme is pronounced in your works?
This has always been what I’ve done. I realised that there are stories in the Bible that I have other sides too. I like to tell what people don’t normally tell. I see these people in the Bible as people that actually live you and me. They had normal lives. There were high moments and low moments. I think over the years artworks have celebrated either the high moments or low moments leaving the in-between moments. The in-between moments are important because that is where most of us dwell. I like to tell that story. I like the connection. The Black Heritage Bible changed my perspective. I realised that we are part of this Bible story and somehow, we are not included in the imagery of these stories. In religion, pictures are powerful because a lot has to do with your imagination. Because of this imagery, it makes us look at Christianity and feel it is not our religion. That it is borrowed and brought us to by the whites even when records in the bible are saying otherwise. I feel it is essential to retell this story.
What informed your decision to connect social issues with religion?
Christianity is a lifestyle. Those people in the Bible are human beings too. They dealt with the things we deal with today. In one of the paintings, I have the story of Samson and Delilah. In that instance, I felt Samson has been wrongly depicted over the years. He is painted as muscular over the years but I don’t think so because the people he was dealing with at that time were asking for the source of his strength. If he had been muscular, they wouldn’t have asked. If there is no social issue, the Bible story won’t mean anything to you. For instance, with the Samson and Delilah story with it, you’ll learn who to trust. You have to connect to these Bible stories for the story to have meaning to you. When you have a connection, it becomes useful to you. The social context is vital because without it there is no relativity to the story. There are several social contexts from Jesus’ riding on a colt to Jerusalem. As one of my works shows, you see rural-urban migration, cross-border migration, irregular migration etc these are things that are happening now. In the picture, some people were hailing Jesus just like they will hail someone that got a visa to Europe but they don’t know the hazards he has to go through to get to where he is going. When people see this kind of story, they connect to it. People that go abroad do not know what they are going through to be able to make a living and send money home. Migration is a global issue and makes these stories relatable.
The eye also stands out in this style
Cuts in… I have been exploring something about vision and focus over time. I realised how important it is for someone to have a vision. People that are high achievers are very focused people. Being focused has helped me and it is a message I like to preach to anybody. If you want to achieve anything meaningful usually focus is required. That is what the eye signified.
All the works on exhibition are mixed media. Is this also part of the style?
There is a whole lot going on. If a thought comes to me, I don’t hesitate. I bring it out and paint it. I like to draw charcoal, most of the works have charcoal. I like to paint the traditional style; this I also integrate as much as I can. Then the medium itself which requires treatment, I had to treat the surface then the ones I need to texture, I did. Then I combined all of these to make the work. That is why they are all mixed media. It is a combination of all the things I like. What is important for me is that I’ve never been happier with my art than right now. I am much freer; I do this because I love it and I’m happy to be sharing this with everybody. The response has been quite comforting. I will be doing a follow-up on this exhibition very soon. I have not exhausted everything I had wanted to say.