Chidimma Urunwa Ikegwuonu is an Abuja-based studio artist and the founder of Catch Up, an art-inspired project in partnership with the French Development Agency (AFD). The project proffers a systematic mindset change through the concept and use of the creative power of art. Through the project, she has been able to return some out-of-school children back to the classrooms even with scholarships. The participants, having been trained at a workshop, recently exhibited some of their works at the Orisun Art Gallery, Abuja. In this interview, the alumnus of the University of Benin speaks on her passion for the girl-child and why ‘artvocacy’ is important to her.
Some artists simply address social issues through their works, but you took it further by getting involved in the lives of these children. Why did you go this extra mile?
I am passionate about issues that border on the girl-child. So, it is not only about art, it is about my personality as well. Issues concerning women are also involved. When I started this project, my emphasis was actually on the girl-child because I have been to some communities where I noticed that the boy-child had better opportunities than the girl-child but along the line, I decided to include boys. But, I am still passionate about anything concerning the girl-child.
Is it important other artists also take this step further?
I don’t want to put anybody in that box because I believe everybody has their own individual goals or focus. This is more like an individual goal; it is not compulsory for other artists to focus on. There are several aspects to art; for some people, their art is for beautification while for others it is for a certain thing so it is not compulsory for other artists to focus on this. When we started, the acceptance was low. I had to go to their parents to appeal to them because a lot of people had disappointed them but along the line, I was able to get their approval. Now, we have gotten a lot of support from the parents, especially their acceptance, it is encouraging unlike when we started.
What brings you the greatest fulfillment?
The greatest fulfillment is seeing these kids not giving up. At times, I go back to the communities to check up on them and I see them not loitering in the community but doing something productive. And those who were not able to go back to school have gone back, and this brings me joy, just like their parents.
Catch Up has been helping several children discover their purposes, why is this project important to you?
Being an artist who uses her talent as a means of artvocacy against social vices in society and also being someone who has experienced life from the other side – talking about having to live in the rural setting, it has always been a thing of passion to reach out to where I came from. It’s very important to me knowing how impactful it is going to be to the kids. It also brings fulfillment. This program is also important as it creates more awareness on the number of children that no longer attend school and loiter on the streets due to lack of funds, and also gets funds to send those in my capacity back to school. Also, through the program, the children get to be taught crafts that can keep them engaged instead of loitering the streets.
The recent event culminated in an exhibition of some works by the children in Abuja. In what ways do you think that exhibition helped the children?
These kids have never been celebrated before in their lives and had to experience this kind of event where diplomats and dignitaries within Nigeria came to celebrate. I believe it’s a life experience they will never forget, it will help their self esteem as they were able to express themselves before everyone. For those that will take up art among them, it is already a huge foundation.
With the increasing number of out-of-school children in Nigeria, how can art be used to ensure these children return to the classrooms?
There are various ways and this project is one of them, creating works with these kids and auctioning them to create more funds is also another way.
Considering the long-term effects, do you think the program is enough to ensure children remain committed to the passion ignited during the program?
I keep close contact with the kids’ families and once in a while, I check up on them to make sure they are also on track. Also, I have other young artists that keep watch on them in my absence. Mentoring them and not only ending everything after the project, will ignite their passion more. This project started last year some of those from last year’s batch participated as volunteers this year. We were able to exceed our target of 30 children.
How have you been able to tackle some of the challenges you face during the course of the program?
Being determined to see the project through helped me a lot, I was once under the rain in the process of the project. I was able to meet with the community chiefs and established a good relationship with them and it aided in making sure the project was a success. We also had the issue of some of the kids not being present some of the days but I expected that to happen so we worked with the kids’ time, it was not easy but thank God, it was a huge success.
Do you think art has been well utilized in our society to address societal ills?
Art has been a huge voice for many societal ills.
What can Nigerian artists do better in promoting art among younger generations?
Artists are doing amazing things in this regard presently so I will just say more consistency.