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In Conversation With Nduka Ikechukwu

What does an artist require to thrive in a society that often views pursuing art as a frivolous endeavour?


Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay "Society and Solitude," wrote, "We do not believe our own thought; we must serve somebody; we must quote somebody; we dote on the old and the distant; we are tickled by great names; we quote their opinions; we cite their laws." For Ikechukwu Nduka, he stands as the antithesis of the society Emerson critiques. He defied societal expectations and familial disapproval to pursue his passion for art, successfully contending the dependence on the opinions of others. "They say art is therapy, but while creative minds like us are creating this 'therapy', I think we need it the most, or rather we need it first." He aptly expressed the stark pressure.

Our interview with Nduka, the first runner-up of the 2023 Art Report Africa Prize, reflected not just what it means to be an artist, but what it takes to become one in a society where pursuing a professional art career is perceived as a waste of time and resources.

Djakou Kassie Nathalie | Courtesy of Djakou Kassie Nathalie
Nduka Ikechukwu | Courtesy of Artist

Art Report Africa: Tell us about yourself and your art. When did your passion for art first begin? Do you have any early memories or experiences that shaped your creativity?

Nduka Ikechukwu Michael: As a young student in primary school, I had a wide range of professions I wanted to follow, but being art never crossed my mind. However, my passion for creative work sprouted during my secondary education. Initially, I would draw comic characters on paper, and then I progressed to drawing for my fellow students, mostly related to class assignments. I took it as just a mere talent and passion, not until my teacher had me join a fine art class. I loved everything about it–the entire approach, development, and fundamentals of creative art studies.

Nkwo, 2023 Fiber, String, Strap belt. 34 × 43 × 3 in | 86.4 × 109.2 × 7.6 cm
Nkwo, 2023 |Fiber, String, Strap belt| 86.4 × 109.2 × 7.6 cm

You're not just an artist; you're a Fine Art graduate. Tell us about your journey from academic studies to becoming the artist you are today. What were your biggest takeaways from your time at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN)?

It wasn't an easy stride getting into the university to study Fine Art. My family were not happy with the idea; they were hesitant and indifferent about me studying art, as they never saw any value or essence in the field. Althought they did not understand, I was able to fight my way through. During my time at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, I literally explored diverse art forms, from paintings to sculpture, even ceramics - I was everywhere. Basically, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) gave me the platter of knowledge for my practice while I complemented that with my performance exploration.

I would like to mention that there is a huge disparity between the study of art and the practice of art. Formal education can only inculcate the knowledge required to start out as a professional artist; however, the active performance of your art extends to your personal practices and how often you have explored, experimented, and created artworks that resonate with your creative medium. After university, most of my colleagues were scared to explore their passion for practising art as a profession, first because of financial constraints, and secondly, the fear of acceptance. They had the notion that they couldn't blend yet, due in part to their scepticism about how their artworks were going to be perceived. Financially, practising art comes with a lot of resource requirements. Given the societal structure and less supportive environment for artists, emerging artists like myself first consider other earning means for survival.

UNN also granted me access to career-changing relationships that have pivoted me to where I am currently as an artist. I began a residency in March 2023 at Ụlọ nka space, a residence owned by a senior colleague from my university days.

Your work draws heavily from your Igbo heritage. How does your tribal identity intersect with your artistic expression, and how does it evolve with your changing perspective?

For me, art and heritage are inseparable, hence I view my art as an extension of my heritage. As an Igbo man from Anambra state, we have long-standing cultures and traditional practices that have transcended many generations and those still to come. We are mostly known for conventional trade, and once someone from the community becomes established in his craft, it is expected that they will raise and mentor another young person in the same field, continuing the cycle. My artistic expression is inspired by my environment, tribe, identity, and the Igbo ideologies of Ogbuefi (title for a man who can afford a cow), Akụluonọ (taking wealth home), and ịgba boi (the Igbo apprenticeship system). In each artwork, I explore these concepts in various forms, using strap belts in colourful interactions. One of my works, which incorporates strap belts woven into the form of a flower with blossoming seedlings, represents the young individuals in Igbo culture who are being raised by experienced and established figures in different trades, and their potential to blossom and become independent and successful figures themselves. Therefore, for every one of my art expressions, I’m recreating a perspective and passing a message in its clear cut - and all these intertwine together for me.

Our Lord’s Wig, 2023 Fiber, String, Strap belt. 75 × 47 × 5 in
Our Lord’s Wig, 2023 Fiber, String, Strap belt. 75 × 47 × 5 in

You’ve chosen a distinctive medium - strap belts - to explore complex themes. What led you to this unique material, and how does it challenge or enhance your message?

Growing up, I witnessed the everyday use of strap belts for livestock, fetching water, and various other tasks. Their versatility and cultural significance resonated deeply. I saw them as a heritage imbued with potential for creative expression. It serves as a bridge between my art, message, and heritage, embodying themes of "Ogbuefi," "Akụluonọ," and "ịgba boi" - because when all is said and done, the thin line of commitment and growth still draws us back to our origin to not just support but to raise others to become better and greater. Cognitively, being able to transform the strap belt into a different colourfully knitted masterpiece challenges my creativity.

Walk us through your creative process. From initial inspiration to the finished masterpiece, how do ideas come to life in your universe?

Ideas come to me regardless of where I am at any moment, and once I get a muse, I make a sketch and write down the inspiration accompanying the idea. Then I think through my forms, materials, and colours, and in my process, I experiment and get creative along my creation.  Often, the final piece transcends the initial concept, becoming richer and more impactful.

Are there any artists that have inspired your journey and artistic processes so far?

Yes, a couple of them. El Anatsui was my model during my school days. He was practically the main character that was modelled to us in various levels of artistic practices. Eva Obodo also had a great influence on my practices. I had my lens on him, and watching him practice art professionally and balance it with being an academic without compromising one for another reeks of discipline and exceptionality. The same applies to Sabastine Ugwoke and Ozioma Onuzulike. Seeing them navigate both teaching and professional practice with each endeavour being heavily tasking makes me wonder how they possibly juggle both without breaking down. As my lecturers, they never missed a class, yet hit it big with the practice. After school, Samuel Nnorom became my mentor. It was through him that I adapted to the actual scope of professional art practice, learned the use of colours as not just aesthetics but a language, and the guides to my current explorations and expressions. I’m still under him, learning more and becoming a better artist.

Where do you see your art and its themes evolving in the next few years?

In the next few years, I want to explore art more professionally than I am doing already. I want to attend international exhibition shows, present my works in reputable galleries, attend art residencies, display at international events, and engage in institutional shows. I also envision myself going down to the grassroots to create awareness and change society's stereotypes about art as a professional career through proper information dissemination.

If you could collaborate with any artist or work on any project, what would it be and why?

I don’t have any exact artist in mind as I’m flexible and open to vital collaborations without layers of sentiments or jurisdiction. However, for a project, I would love to work on my first solo exhibition that will spark dialogue on the peculiar themes my art expedites. Personally and by experience, it's safe to say that the current societal structure, propagation, and values pose a threat to the moral and acceptable patterns of our heritage, with emphasis on the conduit of the Igbo apprenticeship. Today's societal values threaten this heritage, with young people opting for quick gains over learning a trade. Additionally, some established figures exploit apprentices rather than fulfilling their commitment to set them up independently. I’m hoping to have an exhibition whose message is wholly focused on expressing the varied negative changes that have interjected the cultural and traditional phenomenon that we hold dear - and to remind us of the importance of cultural heritage and responsible mentorship.



Nduka Ikechukwu Michael is a Fine and Applied Art graduate from the prestigious University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He was the first runner-up for the 2023 Art Report Africa Prize. Drawing inspiration from his environment, identity, ideology, and especially his tribe as it relates to human relationships and existence, Nduka's artistic medium transcends creative adornment with strap belts woven into colourful tapestry. His art forms are mainly influenced by his tribe (Igbo) ideology of Ogbuefi, Akuluono, and Igba Boi, all of which uphold the concept of power, economic strength, and the politics of trade and commerce in Nigeria's southeast region. Nduka’s past exhibitions include Dreams Alive, Curated by Odinakachi Okoroafor (2018); Life In My City Art Festival Enugu, Curated by Choke Obeagu (2019); Uwaebido, Curated by Nduka Ikechukwu and Ogenyi Nnedinso (2019). Life In My City Art Festival, Curated by George Odoh (2021).

Interview by Fredrick Favour

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In Conversation With Nduka Ikechukwu

March 29, 2024

Fredrick Favour

7 min read

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