Contemporary artiste, Habeeb Andu, inched into limelight as one of Rele Art Gallery Art Foundation Young Contemporaries and as the winner of the 2017 Art X prize for his work, ‘Battlefield.’ CHINELO CHIKELU spoke with him recently on the aftermath of such recognition to talk about what he has been up to since his achievement, as well as his views on contemporary art and struggle to stay true to the ‘art in his heart.’
My first encounter with contemporary visual artist, Habeeb Andu’s work was at the Generation Y exhibition last year organised by Retro Africa. The exhibition featured over a hundred works from rising, impactful, contemporary African millennial artists whose works unconsciously mirror one another, both in purpose and materials, in their efforts to creatively address the peculiarities of their time.
I was drawn to the five to six feet long mixed media paintings of – warm colours, thick irregular lines, drawings and paper collage – that easily spoke of bondage (modern slavery), unemployment, bleeding into commercial sex and alcoholism. His work was one of the few exciting pieces, as it was self-explanatory and focused on events ever present in the Nigerian society.
I was happily surprised to see and learn that his work, ‘Blacklist,’ a mixed media piece on two canvasses, featuring the main subject, sculpted ants – migrating from one dark hued canvass to the aqua hued one, with many of the ants falling off the canvass to the floor, in the process and others drowning in a collaged sea on canvass to their deaths – won the 2017 Art X prize. That settled my determination to make the long journey to his studio from Surulere to Ikorodu, Lagos, a six-hour journey for an interview with Andu.
Meeting and leading me into the unpainted but furnished family house (the only bungalow house in the street with solar home system) through the sitting room to his cluttered studio, we made ourselves comfortable on wooden chairs amidst tall, wide and warm-coloured canvasses leaned against the walls, work table and hanging on the walls.
“What inspires you to paint? And how do you define contemporary art?” I asked.
“I am inspired to paint by things happening around me. I paint my pains, people’s pain, to share them with the world. So, I define contemporary Art as Art from the heart. My art focuses on social commentary and documentation of the past and present.”
The decision to deploy his art as a means of social commentary was neither instant nor a lifelong decision. In fact, Andu, like most artists, wanted to engage in commercial arts; art that sells quickly and easily. That idea was priority for him from his apprenticeship days with an artist before admission into university. “I mean I have to eat, and survive,” he recalled. His focus changed however, upon meeting and interning with the well-known Auchi Polytechnic School of Arts trained contemporary and social commentary artist, Ben Osaghae. Andu shared an alma mater with Osaghae.
“I first saw his works while leafing through a textbook in the school library. The piece was fine but simple, with a funny title; but I had noticed him. Sometime later, a friend of mine who was a relative of his asked if I wanted to apprentice with him. I agreed.
“He (Osaghae) called me for an oral interview, from there he offered me an internship position.” At this point, Andu sought knowledge, knowledge he felt would benefit his future more than money.
“During my apprenticeship, we spent the weekends at exhibitions. He asked my opinion about the works we saw, and added to whatever comments I had about them. That’s how I developed the skill and my mind, in contemporary art.”
Beyond the warm colours and bold, long lines he shares with his former master, Andu’s paintings, rather than smooth and fine, are heavily textured, featuring paper collages, heavy lines, rough drawings, even sculpted subjects.
He has no set creative process but creates as the work comes to him. “Well, I often start with a theme I want to work on. Most of the time, I don’t sketch out what I want to do, I just work off the top of my head.” Other times he sketches first, or notes down ideas of the image he wants to create before representing on canvass.
What he does do is get a little help from a not-so-usual source to heighten the textured and contemporary feel to his art. “I don’t like the drawings in my work to look professional or perfect. I get children to do drawings of objects as cups or bottles for me, which I then study and copy into the canvass,” he says, displaying sheets of hand drawings children made for him, and samples of the ones he copied in similar childish lines onto the canvass in his ongoing Sweet Vanilla series, which focuses on substance abuse.
“Oh. This is about substance abuse?”
“Yes. It is on cocaine and codeine use. It is to draw attention to the different uses of codeine by people, and addiction to the substance. Some use it to get high, for sexual virility and for studying,” Andu says.
“I guess you are not done with this yet, because I can’t tell it was about drug abuse. What I like about your art is that they are self-explanatory.”
“This bottle,” he points to the painting, “represents a cough syrup. When you go to a bar, you get these small red cups. That’s why I have this representation rather than the usual cups we see. And next to the cup is the syrup bottle, and the wine glass. I am still working on these, and it’s on the different uses of codeine.”
Recurring motifs in his works, besides the thick lines, are symbolic objects and popping colours as gold, which represent wealth, a wealth that addicts can do away with for snuff of powdered substances.
“The purpose of the entire series is to draw attention to codeine addiction?”
“This particular painting is about codeine addiction. The others in the series are also about addiction, but I am not decided yet what they are particularly about,” he says with a small smile.
Andu is heavy on symbolism. His Battlefield artwork, featuring ants, as well as the butterfly motif piece, representing ‘emotional high’ suggest so. Likewise, his light series inspired by inadequate or rather lack of electricity in Lagos.
There are many challenges arising from painting the ‘art in your heart.’ The artist struggles with staying true to himself and creating art that sells. He has had to compromise in the reduction of the size of his piece. He has, however, returned to his initial stance – painting more for himself, and in wall-sized canvasses.
In view are works like the Chair Series, to focus on the fisticuffs in Nigeria’s National Assembly to highlight the greed and self-serving objectives behind individuals’ interest in the representation of the masses.
The series alongside older works as the Kalacutta Queens, are geared at documenting the present and the past in the absence of museums; and oftentimes in the comparative approach the pieces take, they highlight the dynamism or redundancy of the Nigerian society.
Such documentary artworks are emotional for Andu, reminding him anew of his loss, the death of his father who saw his future more than he (Andu) did.
His father, Andu says, helped cross the final T in his decision to be an artist.
“I still feel pained everyday with every achievement I make that my dad isn’t here to share it with me. He saw my future more than I did. Sometimes, I feel it would have been easier to share notes on “the past and present” on new projects with my father had he been alive, rather than the internet which is the other alternative,” says Andu nostalgically.
Other than those moments, the artist forges ahead in the creation of art that is true to his heart. And he hasn’t let the recognition that comes with his achievements’ winning affect his art and demeanour.
“What are your thoughts on the state of contemporary African Art?” I ask.
“Nowadays, people make art to impress or amaze others. It shouldn’t be so. Art should be sincere and true to your heart. Singer, Falz, does not sing for an audience. He sings to express what’s in his heart, compared to other musicians whose songs are categorised into three things (to get them fame) – money, alcohol and ladies or guys.
“Surely, not all artistes. I’d like to believe they start off creating from the heart, but got lost somewhere on that path, surely?”
“I think for most of them, it is about what’s trending. It’s all about, “if I do a collabo with this artiste, he or she will boost my fame.” I tell people, “with art, don’t try to impress people, just enjoy yourself.” I can’t force people to paint like I do, no, they should paint, write or sing like themselves.”
On the other hand, he says, there are several who argue that what is practiced as contemporary African art today is simply European art, since the tools and media used by Africans in creating art are European-made as opposed to those used in making the Nok, Terracotta, Benin Kingdom, and the Igbo-Ukwu Arts, and the locally produced and coloured Adire.
“I don’t think there is any such thing as Modern or Contemporary Art. I think contemporary is what comes from your heart.”
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