It was always bound to happen. For Professor Ozioma Onuzulike, the love of art, of creating magic from the mundane, was something he could not escape in childhood. Raised in Achi, a village in the Oji River Local Government of Enugu, by a post-Civil-War-era photographer and a gifted seamstress, he would come to look at the world a certain way, a way that compelled him to document his vision in various shapes and forms.
“I was fascinated with watching (my father) retouch black-and-white photographs with a color medium that transformed them into new aesthetic contexts,” he tells me. “When I began drawing on the sandy grounds of our compound in the village, it was my mother who often critiqued my work and guided me. I would think those early creative encounters made me feel at home.”
As he grew, he experimented with portrait drawings and poster art. His father provided him with poster colors and brushes to encourage his developing interest in art. But the home was not his only influence. It was in school that his idea of what constituted art finally expanded.
In primary school, he learned how to make baskets and other craft items. In secondary school, he encountered ceramics for the first time; an art teacher showed glazed and unglazed mugs as well as decorative vases which a young Onuzulike found “magical and attractive”. This led him to the realization that art was not just paintings and drawings. It could be more. So much more. It was during this time that he knew it for certain: he was going to be an artist.
Fast forward to decades later, he is a published poet; has his own art studio; has just completed his eleventh solo exhibition; heads the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka; has participated in exhibitions across the world in countries like Italy, China, the United States, South Africa, Senegal and Finland; and is one of the most recognizable names of his generation.
The thematic concerns of his work, steeped in political activism and social commentary, are owed to the influences he had in his education. He studied at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he bagged a Ph.D. in the history of contemporary African art. He is also an alumnus of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, USA. During all these years of training, he was exposed to teachers such as Obiora Udechukwu, Chike Aniakor, El Anatsui, Chijioke Onuora, Chika Okeke-Agulu, and Krydz Ikwuemesi.
“They did not only make political art,” he says, “they also wrote poetry that spoke about their socio-political experiences. There was also the art criticism platform on which I aspired to stand with a number of them. I think…my association with these artists, writers and poets sharpened my sensitivity for political art.”
This sensitivity became the force that drove his art. He started to consider historical angles to his work and how his studio processes connected to these histories. Over the years, he has concentrated on working with clay as his primary material, due to what he calls its “eloquence”.
It is in the actual process of making art out of clay – the pounding, cutting, hitting, punching, wedging, pinching, burning, piercing, firing, the absolute aggressiveness of that procedure – that his true political mission manifests itself.
“I work the clay body as a replica of the human body. I speak against the violence and the trauma that accompanies it. In production, you may decide to use pinching or carving techniques. Or you beat or slap the clay walls with your hands or any hard object within reach, much like the police baton or ‘talk truth’. I found that clay and the clay-working processes offer me fitting metaphors with which to address the harsh conditions in my immediate constituency and beyond.”
For The Way We Are, his solo exhibition at Ko Artspace in Ikoyi, Lagos, he uses yam tubers, palm kernels and honeycombs to create a statement; a difficult and laborious process meant to draw attention to social justice issues like bad governance, corruption, terrorism, imperialism and climate change.
For the series, he make molds of real yams in cement or plaster of Paris. These molds are then used to create replicas of each. When dry, he fires the molds in a kiln, with the heat as high as 12000C. To create the illusion of blood through bullet wounds, he adds laterite in the clay which then bloats in the fire and flows down in streams of red. To create other colors, he introduces ground glass into the yams just before throwing them in the kiln fire and they melt.
This specific form of experimentation is a direct influence from Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui’s famous 1980s Broken Pots series. From Anatsui, Onuzulike learned about “the wide range of possibilities in the language that clay can be made to speak”.
Like Anatsui, who is one of the most celebrated sculptors on the continent, Onuzulike is cementing his own legacy. His works – bearing a vivid sense of political urgency that have spanned themes such as slavery, migration crisis, colonialism, imperial capitalism and the Western gaze – have earned him a lot of critical acclaim and further attention from the outside world. As at March 2021, he was preparing for an exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
The global recognition that these works have attracted are not something he takes for granted: “It feels nice to know that your work has been launched into the global art networks. It naturally gives one a feeling of validation, a feeling that your creative language has finally become more intelligible or exciting to a worldwide audience.”
But it is not all rosy. After all, he is an artist working in Nigeria, with all its limitations and absurdities.
“Nigeria is a very difficult terrain in which to create. One has so many challenges that bring distractions to the creative process. For example, power supply has remained a big challenge in my use of the electric kiln in my ceramics studio. I also have a gas kiln, but the price of gas has also never been stable. You have got to bother about water supply as well.”
He manages to persevere. As a believer, he credits God with the grace to navigate the myriad problems facing his art. His burden is also lessened by the employment of studio assistants and help from his wife and children, all of whom help in creating the elements that are used to configure the pieces. He is undeterred and he reason is not far-fetched: he has a vision for something much bigger than himself.
He is part of a larger conversation about the role of art as a revolutionary language in these times, as a way to remember the phantoms of the past and engage with the demons of the present. He is a member of the Nsukka School, a movement that arose in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, after the Biafran War, to champion experimentation and intellectual drive, to the core of one’s own environment and blend it with useful ones from elsewhere. His involvement in this tradition places him alongside artists like Eva Obodo and Ngozi-Omeje Ezema. And he is very aware of the value of his art in the larger conversation.
“I want to be remembered as a member of society who did not keep quiet in the face of man’s inhumanity to man, one who channeled my creative talent to the service of God and humanity. I want to leave a legacy of relevance in my godly commitment to man and society through a medium (clay) that directly mirrors man himself.”
Kanyinsola Olorunnisola is a journalist, social critic and literary enthusiast. He is the recepient of the 2017 Fisayo Soyombo National Essay Prize, the 2020 Speculative Literary Foundation’s Diverse Writers Grant and the 2020 K&L Prize for African Literature. He is the founder of SprinNG, a platform dedicated to the development of young African writers.