‘People Seem to be Trying to Reconnect with Nature’ In Conversation with Nengi Omuku

‘I thought about how we’ve all gone through this traumatic event, the pandemic, and faced endless loss and illness,’ Nengi Omuku says. ‘I realized, via scrolling on social media and watching the news, that people seem to be trying to reconnect with nature and choosing to acknowledge all that it has given us.’

Nengi Omuku is an artist well-known for her ethereal paintings of figures who are void of facial features, suspended in empty spaces and often in flux. Her work has been acknowledged for its exploration of identity beyond physical appearance, and its ability to invoke internal, psychological spaces in the physical world. 

Omuku’s recent exhibition, Parables of Joy, is based on her personal experience of ‘journeying into joy’. This journey coincided with the artist’s return to nature whilst in residence at Kobomoje Artist Residency in Ibadan. Omuku departs from the abstracted and interior settings in her earlier bodies of work and re-stages her phantom-like figures for the first time in abstracted, but evidently natural and verdant landscapes or interior settings laden with plants. In Parables of Joy, Omuku also portrays some of the people in her life in whom she found rest and respite during and following the global pandemic. The new series can be seen to synthesize two of Omuku’s great passions, horticulture and painting.  

In the following conversation, we spoke to Omuku about her practice and her philanthropic endeavours. 

ALAYO AKINKUGBE

Where were you born, and where did you grow up? 

NENGI OMUKU

I was born in Warri, Nigeria. My dad trained and worked as a geologist for years before becoming an Anglican bishop, and my mum is a horticulturalist. My parents travelled a lot in my childhood because my dad was always being pulled from one place to another for work. So, I was born in Warri because that’s where he happened to be working, then we moved to Port Harcourt and eventually to Lagos.

ALAYO AKINKUGBE

Was artmaking part of your childhood?

NENGI OMUKU

It wasn’t at all. I don’t have any recollection of any artmaking before the age of 10. I don’t think I drew anything, thought about art or even consciously knew what art was. But, when I started secondary school at age 11, I was introduced to artmaking. I remember my first art class at Loyola Jesuit College in Abuja; I immediately had the feeling that this was what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life. That was my immersion into art.
I also ended up being the only art student at my school in the final year!

Nengi Omuku in her home studio, Lagos, Nigeria. Damilare Adeyemi/The Republic

ALAYO AKINKUGBE

Do you think that was because of the social perceptions of artmaking as a profession?

NENGI OMUKU

Absolutely. At that time, the concept of being an artist was just so… odd. The people that I grew up with who excelled at art in school had all dropped it by the final year.

ALAYO AKINKUGBE

In what ways do you think that art has evolved in Nigeria since your studies as a teenager to produce the art scene that exists today? 

NENGI OMUKU

I think that people are more exposed to different kinds of making. There isn’t a set way in which people expect to experience art anymore, as either figurative painting or sculpture. We’re more open to performance art, photography and abstract painting for example. This has led to a more diverse art scene and ultimately, a more critically engaged scene.

ALAYO AKINKUGBE

Your most recent body of work is currently in a solo exhibition, Parables of Joy, at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London. It focuses on rest and respite. How did you come to create this show?

NENGI OMUKU

With this show I asked myself, ‘what is the thinking after going through a traumatic experience, as an individual?’ I started thinking about times in my life in which I felt safest, and in which I felt most whole and not alone. I have memories of my mother’s garden in Port Harcourt and growing up surrounded by people who I love and by nature. For me, that was a picture of rest.
I was thinking about how personal trauma relates to collective trauma and collective recovery. I thought about how we’ve all gone through this traumatic event, the pandemic, and faced endless loss and illness. I realized, via scrolling on social media and watching the news, that people seem to be trying to reconnect with nature and choosing to acknowledge all that it has given us. I realized that I do have this personal connection with nature because of how I grew up, and I thought, this is the time to blend my [usual theme of] exploring a state of mind, and the experience of sitting in nature.

Works from Nengi Omuku’s Parables of Joy Exhibition

 

ALAYO AKINKUGBE

You’re currently doing a residency in Ibadan. Have you been able to spend time in nature there?

NENGI OMUKU

Yes. I wanted to be immersed in nature and started taking trips to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan. Then, I joined a residency programme there called Kobomoje Artist Residency. Open to artists, scholars and researchers, the programme is immersed in this beautiful, lush, green landscape. It was perfect timing for me because I had been thinking about returning to nature and rest and everything. I took the opportunity immediately.
Ibadan was also the birthplace for Sanyan, the fabric that I paint on, and it’s where I buy it. So, there has also been the opportunity to just go to the market and source Sanyan and do some more research on the fabric.

ALAYO AKINKUGBE

What does it mean to repurpose this local fabric, Sanyan, in the way that you have?

NENGI OMUKU

It feels like giving the fabric a new lease of life. The pieces I collect are always those that are being sold off to make room for newer, shinier designs. So, in that way, it feels important to work with this sometimes-discarded fabric. At the same time, I’m aware that these strips are handwoven works of art in their own right. This comes with its own burden and a certain degree of pressure that isn’t present when working with regular canvas. With every painting I hope the viewer still feels a sense of the textile; the weight and the texture of it and the amount of skill that has gone into weaving the fabric.

ALAYO AKINKUGBE

How have you used painting to, as you describe, ‘explore a state of mind’?

NENGI OMUKU

I came from a background of figurative sculpture and painting, but as I began to wonder what I wanted to say in the paintings, it became pretty obvious that I didn’t just want to paint pretty pictures of people. I wanted the paintings to be an entryway to talk about the state of mind of the individual and the collective.
The bodies are, therefore, devoid of any real kind of representation and exist only as shells which hold undulating marks. I use mark making and the suggestion of movement within the body as a metaphor for the way the mind shifts and bends in response to love, loss, trauma and a whole spectrum of life events.

Nengi Omuku in her home studio, Lagos, Nigeria. Damilare Adeyemi/The Republic

ALAYO AKINKUGBE

In your philanthropy, you are particularly concerned with raising awareness about mental health issues and exploring the ways art can act as a form of therapy. Can you tell us more about the connection between your art and your philanthropic work?

NENGI OMUKU

I felt that painting about mental health issues wasn’t making any real-world impact. I’d always wondered how to make the link between art and social change. A charity called Hospital Rooms in the UK realized I was making work about mental health and invited me to paint a mural in the intensive care psychiatric ward at Maudsley hospital, London. It was the most transformative experience of my life because I could see the direct impact that art was having on intensive care psychiatric patients. I could see how art, alongside medical intervention, was helping to lift them out of the moment that they were in.
Then I thought, let’s do this in Lagos. So, I came back to Nigeria and founded this charity called The Art of Healing. In Lagos, we’re doing our first project at Lagos State University Teaching Hospital. They have given us access to the psychiatric ward, and we’ve identified walls that art can be placed on. First, we will run some workshops with the patients, then we will install the artworks.

Blangidi, 2018, 4.3×2.4m. Mural, Family rooms, Eileen Skellern Pschiatric intensive care unit, Maudsley hospital, London

ALAYO AKINKUGBE

What are you working on next?

NENGI OMUKU

With The Art of Healing, we’re hoping to finish our first project before the end of the year. I’m preparing for Frieze London, Art Basel and another solo exhibition in April. At the moment, I’m working on my largest piece to date, which will be shown at Art Basel Meridians.

ALAYO AKINKUGBE

Finally, what are some lessons you’ve learned about artmaking, especially from the African continent?

NENGI OMUKU

When I was growing up, art wasn’t considered a serious thing to be engaged in. But we’re in a moment now where people seem to be more understanding that it is actually okay to be anything that you want to be. Do not be afraid of what the future may hold, keep your head down and keep creating. Be true to whatever it is that is your reason to make. Don’t be distracted by auction results and what is trending in the art market. Just create as authentically as you can

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected]