Nigerian portrait artist Collins Obijiaku is a refreshing face in the world of portrait painting – the unique blend of colours, textures and patterns he uses to bring his sitters to life on the canvas are not only about capturing a sense of their lives and experiences but also about immortalising them through the medium, rejoicing in their existence and celebrating their identity. From his early experiences of drawing in his school books, his art has flourished and evolved, and has already found its way to his very first solo exhibition at the ADA Contemporary in Accra, Ghana.
First of all, could you tell us a bit about your earliest memories of either painting or seeing art that had an effect on you?
Growing up in Suleja, I was not really exposed to much art and to what I saw as the luxury of seeing art exhibitions. But privately, I always made drawings at school. My younger sister was going to have a baby and I felt the need to do something to celebrate, to memorialize my nephew. The first serious painting I made was of my sister and her baby in October 2019, one month after she gave birth. His arrival was synchronous with the positive changes in my attitude to life, and it relieved me of many of the worries that I had.
When did you begin to realize that painting, and in particular portraiture, was this perfect medium for you to express yourself?
I experimented with various ideas, forms and styles, but I kept going back to portraiture – and it feels right all the time. I am as curious as anyone else to see how far I can push the medium.
I read that you had a job in a shopping mall, and that time was really paramount to how often you got to observe people in a crowd. Are you always looking at the world through that artist lens?
There is a quote in Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir which I particularly cherish: “A novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At each given moment, it reflects your vision…” When I observe people in spaces, I am looking to memorialize them, and in doing so, I seek to guess their past, present and potential futures.
Your portraits are telling stories and complexities through their faces, and I think that is really powerful as our facial features are made up not only of our personal looks but of our experiences and our family history too. It feels like your work brings someone’s inner character and experiences to life by showing that in their face. Do you paint with the sitter’s experiences in mind?
That is what all portrait artists try to achieve. Whether I ‘succeed’ in what is a sort of guessing game or not is another matter. But seriously and deeply, human features reveal a tremendous amount. We only need to pay attention.
Your portraits seem to always feature this piercing gaze from the sitter, the textures and patterns that come from their faces are contrasted with these block geometric patterns – this intensity makes these works both unique and unforgettable. Could you talk about the reasons behind these choices?
It is hard to formulate, but painting for me is a rather spiritual process and not one that is easily explained. I am constantly processing all of these happenings.
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Your portraits are like puzzles, in the way that all these lines, textures and patterns come together to form the human being in front of us. What inspired you to develop your style like this?
I really do not remember as it was quite seamless, but I have experimented on various forms.
Congratulations on your first solo exhibition at recently inaugurated ADA gallery in Ghana! How did it come about, and how did it feel to have so much of your work all in one place?
It is a humbling experience, especially as my first solo show. I am really grateful to the team at ADA for making it happen.
According to the description of Gindin Mangoro: Under the Mango Tree, there are seventeen intimate portraits that discuss notions of Blackness, lived experience, interiority and identity. How do you convey all of these through painting and portraits?
Because I myself live the experience, one shared by the individuals portrayed, I can only use my art to convey these narratives around identity and Blackness. These subjects, notably Blackness, are a constant part of my life having lived in Nigeria all my life, but I am also aware that internationally there is a misconception around Blackness, and hopefully through my art we can challenge those stereotypes.
You’ve had so much success already, and at such a young age have already gone through a real evolution as an artist. What is next on the horizon for you?
Thank you for your kind words. I would like to keep learning. Next year, I am collaborating with photographer Stephen Tayo on a special project which Stephen jokes about and describes as a collaboration between a pastor and a herbalist (traditional medicine healer). It will be interesting and I believe enriching to work with someone who has such a unique style, approach, and who works within a different medium.
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