Peter Uka is a Cologne-based Nigerian artist who speaks four languages and collects records. He paints lively portraits of the people he knew growing up in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. His figurative paintings and colorful installations explore memory and cultural identity. This week he talked to METAL about art, jazz, afrobeat and creating work that takes you home.
Can you tell me about your process of making a painting?
My process usually starts with an idea, most of the paintings I do are bones from memories, a snippet of different parts of what I remember from my childhood back home. I left home when I was very young. I was 15 years old when I moved out. So the memory of where I come from comes back to me in bits and pieces. I start with the sketches. The sketches might end up in the final picture, or the painting might change along the way. Sometimes it comes out of stories. I could be on the phone with a friend who I know from way back when and I get a flashback and use that to create a picture.
Why did you leave home when you were only 15 years old?
I left to go and stay with my cousin and further my education. I came to Lagos on my own and moved around a bit. A couple of years later, I got accepted into the Yaba College of Technology. Before I had an apartment, I was sleeping in the classroom with a handful of other students. We loved to be all hands on deck. In the beginning it wasn't just passion, I didn't have a place to stay. Then I got a job; I got a place to live. But sometimes I still slept in the classroom because it was easier to work that way. I went to the academy and I could paint any hour of the day, clean up, go to work, take a nap, and get back to work.
It was a traditional art school system. When painting from life, it was expected to be done perfectly. If they told me to go outside and paint a street the composition had to be perfect. That was the culture of the art school that I came from. Now I try not to focus on my craftsmanship; it's more about the painting that tells a story, the whole sum.
So, what brought you to Germany?
There was a competition organized by Goethe Institute Art Academy and a Nigerian German-based artist called Chidi Kwubiri, and I won the prize. The prize granted me (and a few colleagues) the opportunity to come and exhibit here in Germany. After meeting the professor Tal R, I applied for further studies and that's how I started at the art academy in Germany.
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Still Riding, 2021. Courtesy Mariane Ibrahim
I've noticed a very cool seventies aesthetic in many of your paintings: the clothes, the vehicles and the color combinations. What attracts you to the seventies visually?
I'm a child of the seventies. (Laughs.) Growing up, that's how I remember my parents. They used to dress like that. I remember my father's way of dressing, those jeans, how they flare out at the bottom, his friends, hanging out. Most of my work is influenced by the things that I saw back then.
Is it a way of honoring that memory?
Yes. It's my therapy session. I'm a father now; I can't just sit there and whine about the things that I miss. Instead, I sit down and do something about it. I choose to do it this way.
Is that what you mean by therapy - you're taking action instead of letting it fester in your head?
Yes. I'm here now, painting these things but in the next three or four years I could be painting a different subject. Very soon, I'm moving towards more installation.
I love your bus installation work. What attracts you to installation?
I find it more appealing than most paintings, to create something out of nothing, to be able to make something to ponder. That's more interesting than just making something beautiful. I'm not chasing beauty. I'm chasing a conversation. Whether it's painting, installation, or sculpture, I would like for people to comment on it, to have a conversation. When that happens then I've achieved my goal.
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Pause, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Mariane Ibrahim
That's interesting because a lot of your paintings are very beautiful to look at. Is that a coincidence?
Yes. The important thing is that the work gives you a reason to question things, to remember certain places and moments in time. I would like to get to that point where if you take the African figures out of my work the same subject matter applies to most cultures.
I want to take people to a time that either they've experienced, or they've heard others have experienced. Now the world has become a global village due to modern technology. Before, we were all experiencing the same things at the same time but due to lack of communication we were not aware of that.
When the hippie lifestyle became very popular in the 1960s and 1970s, Woodstock happened in America and everybody thought, that's just in America. But I remember at the same time there were a lot of hippies in Africa. The counterculture lifestyle was breaking out in other parts of the world too. Due to lack of communication, many people weren't aware of that. They thought it was exclusive to a particular place in America. But it wasn't like that.
Your portraits convey a specific style and dignity. What do you aim to communicate about the subjects of your paintings?
I realised that we are going through an identity crisis. I'll put it in the context of Black artists. Most Black artists are in an identity crisis situation at the moment. We are trying to identify ourselves first before we can take the next step. As a result, there's a lot of portraiture. We are showing ourselves, either consciously or subconsciously. For me, it's more about establishing who we are as people.
When I first came here (to Germany) I went to museums and I never saw a painting of a black person hanging on the wall. So where do I fit in? If my face is not visible on the platform, how do I fit in? That's what I was contemplating.
Then I stumbled upon the work of Kerry James Marshall at the Ludwig Museum near my house. I was blown away. I started asking questions. I came across an interview he gave. He experienced the same thing years ago that I was experiencing at that moment. This man already went through all that. He chose to do what he wanted. He took that bold step. This affirmed that my ideas were right. I had been too scared to put it out there. His work gave me the assurance to just be myself. I chose to do that. Then I did my first series of work in this area.
As my work progressed, people started coming to me and saying, have you heard of this person? Do you know that artist? I found out about people like Barley Hendrix two years ago, and more recently, the Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby. There are other people thinking like me. We're just being unapologetically ourselves and not caring what other people think. We have to tell our own truth. I do believe that as a painter you can't tell anybody else's truth.
How did you overcome those initial doubts?
In the beginning I was worried about how the reception would be if I decided to paint this way, because everything I saw around me was the opposite of me. I looked around and saw one or two paintings of Black people but they were shown as the slave or the servant standing in the corner or the background. I had never seen them as the focal point in a painting at that point.
So I started from there. I focused on indoor studies and portraits and depictions of daily life in Nigeria. I began doing this body of work in 2015. In 2017, when I did my final presentation in the academy that was the first time I realised the direction I wanted to go in. [Being an artist] it's either this or nothing else. It's a way of life for me. I never saw myself doing anything else or working for anyone else. I came to the point where it wasn't about commercial success. If it were, I wouldn't have studied art. I would have focused on becoming an architect.
Tell me about your painting, Quiet Listening. Did you know the subject personally?
Yeah, he was the one who introduced me to vinyl. He had quite the collection back then: a lot of highlife, a lot of jazz, and a lot of rock n roll. I remember how he listened to music. When he played highlife, he was moving around, he was always bumping his head. But when he listened to jazz, he would sit down and cross his legs. He would lean back. You could see when he was getting into his own world. He introduced me to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck and a few crossover jazz instrumentalists. He was the one who introduced me to Fela Kuti's music. He was a diehard Fela fan.
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Quiet Listening, 2020. Courtesy the Artist and Mariane Ibrahim
How old were you when you met him?
I was seven years old.
So you had this kind of music education from a very young age...
That was around 1982. He was always playing Miles or Coltrane. He was my older cousin. He was already in his thirties.
Can you tell me about the music scene where you grew up? How does it inform your work?
In the 1980s one of the biggest Nigerian music stars came from my area; his name is Bongos Ikwue. He lived not too far from us. My dad, who's a self-taught artist, was the guy you'd call for sign-writing, painting, drawing. My father painted his house and I remember him taking me there. I saw Bongos practicing with his band. That changed my understanding of music. That was the first time I saw a live band, trying to create something new. So I began to pay attention to music and sounds. It has a strong influence on what I do.
In my painting, Quiet Listening there is an LP on the shelf. Since I paint from memory, I decided to recreate one of Bongos' LPs, to have it there like when you have a collection of music. For me vinyl LPs are the best [thing] to collect. I try to add bits and pieces of what I like, what I'm interested in, into my work.
Do you like any contemporary Nigerian musicians?
Yeah, like most Nigerians, I like Burna Boy. A handful of his music, and a handful of Wizkid and 2face. I'm more into people like Asa, Adekunle Gold, Simi and Brymo.
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Front yard things. Courtesy the Artist and Mariane Ibrahim
Do you listen to music when you paint or do you prefer silence?
Sound is very important to me. I'm kind of old school, so I listen to jazz a lot. At the moment I'm into Coltrane, and afrobeat. I also listen to a lot of highlife music.
What is highlife?
It's a traditional fusion of jazz, soul, ska, all mixed together.
Who's a good artist to look up to learn about highlife?
Prince Nico Mbarga, Victor Uwaifo, Rex Lawson, or Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe. Highlife goes back to the 1930s, 1940s. It became more pronounced in the 1960s and 1970s. I listen more to '60s and '70s highlife. You'd be surprised, a lot of Nigerian music from those days influenced the Black American music scene, and the Black American music scene influenced them. It went both ways.
I read that when Fela Kuti (the Nigerian musician) went to America he met up with the Black Panthers, and he was learning all about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and there was this back and forth exchange of information...
People like Fela changed everything. After studying music and traveling and broadening his knowledge beyond the normal scope of things, he chose not to follow tradition by singing the way that everybody else did. He created his own sound. That's the most inspirational thing you can do, be authentic, be your true self. He sang in his own way. He decided to tell stories but his stories were very political. He talked about the daily things that we as Nigerians face.
As far as Black people are concerned, Michael Jackson or James Brown or Bob Marley... none of them can rival Fela. Anywhere you go in the world everybody knows Fela. That tells you how much impact he had as a musician. His story doesn't just apply to Black people. If you take the Black content out, people feel the same things in other cultures too, in a different way. For me, he is one of a kind. Fela is right up there among the greatest of all time.
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Denge Pose II, 2018. Courtesy the Artist and Mariane Ibrahim
What do you think about the cross-influence between Nigerian music and American music?
When a traditional musician travels abroad they see things hear things and bring them home. At the same time, when those musicians are playing abroad, they're inspiring local musicians. So we influence each other both ways. There are certain musicians who traveled to Africa at some point in their career. The music they made after that is clearly different from what they used to do. It's not just music; it also applies to the world of painting. There are painters who changed the dynamics of how they approached their work after studying African art. Sometimes they changed everything.
Like Picasso?
Yeah, and a handful of others. In this day and age, everything is so open and you can see a direct comparison between a work and where they took it from. Back in the day, people didn't know where painters got those ideas from because that information was so obscure. So people saw those artists and said, "Man, he's a genius!" Now when you put these works side by side, you see the influences. I'm not trying to diminish what they achieved. They did something great because they brought exposure to African art. They made the world aware of it. That's wonderful.
How do you define home?
Home is where I come from. I do miss it when I talk to my family and friends. That comes back to what I do now. The reason I do what I do was born out of that, the fact that I miss it so much. For me, I create a fantasy world of revisiting the past. I revisit certain things, certain scenes, the things that I remember.
Everybody that I know, and how I remember them, [they have since] changed. Everybody I know now has a family, is a father or a mother. We've all grown up. My memories of most of these people are from when I was a teenager. That's how the picture is in my head. So when I see them now I try to reconcile the past with how we have all moved on with our lives. I'm filling that gap by creating paintings of how I imagine them to be. Some of my works are based on that time lapse and the things that I remember: where I used to play, the older people around us, how they carried themselves back then. I try to recreate them in my own way. When I have these paintings around me they take me back, as if I'm home. It's right there, like nothing ever changed. That's the way I remember home.
Peter Uka is exhibiting at the new Mariane Ibrahim gallery in Paris in September 2021.
Peter Uka's next solo show takes place in November 2021 at the Mariane Ibrahim gallery in Chicago.
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Basement Barbers, 2016. Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim
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Spunky Vibes, 2019. Courtesy the Artist and Mariane Ibrahim
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Vibe, 2021. Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim
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Still Riding 2, 2021. Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim