It has always been my dream as a child to be an artist. When I was in primary school, whenever my teacher gave a note to our Class Captain to copy on the blackboard for us and there was an accompanying diagram, I was the person to call to draw it on the board, and I always did it perfectly well. I also drew cartoons, which I was always excited to show to my friends. I’ve been passionate about art since childhood; I just love creating anything that people would admire.
I remember one time when I was much younger, I drew many cartoon characters, including Mickey Mouse, on plywood and I displayed them in front of our house. Surprising, when we woke up the next day, the artworks had all been stolen. It hurt me badly that the artworks were stolen, but I felt good because I knew that people would not steal them, if they didn’t consider the artworks valuable. So, that incident made me know that I was doing something right.
I graduated from Auchi Polytechnic, Edo State, where I studied Painting for my National Diploma Programme. However, for my Higher National Diploma, I majored in sculpture.
It all started during my HND programme at Auchi Poly. One of my lecturers gave us an assignment that would require me buying materials worth not less than N7,000. At the time, I was really broke because I am from a very poor home. I am the last of four children of my parents. At the time I gained admission, my parents had already spent all their resources sponsoring my siblings’ education. So, I had to struggle through school and I had a difficult time.
So, when the lecturer gave us that assignment, I knew that calling home to ask for money was out of the question. I made efforts to get money but when I couldn’t, I summoned courage and walked up to the lecturer and told him to lend me some money to execute the project. The lecturer was surprised and asked me, “Are you not afraid of asking your lecturer to lend you some money?” I explained my situation to him and told him I didn’t have any other choice.
In the end, he gave me N200. When I added it to N150 that was on me, I only got N350, which was a far cry from what I needed to get materials. So, at that point, I decided to look for an alternative means. So, I went to dumpsites and began to search for plastics, tins, cans to use for the project. After gathering the scraps, I went to market and bought adhesive for N200 while I bought something to eat with the remaining N150.
When I got into the studio, everyone started complaining that the materials I got from dumpsites smelled badly. Despite their complaints, I went to work and I was in the studio all night. On the day of project presentation, my lecturer wrote ‘3’ on my sheet and held it up. But I knew it would be impossible for me to score 3/40, no matter how badly he thought I did with the project. I knew I had scored above 30, which is ‘A’ grade. Apparently, the lecturer was teasing me, he had actually scored me 30/40 and I was in awe because there were people who scored 22 and even lower marks. They were angry, saying, “How can Ernest spend N200 (on his project) and still score more than us?”
It was a kind of mosaic. It was a combination of many art forms and people really loved it. It was an art that showed an artist making things in a traditional setting. The reception really motivated me and encouraged me to look in that direction. And that was the beginning for me because that particular experience helped me going forward. During my HND days, most of the assignments we were give required money to buy materials, so as an indigent student, I always improvised.
But it wasn’t so easy. I remember one corps member then used to shout at me to stop bringing rubbish into the studio. But the reality was that I had no other choice if I must get my assignments done. So, since then, I always see beauty in trash. When I see these waste materials, they entice me, and I just pick them and take them to the studio. I am usually unsure of what to do with them till I start working. But the finished products always have a “wowing” effect. I remember that while in school I spent less than N20,000 to furnish my room; but if you entered, you would spend about 30 minutes admiring the art pieces that I had all over the space. The room looked like a gallery.
My inspiration comes from everywhere. I just look at the tyres and ideas will just start rushing through my brain. It is a gift.
After graduating, I had the mandatory one-year national youth service in Lagos. In my Place of Primary Assignment, I approached a welder and worked with him. I took some tyres to the local market nearby and enquired about the kind of adhesive I could use to hold pieces of tyre together. I got different ideas and I then began to experiment. At the time, my intention was not even to go into sculpture full time. But when I finished the first work and took it to the Chairman of the Oshodi/Apapa Local Government Area, he loved it and he supported me. I then registered as a member of the Society of Nigerian Artists. When I took the work to an exhibition, it was the first work to be sold among all the works on display. No one knew I was the one who made it.
A sister of former Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola was the person invited to unveil the works at Nike Art Gallery at Lekki, and when I saw her admiring my work, I wanted to walk up to her and tell her I was the one who made the work, but I couldn’t because of her security detail.
After that day, I got a call that many people loved the work and wanted more. That was how my journey into this brand of work really began. Nike Art Gallery bought the work and all other works that I made.
The highlight of my job will be when one of my works went to Iowa, USA. The mayor of the city was the one who unveiled the job. That is my biggest highlight for now.
I feel fulfilled and grateful to God. I feel very happy because my background is not an easy one at all. In church, two weeks ago, my personal pastor who knew my story used it to foreground his sermon and I was crying all through the service because I have really come a long way. God has helped me.
In the beginning, many in my neighbourhood said I was wasting my time. But today, just one of my works can pay the salary most of them make in one year.
My advice for them is that they should give doing what they are doing and be improving. With focus and honesty, they will certainly live their dreams. Also, I will advise them to try to be more creative and not imitate or plagiarize anybody’s works. Be original! Once you can do this, you are going to make it. The art industry now is the new oil. Just one piece, one of my junior colleagues told me he sold it for N10m. You can imagine that. People are putting more interest in the industry now.
So, there is no need to feel depressed. There are many opportunities. If you don’t know how to expose your work, there is social media, which was what helped me and my colleagues so much. Just push your work out there. You don’t have to go through any master who may end up exploiting you and your talent; you don’t have to beg any gallery for exposure. Just push yourself out on social media and before you know what is happening, you will make it big. Once you are good and you know what you are doing, people will connect with you. This is an opportunity for generations!
Apart from the regular Nigerian factor of poor power supply, because we work late at night and we need to power our machines as artists to work, there are not so many challenges in this line of work. Once you settle down and do your own thing, you will be okay. In terms of government regulation, I don’t think there is any policy that affects us as artists. If you want to ship your work, you need to obtain a certificate.
I am working on having a big studio. I am putting some finishing touches on my private apartment where the studio would be situated. I am also making efforts towards having more disciples of this brand of art, so we can begin to organise and have annual shows to showcase our work and get exposure. Upcycling also helps the environment. You can never see used tyres lying helplessly in my area. Whenever I see piles of tyres, I always feel rich.
Ernest Nwokeocha is a 35-year-old Lagos based sculptor. Emmanuel makes beautiful artworks from old tyres and other scrap materials.