Interview with Ken Nwadiogbu for his upcoming exhibition “UBUNTU”

Thinkspace is pleased to present Nigerian-born multidisciplinary artist Ken Nwadiogbu’s first solo exhibition in the United States. ‘UBUNTU’ is an ideology of humanity, often translated as “I am because we are.” Nwadiogbu recreates his own realities as a young Nigerian, but the pieces reflect the spirit of experiences encountered by black lives around the globe.

His work invokes a humanist connection and illuminates the ongoing issues of police brutality, racism, xenophobia, culture conflict and shock. Working with charcoal and acrylic he creates a hyperrealist narrative that demands socio-political thought and discourse, bringing the ideology full circle by emphasizing an understanding that we are more alike than different.

In anticipation of “UBUNTU” which will be showing twenty new hyperrealist works, we interviewed Nwadiogbu to find out more about his creative process, thoughts about art in society, and Nigeria.

For those not familiar with your work, can you tell us a little bit about your artistic background? How did you come to work with Thinkspace?

Passion pushed me to become a visual artist in a society where art was not popular. While studying Civil Engineering in the University of Lagos, Nigeria, I stumbled on Hyperrealism art. The thought of creating something so real took my interest and that became my gateway into the world of art.

I got more interested in creating art that had value to me. Inspired by issues around, I took an interest in creating works that reflect the everyday struggles of people around me, with the hopes of invoking empathy. I am able to pose questions on what it means to be Nigerian and highlight the challenges that come with it. This helps to interrogate, explore and challenge socio-political structures and issues within the society.

I first worked with Thinkspace in 2019 for the LAX group shows. We kept in touch and in 2020, they reached out to me for a possible solo show in 2021 in their new gallery. Really grateful and humbled for the ability to share my conversations and works.

What is the inspiration behind this latest body of work? What themes were you exploring?

These works were created between 2020 to 2021. The question was: what did it feel like to be Nigerian during this time and what do I think we can do to make it better.

I experienced a lot of threatening events around me and could connect it with what was happening around the world. The hatred, the war, division and violence. I got really interested in making direct statements through my works concerning this. This gave rise to UBUNTU, an African philosophy made popular by Late Nelson Mandela. The philosophy of togetherness. “I am because we are”. I believe there’s a lot of good we can do if we are United.

Your work stares back at the viewer, breaking down the proverbial fourth wall – when developing your work, do you start with the expression or does the entire composition inform the gaze that is selected? 

There’s a powerful feeling staring at someone intensely and I always wanted to explore that in my works. It became my way of interacting with the viewer. My works always highlight important issues around and I want people to pay attention to them.

Taking pictures is something I enjoy doing. Pictures of my experiences and close-ups of the people around me. These sorta come together when creating my works. No routine way.

Who are a few of your creative influences? How have they inspired you and your work?

I was first influenced by works from Kelvin Okafor and Chuck Close. I later found works by David Hockney, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley and Ai Wei Wei to be of huge influence. These artists had something to teach me. Some about how art can save the world while some about the extent of expression.

What is a day in the studio like? Do you have any rituals that help you tap into a creative flow?

No ritual. I just love creating every day. I enjoy it. I might have some breaks in between to catch up with social life, but always back to create. Once I’m ready, I put on the speaker to play beautiful music, and I just create.

What was the most challenging piece in this exhibition? How did it help you to grow as an artist?

Syncytium was a work I did after my dad was diagnosed with cancer. It represents all these cells connected together to aid human life. Here, just one bad cell could ruin the whole connection, Just as one bad person could ruin a whole community. It represents humans as fields of energy connected together.

What is your most favorite part of the creative process? What is your least favorite part of the creative process?

Honestly wish I didn’t have to experience so much violence and division, so I can focus on creating other things that matter to me. Asides that, I enjoy every part of my creative process.

What do you think the role of an artist is in society?

Artists have important roles to play in society. Asides just responding and educating the society through their art, I believe they can also lend help and opportunities as well. I read an article about how Ai Wei Wei’s sunflower seeds created many jobs for skilled artisans in Jingdezhen. I also am aware of Kehinde Wiley’s Black Rock Residency in Senegal that give black artists an opportunity to grow. These are artists doing amazing things to give back and uplift the community around them.

Can you share with us a few of your favorite Nigerian or West African artists/creatives?

Oh yes. I’ve always been a fan of works from my brother Arinze Stanley. Great works from Alex Peter, Dennis Osadebe, and Babajide Olatunji too. I believe there are many amazing artists from West Africa with really powerful conversations.

What are three things you would like people to know about Nigeria? And three things about your hometown?

Three things I’ll love people to know about Nigeria:

AMAZING unseen talents
We are not fraudsters as these movies most times represent us.
You need to eat Nigerian jollof rice

Three things about my hometown:

Located in Anambra state, Nigeria
Popular language is Igbo
Beautiful music

If you could have dinner with five people (fictional or real, dead or alive) who would they be? What would be on the menu? And what is your ice breaker question? 

Oh wow. Please Let me mention five artists instead (fictional or real, dead or alive) that I’ll love to have dinner with.

Jean-Michel Basquiat
Frida Khalo
Toyin Ojih Odutola
David Hockney
Kehinde Wiley

Food Menu will include Nigerian Jollof rice and grilled chicken. With a bit of salad too.

My ice breaker question will be: What is Art? (Just because I know we could talk about it for years)