The first thing that strikes you see as you step into her compound is the large volume of art work. Sculptural pieces are littered everywhere. In the living room, kitchen, corridor and even in the toilet.
Her house is a mini-museum. Everyday, she pounds and sweats away, carving her woodwork because that’s her passion. She dreams, sleeps and wakes up in the arts. She literally lives in the woods. Little wonder, she is confined to a little remote community Ibafo, Ogun state because that’s where her heart dwells. Welcome to Veronica Otigbo-Ekpei’s world.
Recently, in her residence, Veronica, one of the few female Nigerian sculptors, recalled how she came in contact with the woods and got stuck to it.
How did you get involved with sculptural works
My interest in arts, generally, started as a child’s play. After reading comic magazines, I started what is called short frothing. I began to imitate the characters and mimicked them through drawings.
Without sounding immodest, I would say that it was in born talent for me because I didn’t struggle with those ideas of drawing things and characters down.
While I was at it, my elder brother ventured into something else. My interest continued while in the secondary school and proceeded Lagos State College of Education(LACOED) now Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education (AOCOED), Ijanikin-Lagos.
However, my interest in arts veered off to sculpture after my graduation from the school. I recall vividly that I developed the interest when I went for an exhibition at the National Theatre, Iganmu.
There, I saw various artists working with their works. While some has finished installation, some others were still busy on their creations. I was quite fascinated by their level of creativity, passion and dexterity. Naturally, showing keen interest in a particular artist’s work, I joined her. From then onwards, I began to work with wood.
I later went back to the University of Lagos to balance the talent with academics.
What were your experiences when you started out, considering that it is a male-dominated profession?
Initially, when I started I had blisters. One has to be thought the art of dipping her hands into hot water. In fact, you have to master it. The skin must be tough for one to handle the jobs.
If you carry out a study on women, one would discover that they have proliferated the world. There is a challenge for one to see a more equal ratio of successful and eminent women as compared to men in creative fields. Most women who studied sculpture are not practising professionally. Instead, they venture into teaching and become art educators rather than practising the profession.
Where are the publicly and professionally successful women visual artists, musicians, mathematicians, scientists, composers, film directors, playwrights, and architects? Each field has several, perhaps a token female representatives.
The art profession demands an extraordinary commitment in terms of willingness to take rejection, to live in poverty, and to be field independent. A lot of people, I studied with in the university especially females that were in sculpting had left due to patronage. It is not something Nigerians buy, although they appreciates it but for them to encourage and support talents like this they just ignore the person’s work. In sculpture, you make a lot of investment. I go as far as to Shagamu to get my materials. The tools are also expensive while the work is very tedious.
It takes a resilient woman to practice sculpture. When one begins to see the difficulties, you would understand why it is male dominated. Males, are more committed than the females. The value of sculpture is equally important. Women usually choose and pursue careers as art educators, but not as artists. I am sensitive to details and very adventurous, independent and very wilful.
The quality of a woman’s art work should equally be high. I am into painting too. For me, what matters is the details. I ensure that my work is good. This job requires passion.
However, the men are often viewed to be more passionate for it than women because of their number. But that’s not true. The problem is that sometimes, women feel discouraged and detached when their efforts are not yielding results. I am still involved in sculpture because of my passion.
What were the obstacles you faced while exhibiting your works?
The obstacle is raising money to finance the job. Sculpture is a money guzzler. There can also be physical recovery time needed after building a large heavy sculpture. Second, exhibiting work is difficult because the sculptures are mostly large and heavy and very hard physical work to transport and install them. Finding new venues for exhibiting is just a matter of dedicating time and effort to research.
I do not spend enough time in this area because I would rather be building new sculptures. If you are an artist just starting out, you must search for art galleries that would carry your kind of work, and make an appointment with them, or arrange to send them slides of your work.
Gallery owners usually do not like artists to show up with their portfolio without an appointment. It is not uncommon for a gallery to be booked ahead for a year or more. You should have a fairly substantial portfolio before you approach a gallery.
How would you assess the Nigerian female sculptors and their entrepreneurial prowess?
Nigeria has a rich culture of artistic heritage historically. Sculptural tradition is almost going extinct with the decline of it’s production in most communities where its makers cannot be identified, especially females.
A lot of those who are into sculpture work had left it due to lack of patronage. In Nigeria, it is difficult for an artist to make waves and be financially stable, despite his/her creative gift.
For one to make ends meet in arts is usually difficult because the market is not regular. Anyone who does it for a living as full time artist would just be fulfilling his dream, focusing all time in creating his art without having enough proceeds from it.
The journey is not easy for artists. When I started out, I got encouragement from people. However, not everybody has people to encourage them in this job. It takes years before you begin to reap the fruits of your labour in the profession. Abroad, artists are encouraged and celebrated but in Nigeria, support does not come in a platter of gold. Unfortunately, for lack of patronage, support and encouragement, most sculptors have taken up teaching jobs so they can live comfortably.
It is difficult to get jobs in the art field unlike other professions which is why a lot of them seek for greener pasture in other fields.
In few instances, Nigerians would appreciate the work but are not willing to buy it. In developed world, the situation is different cause they have a ready made market for it.
I have been able to grow to a point where I own a gallery, but some could not get to this point because of lack of support.
The art community is seemingly fading away in Nigeria. What measures do you think government can put in place to revive it industry?
Our culture is fading away. Art has a world. Workshop, seminars and encouragement and maybe, through stipends for up coming artists. Creating interest in the children at a tender age is also key.
The museums are dry. No modern arts again. It is like a ghost town. Corporate organisations should assist artists. Nobody wants to invest in the art business because when you invest, there is usually no potential buyer immediately. Therefore, your money is tied down.
For artists who have found ways to overcome all these challenges while pursuing their passion, is rare. Nigerian art is among the most prominent and most sought after in the world but it is a huge challenge for one to break forth into the limelight.
Investing in the art is a huge challenge. So, these are some of the reasons, it is fading away. Policy makers should understand how arts can benefit government and its citizens.They should find ways to support it in spite of the hard financial times.
Government should provide resource towards arts but should not control art. The government has been too rigid in their approaches if they can be flexible with some of the policies enacted.
Despite the progress made in the last few decades, women remain under-represented in Top management, Directorship and in governance?
In-spite of the progress made by women over the last several decades, they still remain the majority of the world’s unhealthy, unfed and unpaid group of people.
Most women have had to struggle to reach senior positions in any field they find themselves and are better managers, too. If you carry out a survey on women who have occupied top management positions, they have achieved that with a fight. They would tell you stories and tales of missed out opportunities.
Women should be given the chance to occupy top management position if they merit it. The gains in women’s wages can be attributed to greater educational attainment, however, the increase in the ability for them to stay in the workforce after childbirth usually slow their pace of promotion. In all, Occupational upgrading and higher wages are results of their struggle.
What are some of the constraints women face when starting up their businesses aside from accessing loans?
Naturally, I wouldn’t advise anyone to take a loan from financial institutions be it a bank or a micro finance organisation. Women should seek financial assistance from their relatives.
its better than financial institution because of the stringent conditions attached to it.
You have to do business with good health and sound mind. Many women start their businesses but fail to continue with it, not because they didn’t have the vision or drive but because they lack social support and confidence.
This issues can rise from her business or her family, either pressure from her husband, relatives, neighbours etc and it becomes real.
This often explains why you have a lot of women who are involved in very small businesses. They don’t think that they can commit to bigger businesses. You would see them starting off well but would remain small because they have to work around their social circumstances. The truth is that Nigeria today, needs more women entrepreneurs and SMEs to help boost the economy, especially with this period of recession.