Arts & DesignGreenGazelle

Olufunke Esekhalu Ojukwu: Female Artists on A Mission Series (Part 1)

In celebration of this year’s International Women’s Month, Gazelle Africa presents an all-female series of interviews that features various artists of African descent who are breaking barriers and transcending gender roles to make enviable artistic statements. This week, the Queen of eco-murals and mother of three, Olufunke Esekhalu Ojukwu recounts the journey that led her into limelight, inspiring a new generation of creatives in this virtual chat with Yinka Olatunbosun.

Kindly tell us briefly about your childhood, early influences and education. When did you venture into the arts?

I grew up knowing I could draw. I discovered my creative talents early in life as a kid, while at the Baptist Primary school, Obanikoro, Lagos. Despite the discouragement from the family from creating drawings and making art, I kept pushing until I got the opportunity to be part of an art competition. Encouraged by my art teacher, I went in for the competition sponsored by the Lions or Rotary club while in secondary school (Nigerian Navy Secondary School, Ojo) and won the 2nd position, 2000. This created the opportunity to be hosted by retired Rear Admiral Joe Aikhomu (late) at his residence.

Winning the competition was a sign to apply to Yaba Art School, an experience that built and strengthened my creative mind till I completed HND with upper credits in Painting.

Who are your role models? What role models do you have in art practice and how have you come to have a personal style that sets you apart from others?

I can’t say a particular artist is my role model because I allow every artist- old and new- that I admire their arts to assist the ideas of what I want to create. Bits from them here and there encouraged me to think deep on what I can do differently.

As a female artist, what challenges did you encounter along the way that you dealt with?

The challenges many female artists experience is that some people believe art is better when it’s from a male artist. Female artists are not very well encouraged.  An example is when growing up I had to make it clear that I really want to pursue this talent professionally. Even though they (my parents) allowed me to go to art school, they never believed I could do anything worthwhile with it. I keep encouraging myself, I’m still on and I won’t relent. Other young girls with such talent will be inspired when I tell my story some day.

Would you call yourself an environmental artist or activist?

A collage made of plastic screw caps

I wouldn’t like to be conformed to a particular title such as environmental artist or activist because I am all that and more. I will simply say I AM AN ARTIST 😊

What are your preferred materials or media for expressing your creativity and how do you work with them?

The fact is my style of art isn’t just one; I enjoy including other materials into my creations, doing it differently such that you may have seen an art made with toothpicks but maybe not the same way I’m using it in my art. You may have seen art made with plastic bottle covers but definitely not the same way I do.

I specialise in painting but I enjoy exploring with any other materials that I can incorporate into my creations. I use all medium oil, pastel, acrylic etc on canvas or board. Other materials I have used are toothpicks, leather, pure water nylons, plastic bottles, discarded plastic bottle covers, black rubber thread etc. Other materials might come up in the future and if I can work with them; I will.

Tell us more about your previous group and solo exhibitions as well as moments to be remembered.

It’s a whole list: Female Artists on Rampage, Aina Onabolu Hall, National Arts Theatre, Lagos in 2007;  Life in My City, Nike Lake Hotel, Enugu in 2007; 3rd position in Don Quixote, a Nigeria Art Competition sponsored by Embassy of Spain, Abuja in 2008; Celebrating 50–50 Independence; Rapprochement sponsored by Embassy of Spain, Abuja in 2010; 1 of 12 Finalists, National Art Competition organised by Nigerian Breweries and African Art Foundation, Lagos in 2016; Art Through Ages, Alliance Francaise Accra, Ghana  in 2016; Convergence,  Jelosimi Art Centre, Lagos in 2021; Timeless Memories, Freedom Park, Lagos in 2021; Artmiabo International Art Festival, Ebony Life Place, Lagos in 2022; Looking out from within,  solo exhibition, JCAA, Onikan Lagos in 2022; The Lay of the Land, group exhibition, The Art Room Parkhurst, South Africa in 2023.

What are your thoughts on artists’ contribution to climate change advocacy? Do you think we are doing enough already? 

It’s great that artists are contributing towards climate change advocacy. As a matter of fact we all should be involved because it concerns us  all and it will benefit everyone collectively when the force is united towards the same course. Artists are doing well so far using every medium of creativity to convey the message for awareness but a lot more can be and should be done. I am doing my bits through my art using discarded materials. We all should join in.

How do you source the waste materials you use in producing your works?

One of Eseghalu’s works

I source my materials first from around me, in the house, when I go out but to get the large numbers of materials to enable me to make tangible work with, I visit the recycle ♻️ plants where I sort through their collected wastes bring them home, to wash, disinfection and sun dry them. Set them aside in colours before assembling them, it’s quite a process.

What are your next projects and how do they align with your personal goal as an artist?

I plan to have a solo exhibition of my paintings later in the year but I really wish I can showcase all my arts made with discarded plastic bottle covers and pure water nylons in an entirely different exhibition. Hopefully I will get some sponsorship soon.

Do you see a generation of more female artists emerging?

With great encouragement and constantly including female artists in shows more girls will hold on to the talent and work towards projecting them. More females are already coming up.

One piece of advice for budding female artists.

Don’t stop creating art. You can take a short break, you can go ahead and do other stuff but never let go of the creative talent you have. And if and when no one cheers you on, do well to applaud yourself and keep at it. Your time will come.

How do you balance personal life and work?

Hmmmm….balance sha😁…. even life is not balanced. It’s just God’s grace o…. I try my best in both areas. I am a mother of three young kids and I try my best to create time nurturing them. In fact, I took a break to focus on them but it kills me inside that a whole year will pass and I only made one or two artworks but I give God all the glory because all things work together for good.  I have a God-sent help in the form of a nanny. Now, I can focus on my work for long hours now I can do more…. The Lord is my strength.

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