Isaac Emokpae is a Nigerian visual artist, painter, and photographer whose works focus on duality and abstract expressionism.
His late father, Erhabor Emokpae, was a notable Nigerian painter and sculptor popularly regarded as one of the pioneers of modern arts in Nigeria.
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, he speaks about the gradual extinction of painting in Nigeria as well as his artistic journey.
PT: What’s a typical creative process like for you?
Isaac: Most of my work always starts with my writing. I take a notebook and start writing. I write everything that I think of or when I hear about something. The next step is to try to illustrate it. That’s why I have writings here on the floor because most of the things that come to my head are just words that can’t be put into pictures. Other things are translating emotions and making it appear real. Then, of course, evaluating the location to make sure that the medium I have is right. For example, looking around and thinking can it work? Is it good enough? Is it fun enough? You have to take cognizance of the location as well.
PT: Have you always wanted to be an artist?
Isaac: Being an artist wasn’t my first choice, to be honest. When I was younger, I wanted to separate myself from my father’s shadows so I started studying medicine. But along the line, I realised that I wasn’t cut out to be a doctor. I’ve had mentors that helped me through the process, even though it wasn’t my initial choice but I came back to it. I started out studying medicine at the University of Ibadan but ended up studying Creative Arts at the University of Lagos.
PT: What was it like transiting from medicine to the creative arts?
Isaac: This happened in the early 90s. My dad had an influence because of how much he did and achieved in his time. I just had to leave his shadow. He wasn’t around to essentially guide me, at the time that I could have used some of his advice. It still worked out well.
PT: How do you describe yourself?
Isaac: I actually just call myself an artist. We draw lines where there are no lines. In our culture, there are no words for the arts. You do beautiful work and you’re celebrated for doing it. But you can’t name the work. Creativity is like a force of interest. Creativity sometimes can behave like a baby. If you see something you want, it begins to go after it. It does not care whether your life is facing another direction. It will draw you every day, to face that direction. So I’ll describe myself as an artist.
PT: Would you say that growing up in the house of a legend rubbed off on you?
Isaac: Yes, it did. Watching my dad when I was growing up helped me realise that I wanted to be an artist. Like I said, because of the circumstances of his passing, by the time when I had questions about myself, there was really no one I could ask. The choices made would sound like I had decided something but in truth, there were actually still questions but there was no one to help me navigate those choices. My mum was there and she encouraged me either way. Fortunately, when I said I wasn’t going to be happy for the rest of my life as a doctor, she said, “I told you, this was what you’re meant to do”. So, I have no regrets.
One of Isaac Emokpae’s works
PT: Do you also strongly combine poetic depth with artistic flair like your dad?
Isaac: I think I do the same to a large extent. For starters, the principle he always talked about is part of me. He was fascinated by art and so am I. It is a useful way of trying to describe your mind. They are playing out a system where everything struggles to balance themselves, to balance, there must be an opposition kind of. That is what we illustrate.
PT: Any major differences too?
Isaac: Well, he was more of a sculptor than I am. I don’t do sculptures as much as he did. He did a lot of sculptures. I do photography quite a lot.
PT: Which gives you more joy between painting and photography?
Isaac: It’s actually between writing and painting because it’s very personal. Whenever I make portraits, I can assure you that that is the first time anyone has ever seen it. Paintings are becoming lost arts in Nigeria. We have more that is being done mechanically now. Things that we take for granted because it is always there, one day we’ll wake up and it’s not there again. I remember when I started doing photography, it was film and film just quietly died and we can’t remember it again. There’s a typewriter in my installation here, when I got it, I was testing it and the guy selling it said it’s like you know how to use this thing. I said, of course, we did business studies and I learned how to type. He said people now press it like a computer. You just realise that oh wow, there was a time like that. Times like that will come when people don’t know what typewriters are for or what digital cameras are for.
PT: What does the gradual extinction of painting in Nigeria portend for your industry?
Isaac: If you master traditional art and you use it a lot like music, for example, people use local instruments to spice up normal words. If people realise that this thing is made by machine, it is difficult to leave a long-lasting impression.
PT: What are some of your memorable work moments?
Isaac: To be able to reap rewards from your work as an artist is a very fulfilling thing. The trend in the world now is that the world is responding to intellectual properties like never before. Africans have been able to generate one thing, intellectual properties. The world is now more attuned to what Africa is doing. Without proving too far a point, if you’re working as a creative in Africa now, you shouldn’t get restless because this is the time it gets better. It is possible to live a decent life as an artist now because when you look at our film and music industry, you’ll say, for example, that you can’t compare Wizkid with Fela because the latter is a legend. But the earnings that people have now, the people we call legend never got that in their time. Not like they were suffering but they are even richer in death.
PT: What’s your creative partnership with RnB Communications tagged ‘Idea Loom’ all about?
Isaac Emokpae’s work on display
Isaac: ‘Idea Loom’ represents how everybody’s point of view comes together to generate a variety of networks but also a cohesive theme at the end. Even when things are crisscrossing, they are not necessarily opposing themselves. It is a divergent point of view for certain things at certain times. The first in its series, ‘The Idea Loom’ is my interpretation of the synergy between R&B Communications and its publics; a unique call for unison, harmony, and sustainability in business. ‘The Idea Loom’ is a homage to ideas; a celebration of thought and its power, which when properly weaved and harnessed can achieve great and far-reaching consequences.’
Threads run across the workspace with significant meaning as I use them to represent the interconnectivity of the human experience at work and in personal relationships.