Elbert Hubbard once said, “Art is not a thing, it is a way.”
Those words are certainly true for Polly Alakija, the British artist whose devotion to African art has endeared her to art lovers in Nigeria and beyond. She sat down at the Wheatbaker Hotel, Ikoyi with Whoot Africa’s founder, Olushola Pacheco, who found her warm, sweet and charming personality a perfect match for her gorgeous blue eyes — eyes that lit up as soon as she began to talk about her art and her passion for creating another generation of art lovers.
Below are excerpts from the interview:
We’ve read a lot of things about you in the press. Outside of these, can you share with Whoot Africa a little about who Polly Alakija is: the individual, the artist, the businessperson, and the woman who is pushing to get more young women to do amazing things with their lives?
I grew up in the United Kingdom. My mum is German and my dad is as English as being English gets. I met my late husband in the UK. We came over to Nigeria in 1989 and I’ve lived here ever since. I feel very at home in Nigeria. I find it interesting and stimulating, and I have always loved the energy here. When I first moved here, I struggled with social adjustments. My parents spent years empowering us to be independent, so I was independent from a very early age and I had my own business in London before I moved into a society which, at the time, when it came to women on a social level, was all about disempowerment and taking independence from women. I struggled with that side of moving to Nigeria, but apart from that, I loved the energy and what was happening culturally; I have always enjoyed that aspect of being in Nigeria.
My late husband was passionate about agriculture. He owned a farm and other businesses in Ibadan, so for many years my life was being his wife, being the mother of his children, and being based in Ibadan. It was challenging artistically, not knowing what I was going to do with my work and career. At the time there were no cellphones and no internet. At best in the early years it was NITEL down the road. It was challenging, but I still carried on with my work and art as best as I could. I did quite a bit of work with local artists and crafts people in Ibadan, learning adire and batik techniques. In the early 90s, I started to exhibit with Quintessence in Lagos and Alliance Francaise in Ibadan and I am glad that during those years before I had children, I did a lot of travelling around Nigeria. I think I covered the country except the eastern part.
My life was about supporting my husband and his businesses. He did extraordinary things in agriculture and contributed massively to agriculture in this country while I maintained my own studio as well.
in 2005, I took my children to school in South Africa. Due to my husband’s increasing business links and trips to South Africa, it was kind of a natural step for us to get the kids educated there, and we were commuting between Nigeria and South Africa. It was quite liberating on the artistic front because the art scene in South Africa is very different from that of Nigeria. It has a very long history of curatorship, galleries and a whole different art culture that has been in place for many, many decades; they’ve got a huge history of it.
They kind of didn’t know what pigeon hole to put me in because I’m a woman, with a Nigerian surname, but English. I mean I just fell out of all their parameters, which was interesting. I still struggle with how to market my work internationally because of this perception of what you have to be as an “African” artist; you are certainly not supposed to be white middle class from Gloucestershire, which is what I am. I still have that problem marketing myself in Europe too, but I don’t worry too much about it, I have a wonderful Nigerian clientele from the diaspora.
How do you marry your art and advocacy?
I hope I can reach out to all sorts of people with my work. Advocacy with my work comes at different levels. Basically, being an artist working in a studio can be a very lonely process. My greatest satisfaction is when I can reach out to people through my art and there are various ways of doing that. I am a strong believer in developing the art audience. Art serves so many different purposes, but in order for it to serve a purpose, you have to have an audience and how do you create an audience? I think there is a strong sense of what is beautiful here. Everybody here no matter who they are has a comment on whether something is lovely or not. This is often manifested through people’s dress, hairstyles, etc. I get irritated when people say, “Polly there’s no point putting art out there because people don’t understand art. ” There is no excuse; if this is the case then you need to start educating people and giving them something to respond to. Whether positive or negative, everyone is entitled to a reaction and an opinion.
So, I really want to get art out there into the community and there are many ways of doing that: mural work, public art work, getting public art commissioned and putting them out in the street, and so on. In the 60s, there was a lot of that happening. If you look at buildings in Nigeria dating back to the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, stunning mural works and sculptures were commissioned all over Lagos. So it is there, it was possible and the artists who contributed to that are big names in the art world now, even though it is really sad many of the works are in a state of disrepair right now.
We had that art drive once and I believe it is still very possible to revive this culture, especially now that Nigerian artists are being increasingly recognized internationally. Community art does takes money. I have got a few proposals on the back burner at the moment that need sponsorship and support. People look at me and ask why I even bother with wanting to put out so much art because financially it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but there’s a bigger investment and a bigger picture to be made here. Luckily Nigeria is blessed with a climate that can allow us to be outdoors a lot of the time, so what better place to create and display art?
I get a tremendous amount of fun and joy through my work; there is nothing more satisfying than knowing your work is bringing a smile to someone. When it comes to my advocacy, I try to make every exhibition linked to a charity. A percentage of the proceeds go to the charity which is a fantastic way of giving back. In January/February last year, I spent some time with children who had found their way to Lagos from Chibok. They were living rough on the streets in Ikoyi, I contacted them through a church, met up with these kids and spent some time with them. I gave them breakfast and clean change of clothes, and I also did some drawings and sketching with them. I was saddened by the response of some people who felt I shouldn’t be focusing on an issue that was deemed politically sensitive. I responded by letting them know I had no political motive or message, but I wanted to try to use my work to help create awareness of their plight.
What inspires you?
I grew up in rural UK in very middle class conservative family but at the same time a family that is passionate about the arts. We grew up visiting museums and galleries and looking at European architecture. I painted a lot during my childhood and I have always got a tremendous amount of satisfaction from painting. If I see something beautiful, I express how I feel about it through my art. Also, My children have always been a great inspiration. My art is a visual response to the world around me and in one way it is an expression of my love and joy in the world.
Considering art isn’t the average man’s cup of tea, it’s usually seen as a hobby for the rich especially out here with the daily economic struggles. What are your thoughts when you hear things like this as an artist?
Well, this whole conversation about art being for the rich is very interesting; it clearly is not! I do get advised to be an artist targeting a certain clientele but it doesn’t quite work that way. Of course I am extremely grateful for the patronage I receive. One of the things I try to do is to keep my work affordable, its important to build a broad client base.
Truth is, my bread and butter income comes from small regular sales – its important to nurture the middle and lower end market. Affordability is key to a sustainable business model.
The business aspect of art and stage plays is just coming into that acceptance space in Nigeria, especially with the younger generation. There is so much of our culture and heritage to be shared. What are your thoughts on how to go about this for those interested in the arts — getting involved, sharing and telling amazing African stories via stage plays?
There are amazing stories to be told. In fact, there is a story every other minute in Nigeria. This is a place of drama and theatre. Interesting enough, recently on BBC World Service there was a report on breastfeeding around the world. One of the first projects I did when I moved to Nigeria in 1989/90 saw me working with a publishing company in Ibadan. We worked on a breastfeeding campaign which was my first job out here, doing visuals for the campaign. So I was horrified to see that today Nigeria ranks the lowest when it comes to breastfeeding, with just 17% of kids in Nigeria being exclusively fed with breast milk until 6 months —about the lowest rate in the world. Using visuals and theatre is a great way to get a message across.
I believe theatre is still being used in the health education sector. I don’t have much experience with stage plays, but it is definitely something I’d love to look at in the near future as part of my community work. I’d love to do street theatre using my art work as backdrops and also being able to paint alongside it.
You are a British national who moved to Nigeria a few decades ago. What has your experience been like so far in the business world out here, considering how they say doing business in Nigeria is not for the fainthearted?
Clearly, the opportunities here are massive. There is an opportunity for anything and if you have got the energy, passion and commitment to deliver consistently, you will succeed. This is something I have said and maintained even when my husband was alive and doing business. He was always clear about his vision. He had a vision and he worked hard and he succeeded. This is a country of 180 million people. There is a unique business opportunity for everything if you are creative and consistent.
You will be 50 this year, which is such a remarkable age. When you look back at your life and how far you have come, what comes to mind?
I haven’t even started yet. I feel like everything I have done up until now has been my foundation. From here on, the plan is to deliver on everything I have built over the years.
Art is indirectly associated with fame. If you had to share with people who want to get into the creative aspect of art what would you want them to know about separating the creative process from seeking fame?
Do your best always and deliver. Try to do this consistently and the exposure will come. To me, success is such an objective thing. How do you value success? I know that I have been incredibly blessed with the publicity that I seem to have generated completely by default, thanks to my wonderful friends and support system. My name has been put out there. The other day I was in London and I was stopped by someone who knew me through my work. I was also privy to a conversation about someone who had heard about Polly Alakija, but had no clue it was me. They were talking about Polly Alakija the brand. I have never set out to become a brand, it is something that has happened almost by default. You cannot seek fame; do your best, be your own person and work extraordinarily hard.
What is the best advice you have ever received, who was it from, and how has it impacted your life till date?
When I was growing up, there was an artist who was a great family friend. He spent a lot of time with us. He was a very modest man but inspirational. When I went to do my art foundation course, I showed him some of my “experiments”: he wasn’t impressed with them. He said “Polly, with whatever you do, you’ve got to make sure that you are truthful to your subject and also to yourself. If you are completely honest with both, then and only then will you succeed.” The times I go wrong are the times I know I haven’t been truthful to myself and trusted my gut.