Nigeria’s Sophia Chioma Azoige Paints Without Restriction

Drawing on the Wall:

Nigeria’s Sophia Chioma Azoige Paints Without Restriction

by D. Amari Jackson


“When you have passion for something, you just have this driving force pushing you… and when you are not doing it, you feel incomplete, you know?” offers emerging artist, Sophia Chioma Azoige, from her home in Rivers State, Nigeria. The 27-year-old multidisciplinary artist reflects upon the difficult times in her life when she ceased, or was prevented from creating, particularly as a child whose parents once told her there was no value in pursuing art. 

“Sometimes I just stare at an empty space on the wall and the next thing I think of is drawing with my pencil there on the wall,” reveals Azoige. “But you can’t because you’re restricted, so that was how I felt at that moment. I felt like there was something inside of me that was not complete. And I now know I feel different when I am painting than I felt when I was not painting.” 

When painting, Azoige is making a difference by defying such unwritten social restrictions in a Nigerian art scene traditionally dominated by males. Since the country gained its independence in 1960, male artists, adhering to tradition and order, wrote Okayafrica’s Bernard Dayo in 2020, “have run the space like a gilded society, bleeding into art patronage and corporate spending.” While Azoige acknowledges there are relatively few female artists in Nigeria, especially those “who actually know what they’re doing,” she clarifies that “it’s not just a gender thing. If you have passion for it and, most importantly, if you have people around you who encourage you, then fine, you can go for it. But I know a lot of female artists and most of them don’t continue practicing. Maybe they stop after some time because they feel as if it’s very hard to get into the markets or to get collectors or galleries who support them.”

Azoige has no intention of ever stopping again. Upon studying fine and applied art at Ignatius Ajuru University of Education Port Harcourt in Rivers State, she has participated in numerous group exhibitions over the past four years in Port Harcourt, Lagos, and the US. They include such venues as Delaroke Art Gallery in Port Harcourt; Urevbu Art Gallery in Memphis, Tennessee; and  several locations in Lagos, among them Artpedia Gallery, Nimbus Gallery, Affinity Art Gallery, and Wunika Mukan Art Gallery.

“Because of the struggle, they sometimes believe they can’t continue because it’s a male world, it’s just for the men, and the men are always there,” says Azoige, highlighting an issue that goes beyond borders and affects American art as well. “When you go for exhibitions, you see males dominating the whole gallery.” 

Still, she insists, “I feel, as a woman, that’s actually an opportunity for me to stand out. Even if I have ten male artists exhibiting with just me alone, I think that’s an avenue for me to prove to them that I actually know what I’m doing.” 

Some already recognize that Azoige knows what she is doing. “Sophia’s art is like a cold glass of water on a hot summer day, so refreshing, so cool,” says Morin Delano, a collector of five of Azoige’s works. The US-based Delano “can’t wait to see what else is in store for Sophia, but I can assure you it will be amazing.”

Azoige’s art—which employs colors and loosely detailed human forms to convey beauty and calmness in our ongoing human quest for emotional balance—is a contemporary expression from a region where such ancient peoples as the Nok produced intricate terracotta sculptures depicting human figures and animals over 2500 years ago. Given the more than 250 ethnic groups inhabiting the area now known as Nigeria, each with their own artistic cultures, the country’s artistic offerings over time have represented a montage of styles, traditions, techniques, and materials. This includes larger groups like the Yoruba, known for their ornamented ceremonial masks, detailed woodcarvings, and intricate beadwork; the Igbo, also recognized for their elaborate masks, sculptures, and costumes bearing ancestral and spiritual implications; the amulets, acessories, and rich geometric designs of the Fulani; the inventive, decorative architecture of the Hausa; and such artistic cultures as the Benin, Ukwu, Owo, Esie, and Ife.

European colonization of the region in the 19th century had an impact on the subsequent emergence of modern Nigerian art, producing a fusion of traditions, aesthetics, and styles. Still, prominent artists from the country, including iconic painter and sculptor, Odinigwe Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu—popularly known as Ben Enwonwu and arguably the most influential African artist of the 20th century—pushed back on their classical training to incorporate African elements, traditions, and influences in their art. As part of the anti-colonial Négritude Movement initially founded by a group of African and Caribbean poets and writers in Paris in the 1930s, Enwonwu, despite international acclaim and acceptance in the Western art world, is credited with developing a Nigerian national aesthetic by pulling from his Igbo heritage and traditions and his Western academic training to advance the field of modern African art.

Similarly, in 1958, students at Ahmadu Bello University formed the Zaria Art Society—aka the “Zaria Rebels”—to further challenge the Western art establishment by incorporating indigenous visual elements and traditions into their artistic process. Members included such legendary artists as Bruce Onobrakpeya, Yusuf Grillo, Jimoh Akolo, Demas Nwoko, Emmanuel Odita, Oseloka Osadebe, and Simon Okeke.

Two decades later, in January 1977, more than 16,000 artists, musicians, activists, writers, and scholars from Africa and the global Black diaspora gathered in Lagos for FESTAC ’77, the 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. The event—held 11 years after the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar and 8 years after the First Pan-African Cultural Festival in Tangiers—was a monthlong celebration of African diasporic culture and advancement that included music, dance, film, drama, and visual art. The latter was represented by the 40 art exhibitions gracing the festival and introducing numerous Nigerian artists to the world.

Over the past three decades, a more numerous and increasingly diverse population has made its way in the contemporary Nigerian art scene, both female and male, young and old. This includes, but is certainly not limited to such artists as Nneoma Ndukwe, Peju Alatise, Victor Ehikhamenor, Renike Olusanya, Sam Ebohon, Marcia Kure, Akinola Taoheed Olaitan, Wole Lagunju, Victoria Udondian, Nnenna Okore, Adamu Waziri, Chief Nike, Adulphina Imuede, Victor Ekpuk, Ade Adekola, Zida Kalu, Jekein Lato-Unah, Pamela Oma, Kadara Enyeasi, Olumide Oresegun, Fiyin Koko, Rom Isichei, Sosa Omoregbe, Wami Aluko, Donna Duke, Ama Ejiogu, Chigozie Obi, Blossom Oyeyipo, Tola Wewe, Chidinma Nnoli, Marcellina Akpojotor, and many more.  

The venues for art are increasing in prominence as well. In early November, Art X—considered the largest art fair in West Africa—was held during “Art Month” in Lagos, a time where Nigeria’s largest city hosts a slate of art fairs, exhibitions, lectures, concerts, and parties that attract thousands from the region and the international community. Founded by Nigerian entrepreneur, art collector and patron, Tokini Peterside-Schwebig in 2016, Art X has mirrored and facilitated the increasing prominence of Lagos as an international destination for visual art. The four-day event now hosts galleries and artists from over 40 countries.

Such developments help bring about a day when talented and emerging African artists like Azoige, from the start, can aspire to create without social or parental restriction. 

 

“I started drawing around age six and I loved playing with my colors, but my parents didn’t really support my art because my mom didn’t know more about it then,” says Azoige who, as a result, stopped drawing until she got to secondary school. “No one actually understood what I wanted, because I had this passion for art that was driving me crazy. I had formed this habit of drawing every day, even while sleeping. Sometimes I’d wake up to scribble, just to make sure that my wrists were very flexible.”

Fortunately, in her early twenties, Azoige met an artist who worked as a studio assistant and allowed her to manage the studio at night. Between working with her during days and sleeping in the back of the studio at night, Azoige was able to practice and develop her craft. “It was really very stressful but I’m happy I did that,” she acknowledges, noting the impact on her artistic ability to convey stories, emotional balance, and messages of resilience over trauma. 

Ultimately, her parents got the message as well as they came around to support her nascent career. It is a career growing more colorful with each brush stroke, brighter with each passing day. She recently signed on for representation with Black Art In America (BAIA). 

“Prizing the element of narrative, Sophia’s portraits embody personal stories and experiences, as the sitter’s colorful patchwork-like appearance reflects the roughness and potential found in the painter's pallet,” offers Faron Manuel, chief curator at BAIA. “In short, Sophia’s fresh approach to portrait-making underscores the universal nature of creativity and gives reason for deeper self-examination.” 

Her art has facilitated her own self-examination. “I’m proud of where I am, and proud of how I’ve been able to support myself,” proclaims Azoige. “I never believed that I would be able to stand so tall for myself in art like this, discovering myself, my present style, how I’m able to do things that I never imagined. I am always happy when I look at a piece, and I'll say, ‘oh, Sophia, you are doing something great and I know you can do more,” she reveals, noting “these are things that actually encourage me to keep going.”

Azoige is also happy that, today, without restriction, she can draw on the wall. 

“Now it’s easy for me to express myself, easy for me to just look at my canvas and already be inspired by that empty canvas,” says Azoige, with a smile.  

“I already know what to put there.” 


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