Nigeria: Leaving Chaos for Calm – Lagos Carver Thrives in Historic Ife-Ife

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On a Saturday at the studio of internationally acclaimed sculptor Dotun Popoola, domestic tourists made the three-hour exodus from Lagos to see his works and listen to him talk about his art.

Popoola, whose primary medium is scrap metal, is based in the ancient city of Ìlẹ́-Ìfẹ́, a historically significant place for the Yoruba people. It is also famous for its beautiful sculptures in bronze, stone and terracotta.

The artist was born and raised in Lagos, but says he made a conscious effort to leave Africa’s most populous city and find inspiration elsewhere.

“I don’t want to spend all day in traffic and I don’t want noise from my neighbor except the sound of my birds,” he told Africa Calling correspondent Samuel Okocha.

He went to Ìlẹ́-Ìfẹ́ for school and enjoyed the lack of distraction, which he says inspires his creativity.

In his studio, where he also supervises 10 young artists, he strikes scrap metal, giving the material the shape he wishes.

“I use my work as a metaphor to protest the problem of waste in our environment and the need to reuse it into something beautiful that you can see and enjoy,” says Popoola.

“People recycle waste in different ways. Some recycle, some recycle. What I do is recycle more.”

Noise v Quiet

In Ikeja, Lagos, artist and curator Ifeanyichukwu Oraemeka says she shares Popoola’s sentiments in being inspired by silence, although Lagos can also be uplifting.

“There’s a lot of inspiration that comes from peace and quiet. Inspiration can come from noise. Don’t get me wrong, but there are different kinds of noise,” she says.

While Ifeanyi encourages artists to explore other cities for their quiet surroundings, she is quick to add that Lagos remains Nigeria’s hub for arts and exhibitions. It provides a form of inspiration that artists can draw from.

“When artists come to exhibitions that I’ve curated, they’re inspired and say, ‘I think I can do this. I think I can exhibit my work,'” she says.

“If they hadn’t come out of their homes, they might not have had this inspiration. So Lagos is the hub,” she adds.

The economy of art arrives at Ìlẹ́-Ìfẹ́

Working so far from the creative hub of Lagos might be a hindrance, but for Popoola it makes sense, especially because Nigerians have taste and money.

“Nigeria can buy anything,” he says, adding that Nigerians are becoming active players in global art markets.

He has had a number of exhibitions in the United States in the past, where he fits into a gallery, which makes 50% of the sales. But it’s not always the best place to show off your art.

“If I sell my work in Nigeria, a young lad from an area not even known in Lagos can bring in solid money, while someone in America will always tell you ‘can I make a plan’ of payment? I doubt I have a payment deadline. I just want to make money,” he says.

As the world takes an increasing interest in African art, some Nigerians are building up their art collections.

“The world buys a lot of African art. You see Njideka Akunyili selling a single piece of art for three, four, five million dollars,” he says.

“African art is growing, but for me, I think the internal market will take care of me for now and then prepare me for the future,” he adds.

As Popoola prepares for the future, he coaches others, offering mentorships to young artists seeking to find their own voice. Christiana Balogun, a welder, is one of ten artists working as apprentices in Popoola’s studio.

“One thing I’m looking forward to taking away once I’m done here is confidence. Because that’s the way Mr. Popola speaks, he speaks with confidence,” says Balogun, who admits that she usually doesn’t talk.

“I don’t have that confidence, but watching him and talking to him has actually boosted my self-esteem up to a point and I can’t wait to do more,” she added.

With Nigeria set to become the world’s third most populous country by 2050, more and more artists like Popoola are looking to places with fewer distractions.

This means that more artists and their arts live and draw inspiration from more rural settings in Africa’s most populous country.

This story was originally heard on RFI’s Africa Calling podcast.

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