Meet Isaac Emokpae, an award-winning visual artist and son of one of the pioneers of modern arts in Nigeria

Isaac Emokpae is an award-winning Nigerian visual artist (smocontemporaryart)
  • Isaac Erhabor Emokpae is a visual artist, painter, and photographer from Nigeria.
  • He happens to be a chip off the old block as the son of the late Erhabor Emokpae, a famous Nigerian painter, graphic artist and sculptor whose notable works still adorn the national galleries across the country.
  • Business Insider SSA talks to Issac about his enviable heritage, work, his own legacy and the highly debated looted Nigerian arts.

Isaac Emokpae presented his latest exhibition titled, 'The Idea Loom' at the R&B Communications in Ikoyi, Lagos state on January 23, 2020.

His work, the first in a series of annual collaborations between R&B Communications and Nigerian creatives, was his interpretation of the synergy between the company and the public.

Describing his work, done all over the walls and even the floor, he called it a “homage to ideas; a celebration of thought and its power, which when properly weaved and harnessed can achieve great and far-reaching consequences."

A tour of his latest work is followed by an interview with Business Insider SSA. He tells us all about his fascinating background, how he almost abandoned art for medicine, his inspiration and thoughts on Nigeria's looted arts.

He also advises upcoming artists on how to make it in this country.

Issac comes from an artistic family. His father is Erhabor Ogieva Emokpae (OON), arguably one of the best artists from Nigeria. His most memorable works include the decorations on the four entrances of the National Arts Theatre in Lagos state, paintings of some of our heroes like Queen Amina of Zaria and a bronze replica of the ivory mask of Queen Idia.

The latter was used as the official emblem of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77). His artistic contributions earned him the Officer of the Order of the Niger national award in 1980.

Talking about his father, he says, "My dad was an artist. People know his work, they don't just attribute to him. He was the artistic force behind the National Theatre, and paintings we have become used to. Paintings of Queen Amina of Zaria and Hebert Macaulay, that's all his work. He was a precursor for me."

Having a famous artist for a parent made Issac reluctant to follow in his father's footsteps. "I went to medical school for a bit," he reveals. "I did that because I wanted to distinguish myself from my dad. His shadow was very big."

He eventually found his way to art, abandoning medicine to study art at the University of Lagos. As he puts it, "If you have a passion for something you can run but it is still going to push you right back."

Isaac's work has since been exhibited in Nigeria and all over the world. His artworks have been offered at auctions with prices starting from $1,281. In 2014, his stained plexiglass artwork titled 'Peace Be Unto Thee' sold for $4,647 at Arthouse Contemporary Limited.

He has won numerous awards including the UNESCO Save Our Treasures art competition in Troyes, France in 1996, and the Hasselblad Masters (semi-finalist award) for photography in 2007.

Like his father, Issac has a flair for dualism and spirituality. Explaining how these themes affect his work, he says, "The simple answer is God and my life, my relationship with God. When people say that people tend to think about it in religious terms. No, it's not a religious question.

"We never think it through. Your relationship with God is devoid of religion. You and God are directly linked. God is an inspiration, people, too. So that's the thing, God, man and the things around me. Why I think it's happening and what I think it should be, those basics."

Asked what he wants people to take away from his work, the visual artists says he wants people to leave motivated.

"It's light because it's meant to make you optimistic," he says. "I'm an optimist. No matter how bad things are, you learn to always think positive. So, even if the work conveys something that might not be optimistic, but is done in a simple way sometimes it can still leave you feeling energised towards it."

For years, Nigerians have been campaigning for the return of artworks stolen from the Benin kingdom and other parts of the country by British colonial forces.

These appeals may finally be paying off with pieces like a bronze cockerel called the Okukor making it way back home.

This will be one of the first Benin bronzes to be returned to Nigeria by a major British institution since the punitive expedition in 1897.

According to Issac, "The sooner they come back the better. When people talk about looted art and say, 'but they are looking after,' they forget that with art from other countries, people usually have to search then dig them up. Our own was different. They came and packed it from our table and our house and our cupboard, two different things. If someone took something from you, you would always be anxious. If they said, 'oh we found it,' that's different."

To people who argue that looted art are better off abroad because Nigeria does not have a preservation culture, he says, "When they found or stole these works, they were in existence for centuries before then. They were preserved for hundreds of years. If they weren't kept well, there would have been nothing to discover."

Issac has a simple answer for anyone who wants to earn a living as a visual artist in this country.

In his words, "The honest truth is you have to be disciplined and fixed. Don't waver. Anybody you see doing well is because they have stuck to something. Life is about seeds, if you sow a seed and abandon the seed, someone else will eat the fruits. It will grow and somebody else will eat the fruit. You have to be patient no matter how the progress seems. Do it, stick with it."

Issac's latest art, 'Idea Loom,' can be seen all over the walls of the R&B Communications in Lagos for the next 12 months.

*This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.*

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