John Madu is a full time visual artist and fabric designer based in Lagos, Nigeria. Like other young Nigerians with an entrepreneurial spirit, John is making a name for himself in an industry he is extremely passionate about: Nigeria’s Art Industry. I caught up with him on Saturday at Platform, an exhibition at Art Twenty One where his work is on display, and we discussed his work, influences and the industry in Nigeria.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is John Madu. I’m a visual artist. I studied policy and strategic studies at Covenant University and I’ve been painting for about six years professionally.
How did all of this start for you?
I’ve always been drawing; I’ve been drawing since I was a child. I used to deface walls, deface tables and everything, but I don’t know, I never thought I was going to make money off of it or anything. There were a couple of people I knew that were into art, that were big collectors back in the day, so they triggered my love for art. I just thought it was about time. I saw what artists were making (and selling) at auctions, and the interest people had in African art and everything, so it just spurred me on as well to do my thing.
Do you remember your first serious work, or your first professional piece?
Yeah, I remember; it was wack *laughs*. It was something from a textbook, a resource material I used. It wasn’t like it was wack, but (compared to) the people I was competing with (it was), because when I started painting I didn’t absorb what was going on, I just painted. So it’s not like it was wack, but man I could do better.
Did you have any influences growing up?
Growing up, not really. I read textbooks about a couple of artists, but I wouldn’t look at them as influences. Now, I have influences like Matisse and Basquiat. In Nigeria, Bruce Onobrakpeya, his working methods are insane. I like Peju Alatise (as well). It’s not like they influence me, what influences my work is life itself and not other artists. Their style, yes it can influence me once in a while but when I absorb your style and it passes through my head, it doesn’t become your style anymore. But I’m more influenced by what I feel, things I’ve been through you know, and stuff like that.
So what is your painting process like? How do you start?
My technique is more of quilting, like you’re forming a quilt. So I prime: I put paint upon paint upon paint, and depending on how inspired I feel, I just add up whatever. I use a lot of mixed media. I like to experiment with stuff. I experiment with anything like cloth, wood, metal, on canvas; sometimes I can paint on stone. Everything influences me actually.
The one in the middle – I’m in love with it – how did you start out with it?
I had a message in my mind, because this is (from) a series. So there was a message in my mind already. People that follow my work, when they see a John Madu they know it’s a John Madu. Sorry what was the question again *laughs*, I just paint really. It’s hard to explain because I’m painting from emotion actually, so it’s like you trying to use words to explain love or hate. I can’t explain how I do what I do, but I just do it, and I don’t know the outcome till I’m like halfway most of the time.
You say when people see a John Madu piece they can tell it’s your work. How would you describe your work? What about it particularly helps people identify it?
The way I use my colours, my illustrative characters – I use a lot of allegory and allegorical symbols, my spatial planes. There’s an effect a John Madu gives you. It’s very loud and it just hits your face. So there are some little things you see, but you have to follow my work to know (that) this is it. Like off-hand, I know a Bruce when I see a Bruce, because he has worked for years and his style still remains. But I don’t have one particular style though. I could be a fauvist today (and) I could be a surrealist. I just try to merge everything. Like I said, it’s all about emotions.
Do you have a favourite piece you’ve done?
My next piece is always my favourite piece, *laughs* always man, it’s always, but there was this one piece I liked because it’s a piece that spurred me on, a piece people know me by. I don’t know man I like these ones, but my next ones are badder.
Have you ever painted something, and after you’re done, you’re like “nah, I don’t like this”?
No, never. There are no mistakes. I can just splash paint on the canvas, and it has to mean something. It has to be good. I never get to the final stage and think it’s not good. If in between I notice it’s not going to be good, I try to make something happen. The final product is always the good thing.
When you look at the art industry in Nigeria now, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind, and how would you compare it to what older Nigerian artists were doing back in the day?
The industry is growing because a lot of people are becoming interested in art, and they’re not just looking at art as you hanging a decoration on the wall. It’s more of an intellectual property right now, like you’re buying something of value. And because we are now competing on a global level, in music, fashion, art and everything, the artists right now keep growing. With the demand for African art right now at auctions, especially Nigerian art, I think it’s a win-win. At auction houses like Bonhams, they have ‘Africa Now’, and Nigerian artists clear out the highest sales. So I think it’s a good thing, because when we see stuff like that it encourages us more and I feel like the newer artists are bolder now and experiment more. It’s a paradigm shift from what the older artists were doing.
Do you display your works anywhere else outside Nigeria, or have you done so in the past?
Yeah I have, in Canada and Paris. I actually have expatriates who buy my work and take them abroad, so they’re in their collections as well.
Do you do this full-time, or do you do anything else on the side?
Yeah, it’s full-time for me because the other things I do are still from the art. I design fabrics and do illustrations as well.
But as an artist in Nigeria, is that able to sustain you? Is the market big enough for full-time artists to sustain themselves?
Yeah, it is. It’s been sustaining me for a while now, since I started. For the market to sustain you as an artist, you need to work. You need to always bring out work; you can’t stop. Once you’re in, you’re in. You must have a large body of work. You must have content. People must know who you are as an artist. The artist should be an image. People should know that this person, this is what he does and you push that drive. So I think it’s a personal thing, it depends on the artist. Some artists do well. They drive nice cars and live in nice houses. Some don’t because maybe they don’t know how to do what they have to do.
Do you have any personal exhibitions coming up soon?
Yeah, I have one in Terra Kulture next month. I can’t say when exactly yet, because we’re still arranging stuff, but it’s meant to fall between 6th and 14th (of February). I’ll keep you posted.
To see more of John’s work, check out his Instagram page: JOHNMADU_ART