C&’s Obidike Okafor speaks to Tonia Nneji about how her health has become part of her creative process, and the role of an artist in Nigeria’s recent protests.
Tonia Nneji uses art to address her personal experiences and create awareness, particularly for women who have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a medical condition that causes a hormonal imbalance among women of reproductive age. The trauma and shame associated with PCOS inspired Nneji’s recent body of work, which makes up her first solo exhibition, You May Enter, at Rele Art Gallery in Lagos.
C&: Why art?
Tonia Nneji: Art because it was the thing I did best. There wasn’t any room for second thoughts. When the time came for me to go to university, I had no opposition to my decision, because it was already clear that I was going to be an artist. I started showing great interest in art before I became a teenager. My mother always bought drawing books, crayons, and colored pencils – she encouraged me and never tried to talk me out of it, not even once. I am from a family of traditional carvers and masquerade dancers.
C&: What’s integral to your work as an artist, and has this changed over time?
TN: I use acrylic, pastels, and oil paints because they are the mediums I love most and have mastered. My practice has evolved in both style and execution. I trained with a renowned painter, Wallace Ejoh, and adopted his style of painting as my first point of learning. By the time I left, I had acquired knowledge of color and application. That was how I was able to develop my own style. I also developed from painting just portraits of melancholic women to making paintings that tell stories through multiple figures and realistic renderings of African draperies.
C&: Do real-life situations inspire your artistic output?
TN: My inspiration has always been from real-life experiences – from my background to my health and experience with the collapsed healthcare system in Nigeria. My background is seen in my use of African-themed fabrics, particularly those cherished by Igbo women. As for my health, in 2014 I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that plagues women of reproductive age, often resulting in infrequent or prolonged periods or excess male hormone levels. It came with lots and lots of trauma due to symptoms ranging from weight gain to insomnia and hair loss. I realized that many women didn’t and still don’t know much about it, despite how common it is. I decided to create awareness with my paintings and also touch on the trauma involved. I also address the fact that most gynaecologists in Nigeria are not used to PCOS, and find it hard to manage. This is why women end up visiting herbalists and churches to find a cure. My exhibition You May Enter creates a space for discussion around these themes and experiences that hardly ever make it into public discourse.
C&: Nigeria recently experienced one of the biggest protest movements in its history (#EndSARS). What would you say is the role of an artist during such national events?
TN: Our role is simple. We can help interpret protests for different groups of people and for posterity, through whatever medium we choose – through spoken words, paintings, digital billboards, animation, or videography. We can make people who are not engaged understand the reasons for protests and we can record the moment in time for future generations.
C&: Where do you hope to see yourself five years from now as an artist?
TN: I hope to be in good health, pursuing my career, training younger contemporaries, and expanding my themes and my medium. Done with my masters – and maybe a PhD too.
You May Enter opened at Rele Gallery, 5 Military Street, Lagos, on November 1, 2020. Closing date tbc.
Based in Lagos, Obidike Okafor is a content consultant, freelance art journalist, and documentary filmmaker.