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Artist Spotlight Series: Ngozi-Omeje Ezema

Discover the captivating journey of Ngozi-Omeje Ezema, a distinguished Nigerian installation artist whose work has garnered international acclaim.

Connecting Deep, 2019, Varying Sizes, Clay, Plastic, Metal
Connecting Deep, 2019 Varying Sizes, Clay, Plastic, Metal

Ngozi-Omeje Ezema, born in 1979 in Nsukka, Nigeria, has carved out a remarkable niche in the world of contemporary ceramics. Her journey into the arts began at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where she graduated in 2005 with a degree from the Department of Fine and Applied Arts. Her passion and dedication to her craft led her to pursue a Master of Fine Arts from the same institution. Upon completion of her MFA, her exceptional talent and commitment to ceramics were recognized, leading to her appointment as a lecturer at her alma mater in May 2009. Since joining the academic staff, Ngozi-Omeje has been a cornerstone in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Her role as an educator allows her to impart her vast knowledge and skills to the next generation of artists, fostering a vibrant community of ceramicists.

Ngozi-Omeje's artistry transcends borders. She has participated in numerous prestigious national and international art fairs, exhibitions, and biennials. Some highlights of her extensive exhibition record include the 154 Contemporary African Art Fair in New York, USA, and Marrakech, Morocco, both in 2024; the Abu Dhabi Art Fair in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in 2022; “The Fire Made Me” OFF in Dakar, Senegal, in 2022; “Matters of Essence” at Kó Gallery in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2022; “Boundless Vases” at Kó Gallery in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2021; “AF!R!KA ARTFEST (Africa 2020)” in Chambery, France, in 2021; “Mu'awyia's Thread” at the 32Bis Biennial in Tunis, Tunisia, in 2022; “I NDAFAA” at the 14th Edition of Biennial of Contemporary African Art in Dakar, Senegal, in 2022; “Ambiguous Adventure” at the Biennial of Sculpture in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in 2021; “Peace through Clay” at the Korea International Ceramics Biennial at Icheon World Ceramics Centre in South Korea in 2019; “Craft in Future and Dream - Spread out Mongyudowon” at the Cheongju Craft Biennial in Cheongju, South Korea, in 2019; and “Ceramics Now” at the 60th Contemporary Ceramic Biennial – Premio Faenza in Italy in 2017.

Love for a Child, 2021, Clay, plastic, metal 6 x 1 x 7ft
Love for a Child, 2021 Clay, plastic, metal 6 x 1 x 7ft

Ngozi-Omeje’s work has not only been exhibited widely but also recognized with numerous awards, reflecting her profound impact on the art world. Some of her notable accolades include the Fondation Blachère Award at the Biennale of Sculpture in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in 2021; the High Excellence Award at the Cheongju Craft Biennale in Cheongju, South Korea, in 2019; the Outstanding Concept Award at the National Art Competition in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2015; and the Overall Winner Award at the Life in My City Art Competition in Enugu, Nigeria, in 2014.

Ngozi-Omeje’s work is characterized by its intricate detail and conceptual depth, often weaving powerful narratives through her sculptural installations. Each piece is a testament to her skill and vision, making significant contributions to the contemporary art scene.

812 Maplewood In Dialogue with the Artist: Five Questions with Ceramicist Ngozi-Omeje Ezema

Can you walk us through your journey as a ceramic installation artist, from your early beginnings to where you are today? How did you select ceramics as your focus, and how did you come up with your installation style?

Portrait of the Artist Ngozi-Omeje Ezema
Portrait of the Artist Ngozi-Omeje Ezema

I was born and raised in a hilly community filled with gravel, a stony hill all over. Thus, a waterway, a hole through which rainfall’s runoff passes through the block fence surrounding our home helps to deposit fine sand particles on half of the compound. This provided an opportunity for me to play with sand as a young girl; as well an opportunity to explore and mould with sand while growing up on a stony hill. As a playful child, I explored widely, built sand houses with my feet as a mould and support, creating little animals, especially lizards to decorate the sand castles, as well as tacking (hitting) offcuts from my mother’s sawing with stone to create pockets.

I think these were all indications of creativity at that tender age. However, a striking experience triggered my interest in clay. While exploring the sand heap after each rain, of course the rain makes the sand wet and cool to play with, I made a bigger lizard. Hoping to lift the lizard up when it dries, on the contrary, the lizard disintegrated back to sand. Thus, I inquired about that from my father, the reason for the disintegration. Then I learnt about clay as a medium for modelling and the craving

to mould with clay began.

On enrollment into the tertiary institution to study Fine and Applied Art, I was introduced to three dimensional modelling and the long awaited clay in my first year in the university. Eventually, I specialized in ceramics for a closer relationship with my medium and also feeling the material with bare hands. Subsequently, in the course of my MFA, I was exploring the techniques of fishing in one of my projects titled ‘Imagine Jonah‘ as was described by a colleague who came from a fishing community. The project involved utilizing fishing techniques and some similar materials -bait (clay coil), sinker (flip-flops) and fishing lines.

The images were configured with the sinker (flip-flops) in the formation of the whale and the gardens while the clay baits (coils) steadies the fishing lines. Finally, being pleased with the drama of creating in space and the undulating movement of the artwork got my devotion.

Lead us through your creative process. How do you select the subject and your materials for each work? Is there a trial and error element, or do you plan out the final form through sketches and smaller scale prototypes?

I love working on subjects that borders around womanhood (their challenges, strength, vulnerability and responsibilities), in a reflective manner and the surrounding environment. So, the subject matter and the idea to express direct the materials and forms. Looking at ‘Connecting Deep’ exhibition as an example, I wanted to have a proper closure of a traumatic experience of losing my father. Therefore, I thought of what could describe his personality, and then discovering that nothing could attest better than his pet name ‘Oruimenyi‘ (strength of an elephant). A name given to him by his mother because of his tireless nature. Hence, I created a herd of eight elephants representing each member of my family. However, the eighth elephant which was the largest and representing the deceased was cut down by the audience to perform a passage of rites of letting go with the artist (me). Thereby co-creating with the audience through the performance, sharing experiences and letting go. In furtherance of his pet name, I found the elephant suitable because of its emotional qualities (celebration of birth, death and reunion) shared with humans. And the leaves were used to articulate the years spent together.

In configuring a piece, subtractive and additive methods of modelling are employed, especially subject matter with different or intricate contours. Mostly, I work with a mid frame sketches of the idea or form. Shading in the contours -that is adding leaves or any other clay units in varying numbers to achieve the desired outcome or form. Instances with the designed vases, the decorative diagrams were also included in the sketches.

Union, 2021 Clay, plastic, metal 5 x 1 x 7ft
Union, 2021 Clay, plastic, metal 5 x 1 x 7ft

Your works often incorporate unconventional materials such as plastic flip-flops alongside traditional ceramic elements. What inspired you to integrate these disparate materials into your installations?

‘In My Garden there are many Colours‘, the flip-flops were salvaged from the environment, invariably discussing someone’s sisters, mothers, aunts and grandmothers. Anonymous figures with dreams that could have been realised on a fertile land. Occasionally, different materials were utilized to juxtapose clay with non-pliable material in order to highlight or emphasize an issue.

As a ceramics professor at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, how does your role as an educator intersect with your identity as an artist? What advice would you give to aspiring ceramic artists who aim to make a mark in the art world?

As a ceramics lecturer in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and a professional artist is like serving two masters of equal needs. It is a difficult challenge, however, it is surmountable. If you can avoid the drag and pull, do.

In what ways do you see your work evolving in the future? Are there any new techniques or materials you're excited to explore?

The future is exciting as I see myself projecting into a multi-discipline artist. There are many ideas that I want to explore, other fields of art. All bubbling inside my head with equal intensity, areas like painting, sculpture and textile. Textile, I have delved into, exploring floating bricks.

What's on the calendar for 2024? Do you have upcoming exhibitions, fair participation, or other projects you can share?

In this year’s calendar, I was in the 154 Marrakech art fair, and am part of the ongoing 154 art fair New York. Currently, I am creating vases of varying sizes for a solo exhibition in Design Museum in Munich, Germany.


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