By Itodo Daniel Sule
Umar Ahmed Imam was a Speaker of the Kogi State House of Assembly. He represented Lokoja 1 constituency. In this interview he spoke on his journey into art, his works over the last 20 years, and how he combined politics with painting, among other things.
Can you tell us about your journey into the world of art?
It started from the cradle. As you are already aware, the entire world and all within it are creatures of God, so he is the first artist. When you look around, you cannot but wonder how these things, including human beings, were created? Certainly, a lot of artistry account for these. Man is imbued with some artistic knowledge as all of us are potential artists from birth.
I discovered my talent early enough from primary school through scribbling and drawing pictures from my Social Study books.
What was your motivation?
At the initial stage, it was in appreciating the natural splendour of God’s creations. However, I began to derive joy in the things I could create with my hands, which also brought with it some benefits and allurement. Above all, as in all arts, it evokes inexplicable joy and peace within the human system.
Did you go through a formal training to hone your skills?
It was inborn. All human beings are born artists. It depends on which part of the art you are potentially endowed but could not discover or develop. I discovered myself early and progressively developed my skill.
I also realised the need to go to a formal art school to broaden my skill and knowledge of art. This was also an advice from my friend, Gborigi Tanimu, a lawyer, and the encouragement I got from my cousin, Abdulkareem Abdulsalaam, who is also an artist.
The duo was instrumental to my enrolment in the Yaba College of Technology in 1997. I only did a certificate course in General Arts for a year and came out with merit.
How long have you been into professional painting works?
I have been doing that for 20 years; since I was in primary school. However, I started making artworks after I left primary school in 1982. I lost hope of advancing my education beyond primary school as my parents could not afford N40 as my school fees per term. I was encouraged to stay back a year to finish my Qur’anic education. For four years, I remained at home while my schoolmates were in Form Four. It was within this waiting period that I struggled to develop my art through personal practice. I was discovered in my neighbourhood and later within the town. I started carving stamps for individuals and later offices. I engaged in sign writings and painting portraits. All these brought me money, but I never lost hope to go to school. I returned to school, and today I hold a master’s degree in History and Strategic Studies from the University of Lagos.
What kind of painting and artwork do you normally do?
I do all kinds of visual art, particularly the two dimensional. For now, I do more water and oil-based paintings, including pencil and charcoal drawings in landscape, seascape, portraits etc.
Can you recall how many paintings you have done so far?
In this year alone, I have done more than 40. So going back more than 20 years, it should be in hundreds – big and small.
Tell us about some of your major painting works
I am emotionally attached to most of my works, as it is with most artists. I have painted portraits of most of the past leaders of Nigeria. I painted Chief Obafemi Awolowo in 1997 when he died. In the same year, I painted the former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida (retd).
Some of my big works were collected by some art collectors in Lagos; some are hanging on the walls of banking halls, etc.
All works of artists evoke some emotional attachment. You do not want to sell some works. For example, when the present governor of Kogi State, Alhaji Yahaya Bello, marked his three years in office, I presented him with a painting of his portrait. It was 36×48 inches. I was satiated with the appreciation he showed and knowing I was an artist, surprised him even more. Money cannot buy such feelings.
As a politician, how have you been able to combine politics with painting?
It was near impossible to really combine both. I took a break from painting to enable me perform my legislative duties effectively. My hands became hardened as a punishment for absenteeism. I had to start pencil works and gradually painting at the twilight of my tenure. But I am fully back and better.
What do you do with your paintings?
Of course, every painter’s dream is to sell his works. That is the hallmark of art appreciation. When you paint and nobody buys it, it kills your zeal and might send the wrong signal that you are not a good painter. It can be frustrating, to say the least.
In art history we were taught that Vincent Van Gogh was never a successful artist while alive. The only work he sold was bought by his brother in sympathy with him. He died frustrated, but in death his one work was recently auctioned and sold at N98. 756 million (£175,000).
It is also one potent form of life after death. Your four generations may not remember you ever lived, but artists’ works continue to live their memories in centuries after their death. Names like Leonardo De Vinci of the 16th century, the Renaissance artists, Vincent Van Gogh, Rembrandts and Michael Angelo are yet living art legends, centuries after. So, I want my works hanging in homes, offices and public institutions for generations unborn to know that once upon a time, there was an Imam from Lokoja, Nigeria, a painter.
Any plan to exhibit your works?
An exhibition is possible in 2022.
What is your advice for youths and aspiring artists?
Youths should learn skills in art, fabrication etc. All over the world, the emphasis is on skills and creativity and not the number of degrees you brandish. It is high time parents also encouraged their children and wards to undertake handiwork in any skill they like. There are thousands of graduates seeking jobs that are not readily available. Handiworks fetch you more money than you can really get in civil service. While going to school, enroll in a vocational skill, not necessarily in painting. Learn skills in furniture, printing, fashion and design, cakes and confectionery etc. That is the secret and impetus that catalysed the economies of developed countries, not degrees.
Culled from Daily Trust Newspaper