Nigerian artist Nengi Omuku has been hard at work in her studio preparing for her first solo exhibition in London.
The show, titled “Parables of Joy,” will open June 10 at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, which recently added the artist to its roster in London. (Omouku is co-represented by Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery.)
Using oil paint on stitched-together pieces of sanyan—a traditional Nigerian fabric used for draped clothing—Omuku creates ethereal scenes of obscured figures in motion. Featureless, they take on the role of the chorus in Greek theater, and draw on themes connected to the artist’s cultural heritage, race, and personal identity.
The artist’s inspirations vary from images taken from the Nigerian press, as well as influences from nature, as she worked as a florist and horticulturalist under her mother. Her newest works react to the past two years of the pandemic and lockdowns, and efforts to reconnect with the natural world, blurring the boundaries between bodies and their natural surroundings.
We caught up with Omuku at her studio in Lagos, Nigeria, about her trusty palette knives, what’s on her playlist, and the long walks in nature that help her get moving when she feels stuck.
Can you send us a snap of the most indispensable item(s) in your studio and tell us why you can’t live without it?
I’m quite attached to all my palette knives but there is one in particular; I’ve had it for about five years and I get really anxious when I misplace it. it’s a little worn out, and is held together by duct tape, but it still works like a dream!
What is a studio task on your agenda this week that you are most looking forward to?
Cleaning! It’s been an intense period preparing for the show so I’m looking forward to having the studio deep cleaned before I go in again.
What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?
I always listen to music. There’s a whole range from Afro beats to techno and gospel music. It totally depends on how good, or bad, it’s going in the studio. If there’s no music, I’m definitely having an off day.
Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye—I saw her show at the Tate last year and what struck me most was the convincing way in which she painted large areas with the color white. The surface always seemed so potent in-spite of the color.
Wangechi Mutu—I’ve been inspired by her work ever since I was in university, particularly the way in which she thinks about the body.
David Adjaye—I find his research into past architectural feats in Africa inspiring, particularly because they inform the way he thinks about built space today.
Is there a picture you can send of your current work in progress at the studio?
When you feel stuck while preparing for a show, what do you do to get unstuck?
I go for a walk in nature or by the ocean. I find it calming and it helps me escape the moment I’m struggling with.
What images or objects do you look at while you work? Share your view from behind the canvas or your desktop—wherever you spend the most time.
I usually have sitters in the studio, and the sitters are usually friends or people I have close relationships with. During the pandemic, when I didn’t have as many studio visits, I spent a lot of time looking at press images and archival photography from Nigeria.
What is the last exhibition you saw that made an impression on you and why?
Jennifer Packer’s show at the Serpentine was really inspiring. I was blown away by her draughtsmanship, mastery of color, and the loose way she handled paint. An absolute 10/10.
“Nengi Omuku: Parables of Joy” is on view June 10 through July 30 at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London.