HELEN HENDERSON March 12th, 1992, Boston. Model for Karin Models, Fenton Model Management and …
Who is REWA. How would you describe yourself?
I am a self-taught visual artist, born and raised between Nigeria and England and received a BSc. in Physiology and Pharmacology from University College London (UCL). I go between London and Lagos where I live with my husband, our perfect baby boy and our English cocker spaniel – she’s a pain in the proverbial… I love travelling, eating yam and reading novels. Most recently, lockdown has necessitated my taking up mixology – I make a mean whiskey sour!
“There is no more powerful female entity than a Goddess and there is no continent more magical than Africa.” Would you guide us and our audience going through the female deities from the tribes of Nigeria or the ones you love the most?
By far the deity I love the most is Aha Njoku, the Igbo goddess of yams, “Ji”. Yams are by far my favourite food to eat. In addition, Ji, the yam tuber, is considered “King of Crops” in Igboland. Celebrated between August and October, “Iwa Ji”, the New Yam Festival, is the most important event in the calendar of Igboland. My belly’s desires aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this series and showcasing the various female goddesses. I think it is a great pity that we glorify Thor but vilify Sango and Amadioha – his African counterparts. We all know of Aphrodite and Artemis but hardly anything is known of Yemoja, Osun or Ala / Ani. In West Africa, we have a tendency to reject and denigrate our own deities, saying they are evil and using the term ‘juju’ in a disparaging way. However, those of the west are perfectly accepted and even hallowed in popular culture and literature. I created The Pantheon as a way to change this narrative. I felt that if I portrayed our goddesses as beautiful, colourful and inviting, viewers would be more interested in learning about our own deities and they would see that there is nothing evil about them, they aren’t associated with black magic or any such folly. They are much like those of the west, just with different names. They are the gods of our ancestors and existed and worshipped long before the existence of Christ was known amongst our people.
How do you see the future of Nigeria in the international art scene?
I think momentum and interest over Contemporary African Art that has built up over the past few years will continue to snowball and a number of upcoming artists will be key in putting Nigerian art on a global platform – hopefully including me. I believe the arts are now being taken more seriously with the grand masters such as Ben Enwonwu now fetching millions at international auctions and the likes of Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a modern, living artist, winning genius grants and fetching similar sums. I believe this is why platforms such as ArtxLagos are so key, to further drive the importance of the creative industry in Nigeria. I see our creative output eventually taking centre stage in much the same way that commodities like petrochemicals do and I hope that this isn’t wishful thinking.
What did change in you and consequently in your art since your inception?
Since inception, I have become a lot more confident in my style and output. I started off with smaller, portraits on paper using watercolour pencils. I have since graduated to using acrylic paints on ever-growing canvas. I have also become very clear on the direction of my work and the messaging I want to convey. When I began painting, I was comfortable with designating my paintings with the Contemporary African Art label. However, I have since chosen to label my works as Igbo Vernacular Art. The reason for this is that I believe that I have created a truly original body of work that exists outside formal academic or Western dialogue. My art is drawn from life itself and deeply anchored in a place and culture from which it was derived. This is the Igbo culture pertaining to the Igbos of Nigeria.
How does South Africa inspire and enrich your art?
I moved to Johannesburg in 2015 when I was in Old Mutual’s employ. Even after I relocated to Lagos, subsequent positions always took me back to South Africa – at my most frequent, I was there almost every fortnight. I love the country, it is incredibly beautiful and South Africans are so warm and friendly. The body of work I created there was called The Pantheon and it was a 12-part piece celebrating the various female deities in West Africa. I created this because at the time, I was having some challenges with a particularly devious boss and needed some sort of catharsis. As cliché as it might sound, I derived some sort of subconscious strength from those goddesses that I created. South Africa will always have a special place in my heart as the birthplace of REWA, the artist.
Talking about Nigerian cultural boundaries. South African racial boundaries and London social boundaries. How did you go beyond these boundaries? Did art help you coping with these experiences?
To go back to my second series, The Travellers, the women in these depicted the impact that these movements had on me. I would not say I went beyond these boundaries but rather, I existed within them. I am fortunate enough to have travelled extensively outside of these three cities and interactions with people from so many nations and backgrounds has concretized my drive to bring Igbo Vernacular Art to the fore. The misperception that sometimes exists around Africa (and Nigeria) is quite disheartening and I hope that my works can go some way to dispelling some of the notions of a people whom are either all corrupt or live in mud huts. Art most definitely helped me cope in a major way. As I mentioned earlier, painting is very cathartic for me; whenever I am on the move, I take my materials with me and paint when I can. These travel experiences have been critical in shaping my character and my artistic aspirations.
We all need to be inspired… please, share a positive insight of your life or a quote that you believe can enlighten someone today. Especially a new artist.
It is very simple – JUST START! If you never start, you never know just how far you can go.
If you are in awe with REWA like we are, don’t think twice.
Follow her Instagram profile and be inspired.