In Studio with Sokari Douglas Camp

Sharon: We’ve just taken a tour of your studio, looked at your work, and talked about the inspirations for your recent work. Let’s start from the beginning. Shall we?

Sokari: Yes, a long time ago...


SO: When did you realize that you wanted to be an artist?

SDC: When I was about 12..


SO: Twelve?

SDC: That’s when I gave up painting, yes.


SO: Is there a story? How did you realize .. was it a moment or?

SDC: I just didn’t like my painting.


SO: And so now you don’t do painting anymore?

SDC: I’ve started again. It began with a conversation about perspective, because I used to take little polaroid pictures, and my mother wasn’t used to photography, really.

She said, “Who’s that?” and I thought, “She doesn’t understand perspective”. I realized I didn’t understand perspective either and I thought, “Well, there are different styles in the world.” Aren’t there? The Japanese have very flat… and I think the Chinese do as well. They don’t do perspective, they do decoration. I liked pattern making. It made more sense to me than this perspective business, because I wasn’t very good at it. So I preferred things I could get my hands into, like sculpture.


SO: From then onwards until now, how has your work evolved in subject matter or style?

SDC: I’ve had so many influences.. One of my major influences was a woman called Peggy Harper, who was a choreographer in Nigeria. In my childhood I lived with my brother in law, in different universities in Nigeria. I saw the Renaissance of incredible artists from writers to people that put on plays. Peggy Harper took traditional festivals, and put them on stage. Realizing that you could take your village and put it onto a stage was incredible, because it made me realize that I could make masquerade sculptures.

I could catch the performers that I found fascinating and put them in a sculptural form, and I could bring my village to any gallery in London. That’s how I began, making these traditional festivals I felt ought to be seen in a London gallery. I started making masquerades because I could not understand masks being on poles in ethnographic museums because I’d never seen masks displayed like that in my lifetime, except in the West. So I wanted to correct that.

Then I worked with Lamidi Fakaye, who was a traditional royal carver in Ife University. I was only with him for 6 months, sitting with him while he carved mahogany as if it was butter. He was a Muslim, and a very kind and calm man, dealing with Christian me who was slightly eccentric, and wanting to carve as a woman. He’d had some time in Paris, and had worked in Western style sculptures. But when he sat and talked with me, it was about Yoruba traditional carving, where he was a master. We talked about light and he said the reason why the grooves and things were so cubist was because of sunlight. I just thought, “if Picasso had really known this!”

(Sharon laughs)

There was a particular woman in my village area who acted I suppose like a man, in that she did what she wanted. She had umpteen lovers, and she had these festivals where she became possessed. So I thought I’d go and study her.

(Both laugh)


SO: Really?

SDC: It was frightening, so I went off, and I tried to study this woman. You know, freaky things happened, she’d be sitting on the bed having conversation with us, her groupies, and suddenly she’d lie back and be somebody else.


Photo: In Sokari Douglas Camp's studio. Copyright Sharon Obuobi

Photo: In Sokari Douglas Camp's studio. Copyright Sharon Obuobi


SO: Oh my goodness. That sounds frightening, I would run!

SDC: I did! I did my bit of research, and I just wouldn’t go back anymore… She was an inspiration, because of all these spirits that possessed her, one has got to recognize when it wasn’t her. I did a piece about a particular spirit called Ijobo, and he was a healer spirit. But when she danced this particular dance that she did, it really looked as if she was flying. I made a sculpture imitating Ijobo’s movements by creating  a ladder with accompanying audience called 'Ti'. The ladder was made up of a series of figures that formed it. I climbed up this ladder, came down the other side. It was an 'A' shaped ladder, which was rickety because I made it.

(Sharon laughs)

The sculptural figures on the side were quite fun, because it looked as if they were going into the heavens. And then I had an audience.. I really like the idea of putting on a show, and my show was this traditional dance. You could sit with the audience that I made, there were seating areas, the slightly skeletal pieces I made were motorized, they clapped (claps) and they stopped, and they clapped (claps). Because clapping, with many cultures, is a form of music, and in the delta, they clap with sticks. 

After that, I had a commission to work with the Museum of Mankind, where I made these masquerades that you could get close to. So with the installation at the Museum of Mankind, the audience walked into an arena, that would have been the dance area. There was a film at the back, and masquerades in the middle. You became part of the performance, by walking into the room. The sculptural figures were static, and they were nearly 9 ft high figures… young men dressing, that was quite a novel thing to do, because you weren’t meant to see men change into gods. But I did, yea, and I filmed them, and showed that they were men, not gods.

(both laugh)


SO: Are you into literature? Because you mentioned the festivals and the drama performances, is that something that you like to read about?

SDC: I enjoy reading, I love reading, and I like a lot of African authors. But I think my inspiration comes from looking at performances more than reading about them. But I like the theatre, and I guess Nigerian theatre has something special because you’re outside. I loved the fact that you’d have the chicken walk across, or a goat, and all of that is a part of the theatre. I supposed it’s a bit Shakespearean in that way.


SO:  I’ve asked you everything. Is there anything you want to share?

SDC: Yes, what is African art?


SO: That’s hard to define.

(SDC laughs)


SO: That’s very hard to define, because you could talk about.. is it African art by Africans? Africans in the diaspora? How do we define African? And then I think, typically when you say African art, people have different meanings. There are different associations, so you’ll have someone who thinks of Ethnographic sculptures as African art, and then you’ll have someone who thinks of contemporary African art, as African art. But somehow in this industry we have to ..we need some sort of a definition to describe the range of art we speak of. Defining it geographically seems to be the most relevant approach.

Sharon Obuobi