Sokari Douglas Camp interview: All that glitters is not what it seems (2016)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 24 October 2016
This interview was previously published in Sculpture magazine, 35(3), April 2016, pp. 46-51 with the title "All that glitters is not what it seems: A conversation with Sokari Douglas Camp".

Born in the Niger Delta, Sokari Douglas Camp is well aware of the harmful effects of environmental pollution in the region. She has made this subject her primary focus, combining it with other challenging issues related to Nigeria and the broader world in works made with her preferred material— steel.

Over the course of four decades, Douglas Camp has had more than 40 solo shows worldwide, at venues including the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, (1999) and the Museum of Mankind (a former branch of the British Museum) in London (1995). She has also represented Britain and Nigeria in national exhibitions. In 2003, she was shortlisted for London’s Fourth Plinth, and in 2005, she was awarded a CBE in recognition of her services to art. In 2012, she exhibited All the world is now richer, a memorial commemorating the abolition of slavery, in the House of Commons at the British Parliament; it was also shown at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2014. She received degrees from the Royal College of Art and Central School of Art and Design, both in London, where she lives and works.

R. J. Preece: You’ve invested a great deal of energy over the years in communicating the problematic situation of oil production and its effects in Nigeria, specifically the environmental catastrophe in the Niger Delta. Could you tell me about that?

Sokari Douglas Camp: I have been working with the theme of oil pollution in Nigeria since 1986. The Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed in 1995, and when I read in National Geographic that the flaring in the Delta had created a hole in the ozone layer in Australia, I knew that our problems in the Delta were global. This information motivates me, and I guess this is what keeps me going.[1]

I took part in a competition to make a memorial for Ken Saro-Wiwa and was one of the winners. On the side of Living Memorial, a 3.5-meter-high stainless steel construction of a bus, I cut out words from an interview that Ken did, saying, "I accuse the oil companies of practicing genocide against the Ogoni" people. These words reflect inside the structure and move depending on the light source. This was an unintentional bonus for me; the words became active and independent when they were reflected around the bus— a fitting tribute and an appropriate visual to remember a writer such as Ken Saro-Wiwa.

All that Glitters (2013) is a different homage to my home, our wealth, and the people who have it all. The figure is performing a Russian jump; her legs are wide apart, as a woman would not do in Nigeria. Her jump has split some oil barrels in half, while her pose keeps them apart. She has a glaze of gold leaf on her gele [a Nigerian head tie], torso, and wrappers [women’s garment worn in West Africa]. There are Chanel motifs on her shoes, and the fabric of her skirt has gathered around her thighs. She displays much pride— all that glitters is not all that it seems.

R. J. Preece: The placement of All the world is now richer (2010) in the House of Commons in 2012 was very striking. [Could you explain the depiction of figures individually and as a group?]

Sokari Douglas Camp: All the world is now richer was a reaction to the 2007 celebration of Wilberforce’s abolitionist bill. I wanted it to be placed in the Great Hall during Obama’s visit to Parliament, but there was not enough room to do so when both Houses of Parliament gathered to hear him speak. The sculpture hopes to show that people of slave heritage are brave and have dignity and strength.

There is a vertical component that consists of a line of slightly larger-than-lifesize figures, representing successive stages of the slavery saga. Thus the line starts with a figure clad in indigenous robes. Then come two figures representing transatlantic slave labor: a plantation worker with a machete and a domestic serving woman. These are followed by three figures representing the post-liberation era: a Sierra Leonean woman in 19th-century Creole dress, a man in a 20th-century executive suit, and finally another relaxing in casual trousers and a t-shirt.

The horizontal, literal component consists of phrases referring to the stage in the saga represented by the corresponding figures: "From our rich ancestral life" (figure clad in indigenous robes); "We were sold, bought and used" (plantation worker); "But we were brave" (domestic serving woman); "We were strong" (Creole woman); "We survived" (executive); "All the world is now richer" (t-shirt). I aim to make these steel figures in bronze and to find a permanent site for them. Our maritime legacy should be remembered. When my welded work is cast in bronze, it adds another tactile quality to the cast bronze.

R. J. Preece: In Jesus Loves Me (2012), are you referring to Christianity in a West African context[, a Western context, and/or an international context?]

Sokari Douglas Camp: Jesus Loves Me creates a pattern / picture of a black Jesus, but he ended up looking like a Roman emperor. Pentecostal churches are international in that you will find them in Europe, America, and the United Kingdom— wherever there are Africans. I have attended these churches, and people dress to the nines for Jesus. I find this endearing. There was a picture of a young African girl in the Observer Magazine; she wore bright red lipstick and was dressed as a West African with a portrait of Jesus (white, as he is usually depicted) on her wrapper. I thought this was a great picture. What I find in the papers and books and on the Internet excites me.

R. J. Preece: In Europe supported by Africa and America, there are beautiful colors depicting cloth, but the facial expressions appear rather saddened or exhausted.

Sokari Douglas Camp: A drawing by William Blake inspired Europe supported by Africa and America. The figure of Europe in the middle is rather exhausted, which is why she is being held up. The colored, patterned fabric is from a wedding that family members attended in Nigeria. Some of the fabrics were from Nigeria, and one of them seemed to have a Mondrian-like pattern, which I used for Europe. Blake’s figures are also naked; their hair hides their privates. I wanted to talk about power, and the question of who supports whom. At the end of the wreath, held by the figures, are petrol nozzles.

R. J. Preece: Describe your process in Ti.

Sokari Douglas Camp: I work alone, a bit like a writer. Starting with sketches and then drawing in steel, my welding technique has improved over the years. The pleasure of being a sculptor is that these drawings then occupy space and surprise me when they become part of the environment— when they are walked around, touched, and even sat on or climbed on by viewers. I could climb Ti, which is an early piece, and I created "sitting areas" so that viewers could watch, sit in, and be part of a sculpture that was kinetic. Interaction is an element that I would like to develop more in my work.

R. J. Preece: Your facial depictions sometimes refer to historical masks, sometimes to psychological types. Then there is the treatment in The Bike (2000). Could you talk about that?

Sokari Douglas Camp: When I first started working figuratively, I made a point of not making the figures too realistic, so no faces. I still had a strong belief that bringing sculptures to life was too much like "black magic". [laughs.] Kalabari people believe that if you make realistic things, they will get up and walk around. I decided to ditch this idea when I made Alagba in Limbo [in the mid-1990s]. I lost faith and wanted to kick tradition.

The Bike has my pattern-making in steel, as well as a realistic rendition of the characters’ faces; it is a combination of abstraction and realism. Europe supported by Africa and America does not hold back— it is a portrait of an “Africanized” European idea.

R. J. Preece: Your earlier works include transparent elements, what led you to more solid forms?

Sokari Douglas Camp: I sometimes do commissions and competitions that influence my work. I have made things a little more solid because I want to cast things in bronze. All the world is now richer became a large maquette because my aim is to have the figures cast. A solid piece is easier to make into a mold. I continue to use Perspex and glass when I get the opportunity. I have also started nickel-plating my pieces. There are many techniques to explore.

R. J. Preece: What are your artistic influences?

Sokari Douglas Camp: I am influenced by cross-cultural exchange. The simple idea that a traditional Nigerian festival can be put onto a Western stage tickles me, or that Shakespeare can be performed in Mandarin. As a child, I was influenced by the choreographer Peggy Harper. She produced festivals at Ibadan University, and I loved going to her shows. I grew up in a family with a history of painters, and Impressionist paintings decorated the walls of where I spent half terms. The layers and wealth of these transpositions are at the core of the ideas that I try to convey.

R. J. Preece: What should happen in the Niger Delta— and what might your role be?

Sokari Douglas Camp: We need to change and respect the environment in the Niger Delta. I do not really think I have a role to play. My aim is to be an artist, saying it as it is.

[1] For more information, see Tom O’Neill, "Curse of the Black Gold: Hope and Betrayal on the Niger Delta", published in the February 2007 issue of National Geographic, accompanied by Ed Kashi’s haunting photographs.