Renowned painter, Polly Alakija, is British by birth and Nigerian by marriage. The themes of her paintings revolve around women. She is one of the artists commissioned by the Lagos State government to ‘decorate some landmarks in Lagos.’ She spoke with the Arts Editor, OSA AMADI, at Falomo roundabout, Lagos, where she is painting 50 women on 50 pillars as “pillars of strength” for Lagos at 50. This is the excerpt of the brief chat between the journalist and the artist:
What are you doing here with these big pillars?
We are regenerating urban spaces. We are putting our work on urban spaces. So it’s like we are regenerating urban spaces that are under-utilised.
Could you please explain this painting to us?
What I want to do is paint 40 columns. For me, the whole story is celebrating women. We are linking it with Lagos at 50. I am representing 50 women celebrating Lagos at 50. I am not painting portraits. A lot of people say, ‘Oh she is painting a column.’ These are women from my imagination. It is a concept representing women.
You know if you think about women and what they are in the society; they are very often the unsung heroes. They are strong. You know there is this expression: ‘she is a pillar of strength.’ So that’s what these pillars are: these are my pillars of strength, celebrating women of Lagos in a very soft, gentle way. Some people would come and say: who are the 50 most important women in Lagos? No, that’s not what it is about. The concept is womanhood: whom they are in the home, in the city, in the society. That’s what the context is all about.
Are all the pillars going to carry paintings of women?
Yes. I am painting fifty women.
Were you chosen specifically to do this aspect of the work that projects women?
No, it is a concept I developed. If you are familiar with my work, you would know that I paint women. It’s my genre of work.
Are there other artists commissioned to do similar things in other parts of Lagos?
Are you well-paid as an artist?
It is hard to make great financial returns from art which is one reason I try to diversify my work.
But people won’t value anything that does not have economic value.
Do you think Picaso painted because he wanted to make money?
If you are an artist and you produce your best you will have the people investing in it.
If what you do does not generate money, how are you going to live?
Yea, I have to find a way. That’s why I try to balance my work with other things. My art work is not the only thing I do. I am involved in other businesses. And this is what I say to the young artists that work with me – I agree, you have to be able to pay your bills at the end of the day. Don’t expect your artworks to pay all those bills, find a way to commercialise an element of what you do. But it shouldn’t be the primary motive. I know I produce my best, and I don’t worry about the money. I know if I produce my best I can sell it because I produced my best. But I am not producing now because I know it’s going to translate into money. It’s not like that.
Who is supporting this project?
It’s the Lagos State government which is investing heavily in promoting the arts, and I am grateful for their support.