By Osa Amadi
Africa’s foremost contemporary protest artist, Bob-Nosa Uwagboe, has been in Poland now for more than 4 months for the exhibition of his paintings titled “TRANSIT” at the National Museum in Gdańsk. Nosa and his curator, Malgorzata Paszylka-Glaza who is also the curator of the Modern Art Department, the National Museum in Gdansk, Poland, had online conversations with VANGUARD NEWSPAPER on diverse issues relating to art, the artist, the exhibition, and a little measure of polish politics.
For more than 4 months now you have been in Poland for the exhibition of your paintings titled TRANSIT. Could you briefly refresh our memories of the circumstances that kept you in Poland for so long for an exhibition that ordinarily would have lasted only for a few weeks?
I arrived on Poland 13th March 2020, for the official opening of my monography exhibition (TRANSIT) with the National Museum Gdansk. This opening was meant for 14th March but due to the spread of the COVID- 19, the government of Poland in its wisdom decided to lock down the country in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus. This affected the museum and every other part of society. My curator and I understood the situation because lives are more important than the exhibition of my artworks.
Has the exhibition taken place now; when did it start, and for how long did it run?
The exhibition opened to the general public since May when the government relaxed the lockdown. The exhibition is on till September 6.
TRANSIT was postponed due to the coronavirus spike, you said. Now that it is taking place, is that an indication that the virus has been contained in Poland and the country opened up?
Yes, the virus has been contained to a large extent and the country has been opened up.
How did Polish people receive your works, and what did they say your works meant to them since much of your themes address the socio-economic and political problems of your country, Nigeria, and not Poland?
My exhibition in Poland is the best and the biggest for me in my career. My art has never been this loved and accepted by strangers. The polish people accepted my exhibition in all honesty even though the paintings are sad and provocative. The works awakened their minds to the bitter realities all around the world, not just in Nigeria, and that was my aim in this exhibition. My intention was to draw the audience’s attention to the existence of inhumanity in our world today, even if I have to use themes from Nigeria in some instances. The Nigerian themes were no barriers to their acceptance of my art.
Poland shares borders with East Germany, Russia, and Czechoslovakia. In normal times, art collectors and art enthusiasts from these other countries might have flooded your exhibition. Tell us the extent to which Covid-19 affected TRANSIT.
I would say that the impact of Covid-19 on TRANSIT wasn’t quite negative, though it impacted negatively on everything around the world. I think it was rather a blessing for me. The aim was to get people to come and have experience at “TRANSIT”. TRANSIT is not really a usual kind of exhibition. The works on display are emotionally disturbing. They evoke pains and chronicle hopelessness, dehumanizing images, our tribulations and trials, pictures of Africans escaping from home due to poverty arising from inefficient and corrupt leadership.
Then COVID-19 came and intensified people’s experience of a troubled world, therefore preparing the audience better for the exhibition. Yes, the lockdown interrupted the opening of the exhibition, but that resulted in the museum extending the duration to months. My being trapped in Poland also made the media to became more interested in my story. In fact, the exhibition came at the right time. My extended stay in Poland, too, meant more opportunities for me. Everything worked together for good in my favor.
Would you say then that TRANSIT was commercially successful, both for you and for those who put money down for the exhibition?
TRANSIT isn’t a commercially driven exhibition. I signed a “LENDING CONTRACT” with the museum. The art exhibition is not primarily for sale. The benefits of having an exhibition of this standard and magnitude cannot be quantified in monetary terms. Artists should create more works that will arouse people’s consciousness and add values to human existence. Artists should stop wasting time producing soulless images in the name of art.
Did any particular work make the greatest impression on collectors and guests at TRANSIT?
“The human merchandise in Libya, 2017” is a body of work with 59 images on display. This proved to be the most educational and interesting for many of the people. They knew little about this situation. The works aroused their curiosity and made them go online to read more about it.
As an artist with a keen sense of observation, without being patronizing, what is your impression about Poland and the Polish people from more than 4 month you have been there?
The Polish people are very conscious of their history. They are willing to share. They are calm and they are not racists.
What do you think about their arts, and did you learn anything new from them?
I have visited different museums here in Poland. Their art tells a lot about their history. But some of their new generation artists are also creating great works. Yet, some of them are not so great, just like we have them in Nigeria.
Did you get a whiff of any social, political, economic, or environmental challenges facing the Polish people nowadays?
No, I didn’t.
As Africa’s foremost protest artist, and one from Niger Delta, how do you feel, and what would you say about the on-going revelations of the massive lootings of the funds of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and of course, the claimed use of more than N600 billion to feed school children who were at their parents’ home in Nigeria during the coronavirus lockdown?
Am not surprised because some of these crops of leaders have nothing good to offer other than the looting of the commonwealth of the people. They are visionless. They are in those positions for their own selfish interests.
Do people discuss Nigeria and Nigerians in Poland, and what do they say about us?
I have met with only one Nigerian here who is highly placed. He is Mr. Larry Ugwu, Director, Baltic Sea Cultural Centre, Gdansk. He is a Nigerian and Polish citizen. He is an honest cultural activist, musician, and a lawyer by training. Each time we meet, we would talk sadly about the failure of leadership in Nigeria.
How have you been able to cope with extended hotel bills and the cost of feeding given that you never planned to stay this long in Poland?
Coping? Hahahahhaha! I am well taken care of by the museum authority. I don’t worry about anything. They don’t joke with artists here. I am getting my full respect and benefit for showing at their national museum. I am not in a hotel. I am staying at my curator’s apartment.
Normally, exhibitions of this magnitude ought to throw up fresh opportunities for an artist. Did those opportunities come, and career-wise, where are you headed now after this?
Yes, this is the kind of exhibition every artist should experience because this repositions one’s practice and open new doors. I have been also selected for a group exhibition in October 2020 by a different organization in Gdansk, Poland. Besides, my art has been exposed to a wider audience. For me, this is amazing. This exhibition at the National Museum is a blessing for me and for Nigeria.