The Arts

May 28, 2024

When process becomes form: The empathetic works of Yusuf Seidu Okus

By MATHEW OYEDELE

Yusuf Seidu Okus, born in 1973 in Delta State, Nigeria, is an artist who finds immense pleasure in the approach and process of his work.

He views his artistic journey as a means of nurturing and enlivening inanimate objects, allowing them to breathe and communicate in ways that help humans heal, engage, and understand themselves and their environment.

Born to Mr. and Mrs. Yusuf Isa Oshiobagie, Okus has become known for his experimental and empathetic approach to human relations and his constant pursuit of new creative territories.

Okus sources diverse materials from his surroundings, subjecting them to deconstruction and reconstruction processes such as sorting, cleaning, burning, engraving, and melting to breathe life into them. His empathy is further nurtured through his work with patients at the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Benin City, where he serves as the Principal Art Officer in the Occupational Therapy Unit until 2023. This role has intensified his sensitivity to human conditions, particularly mental health.

In his 2021 piece, More Housing (iii), Okus uses discarded aluminum roofing sheets, printing plates, and metal foil to depict several figures standing closely together under a shed, facing various directions. This piece advocates for adequate housing for Nigerian citizens and more rehabilitation centers for mentally ill individuals. Okus emphasizes that people should not have to sleep on the streets or under bridges, where their health and safety are compromised. The relevance of this piece extends to the recent housing crisis in Lagos, where 86 makeshift apartments were discovered at Dolphin Estate, Ikoyi, in May 2024. Tenants, paying N250,000 annually for tiny rooms, were arrested by the Lagos State Government as illegal residents. However, the landlords who collected these rents were not mentioned, raising questions about the effectiveness of such arrests in addressing the housing issue.

In Not Entirely Our Fault, Okus showcases his versatility with acrylic on canvas. The piece features a pregnant woman with her arms spread in a non-accusatory manner, looking towards an imposing profile head filled with spontaneous motifs. This imagery is both metaphoric and elucidating, representing the thoughts within a mentally challenged person’s mind and advocating for better treatment and understanding instead of stigmatization and isolation. From his experience at the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, where he started working in 2005 shortly after establishing his studio in Sapele, Okus has learned that mental health issues can be hereditary and are not always the result of poor personal decisions. His work at the hospital has unconsciously nurtured his empathy, making him a vocal advocate for mental health awareness and better treatment of mentally challenged individuals.

Okus’s consciousness of mental health issues also extends to his exploration of discarded materials, reflecting his concern for environmental sustainability. His 2023 piece, Searching, uses sacks, nylon, and other plastic materials to depict the pleasure of finding one’s true path and purpose. Although there are no identifiable images or symbols in the piece, the impressive use of materials create a rhythm and symphony that demands attention and engagement. This work underscores his belief in giving new life to abandoned materials, paralleling his advocacy for the marginalized and overlooked members of society.

Okus’s artistic practice is a testament to his belief in the transformative power of art. By repurposing discarded materials, he not only addresses environmental issues but also creates poignant commentaries on societal issues such as mental health and housing. His works resonate deeply with contemporary social challenges, urging viewers to reconsider their perspectives and engage more empathetically with the world around them.