Slade at Frieze London: Nengi Omuku

This series of interviews with a group of former Slade School of Fine Art students, whose works have been on display at this year’s Frieze London, is aimed at demonstrating the diversity of life and experience that is to be found within the world of professional artmaking. Coming to Slade from a wide range of backgrounds, from Nigeria to Seoul to Bristol, and across a wide range of years, these artists have each approached art and artmaking from vastly different perspectives, deeply embedding their own personal experiences of place, memory, and identity into their work. Joining together through their shared experience of art school in London, their interviews attest to the diversity of experience that is possible when building a career in London and the wider art world and will hopefully be sources of solace and encouragement for those looking to a future in artmaking.


Nengi Omuku is a Nigerian figurative artist who graduated from the Slade in 2012. Her work explores the social memories and environments that constitute our own identities.


 Starting off with your experience pre-Slade, what was your early relationship like to art?


I’ve always been on track to do art. I was at school in Nigeria until I was 16 and then after that, I came to England for my A Levels, in Dorset, from there I just went straight into the Slade. But in school in Nigeria, I did a lot of art. We would do bits of painting, watercolours, but also a lot of sculpture. Of course, we have a huge history of making bronzes in Nigeria, so we would work a lot on clay sculpting and similar things. My entire portfolio for the Slade application was actually sculptural,  taking that from the early experience I’d had in Nigeria with sculpture.


How do you think those early encounters with art shaped your relationship to it?


Well, I think my mum’s drawings were actually my first encounter with art. She has a horticulture company and has been a florist for as far back as I can remember so she has always been doing botanical drawings of plants, and flowers and landscape designs. And I think these rested in my subconscious for many years. But then after I had graduated from the Slade, I went back to Nigeria and worked for a little bit with my Mum in her business, whilst I was working on paintings in one of the rooms at the back of our house. And just recently, when I was preparing my show in Hastings of a group of landscapes I’ve done I was looking back and trying to think what came first, my love for plants or my love for painting, both are something I’ve known intimately for such a long time.


Your work deals a lot with ideas of social memory and the places these are grounded in, I  just wondered where these interests emerged from, whether it was before or during your time at the Slade?


When I moved back to Nigeria, I started thinking a lot about collective experience; how groups of people were experiencing things like political unrest, or other contemporary events. And I started to incorporate that a lot more into my paintings. I feel like every time I move to a different place, whatever is happening there begins to seep into my work in this organic way.


 How was the transition then of moving places from your life before, to the Slade?


Ah, moving to the Slade was a great experience. It’s London anyway so it’s such an incredibly diverse place, and my family lived there as well, so it felt good. Moving straight from Lagos to Dorset was more of a culture shock I’d say. I was suddenly in this catholic school, in the middle of nowhere, wearing a kilt! But yes, moving to the Slade was an incredible experience. Once you walked in you were treated like an artist in your own right. They teach you about the foundations of your own work, and there’s a lot of useful critique about the work you each doing individually; what’s already being generated by each individual. So, there was no real “this is what you should do, this is what you shouldn’t do”. They equip you with the knowledge of the material you’re about to work with and then help you refine and tune what it is that’s in your mind that you want to speak about in your work. They trust that you are going to figure it out, and they just guide you along that way.


So how did your relationship to the work or materials you were using change over the course of your time spent there?


Well, I came in with a portfolio of sculpture. But in the first year you’re not assigned to any department, you’re all placed in this collective space practicing with different techniques. My first tutor was Phyllida Barlow, and she was just the most incredible human being. I remember I was making sculptures, but I felt like what I really wanted to be doing was painting. She saw that I was struggling with it, and she found out I was making these sort of ‘secret’ paintings and came to me and asked me if sculpture was where I really wanted to be, and just encouraged me to take the leap into painting. I hadn’t painted with oils ever; it wasn’t a medium I was comfortable with. During those early years I was really just exploring this new medium, trying to find out what I wanted to do with it. So those few years were full of trial and error.


How did life feel when you were suddenly out on your own after graduating, practicing art outside of a formal, supportive setting?


I would say that going back to Nigeria was very important. I felt like I had something missing in my practice, I hadn’t been back home in a while and there felt like there was something I needed to reconnect with. But I did feel like I was not very equipped for the real world, like I wasn’t sure what to expect, so there was a period where I had to try and learn this all by myself. Figuring out how to approach galleries etc. It feels like a rite of passage that all art school students have to go to through I think.


What do you think then looking back on that early period, now from the place your work is at, would your advice be to young artists just starting out?


Yeah, the journey between art school and now was very bumpy. I learned a lot of things through trial and error, just sort of finding my feet. But it was great to then find galleries after a while who were willing to work with what I was trying to say, and to understand me and respect my work. So I’d say my advice is just to be patient. Take your time and even when mistakes are made, when people take advantage of you or something like that there’s always something useful to be learned. There’s always an opportunity to grow from those experiences. The most important thing is to prioritise the making of the work. If you just focus on making it to the highest level of quality you can then everything else will just begin to fall in line.