For the Delta-born sculptor, who makes elaborate statues and artworks out of cutlery like spoons and forks, opting for such a material that would see him tour art facilities across the world was an idea that his imagination had birthed eight years ago. While his peers dug the utensil into mouth-watering cuisines, he had observed reoccurring patterns that his one-time epiphany suggested would be ideal for his cockerel statue.
It was only in 2012 Abinoro Akporode Collins pulled off his debut steel art with 12 dozens of spoon all picked from trash. Little did he know he’d go further to explore detailed humanoid figures and procure statuesque artworks to museums, private homes, and other players in the art industry. His wife had once slugged it out with him but he’d later assuaged her after he took on a few dozens of spoon he once bought for kitchen during one of his projects amid the search for an ideal pattern.
From hundreds to works requiring as much as 4,000 stainless cutlery, the sculptor, who also does drawings and paintings, has achieved several masterpieces, most of which hold a special allure transcending aesthetics and capturing animals like birds, flower patterns, human structures, symbolic ideas, among other complex combinations that portray supernatural beings, elements, concepts, and existential symbols. He readily has names and records for all his designs.
“I’ve participated in exhibitions globally. After being a finalist for the ‘Life in My City’ competition in 2013, Enugu, I’d become part of the artists invited in 2014 for the International Arts Residency and Arts Exhibition in the UAE, where I was hosted for two months. I joined another team as one of the five for the International Historic Festival of Arts also in UAE, where I lived and made some works that were also exhibited in the Asian country,” he tells TheCable Lifestyle in an interview.
“Saudi Arabia was more like it in 2019; I was part of a team selected for a residency and also among those invited by the Saudi king. We were hosted while we all created works for the exhibition. My work has been exhibited in the US and London too, not only in Nigeria here. I had started my cutlery sculptures back in school in the course of trying to research new innovative materials for artworks. But my interest in art dates back to my teenage years. I’d always had the ability to draw and paint.”
It’s funny some argue there’ll be a scarcity of cutleries if more Nigerians get to better explore your idea of arts. Of all materials you could have used, why spoon and forks?
As of the time I discovered the material back in 2012, we had this research where we had to find new materials that are either not in use or have not been highly explored in sculpture, you know, during one of our courses, Metal Fabrication, in the final year. One thing that became of interest to me was how the handles of spoons had this feather pattern because one of the considerations we had when we looked at repurposed materials was that the item you’re using or its parts must have a certain likeness to the subject you intend using them for. I’d later make my first spoon sculpture, a cockerel in 2012, using 12 dozens of spoon. And they were all recycled, picked from trash. That was the first encounter I had with creating spoon sculptures. At the time, I didn’t know how big I could go exploring the material. The praise I got from lecturers and student were mind-blowing.
It inspired me so much so that I took a second look at the material to see what more I could create. Since then, I’ve grown from using just 12 dozens of spoon to using over 4000 pieces alongside other cutleries. It’s been a wild journey. I found that the more I created, the more my mind was opened to the possibilities. From making just birds, I now explore detailed human figures. There’s no limit to what I can achieve using this material. As for talks about any scarcity of the material (laughs), I believe it’ll go round as long as manufacturers keep up their work. I already have plans to visit China and meet some of these manufacturers to see if I can strike deals with them for personalized and purpose-designed cutleries as there are patterns, thickness, and quality of materials that are rare to come by. It’s a new dimension I’m looking into. But I’m sure spoons will go round (giggles).
Flying creatures seem to hold a special allure for you. What’s the idea behind this?
I didn’t think about why I was drawn to birds initially but, when I later sought to understand it, I’d realized it had a lot to do with my background. I grew up in an open environment where I had the freedom to explore nature—visit the river with friends, go into the wild to hunt animals. Hunting for birds, for me was memorable. Back then, we had made lots of traps with glue materials. We used to go farming, and it was interesting listening to these chirping creatures and watching them do their thing. For birds, I think some patches of memory from my past played into the narrative.
I’d fallen in love with the craving I had as a child wanting to build things and think up innovative ideas. My mum and a whole lot of my family members were supportive of my desire to pursue my dreams. Although there was no clear picture of where I was going, they knew it was something I was good at. As for my dad, he didn’t buy my idea initially. As Deltans, we were all expected to go oil and gas. At that time, it was a more lucrative dream. He didn’t see art to be anything close and tried to pressurize me to see if I would opt for something ‘more serious’. I was kind of stubborn.
Much later, he had a change of mind. So, I started as a child and later moved to the School of Arts and Design, Auchi Polytechnic, where I had my National Diploma (ND) in Painting and General Arts and Higher National Diploma (HND) for Sculpture, where I graduated in 2012. It’s been a challenging, yet, rewarding and memorable journey specializing mostly in the use of stainless steel cutleries and other repurposed and recycled materials in executing my sculptures over the years.
Throughout the year, you must have a schedule. What’s your typical workday like?
At this point, I don’t have regular days systematically planned out just yet because I avoid that to be more flexible than rigid. Of course, I have a list of stuff to achieve but I tried not to overregulate it. I’m an early riser, sleeping four to five hours daily. You know, so most of the nights I’m often awake (scoffs). I multitask; my mind is often engaged with thoughts and cravings to create, research, study, and meditate. Those are my regular brainstorming processes. Most of the time, I’m up at four or 5 am. I’ll often dash into my drawing studio and clear my mind. I look back into some of the sketches I have, enhance them, and brainstorm on new ideas. From there, I could go into the sculpture studio to see some of the pieces I have, work on them, and brainstorm for new ideas. The moment I begin work from that time, it’s usually until evening. And I don’t have time for stopping work. I just do my thing until I’m exhausted. In-between, I have launch; breakfast; dinner. But it’s almost always 18 to 20 hours of work daily, except I have to be out of the studio for one or two reasons, meet people, sources some materials, attend art exhibitions and related functions.
Work, for me, often begins with sketches and a series of research on the subject and ideas with which I intend to work. For the birds, I start by constructing a detailed amateur (the structural design on which sculptures are built), often not complete because I consider the weight and balance. Then I follow by laying the cutleries from very strategic angles to hide away welded parts. It’s in stages such that there are pieces that take months to achieve because of their intensity and depth or what I intend to get out of them. Once that’s done, the next is finishing, where I’d grind off some leftover stitches. Burnishing, cleaning, or sanding the stainless steel follows because the welding will leave some dark stains. And there are quite a lot of machines I use to ensure that we have a well-finished surface. There’s the part where you use things to preserve the work from the weather. I’ve had pieces that have been outdoors for up to five years and they’re still in good condition. So I have confidence in my finished work and I’m still researching on new materials. You know, you have to advance. Those are the basic process, although some other multi-media works require fiber, bronze, newspapers, and cutleries. Those take a different process entirely.
What skills are required for the job you do and how do you define your masterpiece?
One skill I made sure I was grounded in as a student is drawing. It’s basic for every artist as it opens the mind to gain a deeper knowledge of the subject. It’s like solving equations, but with the drawing as the formula. It opens up the anatomy of the subject I look to work on and unravels the depth of their forms and characters. It also helps me understand the mood I want to infuse in my work. I always try to impart this skill to my students when I accommodate them for IT from universities. It’s a must, you have to understand depth, composition, balance, texture, gestural movements, and contour. And drawing simplifies this. While you’re transforming your work into 3D or painting, you will know when things are not going right. My work merges classical, realistic, and conceptual art. It’s a whole lot at play where every feature is intentional. Another important skill for me is welding since I work with metal. I don’t do it intensively but knowing fabrication and finishing is important.
Which of these works I take for a masterpiece depends on that which transcends time and space to speak deep meanings when observed. In my opinion, masterpieces aren’t planned; they just come to you. Most known works that became masterpieces came without the artist knowing they would be stunning. They come in the process of working and exploring. When I made the Cosmic Man, which I exhibited back in October 2019, it didn’t dawn on me that it was going to speak volumes into 2020. It only came to me while I was trying to create something extraordinary. It dealt with humanity, time, and connectivity. But it was in 2020 we discovered some elements at play in the piece that gave a clue on the realities of the pandemic. It’s what happens with art and masterpieces. Art for me is emotional and spiritual. It’s a transfer of information between humans and divinity.
Every piece of art has relevance in terms of meaning, whether historically or at the time of their creation. Do you create your works based on pre-conceived notions or you make them and then attempt interpreting the sheer product of your imagination?
Both. The height of creative processes is freedom. I’m open to divinity and my creative space at the time. The basic info that comes to me is often preconceived. But the outcome of the process isn’t restricted to that alone or the research I’d done. If it’s done that way, a blockage would result as information always flows. And it’s the ability to connect that opens you up to greater achievements. Even as there are preconceived ideas, they’re often open to adjustments and experiencing a flow of new meaning. I’m a free bird, so I try to explore all spaces [of meaning] that are available to me.
What’s the feel of finishing a piece; how do you proceed? What has been the routine?
I think it’s a feeling that can almost not be expressed. Oftentimes, I feel empty—that feeling of emptiness mixed with a sense of fulfillment. You feel empty because you’ve given it all for that piece, even though it’s almost impossible for an artist to complete their artworks. We often have to force ourselves; tell ourselves we’re done, that the work is okay. Once I’m able to establish the details that were required, the feeling most times is that of emptiness. I’d feel drained, excited, and exhausted all at the same time. There’s also that feeling of fulfillment though, having done a great job. I also enjoy the response to my work, the way people react when they come across them.
What’s it like in your studio? With the rigour of the job, do you often need assistance?
Right now, I work with people; studio assistants because I almost cannot begin certain works and end them alone. I often need people to help me tidy some things especially the finishing I used to do myself before, considering the intense work processes I now engage in and the number of targets I have yearly. I’ve had to get people that take care of basic needs, get materials, make sure machines are optimized, take care of basic cleaning and polishing of artworks. I work with models too, people who model for me so I can execute certain forms and characters more definitely. I have IT students come around; they’re very useful and vital to my work process while they learn from the things I do.
As creatives, we draw ideas from a variety of sources like conversations, archives, and cultural insignias to nature and societal forces. What’s your story in this regard?
I’m inspired by my past, my journey as a person, the issues I’ve dealt with, my experiences evolving as a person, my background, and where I grew. These things often drive me. There’s my immediate environment, I mean, there’s no way you’ll live in Nigeria and not be inspired by the things you see around you—the culture, the society, the people, the common everyday issues in policies as well as the people’s struggle and success stories. I’m basically inspired by my environment and spirituality.
Can you discuss some of your prominent works and their artistic relevance? What are some of the gigs you’ve landed or requests that have been made of you globally?
It’s hard to pin-point which of my works are the prominent ones as they all are important to me. But I’ve had a number of major success stories. One recent one for me is the Cosmic Man; it’ one that’s beyond words, deeper than what I had imagined at first. It’s a piece that came to me a year ago and suddenly became a direction into the events of 2020. It’s one piece I became so connected to such that letting it go became a whole lot for me as it’s one of my most iconic pieces. There’s also the Sagittarius; I had two pieces of them made—the man and a horse. The second one was even the most engaging because it opened my mind to even deeper meanings. Rapture is something else as well; it’s another piece that involves man evolving into the full height of freedom. It’s a piece that came from my personal experience and struggles. Beast of a Nation that I made in 2015 is also very iconic. In truth, most of my works are personal. But one of the most important is the first piece that I made from school, the Cockerel. It’s very vital to me as it ushered me into success over the years.
I’ve had many major gigs. My works have mostly been displayed on my social media handles and I’ve had people reach out to me and demand for them. Most of the people that bought works from me connected to me via social media. I look forward to exhibiting in major galleries all over the world. It’s where I hope to get to, not only being known in Nigeria but to be a major international figure in arts. I believe the quality of what I have can stand anywhere and represent who I’m; where I’m from. It’s befitting to be in private homes and galleries. I’d decided that pieces like the Cosmic Man, the Dilemma of a Black Man are ones I only want to make available to museums, except for private owners who have really intense knowledge about arts and open hearts to appreciate them.
You’ll agree the creative side of arts is only half of the conversation. What’s been the experience for you as regards the business realities for artworks in Nigeria’s market?
Well, the Nigerian art market is a fast-growing one compared to what we’ve had years back. We have new players coming in. More people are showing interest in acquiring arts and seeing them beyond aesthetics. It’s a source of alternative investment for people globally and we can’t be left out. The more people are buying Nigerian and African arts, the more our values will grow. It’s getting better but we’re not there yet. There’s still a whole lot of sensitization to be done. We’ve had brainwashed people who still see arts as demonic. We need to look at these things beyond what people think it is. It does a lot of mental and spiritual healing, begins new social conversations, and helps us look into our society for deeper meanings. People should stop seeing it as a demonic thing. The arts we neglected and had burnt are the same ones that we’re going overseas, finding ourselves paying hugely to look at in museums globally. People outside shouldn’t teach us to value what we have. It’s one of the areas we need to educate young people. Students should be made to pay visits to museums and galleries to drive their careers of choice and help augment their creative thinking.
FG needs to try and build more policies for the arts because you look at the level of investments they’re having in other countries and begin to ask questions. As huge as Nigeria is, we don’t have world-class museums. I’ve been to some of the museums in Lagos and Abuja; I can’t see anything comparable to what we have in other countries. Look at what the UAE is building; it’s magical. Whatever we build and engage has to meet standards because these are places that people will visit, places we would take students to educate them about our history. Nigeria doesn’t have any word-class museum anywhere. There are no records. I was at the historic museum in Abu Dhabi and it was so amazing the level of documentation they had, not just artworks that are kept haphazardly. These are things FG needs to look into. There’s also the issue of government fund. We need to be serious with how we do things as a country and see Nigeria for what it is—the largest black nation in the world. We’re important to moving black arts forward; we should be setting the pace. FG needs to have artworks installed in major ministries and the statehouses. The US is having outgoing presidents’ portrait made and there’s a museum dedicated to it. We have to put politics aside, think.
What urgent structural changes do you think we need to revamp the arts industry?
One of the things we need to realize is that the world has become more computerized. There’s been a shift where knowledge has become increasingly accessible. I’d say the curriculum in our schools as regards art is outdated and needs revisiting. Some standards we teach in schools are no more in use globally. Our approach to teaching art needs a total rework. Lecturers need to be challenged to research. I came out of school only to learn that the information I received is no longer relevant to my practice at all. Some of them were outdated. I had to relearn and start all over. Even many more graduates from these institutions without knowing the marketability of their work. Libraries have to be revisited; the books therein are from the 50s and 70s. They’re hardly current materials. Students leave school more confused than when they got in. How do you run your career, set up professional studios, embark on project proposals, and communicate with clients? If we must move forward as a nation, we need to revisit our educational sector. We need the required environment.
I graduated from the School of Arts and Design. If you visit our studios, they’ve been there since the 70s and no changes have been made. As an ND student, some of us had to work sitting on the bare ground. Power supply? I almost didn’t complete an exam piece because there was no electricity to proceed. Sometimes we had to rent generators to power the facilities in the department. Our institutions need more funds if FG is interested in the future of this country beyond just today. For arts, Nigeria a very multicultural society but what you find here is heartbreaking. We’ve not even taken into serious account the documentation of our history, cultures, and traditions. I know the struggles I had starting up as a young artist. FG needs to make funds accessible to young talents and others who look to take part in projects. I have a lot of ideas I can share in this regard if only there was the right platform. We need support to stage art residencies that will bring artists from all over the world to come to study our cultures, create works on them, and have these documented and installed in purpose-built facilities. Workstations for artists leaving school are needed as well.
You’re quoted to have said the weirdest thing you were taught in art school is the practice of referring to African art as primitive. Can you shed more light on this?
Yes (laughs). That’s why our curriculum needs to be reviewed. Most of the history materials we studied are those written by westerners as a result of some of the things that happened in African history. There were alterations compared to the true events that transpired. It’s not to blame the system but the instructional materials that have been made available for them. It’s disheartening to describe African arts as primitive and I didn’t know any better at the time. When I left school, I did more research, read books, and realized that the works we refer to as primitive actually meet global standards, which means the knowledge we had at that time was advanced. So we need a complete revamp of our belief system as Nigerians and Africans as well as the information we’re giving out. If we don’t do things right, the younger generation will suffer even more than we’ve had to struggle.
On tech, there’s the trend of bringing virtual reality into the hospitality industry, creating online spaces where artworks can be explored remotely. Considering the speed at which you’ve grown over the years, how do you look to tap into this idea?
Well, I’m an open-minded person. I make sure I explore new innovative ideas that can give my work the right space to be seen, talked about, and documented. If it often requires collaboration or partnership, I’m open to it because there’s no way you can push aside some of these ideas. A couple of years ago, artists who published some of their works on social media platforms were seen to be people who are just commercializing their work. But, with time, we’ve come to realize that one of the biggest platforms for visibility is the use of social media. You have people like Damien Hirst publishing his creative processes online for people to see. I follow him closely. As an artist, you cannot disregard any avenue to showcase your work. I stay open-minded to any such innovation.
What are your thoughts about Nigerian/African arts carted away by western nations during the epoch of colonization? What do you think has to be done to retrieve them?
It’s a very sensitive question. But they are African arts that were not rightfully taken in my opinion. They were stolen, so to speak, from Africa under the guise of invasion. I’ve taken time to read the history of the Benin massacre and how they invaded Benin with the excuse of there being an event that prompted it and I see how one-sided the story is. I often wish we had books that were written by indigenous Benin people back then so we have a true knowledge of what actually led to that invasion. That’s why I keep saying we need good writers to document our history and things that are happening right now because they become very important in the future. But I believe those works were forcefully taken. If you came to invade, why steal something that doesn’t belong to you?
I advocate for their return but I’ll also call for the establishment of standard museums where they can be accommodated. You see how those works are displayed in London and all over the world; they’re highly protected and valued. It’ll be a joke if we bring them back to Nigeria for example only to place them in the kind of museums we have. Other countries are building befitting museums and this will help accommodate some of those works if they’re eventually returned. I’ve not seen moves in Nigeria to building such facilities. It’s something we have to first do before we talk of returning such works. FG needs to bring the right architects and artists aboard and build structures in the six geopolitical zones. I read about some events of the past, yet, there are no artefacts to validate these.
What plans have you for the future? What imminent projects are you excited about?
It’s huge for me—the future. One of the things I look forward to being a part of is that movement that will bring Nigerian arts into the right global space. We’re not doing badly at the moment but there’s still a lot to be done. My plan is to establish my art career to become a force in the art that is known globally such that my legacy will outlive my lifetime. I’ll love to establish a mentorship facility for young artists to find a place for practice—a residence spot for artists that will also accommodate others from all over the world. It’s a project I look to achieve in the near future.
Another big thing for me is my next solo exhibition. It’s a project I’m already working on. I have two years ahead of me to do that. I’m appreciative of everyone that has shown me support from the outset of my career to date. I’ve had a really warm reception from people. My work can be a bit pricey but when I find people who love them and are committed to purchasing some of them, I’m always very grateful. There’s still a lot to be done, more grounds to break. It’s a gradual process.
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