Interview: Nengi Omuku

by Georgina Evans .

In the past, I have painted about encounters with people with mental illness in Nigeria. It came from my own experiences of dealing with challenging situations and figuring out the ways I needed to mentally adapt in order to exist. Being at the unit felt like a residency. The consultants and service providers were extremely helpful in answering questions I had about the different types of mental illness, possible causes, and their effects on patients. They also enlightened me about mental health care and the high percentage of recovery.

Georgina Evans: Tell me about your background and how you got involved with the Hospital Rooms project.

Nengi Omuku: I was born in Nigeria and moved to England to do my BA and MA at the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL. After that, I moved back to Nigeria where I now live and work. I first met Niamh and Tim when they nominated me for the Denton’s Art Prize after which they invited me to take part in the Hospital Rooms project.

GE: Let's talk about your artistic process.

NO: My practice centres on loose representations of the human body. With every painting, I consider how the body is constantly selecting and gathering its identity; mentally, physically and emotionally. I typically start with a drawing, which is usually an emotion-driven response to an event that has occurred or something I have witnessed. After that, I begin to paint.

GE: How did your process adapt to suit Eileen Skellern 1? How was the unit as a working environment?

NO: My work is on the border between abstraction and figuration and for this project, I toned down the figurative element even further. I paint the body as patches of colour and form; this comes from a desire to show the human body as fragmented, a feeling that began when I moved from Nigeria to England. The fragmentation is a blending of worlds and experiences represented by colour and form, all attempting to hold together. The question of identity was foremost on my mind, as well as a desire to express varied notions of myself as defined by my experiences. For this project, overt references to the human body, therefore, had to be taken down a notch, because this feeling of fragmentation and alienation is something I believe some of the patients might have been able to relate to. In the past, I have painted about encounters with people with mental illness in Nigeria. It came from my own experiences of dealing with challenging situations and figuring out the ways I needed to mentally adapt in order to exist. Being at the unit felt like a residency. The consultants and service providers were extremely helpful in answering questions I had about the different types of mental illness, possible causes, and their effects on patients. They also enlightened me about mental health care and the high percentage of recovery. It also felt like a residency because the family room isn’t on the main unit, so I worked uninterrupted in that space for nearly 3 weeks.

GE: Tell me a little bit about the actual process of working for three weeks. Was there too-ing and fro-ing from a studio?

NO: In the first week, I spent a bit of time on the drawing, picking a background colour from the Dulux range and finally painting the background. The next two weeks, I treated the Family Room as a studio. I got in at about 10:30am and painted directly onto the walls with oil paints until about 8:30pm. It was a bit tricky getting in and out because it is a locked unit so I made sure to bring everything I needed to limit the back and forth.

GE: To me, it seems brilliantly apt that your work should be on display in the Family Room, but I'm interested to hear the story behind the piece you created for that space.

NO: The painting was inspired by the name of the room. It is based on two abstract bodies who cater to a central reclined figure, all surrounded by a fabric, Blangidi. This fabric was introduced to southern Nigeria, where I grew up, by European merchants who used it as a blanket. However, it took on a new meaning upon entering southern Nigeria and became a ceremonial dress that has come to define every major family event. It is a symbol that says, ‘we are together’. The bodies in the painting blend into one another and become a continuous form. They are encircled by the fabric which camouflages and further intertwines them, creating oneness between material and body.

GE: Previous artists I've spoken to have said that the staff encouraged colour for the service users, and your work is perfect for that brief! Were you expecting a certain reaction to the work you’ve contributed?

NO: I normally don’t shy away from colour, and my pallette is usually quite floral. I hoped the painting would change the perception of the space and in some way, add a positive spin on what I imagine to be a rather disheartening experience. The people who saw the work during that two week period were mostly staff. They seemed excited by the colours and the forms. 

GE: How do you feel about your involvement in the project, using your art to send a message and having your name to this specific cause?

NO: I couldn’t have imagined a more apt cause for my practice at this moment than this. When I first heard about the project I thought it was absolutely genius because many artists for centuries have used their work to express and survive challenging periods. Art and creativity, in general, can also play a part in the recovery process of patients, and the various art workshops run by Hospital Rooms are also vital.