• Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Gerald Chukwuma designs The Nerve Center for the Unknown Lagosian

Gerald Chukwuma is an experimental artist who works with all materials imaginable. Birds of a Feather and Everyday reveal what sets him apart
Gerald Chukwuma: The artist behind Lagos monument, The Nerve Center

The Nerve Center brought from conception to life by artist Gerald Chukwuma is enormous. It is one of the 19 monuments commissioned by the state government to mark Lagos at 50. Built to last for decades, it seems that Lagos slept one night and woke up to this new landmark. In reality, that was not the case. In this interview with NMADIUTO UCHE, this mixed media artist speaks about the work behind the monument, getting selected, the concept, its location, and why Lagos is the most accommodating city in Africa.

You were one of the artists Terrakulture commissioned to build a monument to commemorate Lagos at 50, how did you get selected?

Bolanle Austen-Peters, founder of Terrakulture has been to my studio a couple of times. She also saw my exhibition at last year’s Art X Lagos. I was contacted in November 2016 and was asked to send in a brief. I got a call back a month later, then sent in the dimensions and technical drawings.

Interestingly, this monument auspiciously named, The Nerve Center is situated in Maryland, a popular route and in close proximity to Lagos’ International Airport. Was this a deliberate choice?

The truth is when I sent in my brief, I chose the Alausa area. Working in Lagos is not so simple and installing art in Maryland, a high traffic zone is the toughest place to work. There would be traffic until 11pm, so we would work through the night from 12 to 4 am. There was no place to mix the cement and structural engineers had to ensure compliance with the existing bridge structure.

That must have been a huge challenge. Could you explain the concept behind The Nerve Center with its 5 pillars and the 10 people on each pillar?

Most of the existing monuments in Lagos feature notable people in Nigeria’s history such as Herbert Macaulay. In reality, it is the common people that make Lagos what it is, a populated city brimming with opportunities. My goal was to build a monument dedicated to the unknown people in this city who are equally important. If you look closely at the figures on the pillars, you would find a fisherman, a woman in hijab, a bride, a Naturalista, a housewife and more. I want people to look at the figures and see their identities. The 5 pillars represent the 5 decades of good and solid leadership Lagos has enjoyed. Without this, we will not be here, living in Lagos comfortably.  Lagos sort of holds Nigeria together both in economic resources and the human factor. I have travelled around Africa and I am still yet to see a city as accommodating as Lagos. As far as you know how to relate with your space, it is amazing that all of us from diverse background can all be at home here without hostility. Ever since I moved to Lagos, what has been significant to me is the people here.

I agree that it is easy to feel at home in this highly populated city. What informed your choices for making the monument this size?

Let me give you more insight into the dimensions of this monument. The 50 people on the pillars are almost life size, about 5-6 feet tall. Halfway through creating the figures in my studio, I knew I was in trouble. I was simply excited to give this project my all and spent much more than I was paid. Each of the base is 8 feet by 8 feet and the pillars are about 18 feet high. The size is a shock even to me.  Creating something such as this to last for generations is a life-time opportunity. I like to compare it to a full-stop when you write an essay. Also, I feel uncomfortable with small pieces. A monument is a public sculpture and should be massive.

 Which other challenges arose with creating such a massive monument in Lagos leaving you with no option, but to respond with more creativity?

For one, the black base was supposed to be a coin, but the vicinity did not allow that. To pour such huge quantities of cement on site, we used LaFarge and the cost came up to about N 5 million. That was just for the cement. On some weekends we could not start work until 1am because Lagos does not sleep. We had Dulux deliver the base paint, but for the lettering we used Acrylic paint. Car paint would have been cheaper, but not as durable. There were also times when instead of working, we just prayed that the structure would hold together until it solidified and not explode. Each workday, there were 2 engineers on site, 2 of my artist friends with their assistants, and 6 of my workers. We fed and accommodated this crew for the week it took us to install this project. We would talk and shout, quarrel and laugh.

Now that this project is completed, if asked to install art in another public space, what will you create?

This time I would choose something more abstract. The subject would be the high amount of money in circulation in Lagos. Most companies’ headquarters are in this city not the nation’s capital. You see expensive cars and houses on display aplenty. I want to highlight the financial side of Lagos in a huge way.