Charles Okereke: ‘Perception is very important for an artist’
Charles Okereke is an accomplished photographer who uses his images to highlight the state of the environment. The multitalented artist, who attended the University of Port Harcourt, where he majored in sculpting, is also the proprietor of the Alexander Academy of Arts, Design and Alternative Methods. He tells Adefoyeke Ajao about his various talents, his idea of photography and his upcoming work.
Who is Charles Okereke? Can you please tell a little about yourself?
Charles Okereke is an artist who doesn’t limit himself to tools: I can be a photographer today or you could see me doing installations tomorrow. I’m just an artist who uses various tools to express myself. I schooled at the University of Port Harcourt, but before then I had dabbled into a lot of things; I was a commissioned sign writer and also did woodwork along the way.
I decided to go back to school at the age of 25 and it was self-funded. After school, I went back to designing furniture at Aba, in Abia State. I wasn’t so fulfilled because of the environment and I had to move out, so I came to Lagos in 2003 and I’ve been practising in Lagos since then.
How did you begin photography considering that your background is in sculpting and other arts?
Before I went into the university I had worked in a printing firm called the Commercial Arts Centre. There, I was taught graphics and I was also introduced to photography and a part of printing that was called lithography. Lithography is similar to photography. So, before even going to the university, I had a lot of knowledge about the darkroom process and photography and it was easier for me to understand it when it was taught in the university and also to practise it thereafter.
How would you describe your creative process? How do you choose what you’re going to shoot? Do you start with a concrete idea in mind or do you prefer to be spontaneous when working?
I work mostly on the environment. The environment is my concern, so I have what you could call a point of interest already and with that, I can begin to identify salient points or suppositions about what is good or bad for the environment.
For me, photography relies on stimulus; you just realise instinctively that something is not right in the environment and you develop a kind of reaction. As you begin to notice these changes continuously, the language [of the photography] begins to evolve.
What do you look for in a great picture?
It has to do more with the language of what you are trying to communicate. The rest such as the colour, shape and form depends on how you as an artist observe – your perception, how you interpret things, how you can see things. For me, it’s all about perception because perception is very important for an artist. I can shoot something from an angle and another person could take the same shot from that same angle, but both images will differ because of perception.
There must be something there that is of a language that I can relate with, something that will reflect the language I am trying to express to the public.
Are there other photographers whose works inspire you?
I’ve come across a couple of photographers that I admire, but it is not just about admiration, it’s about the language that their work is projecting. I love the styles and approach of certain photographers who are currently working. From the Nigerian point of view, people like Uche James Iroha, because he is working on issues that are trying to explore languages, or trying to make suppositions. Everybody is trying to speak a language, be it through fashion or documentary photography, but the language has to be deeper for me to understand what goes on in the image.
You are passionate about getting people to understand that the art of photography is beyond simply picking up a camera and taking shots, what advice would you give to aspiring photographers?
I think we’ve had a gap in training: the educational system has a lot of problems so we have a world that is playing catch up, so to speak. With the advent of digital cameras, photography has become so automated that anybody can pick up a camera, unlike our days when you use the analogue camera and you have to learn the complete process of being a technical person.
I would say education is still important whether you’re self-taught or going through the Internet to look out for facts or attending workshops. People must learn to attend workshops like what I am doing here in Badagry, at the Alexander Academy of Arts, Design and Alternative Methods. We gather sometimes for workshops but you find out that people are still reluctant to move out of their comfort zones.
I would say to young, aspiring photographers that there must be the hunger first of all and the passion, these become the drive for them to ask more questions that tend to improve their work. It’s also about language, if you don’t have a language at the end of the day you fall by the side. People who are serious find their own niche, and for those who are not serious, time will weed them out.
If you weren’t a photographer, what else would you be?
I would have been a very, very good musician; even the strongest.
Of all your works which one is your favourite and why?
The Unseen World series, my photography series that I showed in Bamako. I was really helped by the unseen hands of some angels who directed me to some places and opened my eyes to seeing and using other tools of my art as an expression of the environmental work that I’m doing. I think discovering myself as an environmental artist drove the Unseen World series.
What are you currently working on? You run the Alexander Academy of Arts, Design and Alternative Methods in Badagry, can you give a little insight into the academy’s operations and the projects we should expect from you in the future?
The academy is a think tank platform. It’s an experimental platform where we use indigenous materials found within the environment in architecture. We are asking questions about how it was in former times so that we can retrace history: If we were allowed as Africans to evolve naturally without the intervention of the colonialists who came in, how would Africa have looked like even in the 21st century?
Presently, the academy is also supposed to be a vocational school that’s also community-based and youths of the community can get access to the platform to learn dance (choreography), fine arts or photography. We even have a section that focuses on skill acquisition in the sense of furniture design and making and boat building. Unfortunately, funding has been a problem for that.
I am working on my own works that I want to show at some exhibitions very soon. They are installations that I am making on canvasses and other substrates. I go about picking up objects from the streets just like I did in ‘Unseen World’ where you will see that I shot things that are embedded in the ground, almost extinct, but exhumed as if they are undergoing some form of resurrection. What I do is that I collect stuff and mount them on canvas to form a narrative. The concept is still on the retracing of steps, I call it ‘Primordiality’. I’m retracing history with the new work I’m doing, using discarded materials within the environment for the narratives.
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