The Beginning.

As a young boy Usen was always drawing and tinkering with stuff. He would break things up, just to put them back together again, but differently. His inquisitive mind impressed his father, kindling the belief in Usen’s engineering abilities. That dream ended when Usen, due to his small stature was denied entry into a government-funded technical high school. But, his talent at drawing opened other doors. While still at primary school Usen made an exceptional drawing of a church bell for a class project. The teacher gave him a clean sheet of paper and requested another drawing, but from different angle. Cheered on by his classmates Usen produced an even better drawing. That experience gave him the confidence to believe in his ability to draw. During his first year at high school, and then barely thirteen, Usen became the chief cartoonist of his school’s prestigious Press Club. Throughout his high school years his artistic talents were encouraged and nurtured by a supportive uncle. Usen left high school as the best art student in his class and went to study Art and Design at the famed Polytechnic College in Enugu.

The artist, Usen Obot.

During the final year at college he completed an internship at Art Craft Studios in Uyo, Nigeria. This six month practical session was compulsory and part of his study programme. The studio was one of the most popular in the region, with a regular flow of collectors and visiting artists from inside and outside the country. Conversations were robust with topics ranging from exhibitions to politics. As an art student he was familiar with the Nigerian school and artists such as Nsikak Essien, Yusuf Adebayo Cameron Grillo, Twins Seven Seven, Uche Okeke, and Ben Enwonwu. But it was the Ghanaian, El Anatsui who deeply inspired Usen at that time, and whose approach to art making left a lasting impression on this young aspiring artist.

After his graduation Usen joined the studio on a full time basis. It was his entry onto the world of becoming a professional artist, and exposed it him to the inner workings of a successful art studio. It also taught him the intricacies of the business of art. It was there where he sold his first artwork and where he discovered an innate talent for managing artists.

After two years he felt ready to venture out on his own and went on to establish the Renaissance Art and Design Consortium. It was the first professional artist studio with a registered address in his home state. He was then in his mid-twenties.

Usen in front of one of his paintings. 2016.

It was a very busy period of his life. Apart from managing the studio and guiding younger artists, and art students working at the studio he was also developing collective projects, and took on commissions as a practicing artist. Experiments in mixed media often included locally sourced textiles, but his preferred medium then was worked on paper, using pen, ink and acrylics. His source of inspiration was his immediate environment and traditional African structures. Clients were private collectors, expatriates and to a few galleries in the United States.

The Middle Years

Shortly after celebrating the second anniversary of his own and very successful studio, Usen made a significant decision – to relocate to Uitenhage, South Africa. Uitenhage is an industrial town in the eastern part of the country known for its automobile-assembly plants, railway workshops, textile and tyre factories. Unknown to him then it was an area barren of artistic facilities and no art community. He shared a small apartment with a friend (the one who convinced him to move to South Africa) and used a coffee table as a work surface. Things were not easy but he believed in his ability as an artist and continued to produce his work. Everything changed on a cold winter’s morning in 2003 when he took a trip to the Vista University campus. He sold two small paintings, and secured a commission.

Within a few months he was offered an exhibition at a gallery in Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha). Breaking into any art scene is a formidable challenge, and being an outsider made it even more daunting. Yet, Usen’s determination was unwavering. He moved to Port Elizabeth, rented a studio and did exactly as he had been trained. He worked at his art every day and made sure he always had paintings available for sale. He made friends and acquaintances and expanded his network. He secured the funding to develop and launch a touring exhibition of local artists’ work. Most importantly he lived by the ethos that self-presentation, language and manners are as critical as talent and work ethics to ascend the ladder of success. He had been in a new country for three years.

The changes in his life was also reflected in his work. It had shifted away from stylized figurative work with African elements to heavy impasto abstracts with tactile appeal. These works were influenced by his mental state and experiences of xenophobia and exclusion. While his works had become more autobiographical, his source of inspiration had become more global through the works of Hank William Thomas, Victor Ekpuk, Salvadore Dali, Yayoi Kusama, Kerry James Marshall and others.

When every gallery in the Eastern Cape knew his name he travelled to Johannesburg. One gallery owner not only declined to view his work, but threw him and his artworks out the door. He found a solution by asking a friend to present the same pieces to the same gallery owner. It worked and the gallery became an important outlet for his work. Regular trips to Johannesburg put him in touch with artists, institutions and community arts organization. In 2007 he secured the funding for another project; an exhibition of emerging artists living and working in the Eastern Cape. The opening of the New Now Next exhibition in Port Elizabeth attracted a record breaking audience.

Portrait of the gallery director.

But the longing for a permanent gallery in his hometown persisted. In 2014, Usen launched his most audacious project – Galerie NOKO with an inaugural exhibition titled, Redefinition of the status quo. His vision for the space, despite unfounded criticism of money laundering, was to provide opportunities for artists irrespective of race, ethnicity, educational qualification or social strata. Perhaps more bold was his commitment to make the artists from the Eastern Cape more visible, and particularly at art fairs. He incorporated the New Now Next exhibition into the gallery calendar and developed it into a national arts competition with prizes in three categories. His exhibition roster often included themed exhibitions such No Caveat, Breaking Surface and Saints & Sinners.

In 2016, Galerie NOKO delivered on its promise and participated in the Investec Cape Town Art Fair. It was a huge achievement for this young gallery director whose objective was to give visibility to the art produced in one of the most economically depressed provinces in the country. Galerie NOKO also participated in the Joburg Art Fair and Turbine Art Fair hosted in Johannesburg.

The Now

When the global pandemic shuttered the world, it also shuttered Galerie NOKO. In six short years the gallery had provided internship opportunities for eighteen youths, worked with 168 artists and hosted 64 exhibitions. Usen returned to his studio, and became a full time artist. When the world returned to normal, he found himself back to researching options for practicing artists. Things had changed, there were new voices, new spaces, new programs, and also new gate keepers. He had been in South Africa for nearly two decades. Finding his place as a practicing artist however, felt infinitely easier than those early days when he first arrived in the country.

In the final quarter of 2021, he secured a spot in a Mellon Foundation-funded Artist in Residence program hosted at the Fine Arts Department at Rhodes University in Makhanda.

Installation view. Being/Present exhibition. 2024

During this residency, he embarked on an exciting new direction, creating relief sculptures and three-dimensional objects using wood and metal. The collection of work culminated in the exhibition Mkpese: Then, Now and Future History hosted in Makhanda, followed by Mkpese – The Incarnate hosted at the Nelson Mandela University Art Gallery in Gqeberha. The inspiration for the new work is the Ekpo, a precolonial African society and Usen’s attempt to re-contextualize and reimagine their ancient practices. The society was administered by initiated men whose role involved combining religion, spirituality, governance and administration to maintain peace and protect the community. In the Ekpo order, families were entrusted through custodianship the management, care and narrative of each of the Ekpo society’s various segments. In comparison, and in contrast to the governments of today, the works reimagines the significance of unity in the family construct which is integral to social cohesion, empathy and community development. The collection of works also communicates the significance of the spirit world in African culture and to reiterate the integral value of African spirituality in the holistic creation and maintenance of social order.

Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2024. Usen Obot’s work is placed in a conversation with pieces by the late Paul du Toit.

Usen Obot participated in the Being/Present exhibition curated by Heidi Erdmann and hosted at the gallery at Glen Carlou in Paarl (January – March 2024). A capsule of this exhibition was presented by Legacy at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair in February 2024.

Usen Obot was born in 1974 in Nigeria. He lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa.

[Heidi Erdmann / October 2023]

Angels Defence. Acrylic, wood and steel. 1.5 x 1.62 x 4cm. 2024