For Bertha Onyekachi, creativity is a lifestyle. She has always been very crafty and artsy. As a kid, her dad was mostly away at work, and as is common in many Nigerian homes, whenever he comes home for a break, he’d bring a lot of snacks for Bertha and her sibling so that he would receive a warm and daddy-befitting welcome. Bertha, however, is not always satisfied until her dad brings a drawing book along with the snacks. “Sometimes, I even prefer the drawing books to the snacks,” she noted.
This all began when, once, as an assignment from school, Bertha was to draw a child going to school. While contemplating how to go about this task, she remembered that she had noticed one of her neighbours drawing to pass the time on several occasions, and she thought, “who is best to approach for help if not this neighbour?” So she basically got her neighbour to make a drawing for her, which she copied into her drawing book. Soon, Bertha made her artist neighbour a friend. And thus began a journey of creative self-discovery.
It’s now more than two decades after these events, and Bertha is now a full-time creative, exploring her creative energy as a visual artist, performing artist, and culinary artist. Her visual art pieces, many of which revolve around the female body, have been featured on a couple of media platforms. She has also exhibited in several curated events, and she looks forward to expanding the reach of her current and upcoming bodies of work in international exhibitions and platforms beyond the shores of Africa.
As part of our ongoing Black Magix series in celebration of Black History Month, Tope Akintayo engages Bertha in a conversation about her experience as an intern at the Universal Studio of Arts, the importance of consistency in a creative’s life, and the creative’s role in response to human social responsibilities.
TOPE AKINTAYO: I’m really glad to be chatting with you. Something that immediately caught my attention when I stumbled on your profile some weeks ago is that you’re a multi-disciplinary artist. You’re a visual artist, a performing artist, and a culinary artist. It’s just amazing. Can you talk a little bit about that? What does it mean to embody these three phases at once?
BERTHA ONYEKACHI: I think it’s just a lifestyle for me. I’ve always been very crafty and artsy since I was a kid. I studied Fine and Applied Arts at the university. I initially wanted to study Theater Arts, but I could not get admission into the course even after several attempts, so I decided to fall back to Fine and Applied Art. I applied, passed with merit, and got admission. Of course, my first and second choices are perfect representations of my artistic drive. Cooking also comes naturally to me. My studio is in my house, so I paint at home, go out for acting jobs, and return home to cook and eat good food. So, I was running a food business, but I stopped when I changed location. For now, I enjoy my food in my house while I take pictures for social media from time to time. Creativity is a lifestyle for me; it’s my everyday life.
That’s interesting. You mentioned that you started drawing things when you were young, and that art became a lifestyle. And it makes me wonder if there is any societal influence, or influence of the environment, on how that particular lifestyle became a part of you. I believe that as a kid, there’s this indwelling tendency that comes to individuals. This tendency is usually different from individual to individual. Still, to some extent, the environment you are brought up in also determines which of these tendencies you get to explore. So, I want to know the earliest childhood memory that you have of creativity. I also want to know if you had people or things in your surroundings that inspired and started the creative flame in you.
Well, nobody in my family—both immediate and extended—is an artist of any sort. My dad didn’t usually stay with us while we were growing up. Whenever he comes home to spend a few days, I usually request a drawing book. He finds it very absurd. “Why are you always asking for a drawing book?” He’ll always ask. “What do you even do with your drawing book that you’re always coming back to ask me for money for more drawing books.”
However, one influence I had was from a neighbour around 1997. I had an assignment from school, and I drew a child going to school. This neighbour was quite artistic, and I often saw him draw. So for this assignment, I had him draw the child, and I copied what he drew for me. That was how it started, and I kept checking out the things he drew so that I could redraw them. He was a weird artist, though. He usually draws from the feet upwards – from the feet up to the head, and I find it fascinating.
When I said I would study art in school, it didn’t make any sense to my family members. They just wanted me to do a generic course like law, medicine. But I’m not a science-driven person at all. I’m very artsy. From the beginning, I just knew that I’d thrive more in the arts, where I can do many things-the only thing I cannot do is dance. In senior secondary school, you have to pick and drop some subjects. I was one of the few students who took fine art, and I was very good at it. One of the encouragements I had at the time was that I was doing it very effortlessly, and people were fascinated and wondered, “How can a girl do this.” Some of my secondary school teachers were also encouraging, in the persons of Mrs Aleto and Mr Jimoh. They saw how effortless it was for me, and they encouraged me. I ended up being the only student who registered for Fine Art in SSCE.
That’s interesting. First, you were very strong about what you wanted to do at such a young age. Many people at such a young age are not very sure of what they want to do. It is also fascinating that you were the only student who wrote Fine Art for SSCE. I think, until recently, the fine art industry has been male-dominated. What do you have to say about that, and what has it been like navigating such a male-dominated industry?
In some ways, the art industry is still male-dominated, but women are now getting good recognition from those who understand and appreciate art. It’s still fascinating to see a woman delving into a male-dominated industry, which is facilitating the rise in people interested in the work of female artists. When I was doing my industrial training at the Universal Studio of Art, one of the directors there always said, “I don’t like teaching girls how to paint because they’ll get married, and they’ll forget and not do it anymore.” But I am very determined, and you can’t shake me off with your words. The more he said it, the more I was like, “Oga, you go teach me this thing.” So I packed all of my things, went to his studio, and buried my head there. When I was going back to school, I had so many pieces to exhibit at the final year exhibition, and people were amazed.
People are beginning to see that females do these things, although sometimes some people might want to take advantage of you because you are female. It happens everywhere in the world, most of the time, and in different professions. But then, if you know your onions, I don’t think anybody can push you to the side and walk over you. Of course, it’s a male-dominated industry, but one thing that stands you out is your determination and consistency. I always put my heart into anything I set out to do. I always do research, try many techniques, and experiment a lot.
I think it is safe to say that your academic qualifications backed your creative exploration. However, I’d like to know what it was like beyond the academic atmosphere, especially during the earliest days of your career. What was it like in the industry?
I’ll start by saying that for me, art is a haven. I’m not doing it primarily to pursue money. I am doing it to feel good about myself and proud of myself. It’s my dream, and I’m living it. Career-wise, I’ve always wanted to do my own thing, calling my own shots and controlling my own time. I’ve never worked for anybody before. I’ve never submitted my CV in search of a job because I’ve never really needed one.
Having said that, I’ll like to note that it was not easy starting as an artist. Everybody in art will encourage you to get a side hustle because, initially, you’ll paint and paint, but people are not seeing it, and people are not buying it. One thing I’ve come to realize is that people follow you to see what you’re doing and to see if you’re consistent. What people buy is consistency, not your art. If you’re not consistent in your art, people will not take you seriously because they’re putting down their hard-earned money to invest in what you’re doing, hoping you will continue doing it so that in years to come, they will have a return on their investment. They are banking on you. So, if you stop creating and taking strategic steps to increase your value as an artist, your works in people’s possession will become valueless. So, it is not easy to start up because people will initially not take you seriously as they’ll wonder if you’ll be consistent. The trick is, if you’re consistent enough to keep pushing through the years, you will get the recognition and the monetary reward you deserve. You will earn it with your consistency.
So what underlying emotions or what messages, generally, do you want your works to pass across to the audience?
Art is very progressive. My earliest works’ themes used to be the female figure because I was fascinated by the female figure. I have done that for a while, and I’ve grown in my technique and style. The body of work I’m developing is about African history, particularly Nigerian history; some are also about gods and mythologies. So anybody who walks through an exhibition will see themes around the female figure in my old works and themes around spirituality and mythologies in my recent body of works.
How do you keep the creative juices flowing? Is there a person, place, or routine that naturally gives you creative inspiration?
Sometimes, you can experience a creative block when working for days. You might grow tired of that space. One thing I always do is find time to rest. I log off, close the studio for a few days, and eat, sleep, and take fresh air. I get my mind off work and try to do other things. Doing this helps me look at the work from a different perspective when I eventually get back to work. Another escape route for me is acting. I take out time to act. Although I am an indoor person, I sometimes find time to go out with my friends to eat or swim, which is always refreshing and helpful.
In 2021, you exhibited at a cancer awareness program organized by Heartwell’s Foundation. It makes me want to ask you what you think the role of an artist or the significance of art is in all the issues we face as a society and as individuals.
Although art is very subjective, its aesthetic to the environment is one thing. Besides this, art is very therapeutic. There’s just this thing about it that helps people heal or cope with certain issues. It also awakens consciousness to specific societal issues. I recently worked with an NGO focused on child abuse and molestation. We set up long stretch of wall art around the theme of child abuse and molestation, and the way the community reacted to the display was amazing. The event venue got more attention, and then these artworks ended up being conversation starters for issues around abuse.
As humans, one of the things that make us different from other animals is our sense of responsibility, which translates into our willingness to contribute to the collective wellbeing of society. For the Heartwells Foundation cancer awareness show, I was summoned alongside other artists to exhibit works. Part of the commitment we agreed to was giving certain percentages of the sale of our work towards financial aid for people living with cancer. That is a practical example of social responsibility as an artist.
What are you most excited about for the future?
I’m excited about a production I’m working on, specifically a web series. I’m currently getting the script ready, and it will be the first film project I’m involved in as a writer. I am also excited about the art series I am working on, which will inspire people to appreciate their roots. I’m also excited about breaking through to massive recognition by international galleries and creative platforms so that more people see my work.
What advice would you give your 15-year-old self?
I would tell her not to waste time and to live her life fully. I’ve always cherished my life, space, time, and mental health enough to know that I don’t want to be pressured by a lot of things. I want to be myself and live my life the right way. I will also advise her never to be distracted. I have often been distracted by thoughts like, “This is not working; maybe I should try something else.” Thoughts like this are dangerous. As soon as you get the revelation about what to do, just run with it. Do you want to do art? Keep at it, keep doing it. The God who gave you this talent is not stupid and is not a master of confusion. He knows that you will need this skill or this talent at one point or the other. Keep running with this skill. Don’t get distracted, don’t get depressed. Especially at the start, please don’t beat yourself up too much about whether it is working or not working. It will eventually work.