Despite being a self-taught artist, Matthew Eguavoen, a full-time contemporary painter from Nigeria, has placed himself in the glorified league of professionally trained Black artists. After studying Civil Engineering and Structures at the University of Port Harcourt, he found meaning in art and has devoted himself to using it as a medium for change.
Matthew believes that diligence beats, or breeds talent. “Whatever I have become is a result of hard work and persistence,” he said. “Anyone, regardless of their background, can build a creative career, as long as they are willing to put in the work.” He spoke with us from his Lagos studio via Zoom on a warm Saturday evening.
TOPE AKINTAYO: Did you, at any point, undergo any form of professional art training?
MATTHEW EGUAVOEN: I am a self-taught artist. I know about art today due to lessons I take on YouTube, backed with consistent practice. I repeatedly studied and copied other people’s art before eventually catching up with my style. It is normal for every artist to try to mimic other artists. I was initially a portrait artist, and I used pencil and charcoal to draw. I never knew I could paint. I never tried. There was a time when I wanted to undergo what would qualify as professional training, and I registered with a roadside artist to learn how to paint. I paid him ₦30,000, and the plan was to train for some weeks, but I only went about two times before I quit. I figured that all I needed was to see somebody painting in real-time to see if there was an extra thing they were doing beyond putting oil on canvas. By the time I went twice, I had already figured out what I wanted to see, and since then, I have started practising on my own.
Many creatives suffer from fear and lack of self-confidence, especially at the beginning of their career. How have you been able to navigate this?
I overcame a lack of confidence in my work by understanding that there is no such thing as bad art. No matter what you’re creating. Maybe the right audience for your work has yet to be found. My art is some of the best art globally, even though I am constantly looking to improve. I ensure that every piece of art is better than the previous one. I work so hard to make sure that I improve my career as an artist, which has also improved my confidence in myself.
That reminds me of what you said in your interview with Mitochondria Gallery, where you mentioned that what makes your work unique is the fact that you try to pass messages through your art. Do you think that artists and their works are significant in changing the narratives of things?
Right now, art is a key issue in the world. Even in Nigeria, where the art reception was below, people are now more invested than in the Western world. People are now beginning to see what art can do in society. If you are a Nigerian, you will know that many ill-mannered things are happening politically, socially, and economically. As an artist, I try to create art to speak about and create awareness for these issues as much as possible. The impact of art is dependent on its reach. If I make artwork in Nigeria and exhibit it in the USA or Australia, I can pass important messages across borders. Therefore, the audience of such a work is invited to think about the artist’s message. It’s not enough to make paintings because you want to make a painting, but you need to do it as a way to pass important messages from your little corner to the whole world.
That makes sense because I noticed that one of the exhibitions you’ve participated in includes the Arts in Medicine exhibition for mental health. I think the same applies to that too. From a personal standpoint, how significant is technology to art and creativity?
There is a great significance, especially during the pandemic when there were no physical exhibitions, and people began to see the importance of social media in having their works seen by more people, even without their presence and without visiting the four walls of a gallery. That was an eye-opener for everybody. I’ve exported and sold my work to people I’ve never met via social media. I have exhibited in shows in countries I have never visited. Just by having contact with people I met via social media. Without this technology, these people might not know what I do. Even if they will eventually do, it would take a very long time for that to happen. Social media has made it easier and faster to reach a global audience. As long as you are doing good work, people will always locate you.
What has been your greatest challenge as a creative, and how have you navigated this challenge?
I don’t know if I should call them challenges, but I’ve always approached things one day at a time. I have always taken it one painting at a time. I rarely overstress my mental capacity, and I try as much as possible to stay within my reach and see the possibility of a bigger show. At the start of my career, I faced some mental health issues. I was able to overcome this by not keeping quiet about my issues. I also faced the issue of artist block, with which I am sure many creatives can relate. However, talking to people around me, especially other artists, helps greatly. To battle this artist block, I also go through other artists’ work and study the works for inspiration. So those are some of the ways I have overcome my major challenges.
You mentioned that you started seeing yourself as a professional artist in 2021. What would you say gave you the courage to do this eventually?
One of the reasons I consider myself a professional artist is sustaining myself via art. I also started gaining international recognition for my work–this is something I have not gotten before, something I never even imagined at the beginning of my career. Beginning in 2021, I realize that I do not have to be anything but an artist and sustain myself with art. Now almost every day, I paint because that’s what I do.
What has it been like being a full-time artist in a country like Nigeria?
It’s two-sided. I’ve never had any shows in Nigeria. I have only been approached in Nigeria once, and that’s this year. Although 2021, I was never approached by Nigerian platforms, even though I reached out to several of them, and I never got any response from them. Although I never let that stop me from working. I knew I was an artist, which I wanted to be, so I kept at it. I know a couple of Nigerian artists who have gotten shows in Nigeria, but all my shows have been outside Nigeria. I’ve had shows in Ghana, South Africa, Spain, and London. Even though I am in Nigeria, I have a lot of shows but all outside Nigeria. I don’t understand why it is so.
Like I said in my interview, I think Ghana has a lot of support for its artists. There are a lot of shows. Even among the artist, there is peer support and collaborations. In contrast to Nigeria, there is not a lot of communication and collaboration. I try several times to start conversations when I encounter young artists like myself. We talk about work, selling, exhibiting in shows and galleries. I have noticed that many artists are not interested in conversations like this, but I still try to do as much as possible. Although a lot of times, artists might feel like they compete against each other, however, it is important to remember that there is a lot of room for everyone.
We are not yet regarding the Nigerian art ecosystem’s connections and gallery efforts. But I am sure we are getting there. I have only seen two galleries in Nigeria that are after the growth of the artists they feature. Most of the other galleries are sadly only after profit and don’t think long term in favour of the artist. They don’t give enough room for the growth of the artist. I am more invested in galleries that are forward-thinking towards the long-term growth of an artist than just quick profits.
You said you are more after long term growth and not necessarily instant sales. Could you reflect more on what you mean by long term growth?
I believe I hold this power as a creative, more like a god. And I wish every artist could see themselves in this same image and know that, as artists, they can create whatever they can imagine. I try to do this with my work. I try to drive conversations with my work. It satisfies me if I can drive home a point with my work, which is more important than its monetary value. Ultimately, the fact that the work is valuable based on its context will drive it to sell. It’s a different ballgame if money-making is the major drive for creating art. People should want and buy the work because of the conversation behind it. From the title of my work to the actual painting, I ensure that deep messages are embedded, which is more important to me than the financial aspect. I like to tell people that I am no longer starving as an artist, but I am hungry to create works that drive conversations. In early 2021, I was starving because I was not selling. Right now, I am beyond that. What facilitated my first few sales is that my works carry meaning and context. My art is not for amusement. I want my work to go beyond amusement and decoration.
If you’ll pick three things that have been most useful to your career, what are those going to be?
The first thing is self-confidence. No matter what you’re creating, make sure you have self-confidence. Your self-confidence goes a long way in improving its value. Secondly, don’t hesitate to work on yourself. New artists are springing up every day. What distinction does your work have from that of other artists? Don’t ever feel like you’ve arrived. As much as possible, try to work on your skills, develop yourself and let your art evolve. Even if you are currently selling, you can’t be complacent with that because there are limits you’ve not reached. Nothing works by prayer alone. It would be best if you worked hard.
It would help if you also achieved a deep understanding of your work. When you don’t understand your work and believe in yourself, you will be seeking permission and outside validation. These outer voices have a way of distorting your view of your work, which affects your voice and originality. It is important to develop a strong sense of your craft so that you can stand by your work and speak confidently about it no matter what the world says about it.
From your interview with Mitochodria Gallery, I picked that you travelled a lot as a kid, living in different cities based on your dad’s occupation. So I wonder, how many languages do you speak?
I am not good at picking up new languages. I did not even try it. I understand a bit of Yoruba, but that was because I moved to Lagos and have been here for a while. I lived in Kaduna for a while, but I did not pick up Hausa. Even with my language, I am not very good at it. I am not very good at languages. I express myself best in Pidgin. Even when speaking English, especially in informal settings, I find myself reverting to Pidgin.
What are some of your favourite things?
I like food, although I don’t have a big appetite for food. My best food is fried plantain and beans. Then I love music too, especially those by new generation African artists like Buju, Blaqbonez, Bella Shmurda, Rema and the likes. I believe that we have more self-confident artists now than before. The go-ahead to get whatever things they are after getting.