Ahmed Muhammed Bello is a creative who describes himself as a “universal artist and surrealist”. A businessman who expresses himself in different ways — voice-over artist, filmmaker and writer, he also services the construction industry through his cleaning company, Struct-Con.
In this interview, we discuss his venture into art and discovering just how versatile he is as a creative. We also discuss commercial art, the need for community and tips to navigate the commercial art space.
The first time we met, at The International Housing Show, I had no idea just how many paintings you had created. Now I’m here, and I am wondering which is your favourite of all of your works. Do you have a favourite?
Uhm, I have never really thought I had a fav… but now that you mention it, my favourite would be “City Scape”.
How long did you work on it?
Did you go at it every day?
I worked with inspiration. You might start a painting and not know what to paint. You might have a blank canvas, and you want to paint, but you would not have a full vision of what you want to make. Until you start, and it keeps coming… it keeps coming.
And there are days you know, that ‘you are not feeling it.’
You don’t like what you have painted, and you erase everything and you start all over again.
I can’t imagine erasing ‘City Scape’, and starting all over again.
Yeah, every artist goes through that.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up between Kaduna and Abuja. I lived most of my life in Kaduna.
Kaduna is a very artsy place. There are a lot of art communities. Did that influence any of your work? When did you start to paint?
I was one of the best students in arts in my secondary school. I started drawing when I was young. I loved drawing but my parents discouraged me from doing that.
They said that artists hardly make it in life. So why not have something professional to do?
So I lost touch with it, but truly if you check my books, you know – till date, I could show you some of my books… once I have a paper and a pen, I always doodle, sketch something.
It’s something that never left me. Even though they wanted me to leave it. They wanted me to pursue a more “dignified career”, but it never left me. So, I studied English Literature.
I thought you’d say Architecture or something.
Nope! I studied English Literature and then I studied Film at Ciné Fabrique á Lyon, in France. There are many sides to me as an artist.
So you make films too.
Yes. I write films, stories. I’ve written a book. A published book. A collection of short stories. It’s called The Curse and other stories. It’s available on Okada Books.
Of all the mediums you use to express your art, which do you always gravitate to?
I think I am a universal artist because I have different mediums of expressing myself.
I think art is expression generally. It is expression in the abstract and I believe in all that I do, I express myself.
As a voice-over artist, I express art with my voice. As a writer, I express art with my words. And as an artist, I express art in color – I paint.
So, with all these different mediums, even as a fashion designer, you are an artist. You don’t have to paint alone, as long as you are creative at something, that makes you an artist.
Talking about the aspect of painting, my medium is acrylic and oil on canvas.
But some of your works have metal in them.
I also do mixed media. Like the Abstract Eye, it is mixed media. It is meant to represent an eye. A window to something. It’s abstract, so if you turn it the other way round, you will see something different and in reverse, you see something different.
Do any of your paintings address societal issues?
I think a lot of them do. They refer to society. For example, City Scape. If you look at it, it is a typical example of a well-organized city, where everyone goes out to work in the morning. From every sphere of life, from every corner of the city.
So, that is a representation of Abuja, where you can see people coming from Nyanya, Mararaba to work in the town. And when the day is over, they return – traffic, rush hour and all.
Your representation is calming. What is your favourite time of the day to work?
I work best in the morning from about 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. That is the freshest time the brain operates. Your brain works better in the morning, before the sun is out. Once the sun is out…
You don’t like the sun?
I don’t like the sun.
Do you follow art trends?
No I don’t follow trends. I am a non-conformist.
You have never ever said “let me go with the trend”? You have never made anything because it was trending?
Once, and that is for that one, Friends. But, most of my earlier works were sort of ‘mystique.’
My earliest paintings were mystical. They were influenced by my interests at that time.
I am interested in surrealism. Surreal art, dreamlike art. I was interested in things that were beyond normal. Beyond physical, beyond things you could see. I was interested in flaws.
Human beings are imperfect and we carve our own paths and that’s why there are so many problems in the world. We are the cause.
Most of my paintings then were influenced by that mindset, but the truth is the market in Nigeria doesn’t really absorb such.
Not everybody understands mystique and not everybody can relate. I have a few people who could relate, so I had to, you know, open up into a more commercial market and started making fine arts but my earliest works were mystique.
Like the work titled, ‘Nostalgia.”
You see a chair and you see a path. That is surreal art.
I am influenced by painters like Frida Kahlo.
Okay, I see… very intense actually. At the moment, most of the things I see are very straight to the point. The play is in the colors, but I can tell what it is just by looking at it.
Are people more receptive to things they can understand immediately?
But you still make this “Mystique” art – your personal style?
Yes, I make them for my person and for the few people that understand. So in my own space, that’s where you see those paintings.
Was it hard to transition from your style to making something people wanted. Do you battle with yourself – what you want to make is not what people would immediately collect?
It is more difficult because you know you are making them for people’s consumption, and not for yourself.
What is the least favorite part of the creative process for commercial art?
Not knowing what to paint. The point where you are trying to decide – what colors to use, what sizes to use? I think that is the draining part.
And the most interesting part of the creative process is the start process. You have the image in your mind, you have figured it out, and you just get going and going…
It feels like another industry completely inside the art space – the commercial part of art. Do you have a community? Some sort of collective space?
For commercial art discussions, then no. But I belong to other groups. We are connected through the “art of it” – so the different mediums – pastels, charcoal, pencils, pen art. Everyone has what works for them.
What demographic of people purchase your work?
Elderly People. They actually appreciate art more. The ages of forty and above are those patronize me the most.
Is it the funds?
Not particularly, they understand the decorative part. Most of them want to decorate homes, hotels, restaurants. They are looking at the aesthetic value. The play of colors, style, theme. They aren’t conventional.
Do you have “another job”?
I am a business man. I don’t work for anyone. This is a part of what I do. Aside the gallery, I have a media company, Borola Blue. I am also a voice over artist and I am in the construction industry. I have a cleaning company – StructCon.
The gallery though, is where I am most relaxed. It is my comfort zone.
It feels like it.
So, there is a system in which I operate. I call it “The Release and Taking In.”
I take in energy, I release, take in, and release.
I don’t just release. I channel so much into writing, voicing, commissions, cleaning. That is me chucking so much energy out there, but how do I get it back?
So this is my comfort zone. This is where I take it back. I read a book, or write, or paint what I love to paint.
Do you have a dream project? Somebody you have always wanted to work with? Or something you’ve wanted to make that keeps nagging at you?
Well, I don’t think there is such a thing as a final project. I have more inspiration, bigger dreams.
I never dreamed of being an artist. Everything I am doing now, I never planned to do them. I just found myself doing them. I didn’t even think I would be a voice over artist, I didn’t even know my voice was good.
I didn’t know I was a writer until I discovered myself. I still didn’t know I was going to publish a book; I didn’t know I was going to make films.
So what I do is every year, I set some projects for myself; exhibition and film project or I publish a book and at the beginning of this year, I set two projects. One would be an exhibition, and I’ll also publish a book.
You said you produced a short film. What is it called?
Yes, it is on YouTube. It’s titled ONE ALONE.
I wrote and produced it. It is a psychological thriller. I would like to do a screening, but I haven’t had the time. People can come, watch and talk about it. People would have opinions on being alone and being lonely.
Those are two different things. So, it’s something I’d like people to come around and share their experience.
Is it based off your life? Or is it fiction?
It’s fiction. But then again, nothing is ever completely fiction.
Have you ever collaborated with anyone?
Yes, for an exhibition. I have collaborated with Aida Oluwagbemiga. She curated it two years ago.
I have also collaborated with Nimah Art and a few others artists.
So, writer’s block. It is normal, but how do you navigate yours? Have you ever been stuck at the same time in everything you do? Writing, filming and all?
Yes. And that’s why I have the ‘release and take-in system.’ So as a creative person, you don’t just give out. You create a system of taking in and the way I do that is by taking a break. I drop everything because my mental juice is dry and I read a book or do something else.
I relax and return refreshed.
I also have a take-in method, which is kick-boxing. So once I get to that stage, I do that.
I do other things too;
It is discipline.
You obviously get criticism and praise for your work. What is the worst critique you have ever gotten and from who?
A very close friend of mine. The work isn’t here in the gallery. He complained about my choice of colour. We just sat and we were dissecting all my paintings.
And he gave me very constructive criticism. And he started by saying if he saw my work anywhere, he would be able to identify it because of my choice of colours – purple and blue.
I use a lot of green, yellow, purple and blue.
I got another critique from a friend. She said I never blend my colors well. She is also an artist. She used to be a fashion designer.
How did that make you feel?
Well, she criticized my painting ‘Barometer of Love’ and it’s been sold.
Truth is, every artist makes mistakes and sometimes, the mistakes become very valuable to your work.
Art is appreciated when we are no more and your mistakes make your art original.
For example, some mistakes make your art beautiful. They aren’t meant to destroy your work, but to enhance it. So when you make mistakes, you don’t have to try too hard to erase it. It could be a part of the creative process too.
Are there any mistakes-turn-masterpieces here in the gallery?
No, when I paint, I don’t look at that. I don’t see my mistakes as mistakes. I think every ‘wrong stroke’ makes it more beautiful, so my art is viewed as such.
What you see as an error may be beautiful to me, or you meet someone different and they see something else.
No art is completely perfect. Sometimes an unfinished work is the beauty of that piece.
Someone can see it and say ‘No, don’t finish it. Because to them, it already has a message. Its complete.
Now I am wondering why the chair is there.
That’s the symbolism. Someone is supposed to be in that chair, but there is no one.
And the chair is backing the house. This painting is part of a series. It has brothers, and they have been sold.
There is one on my Instagram page, the chair is facing the house. But here, it is backing it.
I see. Aside the paintings, I also see a lot of sculptures. Do you make sculptures?
No, I don’t make sculptures. I purchase and sell. That is not my strength.
I buy the sculptures based on demand and for decorative purposes. I don’t really like sculptures because of my religion. I purchase them for commercial purposes. People make demands for them.
Like after the Housing Show, someone reached out to me the next day saying he wanted a sculpture of a mother and child. I don’t make them, but I had to fulfil the demand.
I also noticed there are not a lot of portraits.
There are a few human figures. I have done portraits – for the money.
Are there things you try to avoid because of religion?
Yes, sculptures, drawing portraits. I personally believe sculptures harbor spirits. Maybe because of the kind of movies I’ve seen. I believe they carry spirits.
Like Chucky and Annabelle?
Yes, so I am wary of sculptures. I only keep them here at the gallery for commercial purposes.
Are there other things you avoid?
No, except when people come and tell me “do you make portraits?” I tell them No, but I have friends who do and I can connect you with them.
So all of your works, on average, how many paintings have you created?
I don’t keep count. We keep stock here at the gallery, but I’ve been at this since 2018. A lot.
Is there a dream location where you’d like to exhibit?
Yes, Europe. They appreciate art a lot over there.
Has something specific ever happened to you and you went “I have to paint this! Or I have to write this!?
Well, for painting, there’s something I have always wanted to paint. And I am going to. “Solomon Grande.”
There is no visual of him.
No, there is none. There’s just the rhyme. So I am going to paint him.
I would love to see it!
Final questions… So Literature. I feel like you may have written a story or produced a film whose story continues in a painting. Have you ever made something like this?
Yes, there is a short film I made in 2018. It’s called Screaming Silence. There is a film and there is a painting for it. I made the painting because of the film.
Has it been sold?
I still have it.