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Our culture, our everything – Okoye



YOU are a well known painter, sculptor and poet in the Diaspora. What motivated you to start an art gallery in Anambra?
Art is the talent I used to impact people outside the shores of this country. So, I don’t see why my country should lag behind in this sector.
That is why I came up with this idea. I believe that this idea came from the spiritual realm. I have a scriptural backup for this revelation. If you can go to Genesis 30, from verse 37- 42, you will know what I am talking about. The story was about Jacob , who connived with his mother, hijacked Esau’s blessing, ran away from the heat into fire.
After everything, we found out that Jacob was the first sculptor in the Bible. He carved the back of trees and designed them with leaves and painted them while under the service of his father in- law while caring for the animals and an agreement was struck that spotted newborn animals will belong to him as payments.
That was the first carving a man ever did to change a generation. In front of those carvings, he puts water inside clay pots for the animals to drink and the animals gave birth to younger ones that were spotted in large quantities. That was how Jacob became successful.
Were there any challenges?
Yes. The ministry told me they didn’t have money, I responded. With money aside, I explained and convinced the commissioner that I can be able to get people to sponsor the idea and then, I received a go ahead charge to continue my mission. As you can see, most of my sculptural works here are as old as 1985. I left some of my work in my father’s house for over 22 years and coming back in 2015, I found out that some of the works were damaged and I repaired them. I believe so much in restoration.
So, what are your dreams concerning your art works in connection with the state?
It is my dream that God should restore my land; give us peace and prosperity so that people all over the world can come here to settle. Also, I want this ministry to be a spot of relaxation and attraction where people can come and enjoy the views and feel relaxed. We want to make here almost like a garden. We want to make here a unique secretariat, where sculptures and paintings will be used to decorate the secretariat. After all, our slogan as a state is ‘Light of the Nation’.
I also pray that we as a people will wake up and go back to the ways of our forefathers. Before the event of the white men, our people were clean. They repaired the roads; they came out weekly to tidy the environment. They took spirituality with seriousness. No one back then will eat from you if they don’t know the source of your money.
I pray to god to still keep me alive and strong so that I can write a book in my language. But in the same vein, we need to know that speaking Igbo is not enough, neither is it the only aspect of our culture. It includes our names, food, mannerism, behavior, costumes, storytelling and so on.
n the United States of America, the Chinese and Japanese and Koreans display their logos, languages with pride and they make it there. A lot of non Chinese people eat Chinese food; go to Chinese festivals and so on. And this people make a lot of money while displaying their culture to the world.
What is your message to the people of this state?
We are neglecting one of the most powerful industries that both God and our forefathers gave us which is our culture. We have unique cultures such as our dances, folklores, folksongs; storytelling is one of our DNA. Chinua Achebe transformed the world.
Imagine the impact we will make if we have a place structurally created for the sole purpose of promoting and exporting our culture, because that is the only way we can promote tourism in a unique way. Where I have been to in different parts of the world are well known for their tourism exploits. Venice and other places are unique because of their promotion of culture.
God has invested a lot in our culture. Take a look at this trending line of fashion called tattoo, God gave us an organic substance known as ULI. This Uli can bring a lot of finances to Anambra State. Uli can be able to wipe out inks of tattoos should the individuals decide to erase it or clean it up rather than to use blade or razor. Indians are pushing theirs, why can’t we? Uli is actually a seed but the water extracted from that seed can perform wonders.
Uli can also be used to color the skin for beauty as well. I must give credit to African Magic, which at times show movies at which houses and huts are designed with the Uli.
This is one of my messages to our people. Let me tell you something – my experiences in Canada. It was my exposure to our culture that gave me access to the United States. I packaged my works and sent it to their immigration office and I was granted access into the country. You see, countries like this protect the interest of their people.
They cannot disturb their people from making money. When you do not have something unique to offer, they might not grant you access to their country. I participated in many competitions and won different awards in Seattle, Atlanta and so on. Even in Italy, the same thing. I learnt a lesson in Venice. I was in a villa in Kiriano. I was taken to a building which was 450 years old and I did a mirror of that building and gave them but they turned it down, which happened for the first time in my life.
So, my interpreter explained to me that the reason they turned it down was because I gave them what they already had. And they were disappointed because that was not the reason they brought me from Canada. What they wanted was my African pictures, paintings, sculptures and so on. So, I painted an African dance for them, different dances on a frame.
After they saw it, they loved it and thanked me. So, you see, it is what I have that made me unique. And that is the message I brought back. I believe we can hit the global market with it. We can bring historians, artists and so on from different countries here. You see, my uniqueness got me a job in Delta Airlines. Like what a former United States President, John Kennedy said, “do not think of what the ministry can do for you but think of what you can do for the ministry”. So, individuals can come and support us as well. They can invest in this country. I’ m grateful for my town, Nimo, for they supported my work and dreams and sponsored my works.
Recently, Anambra State celebrated her first Home Coming Festival time in which you contributed a lot, and one of the aims of the event is to promote Diaspora activities. How do you react to this recent development?
Yes, I must commend our governor, Dr Willie Obiano, for his efforts in promoting our culture. He is the first Anambra Governor to create a Ministry for Diaspora and organized the event also. In fact, he laid a foundation by building the first International Conference Center. He also promised that an art gallery will be placed there so that both the art gallery and the conference will complement each other. Later this month, I will meet with the Commissioner of Information, C. Don Adinuba, and the Head of Service, Harry Uduh, to discuss on how we can transform this secretariat to a place of beauty.
I also want to thank the Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs, Indigenous Artworks, Culture and Tourism, Sally Mbanefo. She has been working really hard and supporting this mission as well.
A lot of people believe that the Igbo tribe gives little or no freedom or respect to their women, but looking at your paintings and sculptures and your poems, you gave so much attention to women. Do you think our culture has been misunderstood?
Well, this reminded me about an event that the United Nations once hosted in support of women empowerment and discrimination against women violence in some African states and they tried to repaint our culture and I was surprised and perplexed.
Later on, I met the organizers to correct them and enlighten them on our culture. This is what I am up against. Due to our negligence of our culture, people now assume anything they like about our culture. I m calling on people, journalists, traditional rulers, movie script writers and so on to not let our culture die. Another consequence of negligence of culture is globalization in the sense that businesses from other countries will take over our region.
What is your message to our people in Diaspora?
They should try to invest in their mother land. I am about to start an online company, Savannah Land Guide Pages. It’s an online company that will direct our customers to markets near them and even help them get other goods and transport them right to their doorsteps.
How long have you been in Awka ?
I have been here since 2015.
What did you miss about Nigeria?
I missed our food, but above all, I missed the weather. You know, the United States is very cold and I can’t wear a short or at times, a single shirt is not enough because the cold there is too much.

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