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Sokari Douglas Camp CBE is a Nigerian-born sculptor working primarily with steel. No Colour Bar’s Juanita Cox got to know more about this award-winning artist, gaining insights into her artistic techniques and inspirations this spring at her bright and airy studio in Camberwell, London. Douglas Camp originally got involved with the No Colour Bar Exhibition because Errol Lloyd, fellow artist and good friend, invited her to contribute. Upon hearing about the exhibition, Douglas Camp admits “I felt that I had to participate in the exhibition, which sounded very, very important”. Her figurative sculptures are immersed in African history and heritage, whilst simultaneously reflecting on contemporary life, creating interestingly distinctive characters.

Douglas Camp was introduced to art by her brother in law, Professor Robin Horton, after her sister died. Horton happened to be an anthropologist of British descent and so Douglas Camp grew up surrounded by academics discussing philosophy and culture - “incredible thinkers”, as she described them. She was lucky enough to be sent to the Senior Staff School in Ibadan, where she discovered the likes of Wole Soyinka and other Nigerian creatives. At this school Douglas Camp proclaims that she “came across art in a major way”. Furthermore, her brother in law had come from an artistic family, and some of the paintings on the walls in her studio came from his family.

Sokari Douglas Camp

However, Douglas Camp’s artistic heritage that she gained from growing up in Nigeria did not effortlessly translate across when she began her studies at the Central Saint Martin School of Art and Design. Upon arriving at the school, she wanted to explore the art that she had admired in Nigeria, which meant festivals, dances, masquerades and possession as an art form. Unfortunately, her English tutors were not acquainted with these ideas and Douglas Camp had to find help elsewhere. In her second year of studies she came across a number of South African artists who had been exiled after she put on a 3-day exhibition at the Africa Centre. Learning well from conversations with these professional artists, Douglas Camp found that during her studies she learnt something but so did her tutors.

It appears that perhaps without intending to, Douglas Camp has found herself challenging traditional ideas and practices in art throughout her career. She mentioned dealing with very traditional ideas, which were “almost taboo because women were just meant to watch” in her early work, and Douglas Camp’s unfailing commitment to steel as her primary artistic material continues this theme.

“You know, even though men deal with metal most of the time, they don’t need their penis to handle any of it.  I felt my hands were adequate enough, just as theirs was.”

Her love affair with steel stems from her fascination with its properties as a tough, yet gentle metal. In Douglas Camp’s eyes steel can do incredible things.

 

However, Douglas Camp also demonstrates that she can do incredible things with steel, as she combines this metal with other found metals, Perspex, traditional Nigerian fashions and emblems of commercialism, like shopping bags and various logos of corporations. Nigerian Woman Shopping (1990) is the sculpture featured in the No Colour Bar Exhibition and it perfectly demonstrates Douglas Camp’s skill with steel as she creates a traditional Nigerian ‘moons and stars’ Dutch wax cloth pattern out of this metal. However, this sculpture also celebrates a time when rich Nigerian women used to visit London for the day to go shopping. Douglas Camp fondly remembers seeing these ladies on the streets of London, looking out of place as if someone had plucked them fresh from a Nigerian street. Reflecting on her role as a female Nigerian artist, Douglas Camp is aware of the many challenges that face her.

“…as a Nigerian woman, there are actually so many challenges that if you dwell on any of them it would occupy your whole life. So, I just got over it and aimed for things of interest”.

As a self-proclaimed optimist, Douglas Camp chooses to divert her energy into creating interesting art and the results are fantastic!

 

Interview iwth Juanita Cox. Edited by Lara Pysden