Washington Uba, a documentary photo-artist, who has concerned himself with the lowest end of the Nigerian social fabric. His exhibition on leprosy colonies in Nigeria to mark the World Leprosy Day will open this Sunday at Parliament Bar in Isolo, Lagos. In this chat with EVELYN OSAGIE and EBUBE OJUKWU, he speaks on his art and passion for the poor.
My exhibition on leprosy
My coming exhibition, commemorating with the World Leprosy Day, which I call ‘leprosy story board awareness campaign’ is a full documentation on leprosy, how it came about, the number of people affected.
It’s going to be academic, interactive and medically challenging. There’s no specific date for the day, but it is being celebrated globally on the last Sunday of January. It is linked to a French philanthropist in 1956, a Catholic passionate for assisting people with leprosy.
Many people have the notion that leprosy isn’t curable, but it is. That’s where the challenge is. If we continue to play the lukewarm attitude to it, the whole world would suffer greatly for it is increasing rapidly.
If the disease could be given the same attention which was given to the HIV patients, the disease would have decreased by a great fold. Everyone that comes for the event would be made to sign on the commitment page and to help us tell a friend about leprosy.
Motivation behind my art and charity
Art is my instrument for social change. I see it that if I don’t do it, I won’t be fulfilled or happy. I have over the years concerned my work with the poor as a documentary photographer. I didn’t start with leprosy, but documenting the destitute.
Lagos was my first point of call. Being a charity person before my university days, after graduating, I started an NGO called Charity Care Network Initiatives. In 2005, art came into it through photography when I began the documentation of the extremely poor people’s environment.
And having worked for charity for over 15 years, in 2005 and 2006, I went documenting the streets of Lagos and found a particular place in Okobaba, Ebute Metta, where a family support destitute home was built.
I realised that this was where I wanted to be. I made friends with them and went there during the monthly festive period to give them handouts and know how they are faring.
Art has played a vital role in this: using photography, I generated funds and handouts with the pictures I had taken. In 2006, I went into exhibiting my work, where I had my first ever exhibition in National Museum.
Former Sunday The Guardian newspaper, art editor, Jahmna Anikulapo, gave me the opportunity to exhibit first under the auspices of Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) at Lagos State Book and Art Festival (LABAF). I realised, that I could raise money from this exhibition.
So I went about exhibiting from one place to another. I have since exhibited in National Museum and also National Theatre several times, until it grew and went to other states. And in going to other states, I found out that among the poor are the most terrible and forgotten and they are those who suffer from leprosy.
I went into research in order to understand the cause of this ailment and discovered that it was the oldest ailment in the world with about 250,000 people getting infected each year, globally. Having discovered this, I embarked on a project of seven years, going from one leprosy colony to another across Nigeria.
The first place I visited was Itu in Akwa-Ibom, the oldest leprosy colony in Nigeria, built in 1928. Then I went to Uzuakoli in Abia State, built in 1934. After going round the colonies for seven years, I entitled the project/exhibition, the “Images of God”, and exhibited in commemoration with the 2019 World Leprosy Day. This year’s edition will hold this Sunday at Parliament Bar in Jakande Estate, Isolo, Lagos.
My experience as an artist
It’s been interesting, rewarding: interesting because when you do what you like doing, you hardly feel bad about it. There had been high and low moments.
Challenges as an artist
Life is full of challenges. I really don’t believe in challenges. I’d share with you the ugliest experience I have ever had. But I learnt something from each challenge I face and work to surmount it.
When we were still digging the borehole at Okobaba, we had spent N296,000; and we had no money again. The chairman of the NGO, Mr Odinaka and I went to buy a tank for the water but when we got back, the children in the leprosy colony had thrown stones into the borehole that we dug and everything was condemned.
I came back dejected and asked myself who sent me to do this.
My team members and family members were there to continue pushing and for me not to stop half way. They gave me words of advice that to get the rose you must pass through the thorns, and in order to achieve something you must have been hurt along the way. It was at an exhibition we had at the French International School.
My advice to upcoming artists
They should endeavour to have a particular genre of art they are concerned with. Let’s be disciplined, try and look for how you can be defined in your own genre of art – be it as a wedding, sports, or environmental photographer.
Pick a subject that would be advancing humanity, because the moment you put energy to that particular subject, you would do great in it. But first discover your passion, then put your energy into it in order to be defined in whatever you do. For passion brings wealth and inspiration.