TOLA Wewe is a seasoned artist, a successful farmer and a leading politician. He was a Commissioner for Culture and Tourism in Ondo State. He was born in 1950 at Shabomi, Ese Odo Local Government Area of Ondo State. He graduated from the University of Ife, Osun State, in 1983 with a specialised degree in Painting. He was once lecturer at the Adeyemi Collage of Education, Ondo State, he worked with the Daily Times as cartoonists, before he went into full time art practice. He has done over 60 exhibitions in different parts of the world and has won several competitive awards. Wewe in an exclusive interview with Arts and Culture Place shares his life story as a politician, artist and a farmer.
Who is Tola Wewe when he is not an artist?
I am I farmer and a politician. I do part time politics and I am also a farmer. I have 20 fish ponds. I have oil palm plantation, it covers over fifty hectares of land. If I am not painting or drawing, I go to the farm and produce some palm oil and fish. Another aspect of my life is politics. Although I did not go into politics formally or intentionally, I crept into it. Olusegun Mimiko, the Governor of Ondo State, used to be my good friend. In those days we discussed politics, even when we hanged out to drink. Incidentally, Mimiko became governor, he appointed me as his commissioner. This drew me into politics and since then I have been into politics. And as an artist too, I think it’s our primary concern to comment on socio-political issues in our country. Beyond these, I socialise; I drink with friends in the evening and attend parties.
Do you personally take care of the farm or you have people who handle it for you?
I have people who work for me. My main attraction was trying to create job for people and is not just saying verbally. The easiest way of creating job in Nigeria is farming. And if you have the land or can buy the land, employ people and produce. I produce some kegs of oil frequently and the people I employ do this work. I make little profit but these people are fully engaged.
Would you say growing up in the village influenced you to consider farming even though you are a successful artist?
It must be so; my father was also a farmer. In my community where I grew up, my father had the biggest farm. Up till date the farm is still there and his children are still sharing the money from his farm every year. He has a huge oil plantation. My father’s experience was my inspiration too. And with the present day situation, I think arming it a thing to go into.
Growing up as a child, what was life like for you?
Life was fun for me. I grew up in a village called Shabomi Village in Okitipupa Local Government Area in Ondo State. It is a riverine area. My people were amphibious; we walk on land then water. We were farmers and fisher men. I grew up in this little village and there was a lot of adventure for me as a kid growing up there. Sometimes we go into the forest to search for food with our catapult to hunt for birds. All these were the adventures that I enjoyed as a growing child. I schooled in the village and did a lot of sports. I was a footballer too; I enjoyed my childhood and my childhood was adventurous.
What where the challenges you encountered when you chose to become an artist?
I don’t think I encountered any major challenge because I started art as a kid. Let me take you through. My father had many children; we are close to 30 and at every stage we have some peers among the children. We were about five who were about the same age growing up in the same house. And in those days, we act drama with slices of bread my father usually buy whenever he travelled. We created holes in the bread to make it look like a camera. The camera we had in those days is not like what we have in the present day. When the photographers visited, everybody would announce to each other that the photographer was around and we get ready to take photograph. Then you don’t just take action photo, you sit down, you take your time to dress and arrange yourself before your photo is taken. We were always imitating that. I want to take your photograph and when I take your photograph, I go to the dark to draw and when I go there I draw your photo. I was doing this constantly as a kid and I remember that most of the time I would get a psychological remembrance of the person I was trying. And most time people were able to identify the people I drew.
I remember too that after the rain I used to draw on the ground. My father’s house had a flat frontage. When the rain stops, the ground would be easy to draw on and I would take a broomstick and be drawing. I was always drawing prominent people in my community, though the drawings were more of caricature. The forms of their bodies would be exaggerated. This made people to gather around me and laugh at my exaggerated caricature drawings. Many times I got beaten in school for drawing on the back of my exercise books.
I was formally introduced to art as a subject when I went to college. When I started doing fine art in school I became good at it. My ambition to study art was not shaken; I just knew I was going to study art.
Did your parents oppose your choice of study?
No, but the only little advice I got against it was: I was good at Mathematics and when said I was going to study fine art that didn’t require Mathematics, my father asked why I wanted to go and waste my Mathematics. But I was determined to study fine art I was not really persuaded not to study fine art.
When did you have your break through as an artist?
It was not easy to break through. When I was still a student at the University of Ife, I started selling my art from my department. I was producing art for survival in school. I was producing art for people on campus. Some were…painting just satisfy the buyer. As of then if you give me any amount to produce a painting for you, I produce the painting that is worth your money. I was selling works to co-students. I sold my work to some people in Lagos for 50 kobo. If you look at it, how much did I spend to produce the work of 50 kobo? I didn’t spend 10 kobo, if I could do a 50 kobo work for an hour and I spent only 10 kobo, which was still profitable.
I was among those they called ‘Pee Peecians’ in school, Private Practice people. The real thing is hard work, going extra mile to do more. Even when others were producing maybe six works for assignment, I could produce up to 40 works, so hard work is very essential. The challenge of art brokers making money on artist. Chike Nwagbogu of Nimbus Gallery was my main broker. When I met Chike, he just opened a gallery and he was still a student and I was a graduate and was practicing art. He was a determined art broker, he would be going from studio to studio to collect artworks from artists to sell; he was very promising. I met him and he was travelling to London on a long vacation, and he wanted to travel with some works, and when he wanted to travel has already exhausted his money before he met me, but he was attracted to two of my works; I think I gave him one then. I got introduced to him by Felix Asare. This was in the early 90’s before he opened a gallery. Chike came back and my work was the only piece he was able to sell. He got encouraged to get more works from me.
Because I came to Lagos then with an unusual style of painting; my paintings to some people were scary. They were not used to it. I was one of the pioneers of those who produced works that were having African characters. And I started early. And when I brought these paintings with these decorative patterns of deities, tattoos on the bodies of my works. So some people were scared but the works got accepted by the expatriates. So Chike was emboldened to get more from me. Every week we sold about five paintings. And so every week, I was churning out works out and he was selling them. But how much was I getting from the works from Chike? I was getting N10, 000 naira from each work. I didn’t bother my head with how much Chike was selling the works because N10, 000 was more than any salary I could collect anywhere. I worked with the Daily Times and I was earning N2, 000 per month. I worked with Signatures Gallery; I was its pioneer manager and I was earning N4, 000 there. And when I started making N50, 000 in a week from five works - he was selling the works and I was working really hard to produce more than the five - at a stage I was able to move out of Lagos so that I could have time to work because I was squatting with a friend somewhere in Akoka in Lagos. It was not convenient for me to work there because of space. I relocated to Ondo were I had enough space to do my work and came to Lagos on weekends with the works.
It was when I wanted to have my first solo exhibition with a Russian Cultural Centre in Ikoyi that was when I invited Chike. I told him that I wanted to have an exhibition and I asked him how much he was selling the works he was collecting from me, in order for me not to sell below or above the price he had been selling the works.
What is your advice for younger artists who are complaining that galleries are making more from their works than what they (artists) receive?
I advice the younger ones not to bother themselves with the amount someone is making from their works. The advantage is this: my art was able to go into many homes. You should not really bother yourself about how much the person is making from the work. Before you knew it, my works were in several homes. Some people would want your work because the MD of a certain bank has your work. There was one ambassador of one European country to Nigeria; he bought some paintings from me. The works were in my usual style. The man was so mad about the paintings and there was a Nigerian collector who was his friend and he went to the ambassador’s house and saw the painting, he was looking for me. If I had not sold those paintings cheap, if I had given high price tags on them, maybe my work wouldn’t have gotten to that place. After the show, I was then gradually selling my works at the prices Chike was selling them. That is how to move on. They should produce as much works as they can produce, as growing artists. If they can be producing a lot works and if they can work hard, there is no way they won’t have breakthrough. They shouldn’t bother about how much someone is making from their works.
What is your advice for the younger artists who want to sell their works at the same rate with the established masters, especially those who just graduated?
They should try it, if it works for them, good. There is no good art and there is no bad art, and there is nothing like experience in art. You can have a young artist that is very, very good; that is extremely good, much better than the oldest of us all. Experience matters because you have gone through a process. Art is a totally new profession, and it is not like in law when…they are more respected. For example, Wizkid came out and he is charging more than what Sunny Ade was charging. So art is a bit different from other professions. There is no law that says they cannot sell higher than the older artists. Everybody is free. What differentiates art from other profession is freedom. But my only advice is that the artist must work very hard to sustain the level of income he wants to make because this was the approach I used. I was able to produce a lot of works that went into different homes in Nigeria and abroad.
How do you relax?
I relax mostly in the evenings. Every day I wake up by 2: 00 am and go to the studio and sketch. That is when I begin my painting. I do my composition around that time and when I do the composition and try to do some work till about 5:00 am, then I go back to bed or read newspaper, or go to the internet to do one thing or the other till the time I sleep of f. I go back to the studio when I wake up around 9: 00 am. Then I work from this time to 5:00 in the evening. I go out to hang out with friends after this time and no one or work will disturb me. I then go out to have a bottle of beer or two with friends. I do this every day.