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INTERVIEW: Moses Zibor - The artist who died and resurrected

Moses Zibor (b. 1978) is a contemporary Nigerian-Ghanaian artist, former footballer, model, bio-field therapist, teacher, actor, philanthropist and musician. He is a Kazakhstan-based artist of Bayelsa State, Nigerian father, and a Ghanaian mother. Born and raised in Lagos, Zibor attended Yaba College of Technology (Yabatech), Lagos, Nigeria, from 2002 to 2008, where he obtained an Ordinary National Diploma (OND) and a Higher National Diploma (HND) from the Faculty of Art Design and Printing, majoring in Painting. In this interview, he talks about his decade-long absence from the art scene, losing out on a career in football, love for the oil medium, his future plans in Kazakhstan and more.

You have been away from the art scene for years; where have you been? What have you been up to?

I was practising as a full-time studio artist, and this stopped when I left Nigeria for Kazakhstan to play football. When I got there, my football and art career took a downturn, due to language barriers and other unforeseen situations. From 2010 to 2020, I was absent. I couldn’t follow my dreams to pursue art and football in Kazakhstan. That was how I found myself modelling, practising bio-field therapy, teaching, acting and doing music to keep body and soul.

In 2017 when I came home on holiday, I discovered that a lot has changed in the art scene and I felt left behind. This discovery sparked the creative spirit in me and when I got back to Kazakhstan, I came back to my first love - art. However, this came with a challenge. I found myself struggling to handle brushes and other tools I once worked with ease, as I had not practised for about ten years. From 2017, I started recovering myself as an artist. Realising that the art world has moved forward, I had to also move with it as a creative person and recreate myself again. So now, I am in the processing of recreating myself, my brand, my inner ability and my inner thoughts. And I believe I will move from this level to a greater one.

You do a lot of figurative paintings with dark-skinned subjects in your new body of work; what prompted you to explore this area? Where do you draw inspiration from?

I was born in Surulere and I grew up in Ajegunle, Lagos; but my parents moved from Surulere to Ajegunle when I was three years old. During that time, I encountered many people in this ghetto-like area; they had big dreams, but they couldn't fulfil them. They were visionary people, but the scale of their vision was limited because of the environment they found themselves. They had no teachers to guard them on how to expand. There were some who had someone to guard them and they expanded their vision, travelled abroad and are doing well. 

My dark-skinned subject paintings are a series, documentation that represents these people. I celebrate them with my work. You see them in my paintings dressed as well-to-do people, even though they are not. They had visions, the vision couldn't take them far in life, but they tried as much as they could to dress themselves up to look elegant even in the face of limited resources. I draw inspiration from their story. 

There was this particular man who inspired a painting I titled Uncle Joe. He was the hero of his community; he had so much confidence. When there was no power supply in a particular compound, Uncle Joe would go out of his way to make sure that the electricity got restored. I watched him carefully; one day, I sat him down and asked him why he cared so much for others, and he said: in a community where there are no men or women of vision, where there is no leader, the community will die and it will be powerless. That was why he took up the responsibility to fight for his community, to ensure that they had power supply, good water supply and good road channels. I drew inspiration from his story. I started painting men and women in different communities who are like uncle Joe, who fight for their communities. But these people, their names are not heard. I am using my painting to make sure that their names are heard all over the world because they are the heroes of our time, and they shouldn’t be forgotten.

What do you call your style of painting; how and when did you discover it?

My style of painting is called Impressionist Realism. I discovered it not quite long ago after my resurrection from the dead. I move from Impressionistic Abstractionism to Impressionistic Realism, so that when people see my painting, they can relate to it with a glance. I try as much as possible to capture my audience; when they are looking at my work, they should stand to look at it for some minutes before they move to the next work. One of my lectures told me that when a viewer comes to your painting and could not look at it for seven minutes, it means the painting does not have anything that speaks to that person. So, I try as much as possible to make such that the viewer stands to look at my work for at least ten minutes before moving to the next work. I want to capture the essence and the feeling of my audience, so that I can be able to connect the work with them, so that they can feel the vibration that comes out from the piece.

What is Impressionist Realism?

Impressionist Realism is creating an impression of my experience in a realistic form, so that those who are my audience can relate to my work. Before, I was painting with a palette knife and some people said they couldn’t understand what I was painting because it was not clear to them. The style was closer to Impressionistic Abstractionism; people could not understand what I was saying. I wanted to pass my message in a way that they can see it, relate, understand, absolve and learn one or two things from it; these gave birth to Impressionist Realism

Most of your paintings have hexagon in the background; what does it represent in your work?

The hexagon shape is the shape of the football design used during the world cup in the 80s and 90s; I infuse the shapes in my painting as the memory and vision that I have somehow lost. As for my football memory, I don’t want to lose it. That is why I put it on canvas as a reminder of what I wished to do but couldn't. 
I had a wish to play football internationally, but I couldn’t get to that height. It pained me a lot that I travelled out of Nigeria and landed in a country where their football was not so good and the value was not so appraised. I played for a while and later decided to quit. But every time I watched people play on the television, especially my mates with whom we were together at the same level back home, I felt so bad; so I decided to infuse that feeling into my paintings.  

Back in my younger age, I liked playing football; my father played football but not at the international level. His brother also played football; my cousin played football; he was the only one who made it to the international level. I picked it up from my cousin. I remember when I was very young, my father used to take me to train whenever he went for training. I was already ten years old then. As I grew up, I watched him play, I watched my cousin play, and I took this aspiration from them to become a footballer. 

Now I am achieving that dream through my paintings. I play my football on the canvas. I can see myself from each hexagon to bricks shape that I place on the canvas. It is a reminder of me scoring a goal. It is a reminder of me carrying a cup; it is a reminder of me winning the world cup; winning the African Cup of Nations for my country. I am living the life of sport; I am living sport, even on my canvas. This is how I draw the inspiration; it is a torching personal interest story that when I remember sometimes I feel like crying. But when I see the memories on my canvas, I feel the joy return to me; it makes me realise that I am not a failure, that I am a success, a success as an artist. 

What are you working on now, any new project?

Yes, I had a solo exhibition titled: We Are Not Alone recently. It focused on my childhood experiences and memories, documentation through my paintings. The show was like writing a letter to the world about my personal experiences; it is something that people can learn from, and it will help many out of some situations that there may seem to be no answer. The exhibition opened on November 15 and ran till November 28, 2021, at the Almaty Museum, Kazakhstan. It was a whole new spectrum of stories, from each painting that I can relate to and describe in great detail. That is the reason I  showcased these works at the Almaty Museum. I worked on this project since December, 2020; painting none stop from morning to night up to this hour. 

Aliens come to mind when one hears the title of the exhibition; could you please explain the theme and what inspired it?

We Are Not Alone indicates the spirits around us. We are not alone indicates that unforeseen beings are around us; We Are Not Alone indicates that imaginary friends are around us and they are ready to help us even when we find ourselves in trouble. 
The title was inspired by the story of a man who has been living in the Soviet Union region for thirty-five years. The man told me that before the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was not easy for foreigners, especial blacks, to survive during the hard time of oppression. He said they saw him as a monkey, like an alien. I asked how he then survived and had children and grandchildren, he told me he was not alone. When he left Africa, he was from the slum; he grew up in Ajegunle, he left Lagos as a student on a scholarship and when he was leaving, his mother told him that he should not worry, that they will be with him in prayer even though he was going to a far country. He said their prayers were the angels that followed and guarding him from Lagos, from the time he left for the Soviet Union region, which is Kazakhstan. 

Then I started thinking about the whole world, I started thinking about myself and how I also left Lagos and moved into this place with no father and mother. The only thing that I had were the angels of my imagination and those angels took me through ten years of absence in the art world. It was very difficult for me to return to art until a woman, Mrs Adeolu Tahouf, the owner of Ogirikan Art Gallery, came from nowhere and started to encourage me. That was the angel that God sent to encourage me to get up on my feet. This was why I decided to use this title. 

In one of the works, you could see that I was standing in the store and many things are falling in there, like food products. The food products were all the products I used when I was growing up. While these were falling, I felt myself being very calm without any fear, but above my head on the right-hand side, there is a spaceship, and that spaceship indicates aliens that visit the earth knowingly or unknowingly to humans. Those aliens serve as good agents to salvage men and mankind from trouble. They are of high knowledge. I sometimes believe that these aliens and imaginary beings are responsible for the high knowledge and the speedy growth of knowledge that has been found in this world.

How many works did you show?

This was my first solo after fifteen years that I have been painting actively, aside from the ten years of silence in my career. This was the first time I exhibited in a museum in a foreign country, which I have not done in my own country before. This was why I gave it my best shot. 

When I was an undergraduate, my paintings were majorly landscape, nature and market scenes. I was able to relate that to my audience so effectively, but now I have tried as much as I could to go deeper with my art into the American impressionistic realism style, which is also connected with surrealism style. There were a lot of surprises during the opening of the show; there were some installations of the toys I played with as a child, to bring back my childhood memories, so that people can learn. I don't think this generation is enjoying like we did; when you talk about childhood memories, you talk about how we played and the different types of games we played; how we rolled tyres on the road, how we used bottle tops to create cars with our hands without any materials; just picked the materials from the streets and created things we used as toys. We created our own toys in those days, which I exhibited a little bit of that as installation.

I showed about thirty-five works. 

How do you feel about the solo exhibition after being away for so long?

I feel like somebody who died and resurrected after the third day. In all the thirty-five paintings I had for this exhibition, the colours were mainly green, which indicates rebirth, growth and coming alive again. This was the reason I used green in almost all the paintings. The essence of this show was to reconnect with the world. It was a big responsibility and challenge that I was able to tackle to ensure that I pass my message to the viewers in the right way. Being away for a long time is just like what they say: whatever you leave, leaves you. I left art and it left me, I have come back to pick it up again and take it to the next level. 

What medium do you love to work with most?

From the beginning of my practice to date, I have love oil. I have tried acrylic many times and I didn’t get the effect I get from oil. You can manoeuvre the medium but it takes time to dry. When I was painting with acrylic, I had temperament; in the sense that I could just start a painting in one second and be done with it in the next two minutes. With oil, you have to be patient. When I started using oil, I tried to use it as if I was using acrylic, which
dries very fast, but oil does not dry very fast. It takes like two days before it dries, before you can come back and put the second layer, third layer and so on, until you complete the painting. 
If you have no patience, you cannot work with oil paint. In my school days, I was the fastest painter; the teacher would ask: are you done? And I would say, yes. Acrylic dries fast, so I became impatient when painting and it affected my state of mind. It affected everything I did in life. It was a friend of mine, who is also an artist, who told me that I had a temperament, which I needed to kill and calm down when painting. And the only way to calm myself down was through study and research, which I did via the internet. I also got advice from some people who told me that the oil medium helps one to calm the temperament, and trains one to be patient.

So through my time of recovering, I decided to exercise patience. That is why you can see that the details are in my works. When I am painting, this spirit of aggressive temperament would try to come out again and I would tell myself to keep calm and take it easy. Now, I am already perfect with the control of the medium; now I understand the technique of patience and it is helping my spiritual, psychical and emotional life. I am so glad that working with oil has affected me positively and has helped me regain my strength. 
What is the best advice you've been given by anyone?

The best advice I have ever gotten is from Emmanuel Irokanulo and Mike Omoighe, my former lecturers. They told me at different times that in art, there are rules and regulations; but in professional art, those who practice full-time, who are ready to develop their inner self and dig into their creative well or the land that is within them, have to break the rules; and if you can break the rules, your art will skyrocket as fast as the speed of light.

What is the meaning of breaking the rules? ABC is like a rule; 123 is like a rule; everybody follows this rule. In the art world, they call it contemporary art, contemporary artists. What are they doing? They are breaking the rules. You can paint an image in a room that is supposed to look like a room or maybe in the kitchen. A kitchen is supposed to look like a kitchen, with t
he stove, the gas, plate and other things placed in the right places, but in painting, the gas can be in the toilet. Somebody can be cooking in the toilet; that is breaking the rules. Somebody can be bathing in the kitchen, that is breaking the rules. When you break the rules, you do something unusual on your canvas. Anything is possible when you see it that way; then you can manifest your inner creativities freely. Studying art in school is good; it just helps you with the cradles from stage to stage until you graduate. After that, break the rules; you will see that your true self will manifest. 

So when I showed my lecturer the paintings for my upcoming exhibition, he recalled the advice he gave me and said that I have broken the rules. 'I can see a different person from the one I saw in school days, this is the real Zibor Moses.' 

What do you love most about being an artist?

Art is like therapy; it heals the body. When I get bored, I paint, and I feel relieved. The freedom of being a human being, living in the world and creating things unseen, is out of this world. That is what I like about being an artist. I enjoy the freedom I have.

What is your final word for your audience?

I want my audience to know that Moses Zibor was dead; he died for ten years and just resurrected. He is back and never to die again from the art scene. The best is yet to come from me because I am still evolving. I am still discovering who I am. I hope God gives us the grace to live longer in good health, strength and the memories to create and inspire others. I will do as much as possible to satisfy myself first, and so that I can reach out to my audience in a positive way. I am ready to give back to my society through my work, because whatever I create, I am giving it to them to learn and absolve something from. 

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