At its delta, the Niger splits many times as it flows towards the ocean. Sokari Douglas Camp grew up in a land rising between these streams. We learn about Buguma through the artist’s early works. Characters animating the festivals organised by the Kalabari people, Sokari’s tribe, are turned into sculptures made with welded steel.
SOKARI DOUGLAS CAMP, WAKA SHEGE, 2011. © SOKARI DOUGLAS CAMP. ESTIMATE: £8,000–12,000.
Masquerading is at the heart of Sokari's native culture: dressed up in colourful, imaginative costumes, humans interact with nature. Naked Fish (1997), for instance, suggests a connection to water: the basket balanced on the dancer's head and the net woven through his torso recall the traps used to store or catch fish in the delta. The hands, replaced by flapping strips of cloth, mimic the fluid movement of a fish’s tail. Otobo (1995) combines palm-stem brooms with steel and wood. The carved muzzle of the hippo is surrounded by skulls, poignant reminders of the animal's deadliness both on land and in water. Despite its animalist features, the mask reveals traits that are deeply human. Worn on top of the performer's head, Otobo stares with large dark eyes at the sky: the man in disguise looks beyond himself, projected towards the supernatural, yet his ambition is tempered by nature's unforgiving limit, death.
SOKARI DOUGLAS CAMP, OTOBO (DETAIL), 1995. © SOKARI DOUGLAS CAMP.
Many of Douglas Camp's sculptures live in her studio – also her home – in South London. "We built this place after buying the property 28 years ago." She planned and designed the space with her husband, who worked as an architect. Often with time one's attachment to the homeland is diluted; yet Sokari's has only grown stronger.
SOKARI DOUGLAS CAMP, LIVING MEMORIAL FOR KEN SARO-WIWA, 2006.
Standing on the studio floor there is a small steel model of a bus. It is the little brother of the full‐size work Sokari sculpted in 2006. This piece was conceived to mark the 20th anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, hanged on 10 November 1995 for his rebellious protests against oil companies operating in Nigeria. "It will be the size that it is" was Sokari's measure in crafting the vehicle from shiny steel inside her studio. Sections of wall surrounding the studio gates had to be knocked down for the bus to eventually leave her working space. The memorial art bus was sent to Nigeria as a gift to the people, but was stopped at customs and denied entry to the country. Officials read the political message engraved on its sides: "I accuse the oil companies of practicing genocide against the Ogoni" as a statement and threat. Ten years later, "our bus remains stuck" Sokari says: "but we are still waiting."
SOKARI DOUGLAS CAMP, THE FINGER, 2011. © SOKARI DOUGLAS CAMP.
Besides its political value, the bus is a meaningful artwork. It reflects how Sokari understands art: that is, as the creation of tangible things. Contemporary art, in Sokari's view, is being increasingly made of impalpable concepts – "whereas I do art". Another work which embodies Sokari's approach is Lovers Whispering, 2016, which will be offered for sale in the Modern and Contemporary African Art sale on 16 May. Tender, soft-spoken words harden into curling golden leaves as they reach from the boy's mouth to the girl's ear.
SOKARI DOUGLAS CAMP, LOVERS WHISPERING, 2016. ESTIMATE: £8,000–12,000.
As a source of inspiration, Sokari names Richard Wilson. At first, this choice sounds astonishing: he filled a room in the Saatchi Gallery with thick dark oil, the very element poisoning her motherland. Yet, Sokari explains, she particularly admires what he obtained: "as this black mirror reflects yourself and everything else, you may see where you stand in the world." Her recent piece God's Children (2016) seems inspired by a similar quest. Drawing from the scene painted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Sokari sculpted the divine figure reaching out to touch the hand of man. This piece expresses a quality that imbues the entirety of Sokari's art: the spark of life. It resonates with the theme of the 2017 Venice Biennale, entitled Viva Arte Viva (meaning Long Live Art Alive), where Sokari's works will be exhibited. Having taken part in previous editions of the Biennale, it is unsurprising that Sokari might recognise in the Italian city – small, afloat and with a strong tradition of masks – a second home.
"What does London mean to me?" she echoes my final question: "free speech." Two hundred and fifty languages are spoken in Nigeria, she explains: "and none freely." Instead, the freedom she found here in London, allows her to remember and immortalise the place she comes from. A land that takes shape just as the river breaks from its mouth into the sea – and whose artist's voice we hear loud and clear.
MAIN IMAGE: SOKARI DOUGLAS CAMP, GOD'S CHILDREN, 2016.