Sokari Douglas Camp’s studio in Elephant and Castle is dense with her art. Her larger-than-life metal sculptures listen attentively as she carefully explains her work. Her passion for social justice is evident and her sense of humour is contagious. Her aesthetic sensibility and celebration of her Kalabari roots give force to her focus on injustice; on the violations of power, whether by Nigeria’s military regime, multinational corporations or through the persistent legacies of slavery.
Here, the Kalabari characters that she knew from her childhood in the Niger Delta dance with inspirations from the Italian Renaissance and William Blake’s dark imagination:
Kalabari festivals celebrate mythological characters and water spirits and historical characters. What attracts me is that they are meant to be fairy stories. They’re fascinating! From a young age you’re introduced to these mythological characters. It’s like coming in touch with Father Christmas, except in a far more electric way. Peter Pan, a real fairy, playing in front of you! They come to perform for you and they tell you stories about their world.
When she reflects on the influences that have shaped her work, the tragedy of the Niger Delta and the appalling record of exploitation by multinational oil companies are a constant theme that has run since the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa – and others of the “Ogoni Nine” – in 1995. Sokari’s installation – “Battle Bus” – toured Britain before being shipped to Lagos, where it was impounded by the Nigerian government.
A second theme is the legacy of slavery. Here, Sokari has taken a thread of inspiration from William Prescott, one of many elderly freed men and women who had formerly been slaves and who were interviewed in 1937. Prescott had spent his whole life on the rice plantation where he had been enslaved. Reflecting on this, he said:
it is something, but soon there won’t be anyone alive who was a slave … they will remember that we were sold but they won’t remember that we were strong. They will remember that we were bought, but not that we were brave.
Many of Sokari’s recent sculptures work to this refrain of strength and bravery; for example, her larger-than-life “Europe Supported by Africa and America”, a response to a print with the same name made by William Blake in 1796. Through her work, Sokari shows how art can shape and define key issues with a persistence that defies power and influence. As she says in the video we made together, her work in metal is “my way of writing”.
This ChangeMakers series is a partnership between Connected Learning Studio and the Allan Gray Centre for Values Based Leadership, Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town.