Interview with... British-Nigerian visual artist, Sani Sani aka InxSanixTy
Inxsanixty aka Sani Sani is a contemporary visual artist deeply inspired by his West African background. Read through his interview with me to learn more about his intriguing process of creation and the fascinating story behind his art.
Segolene Py: Present yourself in a few words
Sani: My name is Sani Inxsanixty, I am a contemporary visual artist. I am from South London, Peckham, born of Nigerian heritage. My mum is from Edo and my dad from the House of Fulani, so I am from north and south of Nigeria. I studied Aeronautical engineering, later changing to architecture engineering and then I did an event management degree. I never actually studied art.... I was quite a science focused student; I am probably just as much of a scientist as I am an artist. In my view, science is a calculated art.
After my years at Uni, art had taken over everything. I was painting and drawing on Instagram, everybody was telling me I should [pursue it]. It was becoming a force from everywhere pushing me [to start my career as an artist].
I always drew, from a very young age. I was already a professional artist when I really took to account the technique to create the eye shape [for example] but I never learnt that way, I never learn to appreciate art with the artists and what they try to convey. It was always a case of what move me and how it makes me feel and think.
As much as I want to tell people what’s behind my art, I want them to experience and have their own view first, because it is as important as mine. It took more than me to create the art, it may have been my physical hands but experiences created this art, then I put it back into the world and everybody else can share the same thing. I want to them to ask themselves question like: ‘why do I feel weird about this colour’, or ‘why do I feel happy’, 'why do I feel sad’ those questions are more important to me than, ‘what is the artist trying to say?’. I want my audience to like what I do before they like me, the art is more important.
My art is the more expressive me. As a human being you are contained into a body and form and you can only use words, but when it gets to art you can paint feeling, you can actually challenge thoughts. It is quite immediate and cut through filters. With painting I don’t need filters, I can just paint feelings directly. You don’t need to listen. You can directly understand what I'm trying to say.
SP: What if they feel a certain way and it’s not what you intended?
S: I may have painted something to talk about, [and there is always going to be someone to see it the opposite way] and we're both right for the simple reason that we don't see the world the same way, we don't have the same experiences. What I'm trying to say is because we don't have the same viewpoint and even though we're all human, [every opinion] values my view on what I was trying to achieve.
SP: How did you come up with your name, InxSanixTy?
S: The name came before the meaning. My name is Sani Sani, which means the ‘knowledgeable one’ in Arabic and 'the wise one' in Hindu, and ‘the old one’ in Native American. I thought it would be appropriate to make the meaning of my name make coincide with my passion for art, or why I do the art. It is a sort of acronym: ‘in’ stands for entry, Sani being knowledge, and ‘ty’ represents entity/identity. So, it means entry into the knowledge of self/identity.
SP: What inspires and how would you qualify your style?
S: Everything inspires me, people, stories, life, criticism... My art is instinctual, when I'm painting, I'm not really conscious of what I'm trying to paint. By the time I'm done I have to question it: why, what I have on the canvas and really sit down with the painting. I end up finding things about my life, it's almost like therapy. Sometimes there are things I don’t ever talk about. What has been an issue [appears on the canvas] and I find out that I have not dealt with something. For example, there is a painting of mine that talks about being an immigrant in Nigeria and being an immigrant in London (see on the right): when you're from both places you are never Nigerian enough and you are never British enough. My story is a little bit different on this subject: I was born in London and went to live in Nigeria at 7. I wanted to stay in Nigeria at 16 and I never wanted to come back to London, which is kind of the other way around usually (mostly people don't want to go back to Nigeria and most people want to come back to the UK). Personally, just the whole back and forth while growing up is why I felt that way. So with that painting I probably would have never thought about having issues being an immigrant from both countries. I would have never thought of that but because it came out in painting form, I had to challenge that. I need to tell people this is what it is so I guess it allows you to be more open. You can't lie to yourself if something appears on the canvas and it's challenging who you think you are and how you are thinking. You can’t take it back [once it’s on the canvas].
My style is experimental. I choose materials to create art based on what I need and what I need to say specifically, what message I'm trying to put out there. I work with oil on canvas, and sometimes I use paper or wood to make sculptures. I also do video art and digital art. I usually choose digital art because I want a lot of people to have access to it. I create it specifically to balance out that idea that not everybody can buy a painting of mine. For prints they usually a lot cheaper than my painting, so more available as well. It Is also a way to make it easier for people to buy it and to house it, as my painting are usually quite big. My paper sculptures are usually less heavy in contents, they create some sort of humour and touch basic social and environmental issues such as doing better for the planet. I found that people get more emotional with them. It's also art creating itself, I want to show you can make art out of anything. I feel like it is a way to touch people easier and more accessible to children. It allowed me to do workshops at Tate, and teach people and children to play with it and build their own.
SP: What was this project at Tate?
S: I used to be part of this project called Southwark Untold. I was doing workshops, ran by Pempeole, Nicholas Okwulu, in partnership with Tate Exchange. This project was a week of exhibitions, performances and talks. I’ve known Nicholas for a while... he’s very inspiring. He does a lot for the community and I tend to look at him like a good advisor. My second exhibition I did at his place in Peckham, it was a very important part of my journey. That was when Peckham really came out... this event was a big moment for me, very eventful.
SP: What's your process in creation, if you wanted to add anything else to what we said earlier?
S: I like to put on some music and incense... initially create a vibe and then start putting some paint to the canvas. It’s usually fast, short and instinctive moves. Those are the times when I would usually zone out. And I can't really tell you what is happening between them. But then I come to a moment when I am satisfied with my work and then I sit down and start questioning it. These questions are important, and I tend to know a lot more about myself with each painting. Sometimes it is just things that are bothering me. And when I put them into an exhibition, it means we are going to have to have these conversations, people are going to ask questions. I'm ready to answer them, by the time it’s in and exhibition I would have been forced to deal with the issue already and the good thing about is it's not just me opening up myself.
In my view, it’s three parts of the art: first part is when I tell you about me, second part is you learn about you, you don’t have to tell me but you learn about you through the art and the third part is to push your creativity. It's a little price to pay when you believe that what you are doing is good, in terms of helping somebody else finding out about a problem they may have, and might help them to deal with it, and you are also doing a little bit for the art.
SP: Not long ago, you started Illegal Art, what is this project ?
S: The idea of Illegal art is trying to create content from the everyday art perspective. It will be divided into 3-4 different parts, showing art content and everyday life type of art: having interview series with carpenters, barbers, nail salon... these people are creatives as well but not in fields celebrated as artistic. We are going to have a festival in October, which will be under Illegal Art at Copeland gallery, in Peckham, for the whole month. We are going to do multiple events, there will be no fees and no commission. The week end will be music events, one week will be on fashion, the next week will be film workshops, dance workshops and different exhibitions and events about Black History month, and the last week will be my solo show. I want to bring people together and share this opportunity. It's not just about selling the art for me; I really care about impact.
All these different fields in the arts give a view on the consumption of art from a bigger perspective: It's not just the collectors, galleries, curators and artists. The reality is everybody consume art on an everyday basis. I’m not even technically in the art world, in my view. I am an artist and visit other art places, but I am not represented by a gallery. I do partnership with them but I'm very unorthodox with the way I exhibit, curate and do my work. It sorts of put like an outsider. I was one of those people that wouldn’t call myself an artist before years. I believed the lies that you have to be at a certain level, a certain level of intellectual capacity. Even the idea of the art consumption, the ability to do it is elitist. The average galleries break down their audience and separate the audience that would just come and enjoy the art and those who buy the art: there’s members only and private views... their setup excludes certain people who may not necessarily come from a culture to go to galleries. With art, unlike any other thing for some reasons some people feel so much pressure just going into a gallery. It comes from an elitist world where you might be afraid to look stupid. I consider my audience the everyday people who don’t even consider themselves into art.
SP: I feel like it is changing
S: Absolutely, but with force. Unlike any other thing, you can’t control art.
SP: Yeah, also I think it is because museums want to expand their audience, they’re looking for other ways to connect with the public
S: Partly it is because they have no other choice. Your old guys are dying out, and because you have missed a whole part in between that, the only way to sustain your existence or guaranty your existence is by having a whole wave of new audience, or people with a new interest. in other instance I have read some museums are trying to give the African artefacts back to Africa but I don’t believe it is from a place of moral justice nor do I believe they really want to give it back. They’re losing a lot of power because there are more independent artists today. Usually, there’s more partnership going on. Today, galleries do open call and commercial galleries make artists pay.
SP: Do you think you have a role in your community?
S: Absolutely, and I see myself representing 3 different communities: There is the Peckham community, which is where I feel I belong more, the Black community and the artists community.
Being part of a community, you should do some part of giving back, (it’s a tricky word, because some people might feel like they weren’t given anything, so why should they give back) or, in other words and maybe a better way to say, is giving forwards.
When it comes to being an artist, I start asking myself, ‘what would I do If money didn’t exist, and 'what can I do until I die’ is from a bigger perspective, and those two things fell under one same thing: when it is all said and done how will I be able to make an impact, my mark, my contribution to the world and art. When I said earlier to push creativity, I meant it would be amazing if I could inspire people from Peckham to become artists. I would have accomplished something for me, in my life. As an artist, you are a teacher, a builder, a mirror, a question, a lot of different things. Your job essentially is to create that. Other times, it is about as little as lifting up the atmosphere or asking challenging questions. Artists use their voice through art in society. Whichever community you’re part of, you’re meant to be able to speak and relate to you community on their everyday basis, talk about their struggles, able to express their happiness... Almost like a conscience for the rest of society, be there to create and help. My view is that artist are not essential in society. What we do is important but because there is an artist in everybody we are not as essential as a teacher or say a doctor. Personally my role is to be the question and I almost never have the answer, the critic, the balancer, the mirror, hope and inspiration. I do take it seriously; it is part of the job. The power or the gift of being an artist should always be used for more than just fun.
In regards to the Black community, I feel like a lot people in this community don’t see art as theirs. My duty as a Black artist is to show them that it is for them, and that comes naturally. They are naturally so creative but a lot of us don’t consider ourselves into art because they have been deferred from it. I don't think it’s a coincidence: when the art was taken away from Africa however many years ago something also was stolen and that is culture. It comes with no surprise that the way colonisation worked it made Black people value European standards more than their own culture and with the aid of religion tinting everything that did not aligned with their Europeanised way of life as sin. It's hard to see art as valuable when they are beating you and forcing you to learn another language, another culture and religion, and later telling you the Queen is everything. You have other issues, priorities and worries than thinking about this art. The difference between Black people around the world and America is the art, I’m talking about the art in a full spectrum. For me the art and the identity it’s all one and the same, identity is tied to art. Identity was taken away from them. They were not even able to keep their names... My aim is to bring the Black community closer and show them this is something they can do. It would be great see artists from this community rise that I would have inspire.
SP: Would you qualify yourself as an African artist? I feel like if you go to galleries, this is how they are going to see you.
S: Back in the days, in 2013, if you typed in 'African art' on the internet artefacts and sculptures would appear. In my early stages, when I wanted gallery representations, galleries would tell me they love my work but they don’t have other artists like me so they couldn’t do a group show and they couldn’t justify a solo show because their Collectors didn’t know me or where not asking for my work. I felt like I couldn’t fit anywhere. My art wasn’t European. I don’t necessarily paint something that I want you to know is African but when you look at my paintings you know they’re Black people: facial features, the context of where they are, the story... I never created art to make Black art. There are Black people in my art as a reflection work and something that can be relatable to more people. I'm Black and I paint work that look like me. When I saw Picasso I could relate to it, Basquiat I could relate to it, it’s not even real human beings. None of this needed to be White or Black, they are just human stories and everyone is able to relate. I also paint Black people as an opportunity to show my culture and tell people about my community and educate Black people about Black people.
In a way you could argue that the subject matter is about Black people. For the sake of description, my style could be qualified as contemporary African art, but really, I am not trying to be a part of this. I’m just creating art, I want to create a dialogue with my audience.
SP: How has your art evolved?
S: The first style I explored was hyperrealism: to me it’s great techniques but it’s hard to get to a final place when you already know what’s going to happen and the compliment you will get generally is “this really looks like the picture”, it’s a lot of work just to get that. It doesn’t really excite me. I wasn’t considering myself as an artist while experimenting in these styles, but when I really decided to be an artist, I started painting. I was trying to find creative ways to push myself. I started to play around with hidden images, which took me away from realism and hyperrealism. I was experimenting with a lot of styles like cubism, and then I started my digital art. It didn’t really come out well at first so I worked with double exposure paintings: lay two paintings on top of each other. I had this constant battle between doing traditional styles that people would appreciate and art that is more challenging and makes you question yourself. I want people to go home and think about what the painting did to them rather than “this painting looks like this place” or “like this person”. I like to challenge myself; my art has changed a little bit since last year, just because I need to play around and do more, see what I can or can't do, and once I know, I start doing exploring else.
Not everybody knows that I'm just one person just because of how many styles I do. In my latest exhibition a lot of people were asking if all the artists were present, and I really like it.
SP: What was your latest exhibition ?
S: Two years ago, I participated in a project for the Back Room Gallery and it allowed me to have a chance to exhibit in this space for free. The Gallery is located very near Copeland Gallery, in the Holdrons Arcade, in Peckham. The exhibition is entitled Coloured Words which is about what I have been talking about earlier, my way and process of painting. I explored a trilogy of Science: humanity, history and 'purpose' and how it all relates to art, but also how this art is a question that can only be answered by self-reflection. It was a 5 days solo exhibition from the Tuesday 6th July 2021 until Saturday 10th July 2021.