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By: Udemma Chukwuma

Fabrics, tissue papers, sawdusts, oil and acrylic paints are the media Slam Austin works with, artificial fingernails being his primary medium, which he started exploring in 2015. Udemma Chukwuma who visited his studio in Lagos reports. Walking into Slam Austin’s sacred place in Lagos, the artist was on his knees working on a piece from his Beauty Within (series). Scattered on the floor of his studio were a container of gum, a pair of scissors and various lively colours of plastic fingernails, a medium he prefers to create his art with. Aside this, Austin uses this medium to tell stories, question the society and convey his message.

At first glance you would think that the artwork he was working on is oil paint on canvas, but they were plastic nails on primed canvas, depicting uncompleted portraiture of a woman. A medium he discovered in his quest to create a distinctive identity for himself in the creative crowd. This journey led him into a path of creating art with fingernails. For now, this medium is peculiar to Austin in Nigeria.

“I started working with oil on canvas, but at the same time I was trying to create my own style and the breakthrough came in 2015 before my graduation. The idea came when I was sitting and meditating on which medium to explore and someone mentioned finger nails. Then I went and bought my first pack of fingernails for two thousand naira, but I never knew that I would spend more than that amount to create a piece of an art. In fact, I spent more than ten thousand naira on fingernails to create my first piece,” said the artist who described himself as a fingernail artist.

Exploring a new medium, especially one that no one has explored in your immediate environment can be difficult, and frustrating. So it was for Austin when he began to work with nails. When he was relocating to Lagos after his graduation from Auchi Polytechnic, Edo State, he chose to go into full-time studio practice. Now in Lagos, he found out that competition in Lagos art scene is highly competitive and in order to standout, you have to do what no one is doing.

“When you are spending money doing something you are not even sure of its outcome, is like spending money training a child and you’re not sure of the prospect in that child, especially when the child is not comprehending, you will feel like giving up, so, when you spend ten thousand naira to buy fingernails and no sales, you just feel like giving up, but because you are passionate about what you are doing, you are not looking at the money or the environment, but you are doing what you love. Then I was doing it because I wanted to do it. I love what I do. This alone kept me going.”

Working with nails, sawdust, which he uses to add texture to his work in order to get natural effect and fabric, he said it’s slow process that one must have patients as a virtue to be able to use it. “It was difficult,” he confessed, “I did my first fingernail piece in 2016 after struggling with the medium from 2015. A piece then took me almost three months to complete because of the gum that I used. Working with nails is time consuming but I enjoy working with it, and now I have been able to manipulate the medium perfectly well. I know how to achieve what I want, how to manipulate the medium and achieve my result fast.” When you look at his work, you could see that the artist has control of light and shade with this meticulous medium: “It takes a lot of time and study to be able to achieve this.

First, you must understand colours, you must understand the direction of light, sometimes the reference you are working with may not have light and this becomes a problem and without light the work will look flat on the canvas. You need to understand light for you to be able to achieve this.”

How many packs of fingernails does he use to create a piece? “It depends on the size of the work. If I’m doing a 3 by 5ft piece, I use about ten packs of fingernails. If creating a bigger size, I may use about 15 packs. But when doing faces, I don’t use much.” How durable is the medium? He said: “These works will stand the test of time because there is a way I coat my works. So far none of those who bought my work has complained or given any negative report about my work.” Highlighting the process of his creativity, the artist said he starts by stretching his canvas, sketch the subject on the canvas and cover it with black paint, then draw on the canvas again. “I use a stronger chemical to coat the work after the work is completed. This will make the work glossy.Did the artist from Edo State research the material to know if there are other artists using the medium? “Yes, I did research, I saw a lady in the US who works with this same medium, but what she does is far different from what I do. I do figures but hers is abstract.”

How do people react to his work? “They see it as a new style, new medium, they see it as a standout work. People appreciate it and react in a different way to it.”

Just as every profession has its hazards, so does the art profession, recalling what he considered his worst experiences working with the medium, Austin said: “Some people tried to discourage me that the medium is too expensive. And another was from a particular gallery I took my works, after awhile they called me to come and take my works that they don’t like it. I felt really bad that day. For this reason, I stopped giving my works to galleries to avoid comments that will break me down emotionally or discourage me. You can tell me you don’t have market for my art, but not telling me that my art will not go far, is not a nice thing to say to any artist, when you respect the artist, you respect the artwork, but I think they should also respect the artist more. Even if you are not buying, politely tell the artist you don’t have market for it; than to condemn the work. This affects the artist psychologically. But no matter how you condemn my work, you cannot discourage me.”

Austin’s artwork focuses on contemporary women’s fashion and often foreground female bodies and faces are his prominent subjects. “I try to capture contemporary women fashion with my work, the way you dress is the way people will address you. And also use my work to talk about the natural hair beauty, women should keep their natural hair. I love natural hair which is why you see a lot of women wearing Afro in my works.

“Women should know that beauty is not just the external beauty, but the
inner beauty, and the inner beauty speaks for you more than your external beauty. They can actually affect the society in positive ways with their inner beauty. If you are conscious of your inner beauty as a woman, nobody will take advantage of your external beauty.”

His advice to other artists who are yet to create a style for themselves, he said: “Whatever they do, they should always seek prospect in what they do. No mater what or how do not discourage them because critics must come in, and some times people will discourage you and tell you that what you are doing is rubbish. And they should always hunger for people who are ready to support them. They should mind the type of artists they hangout with, artists who are ready to push them, ready to correct them, people that are ready to tell them that they are doing the wrong thing and they shouldn’t argue; when you are learning you don’t argue.

Austin has been practicing professionally for about four years. His personal experiences, and i-conversations with people inspire his works. I was doing art but not serious with art because of other activities, but when I entered Lagos and I saw prospects in myself, I also saw prospect in the art market, so I put in my time in doing what l love. I have the zeal to push my art and when I entered Lagos some friends encouraged me.”

(Culled from The Nation Newspaper)

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