Hey my favorite people! I trust you’ve been okay since we last spoke on Tuesday last week. I am writing you this letter to let you know that we have a guest on the blog!!! (Didn’t that just remind you of writing letters in secondary school?) Well, our guest today is Kelechi Chinwendu Kelechi, an artist who tells her stories in traditional ways.
I met Kelechi through a friend of mine named Kelechi Nwaji (yeah, they are namesakes) who met her during their service year in Cross River State.
So Kelechi texted me sometime last year and said “there is this girl I think you would like to meet”, and in my head I go “I am anti social, I don’t want to meet anyone”. Then he goes “she’s an artist and she does traditional Igbo art”. So, I got talking with her and when I saw her art work, I was beyond wowed….. and the rest is history.
One thing that drew me to her is the fact she’s an advocate of Igbo cultural heritage, and I find that very fascinating.
It’s amazing that she says she has not yet gotten the ‘the eye’ from people who think traditional art is ‘demonic’. Don’t get me wrong, we are Nigerians, shouldn’t we be praying for her to catch fire? Have we forgotten what we were sent to earth to do? (Just incase you did not catch that this is a joke, it is a joke!)
Kelechi believes that the role of an artist is the same as that of a lover – to help others see better. If I love you, I have to help you see the things you do not see.
Before we go into her art work, let’s get to know the artist a little in her own words. Shall we?
Hey everyone, my name is Kelechi Chiwendu Kelechi. I am from Umugwu, Abayi, Isiala Ngwa North, Abia State and I grew up in Amakama, Umuahia.
While I was growing up, my brother was the artist. He was quite skilled for a child. I learnt by watching him, mostly spoiling his tools when I got jealous. I drew a lot through my childhood and through secondary school. At University I studied History and International Studies, and struggled to merge art and history, often going to the art department and sneaking into their drawing classes. I had to stop at a time because my grades were suffering but I picked it up again after I finished my course, and the history I studied now bleeds into whatever art skills I may have.
It’s traditional art for me because I have always been interested in stories. I was quite the story teller. Being Igbo has shaped my art to a large extent because I not only want to tell our stories, I want to preserve them. I realize how much is harmed when we do not preserve our history. I also reinterpret our culture in these contemporary times, so that it is still relevant and renewed again and again.
My parents actually are the ones who kindled the fire of traditional art in me. While my father answers most questions I have based on Igbo history and culture, my mother tells me about things like uri or uli. I like to think of them as my greatest inspiration.
I aim to reach the wider world with my art, to show them aspects of our culture they may have misinterpreted, forgotten, or have been blind to.
As much as I think that Igbo art is not independent of Igbo metaphysics, I don’t think I cross the line of Christianity. I think I may cross the line on some man-made church traditions yes, but true Christianity, being Christ like? No. Thinking about it, I don’t even have a clear cut rule on how I have you been able to “maintain being a Christian and being a traditional artist”. I just try to express myself anyhow.
I feel the pressure to conform my art to mainstream all time, every day. It’s quite annoying having people go, “oh you’re an artist?” and then they demand: “DRAW ME”. When I say I don’t draw people, they look so shocked I immediately want to get out a pencil and draw them straight-away just to be done with the disbelief.
I really think that the state of (traditional) art in Nigeria is fast dying, and this is sad. The problem I think is that, it is difficult to bridge them with the contemporary, and typically we have always loved to chase after other gods that our fathers did not know.
Asides from being an artist, I’m a writer. I like to write non-fiction because I believe that our memories are important and nostalgia is a drug.
My paintings mostly feature the Igbo art of Uli, and the Ukara, ritual cloth of the Ekpe society.
I work majorly with symbols and textile patterns to create storytelling pieces that illustrate cultural ideas and lore in a contemporary setting.
The collection of illustrations I would be displaying is based on Igbo folklore.
- What does this collection mean to you?
Ans: There is a meme. It’s an irate teddy bear saying: “Will someone please think of the children?!” Well, I am thinking of the children here. I want them to be introduced to these illustrations and the stories they tell in their fertile, impressionable, and patient years. That’s what it means to me. The preservation of our stories through children.
- Tell us about this collection
Ans: They are based on Igbo folklore. That’s how much I can tell you for now. I’m allowed to have my secrets.
2. Are pieces of this collection on sale?
Ans: No, because they are parts of a study and really small scale, but one can always commission reproductions.
3. How do we purchase them?
The reproductions (which may be larger than the originals), may be purchased through my art (and personal) page on instagram @small_and_slightly_strange. My WhatsApp number is listed on my bio too, so people can contact me on there as well.
4. What is the inspiration behind your handle @small_and_slightly_strange?
Ans: I used to dabble in alliterations. It happened after I read The Great American Novel at secondary school. People have always said that I am strange, so I wanted to concede to that, but only slightly, because I have never believed that I am strange. I think I’m the most normal person anyone could meet, perhaps just normal for a different reality. So it was “slightly strange”. Then I thought, what is the first thing about me? Well, I’m little. It’s always been people describing me as “that small girl”. I don’t like it much, but what people think a thing is is what it is, eh? So I keyed that in on instagram: “small_and_slightly_strange.
In this illustration the tortoise is shown riding the elephant with a rope around his neck, he has deceived the elephant into thinking the King is going to crown him chairman, and thus leads the elephant into servitude to the king, while he marries the Adaeze.
Here I explored the adire textile patterns which belong to the Yoruba, to illustrate a woman-king holding up her womb (the clay pot) as supreme. It is as though she says “You cannot give me rules. I am the Mother.”
It is about conquering; if there is any such thing as truly conquering, gender stereotypes, while still being a stereotypically feminine woman.
These three are part of an Uli triptych. They are Acrylic color on stretched cloth.
The tortoise is to Igbo lore what the spider (Kweku Ananse) is to Ghana, and the fox (Brier Fox) is to the West.
The tortoise symbolizes wisdom and trickery, creativity and deceit.
Though a smaller animal, it is most notable for its ability to surpass even those animals naturally stronger and faster than itself. The Nsibidi symbol for mind or intellect (uche), simply puts a box round the tortoise iconography. For Ekwensu, the trickster deity, the Nsibidi symbol also incorporates the tortoise iconography with slight distortion.
Thank you very much for reading through today’s episode. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. If you have any questions at all about Kelechi’s work, you can ask it in the comment section below. I so loveeeee to read your comments