Sokari Douglas Camp CBE is a self-described contemporary artist who believes ‘welders do it best!’
Born, 1958, in Buguma, Nigeria, (in the Niger Delta region), she came to the UK to attend boarding school at the age of eight.
She now lives and works in south London in a house that she and her husband, the architect Alan Camp, designed and built 28 years ago. The home is a stunning feat of architecture and design; and all around it stand imposing sculptures that Sokari has created over the years.
We meet on a rare sunny London day in March and light flooding in from windows all around the open planned kitchen and sitting room reveal the sculptures beautifully.
“It had been flattened just before the war to build a council block or something but it was forgotten about, or the money wasn’t there to do it in the end, so it stayed derelict. My husband realised he was an architect and that we could build if we wanted to, so we asked the Council if we could buy the space to build a live/work unit. Thankfully they allowed it. Other artists moved in next door and a community centre was built and all sorts of things.”
Sokari wasn’t always a sculptor. She began as a painter but changed medium when she decided she was “lousy” at the age of twelve.
“I preferred making things. I liked the idea of putting my hands into things. So sculpture seemed the way to go. I just kind of made installations really, things that would fill a whole room.”
You consider yourself a contemporary artist yet your work draws heavily on your Kalabari heritage. Is there a dissonance there?
Not at all! Why isn’t Kalabari contemporary? And a lot of contemporary artists have traditions in there work. They just do. It’s a part of their language. A contemporary chef will reach back to traditional techniques too. It just so happens that my speciality is Kalabari conversation, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t have a little bit of Italian conversation as well, I’m interested in many fields. My basis is my birth home just because it is an incredibly interesting place.”
Do you visit your birth home often?
“I don’t go back too often anymore because of the kidnap risk in my area of the Niger Delta. My family that still live there is under threat all the time. A lot of Nigerians pray before they go out of the house just to have a good day, but in the Delta it is especially poignant just because of the risk of something happening to you. It’s not that safe there at the moment.”
You studied at the Central School of Art and Design (modern day St. Martins) – what are your memories of being a student in London?
“I loved being a student in London. It was a very exciting space then. The Africa Centre, in particular, was a great hub for people of all shades. I met many South Africans there who were exiled by the Apartheid regime; many of these guys were well-established artists at the time and they gave me free tutorials. There were a whole layer of things that my tutors couldn’t give me because they had no experience of traditions that were so demanding that they commanded fear. I was striving to create art and be an artist; they didn’t have the experience needed to tutor me. Yet these people at the Africa Centre were able to do just that. So I had a great time because I had international conversation being in London. It was a very formative time.”
Some of your pieces are featuring in the upcoming SOAS Collections exhibition – what can you tell us about them?
“I’m going to be showing three sculptures. Jesus Loves Me – these are a little higher than 6 foot. They are dressed to the nines in plasma cut steel that looks like cloth, basically very glamorous and posey. And there is a painting that looks like a Roman Emperor but is meant to be black Jesus. It’s based on the theme of Pentecostal beauties. Quite cheery work.
“And there’s another called Kissss Me – an echo of my children who were enjoying the summer together, as one lives in the States and was going to return there. So there was an awful lot of hugging and kissing together that summer because they missed each other.
“SOAS has also been kind enough to look after some rather monumental heads I have currently in my garden. They’re called Blue Head and Pink Head. They’re rather pop art-y of me.”
A variety of other issues are touched upon. The depiction of Africa in the West – “even that sentence puts it down as a country. From the get go the West is in the wrong court and always has been. I think David Lammy is right to try and educate some of the media, they don’t know what they’re saying half the time. It would be great to have a positive view of the place they call Africa.”
She also speaks fondly of meeting Prince Charles when she received her CBE: “I forgot my passport and my husband had to smooth talk the admittance staff in order to get us in. But he was very nice and was able to speak to everyone there about their lives and work. You can see he cared.”
She’s concerned about Brexit – “the country doesn’t feel the same anymore. My new aim is to be positive and intelligent and have something to discuss rather than always going for the negative. We’re all here to work together and make things work for us. It’s a small world.”
Celebrating Art and Music: The SOAS Collections opens on 20 April 2017 in the Brunei Gallery.
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