Lagos-born and London-based, Nissi Ogulu is telling stories about the breadth of African musical culture. The artist talks to Clovis McEvoy about her recent exhibition, African creativity, and how web3 is making a career in art accessible.
If you walked down Oxford Street in London this August, chances are that you saw Nissi Ogulu’s latest exhibition. Bursting with vibrant colour and filling up a dazzling set of video displays, the artist’s love letter to Africa’s musical traditions was a must-see for the city’s foot traffic.
Presented by W1 Curates on the side of Flannels’ flagship store, JigSaw Tribe is part of Nissi’s ongoing Puzzle project, an exploration of history and culture that combines music, art, web3, and on-the-ground action. “I wanted to showcase African heritage and the musicality that comes behind it,” she says, “but in a very contemporary, hyper-futuristic style.”
Of course, the future is where Nissi thrives; not sitting back and speculating about it, but actively creating it. As a visual artist, animator, musician — and a chartered engineer — she has worked on everything from award-winning short films to designing sustainable vehicles for the Red Cross. “I think it all comes from the same creative space,” she says. “Of course, it's a different interpretation of that energy: I would interpret music in a different way to how I interpret my fine art, or my product design, but they all do come from the same source.”
“I wanted to showcase African heritage and the musicality that comes behind it.”
— Nissi Ogulu
Though she herself hails from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Nissi draws inspiration from musical instruments spanning the entire African continent for JigSaw Tribe. Each image in the collection is stylised as a puzzle piece, part of a larger image of the continent’s creative history. Amongst them features West Africa’s gan gan, or ‘talking drum’, whose stocky hourglass shape is one of the most universally recognisable African instruments. From the East, Nissi focuses on Griots, storytellers who use a range of instrument to mimic the sound of a town crier: “it’s the sound that will wake people up in the morning,” she laughs.
From North Africa, she was inspired by the horns of the Hamar tribe which are “made from the horns of animals, and form part of the celebration when a child comes of age.” And, from the South, comes the Mouth Bow, an instrument derived from the bows and arrows used by hunting parties. “These hunters were also innate musicians,” says Nissi. “They started to use their mouth to hit on the string of the bow to formulate sounds and make music.”
Fittingly, there is music composed for each image in JigSaw Tribe. “In the exhibition,” she explains, “there was a barcode right next to each piece. You could scan it with your phone to hear the sound of the instrument.” While the first NFT iteration of JigSaw Tribe was purely visual, Nissi says that she is planning to keep developing the project to bring the music of these instruments to the digital space as well.
Spotlighting these instruments through Nissi’s distinctive contemporary style is not only an act of celebration and preservation, but also a practical way to raise funds for the challenges that many Africans are facing right now. Partnering with Binance Charity, proceeds from the JigSaw Tribe collection help fund The Reach, a charity set up by Nissi’s family in the wake of Covid-19 to support the most vulnerable in local Nigerian communities.
“We provide food aid in southern Nigeria,” says Nissi. “We started during the pandemic; we were seeing a lot of people struggling to go about their daily lives. In certain regions in Nigeria, a majority of people live on what they make in the day; that's your daily bread, that’s what you survive on. If you’re in lockdown, if you can’t leave your house, you essentially can't do anything.”
The granddaughter of one of Nigeria’s most revered music critics, Benson Idonije, Nissi’s musical education started at the age of four when she took up piano lessons at the music school run by her mother. She says her grandfather was the one who “championed” her development as a recording artist after she played him a demo that she had recorded when she was thirteen. “He really taught me about the intricacies of music,” she recalls. “He introduced me to the world of jazz and blues. I spent a lot of time listening to Nina Simone and Tracy Chapman.”
One of the central lessons Nissi says her grandfather impressed upon her was the importance of expressing emotions through song. It is something that she still relies on to this day in her songwriting process: “If I'm getting sent beats, I don't want to hear them until I'm in the studio — otherwise, it's not going to be organic.”
Her most recent single, Gravity, saw her collaborate with rising stars of South Africa’s Amapiano genre, the musical ensemble Major League DJz. “I love those guys,” she effuses, “I was in the studio and the beat for Gravity came on, and I just immediately started to freestyle on it. The song was made the same day.”
Hinting at a future EP, Nissi says her focus will be more introspective. “For me, inspiration usually comes from other people, but if you take a step of extreme vulnerability in your music, it’s very powerful. That's where I will draw inspiration from on my next project.”
Nissi is no stranger to exploring tough issues through music. Her first single was 2016’s politically charged Pay Attention, and since that debut she has made a point of expressing her values and heritage. “I think music is the universal language, it has the ability to cut across all types of people, religions, places. It’s a tool that I can use to pass along positive social messages. I think that’s really important.”
For Nissi, NFTs and web3 are simply another set of tools that artists and musicians can use — crucially, tools that democratise resources previously restricted to a precious few. “The beauty of web3 is that artists who don't have the essential machinery to put on exhibitions or showcase their work now have a very direct way to meet their audience, cutting out the middlemen, and giving more people the opportunity.”
While a lot of web3 leaders are currently clustered in America and the West, Nissi says she already sees a large and growing interest in the space coming from the African continent. “I find that there is an immense amount of creativity in the continent,” says Nissi. “Obviously, more still needs to be done to spread the word, but within creative communities, people always have their eyes and ears glued on to the latest innovations, so they are definitely in tune with web3 and the NFT space.”
In a poignant way, by channelling the spirit of Africa’s oldest musical inventions through digital art and NFTs, she acts as a link in an unbroken chain of innovation; a new piece in a puzzle that stretches back to pre-history. Just as those ancient musicians and instrument makers left a legacy for Nissi to find, she too looks ahead to her own future legacy. “You need to be sure that you’re actually making an impact on the world, because at the end of the day, the most important thing about being alive is what inspiration you leave for others, for those who come after you.”
“Artists who don't have the machinery to showcase their work now have a direct way to meet their audience.”
— Nissi Ogulu
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