We’re thrilled to share a new installment of Aurifil’s The Maker Series: Conversations. It started as a simple idea: to create space for makers to share their stories in their own words. These posts may be written interviews… they may end up as an audio interview, podcast style… or they might end up as a video. We’ll share the the conversation, unedited, and follow with a series of project images so that the featured maker has solid artistic platform.
Through this, we hope that you’ll discover someone new… perhaps you’ll relate to a particular story that will help propel your own creative process forward. Maybe you’ll find someone who inspires you to try something new, or to throw yourself into the creative pool because they’ve already told you that the water is fine and it’s safe to just dive in.
Today, we have the immense honor of introducing you to Nigerian textile artist Uzoma Samuel Anyanwu.
Uzoma has been on his own artistic path and, inspired to learn to quilt, found Sara Trail and the Social Justice Sewing Academy on Facebook. He reached out and started a conversation, sending images of his artwork that left Sara speechless. Completely entranced with his work, Sara knew that she had to do everything she could to help Uzoma in his quest, to find a way to bring his work to a larger US audience and to get him the tools necessary to take his fabric collage to the next level.
Sara reached out to Aurifil’s Creative Director, Erin Sampson, and the two had a handful of excited and inspiring conversations about what could be done to share Uzoma Samuel’s story with the world. Timing is everything and Erin & Sara were able to meet in Phoenix, AZ during QuiltCon. With a tiny laptop perched on the side of Erin’s hotel bed, Sara in the hotel armchair, and Erin perched on the footrest, they were able to meet Uzoma Samuel late on a Friday night (but 5:30am in Nigeria) via Zoom. It might not have been the most polished of settings, but perfection was never the goal. The most important piece was simply having the conversation in such a way that it could be brought here to all of you.
We know that you’ll be as entranced with the artwork of Uzoma Samuel as we are and simply cannot wait to keep this conversation going. If you’d prefer to read the interview, a full transcript with images added is available below.
Uzoma Samuel: Good morning!
Erin & Sara: Good morning.
Erin: It’s so nice to meet you. Thank you so much for getting up and meeting us so early, and agreeing to do the interview. This is amazing.
Uzoma Samuel: It’s an amazing opportunity so I must dive into it.
Sara: Before we get started, can we just get a studio tour? Before we start the interview?
Uzoma Samuel: Yes, I can do that. Okay. We’re having will happen from here how I develop my work from drawing… you can see then, before it goes gradually to these fabrics. Majorly, I recycle fabric from pillows. And then, these are ongoing works. We are here at the studio so you see mostly current works we are doing. Some stretched canvas. We have here some miniatures… some miniatures.
Sara: Oh, wow. Oh, those are cool.
Erin: They’re amazing.
Uzoma Samuel: Yeah, all of these are complete fabrics, not paints. And these are fabrics picked up from tailor houses, fashion houses, all of them. So, then I could show you, these are still some works in my studio. Some which are maybe, I started them, and after a long while, I couldn’t find any motivation to continue. I just leave them there. But somehow I’m satisfied. And some of this one I wouldn’t want to let go. I just like them to be around me. Because they keep giving me more stories and all that. So, some other kind of experiments. I have a lot of bags of fabrics here in the studio. I have fabrics, fabrics, fabrics all over. So here is just my small studio…
Erin & Sara: Very cool, thank you!
Uzoma Samuel: So, here is my small studio. At home is my major studio— I have a bigger studio at home. But I work mainly here because it’s cool… less noisy, no disturbance. I work mainly here. Some of the large works, when I want to do them, I do them at home because I have a longer space… a wider space.
Erin & Sara: Wow. Thank you. It’s so nice to see where you’re creating.
Uzoma Samuel: Thank you very much.
Sara: First off, how do we pronounce your name? What do you want to go by as your artist name?
Uzoma Samuel: Okay, Anyanwu is my surname. Anyanwu is my surname and it means the song. It’s talking about the song. Anyanwu is a big household name. A lot of families answer to that name. It’s talking about God of the song. Eyes of the song. My other names are Uzoma, is my first name. Uzoma. Then Samuel is my middle name.
Sara: Uzoma Samuel.
Uzoma Samuel: Yes, I’m Uzoma Samuel. A textile artist based in Lagos, Nigeria. I’m about 40 years old now.
Uzoma Samuel: Thank you very much.
Sara: When did you first start creating art? Have you been painting, creating, and making since you were young? Or is it something that you came about as you got older?
Uzoma Samuel: Yes, I have taken art all along as a child. There’s this obsession I have with the arts and especially material, found objects… right from the cradle as a child. I got to know art earlier as a child, I can say that.
Erin: I’m curious. I’ve seen a lot of your artwork that’s been sent from painting— the straight out paintings to the collage. What drew you to the practice of collage and the work that you’re doing with the magazines and fabric and putting the whole pieces together with these portraits, how did you get started doing that?
Uzoma Samuel: Yes, like I stated earlier, such closeness with objects at a young age helped to develop my intentions… helped to develop my interests. And choosing fabrics, wasn’t just something I woke up to choose. It’s a kind of an endowment, a kind of family genetic endowment, because my mom and some of our sisters, and my sisters also are all fashion designers. So they produce the cutouts from their works, I have been toying with them all along as a child. So growing up, going to the university, I still have this attachment. Then there were times I sewed fabrics for people. I serve people in the market, selling fabric. I still have such a desire, I still had such interest… admiring designs. Some of these things were bonding with my inner artistic ability, without my knowing, before I went to the University. After the university, or finishing the university, I was left with finding my artistic path, which I started painting and photography. So I came back, all I had to face back home was still the same fabrics. And that was how I picked them up and started practicing again.
Sara: Where do you draw your inspiration from? All the women, all the portraits, all the men? Where do you find your inspiration?
Uzoma Samuel: Yeah, my inspiration can be said to be mostly imaginatives. In terms of what I have seen, the experiences I have gathered a long time, translating them into my work. First of all, I imagine or reimagine them. Stories of people, social issues, political issues… especially developed from my background here in Africa. We’re in a kind of a continent where a lot happens. So a distance after a while I begin to reimagine them into telling stories on a canvas with fabrics and things. This is how I get my imaginations on the work.
Sara: The first portrait that you created was the boy’s face in 2012… the blue one.
Uzoma Samuel: Yes.
Sara: Can you tell us about that process? What made you come up with that creative process? Who was that boy? What’s his story?
Uzoma Samuel: Yes, I created that first portrait… first of all, as a photographer that has taken a lot of photographs, and the first place I could lay my hands looking for items to work on was from bucket list of mine… archives of photographs I have shot. And some of these photographs were taken randomly. Most of the time, places I have traveled to, people I didn’t even have connections with. We have 36 states in Nigeria. I have been to about 30 states. And then I was traveling mainly to take photographs. Most of the time we go on excursion and I will be the young photographer.
So most of those photographs, I still have some of them that have not gotten by because they were taken with the manual film camera. So it’s one of the photograph that I choose to work with. And I can tell you, those are stories of people that, maybe from a village, or one of the villages I visited and all that.
Sara: You have an amazing ability to capture depth, particularly within the eyes. What is that process like?
Uzoma Samuel: The process of me capturing eyes… is my kind of a God given ability for details. And then also, eyes are a very interesting part of the body, which we take, which we use for vision. It is the passage to the soul. And so I pay so much attention, giving details to the eyes, because by the time I have the eyes balanced, it could draw attention to my work.
This is just a way of me highlighting some part or area of my work to actually capture people’s attention. And then aware of the portraits to look at people naturally and connect. That is why I pay most attention to those areas.
Sara: Can you explain your process from start to finish?
Uzoma Samuel: Yeah, my process of starting to finish takes off from drawing. But first of all, the material must be available. Which every now and then I do an exercise. I go out to fetch these fabrics myself, since I’ve recycled to make art. So, by the time the material comes, when I unveil them, when I pulled them out, during the selection process, it helps me to imagine what to create. It helps me to, it gives me ideas. By the time I display all the fabrics I have brought to the studio, I begin to see colors, I begin to see shapes, I begin to see almost how the frame of my work look like. And this is the starting point. But then… going, stretching my canvas, making sketches, and then getting back to work. Picking those fabrics and placing them, collaging them, is another area, which is where the work, where those imaginations have been piling up. Those sketches I made, I begin to add value to them, and build them up. And at the end of the day, I have to leave those work in the studio for to spend time with them to see how I communicate to them. Most of the time, I don’t even get the title of my work before doing them. It’s after I have finished working. Probably one of the day when I just look at them from a fresh, something will begin to speak to me about the work. And this is how my work is done.
Erin: So from the sketch… I know you had showed us around a little bit before we really began the interview. And behind you, there’s one of the sketches on your wall. So that’s where you really start from at the beginning of that process?
Uzoma Samuel: Yes… and then if I have to add to this. Most of the time, this sketch doesn’t just come. I compose most of them with my camera, working with the model. So, as a painter and photographer, my works complement each other. I borrow from the photographic experience and then adding it up to my painting. This is what I do in the studio.
Sara: How does your access to materials guide your vision? So if you have, like, you know, a certain type of fabric so if you have like, I’ve seen Louis Vuitton fabrics I’ve seen Asian fabrics with with character cartoons and even vans and some of your work. Do the materials that you have impact how you make people?
Uzoma Samuel: Yes, how the material impacts my work is basically because of taking detail attention to the designs on the fabrics over time. And because these are particles of history, as I say. These are fabrics, I’ve rescued from different places, even beyond my own country. I have traveled to some places, and I came back with fabrics, quite different from what we use in Africa. So, when I display them, the design, the details on those fabrics… the stories, which may be telling some stories of a particular place… history, happenings, the lives of people. So, all these things put together tell how I could make design of my work. And I choose to display vividly some of these inscriptions on those fabrics because these are what people have designed… from their mind. People are writing letters, people are supporting their cultures through these designs. And these designs on these fabrics are majorly coming together as pieces cut out from different tailors and which, like in Africa and Nigeria will receive tons of fabrics from different countries… from China, from Turkey… we can’t count them… United States, Europe, and all that. When all these things land here, different people purchase them, and cut them in pieces, using them to make clothes. By the time I pick up these pieces and bring them to the studio, and then collage even uncomfortable parts of those pieces in one face, then I begin to see kind of a globalization in my work… a kind of integrated culture and history of people.
So you discover that this is a way of taking other people’s culture, accepting other people’s belief. For example, if I will say this, most of the fabrics from China and India, those people, the majority of them are not Christians. So you find some of the inscriptions on their fabrics, telling their own belief, telling their own religious stories. By way of just calling on an African, a Nigerian Christian to worship Buddha, he wouldn’t do that he wouldn’t accept that. But he’ll wear fabric somehow that is designed and produced from that part of the world, which is now supporting their own belief. And you discover, when you put all these stories together, looking at my work, fabric is just a way that man had been able to take from the other without even having an excuse. Without arguing… you you suddenly find yourself, you know, incorporating what other people have into what you want to use. And this is just the way my fabric work is done and affects everything around me.
Sara: Is there support in your community for the work that you’re doing… in Lagos specifically?
Uzoma Samuel: Yes, there is support in terms of exhibition. We have galleries, local galleries, that we take our works to, and then sometimes they organize exhibition. Sometimes they keep our walks for sale and kind of promote them trying to show to people. Then some other time, once in a while, we do have competitions and art fairs. We also have some dealers who come to us to say I need some of your works, I need to show here. We have people from the community that once in a while show interest.
But I must say this based on my background of development here, fabric is fabric work is just trying to wake up. We have few here doing this. And I started quite earlier. By the time I was speaking or showing my works on social media, I wasn’t getting that kind of positive reactions, because the fabric work is taken to be a female work, which we are not giving much attention… people take it that this is the work of a woman. Within Africa includes tailoring, which is more of the feminine kind of work. And people do not really take them serious. So by the time I started making my fabric work, I think people saw it from that approach… from that view. And it was it was looked at as a craftwork. But I keep having a burden to do this, because of my long attachments with fabric. So after time we started having an audience… we started having people looking at it from a different perspective. My prof came in to start also writing quite a few article, and then helping me out with some of the exhibitions. This was how we started making impact here, and having some support.
This support, when we are talking about the support to the artists… what I’m doing is much of a project work other than just to do production of normal drawings and painting. So in terms of that kind of capacity support for an artist to be productive without distraction… we are yet to have it. I am yet to have such support. And that is why most of the time you see my work, I’m producing drawings, I’m producing some kind of other work. Not that artists will not be versatile, but I think at a particular time when you receive a support for a project or a residency, you go all out for such and you maximize what you have. And by the time people see your work in sequence, they are telling a kind of story that are no different from each other.
Sara: So the one that you just did is going to get long armed and turned into a quilt with three layers. Have you done anything else that’s going to be a quilt, or will this be your first quilt?
Uzoma Samuel: Yes, I have. I’ve done… it’s just that I haven’t… why I actually haven’t produced a complete quilt is that I have not gotten that kind of support. It’s my passion to make quilts. It’s part of my agenda, it’s part of the plan I have to extend my work to that level for people to see and feel it. So, I am also using this medium to say that if by adventure, I received some kind of residency, support for power generation— which is our major problem in Africa here— the kind of long arm machine used for quilt making is not really available here… it is expensive, not within our reach as local artists. This as the kind of support, we need… cash support to be able to be productive.
I have tons of materials. One of these days, I’m going to open up where I bank my materials in the house, because I take care of them. I received fabrics, like this year, I received about five big bags from a very distant part of the country. Because I traveled to such places to talk to those tailors, instead of them throwing some of those things, most of the time, they litter them indiscriminately. And you discover that we are still having a problem with the environment here in Africa, because of how people treat waste materials and other wastes, too. So what also helped me to go into this work is my passion for environmental ethics. You know, to also, help to sustain, to give back to the ecosystem to support the sustainability of our ecosystem.
Erin: It’s remarkable… It’s giving new life to these to these fabrics into, you know, the materials that you found. And it’s giving them this new life where they’re completely transformed. It’s pretty incredible.
Sara: In addition to a long arm, in addition to cash support, what other types of support would you like to receive as a new textile artist. What other support can we help you with?
Uzoma Samuel: I would like to come for residency, and that is why I have contacted your academy. And I’m trying to follow up. Because I see that what I am dreaming of, what I’m working towards… you people are already ahead of it. You are championing it. And then I have to queue in this different view of the story from here so we could align them and see how our world look like from a different angle. Because what you are producing the quilts you’re producing in America and the stories are actually different from the kind of story we have here and we make in our art. So, I need cash support to build up a generator for a stable power supply. What we are using now, this power can go off at any time and we don’t know when it will come back. We have generator, the cheaper ones and they break down easily. And currently most of the time we power scarcity in the country… like now we have power scarcity. These are the challenges that affects artists creating.
Why I also have tried to remain here, not travel out to go and do my art is because I’m an indigenous artist sourcing my material here. Looking at creating my stories from here. So going somewhere to do my work would cost me a lot, and I may not really tell the story the way I want to. But if I have the opportunity for residency, which I can learn how to use the quilting machine, and then I also need one so that I can be able to make an entire quilt from start to finish, and present all my works. I’m willing to have an exhibition, a major exhibition in the US where I can show off all this and reach out to everyone in the fabric world.
Sara: Absolutely. We can definitely work on all of that. How do you think quilting and getting a long arm will change the direction of your artwork? I know you you’ve done a lot on canvas. When you get, you know when we can work and get a long arm, what do you think the direction will take? Will you stay doing portraits? Is there any other art arena you want to explore? Is there anything you haven’t done yet? I mean, where do you see your future self when you have a generator and a long arm? Where do you see your work expanding? What’s the future going to look like?
Uzoma Samuel: Yeah, I think quilting is the hallmark of fabric presentation, as in the fabric arts presentation. Quilting is the hallmark of it… In recent time, I have seen tremendous designs and all that. It’s a way of embracing technology. Using it to better your works. The collage is fine, but when you involve threads, it looks intricate and more interesting. And I have planned to extend my work to that category. And quilting will help to advance my work and show it in another perspective or dimension to the audience. And this is exactly what I am working to do.
Erin: If you could take this and you know, move everything forward, and you could exhibit anywhere in the world. Where would you want to see your work on display?
Uzoma Samuel: Yeah, in the world… I want to see my work displayed and exhibited in the US. I have been following a lot of the happenings in the US. The US have been able to champion the fabric acts. And I want to associate with them. And some of my supporters and collectors are in the US mainly. It will give them an opportunity to see my work in a much more beautiful display. I have also been able to do something in Asia, in Middle East, and in Africa. I haven’t come to the US, so all along I have been preparing for the US. And I think if I’m given an opportunity, I will make it a big one.
Sara: Who are some of the quilt artists in the US that you look up to?
Uzoma Samuel: I have looked at some of the artists I can’t really remember much names but there is one household name I wouldn’t forget in the fabric work which is Bisa Butler. For some years, for about five years ago, I looked at her work. I looked at her work, and her work has really inspired me to, you know, further my work into creating, because collaging my work is almost the same. But then quilting helps to push you much further.
Erin: That’s amazing. Just on a personal level, I was curious, too. Did I hear that you have a child, a son…
Sara: A son and a puppy!
Erin: A son and a puppy?
Uzoma Samuel: Yes
Erin: How old is your son?
Uzoma Samuel: He’s one year and two months. Today makes him a year and two months… Exactly.
Erin: Oh, that’s such a fun age, too. I’m sure that it’s incredible. How is everything within your family? As far as your artwork? Are they very supportive and excited about the direction?
Uzoma Samuel: Yes, having the support of my family from a long time. Because I’m somehow the only middle child. So, anything I tell them, they only just advise me and say, oh, come on… We support you. I hope you do it well. So from time to time, I have received massive support to them. And then my friends, my colleagues, and some other people I also look at. Yes.
Erin: That’s wonderful. It’s nice to have that, to have that backup to you know, the support is so important.
Sara: What’s your background? Growing up, what was it? If you had to give, you know, how many siblings do you have? What are your parents like? What do your parents do? How did you get so creative? Is your dad an artist? Can your mom sew?
Uzoma Samuel: Okay, that that part of the story is always part of the artist. Because from time to time, it’s, you remember things and it encourages you. So my background, I was developing as a child making baskets. When I was a child, especially when I was in primary school, we have to show some handwork at the end of the term. You know, some people will make a bunch of brooms in the village, but I choose, I learned how to make baskets, and I was making different baskets. We had some, we had some kind of a challenge in the village. It’s a kind of a sad story. So, I lost my parents when I was very young, we are very tender age. Probably when I was 12 years old. And it was a tragedy that I tore my family apart. I have three other siblings… I have an elder sister and two younger sisters. So, we have to go apart, you know, different people took us to their homes to just care for us. And so, I grew up living with different people. From time to time I will be sent from this person. This person will have to make a call that they cannot take me again and I will go to another person, but somehow I served someone for about seven to eight good years. I lived with them. I now take them as my parents because they really took care of me. And they helped to establish my artistic career now by sending me to one of the best school… one of the best secondary school. After I had almost finished secondary school, they took me again to that technical school because they discovered how creative I was in the house doing things differently. And I went to that government technical school, but then I didn’t study art there. I studied engineering, welding engineering. I developed drawing— my drawing was developed from that school before I now switch back to art. Because I always have this passion for art. So this was how I came up. Then I went to the University before I started living on my own.
Sara: Wow. Well, appreciate the people who poured art into. Art is important, and I’m happy… and I know your son will have his art, you know, his talent nurtured?
Uzoma Samuel: Yes, then if I must say this, too. I have to remember a few persons in the academic world. My lecturer, Professor Franco Gilmore. He actually helped me a lot. He discovered some special talents with me and always call me to order. And always give me some papers to read some entries around the world, which I was doing until I got selected in a Bamako Festival, where I went to showcase some of my first photographs on the international level. That actually set the kind of the foundation frame for my, you know, artistic career. Then I will also mention another lecturer, Ike Francis. He was my lecturer in terms of mixed media work. I actually learnt a lot from him. And he brought me to Lagos by hand and took me to where I did industrial attachment with an artist called George Edozie. And I was amazed to see that Mr. George Edozie was already working with fabrics in Lagos. So, as early as 2009 I was doing my work with George Edozie and I learnt a lot from him. But, when I got back, I couldn’t do his style because I have to find my path. And that is it as an artist.
Then I won’t forget a woman that have done a lot for the art world in Africa and around the world. Her name is Dr. (Mrs.) Nike Okundaye. She owns one of the biggest art gallery in West Africa, not just one of the biggest, but the biggest art gallery in West Africa (Nike Centre for Art and Culture). Which she have a branch in Lagos, she have in Abuja, she have in Oshogbo, she have in also Kogi states. So, and she have, this woman was teaching art, teaching fabric making. So when we are talking about fabric, I cannot talk about fabric without mentioning Mama Nike. She have empowered many women and girls in our society here. And she have also empowered many artists by way of taking our works. She is an art collector. She’s a gallerist. So, I must recognize her. She have been doing a lot and she’s still doing.
And then, not the least, but someone very much special that I must recognize here is Sara Trail (Social Justice Sewing Academy). Yeah. She’s an artist I looked at when we connected. I looked at what she was doing. And she could be likened also to Mama Nike, of Africa, of America, I mean. She is spearheading that Academy. And she’s doing a lot with artists. So I’m yet to meet her. But I know we are going to meet and is going to be an amazing one. Thank you for the opportunity. Thank you for the support. Thank you for the encouragement… is a big one for me. And I’m willing to work much more harder. Thank you.
Erin: What an amazing connection. It’s… I’m so grateful that you found Sara. So that’s it because this could begin. I think it’s pretty incredible.
Uzoma Samuel: I want to ask, I hope I’m speaking to Erin.
Erin: Yes, we didn’t even start with that. So yes, I’m Erin. And I work at Aurifil. I work with a lot of the designers. I’ve been working a lot with Sara and trying to put out some of some of the power and the message that she’s developing with the Social Justice Sewing Academy. So we’re so thrilled, you know, I’ve been talking about you and your artwork with all of my co-workers, we’ve been showing your art… the images that I received, and people have just been floored and so blown away by the level and power behind the work that you’re creating. So there’s a lot of excitement happening right now.
Uzoma Samuel: Thank you very much, Erin. Thank you very much. All we are doing is just, you know, fabric is already an artwork. Like I tell people. When people talk about my work, I tell them fabric is already an artwork made by people. But there is a kind of reinvention to this fabric. And which, when you look at, it gives an identity question, especially to the body, which we are using this fabric to cover. All we are doing is somehow to kind of put them back together and keep them for posterity. That is all we’re doing. Stitch them back and keep them for the next generation to look at what we have done. They will read our handwriting, they will read our history, they will see our pains, our joy, our sadness on these works we are doing on the fabrics. Thank you very much.
Erin: Thank you so much. I so appreciate you taking the time. This is a real… it’s just a pleasure.
We sincerely thank both Uzoma Samuel and Sara for this opportunity. We cannot wait to see where Uzoma’s career heads next.
Find Uzoma Samuel on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/uzomasamuel_/