In love with Suffolk's big skies

Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy is an artist that embraces many different styles and disciplines. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to her about a new exhibition which has just opened in Aldeburgh - Ancestral Footsteps.

By Andrew Clarke

Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy is an artist that embraces many different styles and disciplines. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to her about a new exhibition which has just opened in Aldeburgh - Ancestral Footsteps.

NIGERIAN-born, Suffolk artist Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy has a passion for sunsets. “The reds and oranges are just so vibrant. People have accused me in the past of over-doing it but I reply: 'go outside, take a look for yourself. It's there.'

“It's the skies I adore. Suffolk sunsets are some of the best in the world. They are so rich - so much so that I have stolen some them for my African paintings.

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“People think they know me for my portrait work but I have always done lots of different styles. I have a butterfly mind, I get bored very easily, and I like going from subject to subject - sometimes I think I am at least half a dozen different artists.”

She said that whereas different artists use different techniques for different media, she uses different styles for different subjects. Her portrait work is far more formal than her landscape or her African paintings. “My portraits have a formality about them because that is what is required. I am trying to capture the look of the person plus a little bit about their personality and if appropriate to the commission a little bit about their life and their position in society.

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“Both the landscape and my African art work are far more expressive, free, more spontaneous - far more to connected to my emotional reaction to the scene in front of me. They are different disciplines.

Chinwe said that her African roots obviously play a huge part in her work but so does her love of the Suffolk countryside - she and her husband moved to Suffolk in 1990 and now can't envisage living any where else.

Considering that if you live in Suffolk you are surrounded by rivers and the sea, Chinwe makes a surprising admission - that she hates water. The admission comes as she is putting a finishing touch to one of a triptych of paintings which show a group of young lads walking along a Nigerian beach.

“I hate the water. I can only just put my toes in the water for so long then I have to walk away. My sons are big strapping lads now in their early twenties but I can't watch them when they go in for a swim. I just think about what would I do if they got into trouble? I couldn't do anything but watch helplessly. I couldn't dive in after them but now they are so big I don't have to worry … but the trouble is that I do.

“In any event, despite the fact that I do not like the water I love painting it. I think it resembles a living entity - that moves and swirls about. It's fascinating to try and capture that movement - that alive feeling but I don't want to wade into it.”

Chinwe sprang into the headlines in 2002 when she unveiled her official portrait of The Queen - commissioned by The Commonwealth Commission to mark Her Majesty's Golden Jubilee.

Again surprisingly Chinwe prefers her first study of the Queen rather than the finished oil portrait which is hanging at Marlborough House, the commonwealth headquarters in London.

“I like the study because it is so immediate - it's my first impressions of this amazingly well known woman. It's a picture which is defined by the light bouncing around the room. It was my first opportunity to see her up close, to study her features and get them down on canvas.”

She said that she was granted five sittings for the official Commonwealth portrait and that she got her well with the Queen.

“She is a great communicator. She's observant, humorous, interesting and generous with her time.” She said that the official portrait is by necessity more studied but if she were to choose for herself then her favourite would be that first study - simply because of the spontaneous nature of it all.

She said that the official portrait, framed by a window in Buckingham Palace, brought together in the background landmarks and landscapes which defined the global nature of the commonwealth while the hot colours and celebratory nature of the portrait was part of her African aesthetic.

Chinwe said that her method of working has evolved over the years. Now big pictures are painstakingly assembled in the studio from sketches made on location and from photographs but smaller pictures tended to be executed on the spot - with the scene stretched out before her.

“In recent years I have tended to mix and match - creating one picture out of many different studies - taking elements from many different studies and sketches and incorporate them into one large picture. I love creating a painting that way - playing with the composition until it is right.

“This picture of the beach that I am working on at the moment is now part of a triptych because I felt it didn't look right as a single picture. It didn't capture the sweep of the beach as I remembered it. It seemed too cramped, too narrow. The edge of the canvas confined it but by turning one picture into three and by hanging them together I have managed to capture that grand view, that feeling of space that I experienced on that beach in Nigeria.”

Feelings and experiences are at the heart of Chinwe's work. She has the gift of capturing with paint - emotions. Most of them reflect her enormous enthusiasm for life and a positive sense of being but lurking just beneath the surface there is also a sense of darkness - a sense of grief and loss.

As well as Chinwe's two sons Rogan, 25, and Alasdair, 20, Chinwe has a five year old daughter Nwiru, the biological daughter of her sister, also called Nwiru, who died in childbirth. This was a shattering event in Chinwe's life and one which thrust her deep into depression.

“It also altered my art. At the time I found myself doing more abstract work. They were frequently very dark pieces, which perhaps reflected my state of mind at the time but in every piece there was a dash of colour - usually red or orange or a mixture of the two. Ostensibly these were sunsets or sun-rises but they were in fact light at the end of the tunnel. Areas of colour that got larger in the picture as I came to terms with what had happened.

“I adopted Nwiru and brought her home with me because I needed to look after my sister's child. I needed my sister close to me and this was a positive way to do it - to do something positive. At first I couldn't call Nwiru by her name I shortened it to Iru because I couldn't call her by my sister's name. Now I do because Nwiru insists I call her by her proper name.”

Chinwe's art has a very spiritual quality to it - it has feeling of connectedness to it - whether it be an African social scene or a Suffolk landscape.

One of the paintings she has refused to sell is one that she produced after witnessing her father's funeral in Nigeria. On the face of it the painting looks as if it is joyous celebration but dig a little deeper and it records a serious traditional ceremony - the passing of her father Jeluo Oguguo Chukwuogo's staff and cap to his son. The passing of an Ozo man's standing from father to son.

Chinwe comes from a family of good standing - her grandfather was such an excellent craftsman that he was selected to attend the second great exhibition at Alexandra Palace in the 1920s.

“My mother's father was a blacksmith. He designed gates for the royal family and was invited to attend the Great Exhibition. It was a great honour for Nigeria. My other grandfather was the best carver of ivory in his village. He was a mastercraftsmen - one of the few who were entrusted to work on ivory with a blemish - confident that the blemish would be completely invisible in the finished piece.

“My father belonged to the lost generation. He was brought up at the height of colonialism. At the time educated men in Nigeria were clerks and administrators. He went to Oxford and if you went to university in England then you were destined to be an administrator - but he always had the mentality of an artist.”

As well as being an artist with an international reputation, Chinwe is also closely involved in education work in Africa. “Even today being an artist is not a respectable profession - it's not a proper job - even in Nigeria there is pressure for youngsters to get 'a proper job' what I am trying to do through my educational visits there is to encourage youngsters to consider art as an option and to encourage people to express themselves through art.”

She said that art remained a vital form of communication and a discrete way of making critical comments about governments and politicians but in a way that spoke directly to people of all types - and broke through the language barrier. “What Nigeria needs its own Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin to get people talking - and to be a role model.”

Chinwe followed in her family footsteps and came to Britain in 1975 to attend the East Ham College of Art and then Middlesex Polytechnic. “While I was studying I met my husband Roderick Roy and we were married in 1980 and we moved to Suffolk in 1990 to be close to my in-laws which was great because it meant that the boys could know their grandparents.”

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