Nigerian artist Sor Sen explores the ‘connectedness between humans and trees’

Left: ‘You are my shield and comfort,’ oil on canvas, 92 x 122 cm, 2022. Right: ‘Soulful negotiations II,’ oil on canvas, 92 x 153 cm, 2023. Photos by Sor Sen, used with permission.

A recent exhibit in Abuja, Nigeria, featured the latest paintings of Sor Sen, an artist whose paintings depict his exploration of the human experience and environment. 

The series of paintings is themed “Earthlings and Others” and is inspired by the time Sen spent at his grandfather’s retirement home in Shangev-Tiev village, Konshisha local government area of Benue state, which he describes as a “mini forest.” 

The 38-year-old artist was born and raised in Nigeria, where he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in 2008 and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in painting from the same institution in 2014.

In addition to six solo exhibitions, Sen has participated in more than 30 group exhibitions worldwide. His work has been displayed at the Total Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul, South Korea and collected in the permanent national collection of Nigeria’s National Gallery of Art in Abuja, and Luciano Benetton’s Imago Mundi collection in Italy, among others. 

In an interview with Global Voices, Sen discusses aspects of his sixth solo exhibition and his experience as an artist in Nigeria: 

‘None of us is free II,’ oil and enamel on canvas, 122 x 184 cm (Diptych), 2023. Photo by Sor Sen, used with permission.

Pamela Ephraim (PE): What is your latest exhibition about? Can you share the inspiration behind it?

Sor Sen (SS): My latest exhibition, “Earthlings and Others,” explores the similarity and connectedness of humans and trees. How related they are in life circles and how they come into being. I fused philosophy to add some thinking on how the lived experiences of humans and trees are quite similar. For example, a tree goes through phases of seasons where sometimes, it is blooming, it changes leaves, color or form, and that’s similar to being human. Sometimes, we are happy, other times, we’re sad. When I see branches of a tree clustered, the intricacies, the manoeuvres and general structural organization remind me of the somewhat chaotic nature of the human condition. Aside from that, I’m trying to highlight the common knowledge that the air we exhale is converted from carbon dioxide into oxygen through photosynthesis.

The major inspiration for me was growing up and spending time at my grandfather’s home in the village, which was like a mini forest with lots of trees. Whenever we went there for holidays, we helped to make sure the trees were well attended to. He treated trees like humans who deserve some level of attention, care, and love.

PE: How do you achieve these lovely and evocative pieces? Perhaps you can speak a little about your creative process?

SS: What I usually do is observe things, places and people a lot. So when I look at things, I try to find a connection that strikes my soul, rather than reason. What that means is that I try to have an emotional dialogue with the things I want to create; the tricky thing with this process is that it can't be forced. Most times, I create without a clear understanding of what I'm doing, but to enjoy the process of creation. This allows me to visualise my thoughts from a perspective that I think is pure and free. When I'm done painting, I usually sit with the painting and have some mental dialogue to see what the new work reminds me of, life or other issues in the society.

PE: Is there a particular piece from the “Earthlings and Others” series you are particularly fond of?

SS: It's difficult for me to choose, as it's akin to being asked to pick a favorite child. However, there's one painting I'm particularly fond of titled “You Are My Shelter and Comfort. It is a depiction of a supposed mother and child; the mother is represented as trees holding her baby. What I find striking here is how I sourced the models and the inspiration. I was at a clinic in my community to see a doctor. While waiting, this woman also came to see the doctor with her baby. While they sat waiting, what struck me was the love, charm and attention the woman gave to her sick child. I gave it my interpretation using paint of what I saw to fit the narrative of “Earthlings and Others” — that perhaps, we are like infants to trees that deserve some love from Mother Nature.

Left: ‘Rooted in all Seasons,’ oil on canvas, 91 x 153 cm, 2023. Photo by Sor Sen, used with permission. Right: ‘Soaking it in all,’ oil and acrylic on canvas, 100 x 100 cm, 2021.

PE: Who are your major artistic influences?

SS: First, my father. I saw art at home first, and that influenced me to start creating, too. Then when I got to school, I had some teachers who influenced me like my late supervisor, Kefas Danjuma, I consider him a great painter in how he used to manipulate his chosen elements and surfaces. He was a strong influence on me. Another teacher, Professor Jerry Buhari, I like the level of criticality he brought into how he taught me and others. He reminded us that art is a big deal and we should pay attention. My secondary school teacher, Mr. Depuun Liemen, encouraged me to sketch a lot. Also, my friend Dhlimi Munza, who is good at drawing, understands color, and how to compose elements to form a compelling painting.

PE: What are the challenges artists in Nigeria face? 

SS: For painters, materials have become crazily expensive because the majority of them are being imported into the country. The paint, the brushes, the pencils, most especially now, when we’re having a forex crisis that seems to be unending, and has affected the cost of materials badly. 

But instead of just whining about these problems, you could just switch your medium. You could say, look this thing is too expensive for me now so I will do collage, or produce your own dye. 

PE: Is Nigeria a good place to do art? 

SS: I think for creativity generally, this place is supercharged. When you look around there's so much artists can gain from the environment. From the physical, socio-political, economic and cultural environment, there's a lot to draw inspiration from here. That being said, do we have the platforms after creation to showcase? I think it is lacking. Imagine a country as great as Nigeria, which has a National Gallery of Arts without a gallery! Imagine having a gallery or museum, most especially here in the city center, Abuja, where people could go and learn about society, learn about other people’s experiences through some of the imagery that artists create!

PE: Which audience has been most receptive to your paintings? 

SS: I live and work in Nigeria, but so far, over the years, my biggest audience has always been the foreigners and expatriates who are here. At some point, I used to wish I had more Nigerians buying my work but that’s not the case.

PE: Why do you think foreigners buy your art more than Nigerians? Is it an issue of affordability or appreciation?

SS: “I really don't know why foreigners buy my work here much more than Nigerians but I think I can guess. I've practiced art in Abuja for some time and what I can tell from the market is that there's a large expatriate community here who seem to have more time to look at art than Nigerians. I might be wrong, but that has been my own experience here, or maybe because I'm in a lot of their spaces, and they are looking at what I do much more than Nigerians.

The exhibition officially ended on March 6, but the venue's management asked for an extension until March 17. Sen says he is contemplating taking the exhibition to a new city, but he has not made up his mind. 

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