Art in Africa dates back over 2000 years ago, with the infamous terracotta figurines from the Nok Culture, the striking bronze head statues of the Ife Culture, and the ivory statues from the people of Benin.
However, metal sculpting gained prominence just a little over four decades ago, and the iconic sculptor Steve Ekpenisi staked his claim early enough in this still relatively unpopulated industry. Today, he’s one of the globally-renowned Nigerian sculptors creating social consciousness and priceless art through his sculpting talents.
Some of his remarkable exclusive pieces include the sculptures of two seated figures (male and female) and two standing golfers (male and female) erected at the Lakowe Golf Course and Resort, Lagos.
Steve Ekpenisi is our guest today on The Big Showcase, and he walks us through his journey as a sculptor, his passion for his craft, the hazards of his trade, his family and the legacy he hopes to leave behind for his children and generation.
How Popular or Unpopular is Metal Sculpting in Nigeria?
Metal sculpting from two decades ago has transformed in many ways, and Steve Ekpenisi sheds light on how far the metal sculpting industry has evolved.
“I wouldn’t say that metal sculpting is popular enough now, but it’s gradually gaining popularity. We now have many sculptors adopting metal sculpting while using other mediums, such as fibre cast and bronze. Also, many sculptors who were initially focused on modelling and casting as their art medium are gradually leaning towards metal/iron sculpting. Sculptors have also evolved and become bolder in material exploration to create more realistic sculptures made from discarded or refurbished materials.”
On whether art, or in this case, metal artwork, is created for the wealthy alone or even the commoner, Steve Ekpenisi provides a balanced and practical opinion on the subject.
“First of all, art is luxury, and you don’t expect a commoner who is yet to be able to provide two to three square meals for his family to acquire a taste for art. He could appreciate an art piece and maybe later buy one when he can afford to, but acquiring art pieces isn’t the priority of an ordinary person.“
Whether you want to view this topic from the perspective of an art enthusiast or a businessperson, Steve has more opinions to share.
“On the other hand, art isn’t just a decorative piece; it’s also a source of long-term income because art pieces appreciate over a long period, and you could resell to make ten times the money you invested. Whether rich or not, it takes an enlightened mind who understands the social and economic importance of art to acquire art pieces.”
Pursuing Art and Sculpting as a Lifelong Career
“I consider being an artist a divine decision because I feel like there’s a divine force leading me in the direction I should go with my career and the next steps to take. I didn’t know what I was doing when I started, but I knew I was happy. I started with drawing on slates, which were our notebooks back then in primary school, and despite the lack of art as a subject in the school’s community, I continued drawing. I created visual timetables that my teachers hung on the wall.”
While doing art wasn’t a day’s decision for Steve Ekpenisi, he admits to deliberately choosing sculpting as his medium of expression early in his career.
“The foundation of art is drawing; once you can draw, you can do other art forms. Throughout my primary and secondary education, I was unknowingly laying the foundation for my future career. But, I decided to become a sculptor during my HND when I had to pick an art medium to specialise in. I paint so well too, and many people were surprised; some even mocked me when I chose metal sculpting. Now, sculpting means so much to me that if you want to cut my life short, just stop me from creating art. I won’t survive it; I just can’t.”
This passionate declaration shows just how vital creating art is to Steve, and the same can be said of how other artists and creatives feel about their pieces.
A Near End to Steve Ekpenisi’s Metal Sculpting Career
Steve Ekpenisi isn’t all talk and no show as he further shares a sad incident that almost did take away his chance to continue his metal sculpting, or as he commonly refers to it, iron bending profession.
“Sculpting is generally tough, but I chose metal as my main material of exploration because it’s easier for me to manipulate to any form or shape. I could see and enjoy how my work takes form throughout each process. However, I once had an accident in 2017 when a pipe-bending machine cut off a part of one of my fingers. What bothered me the most was the fear that my career was over.”
However, Steve Ekpenisi is no ordinary artist. He has a resilience that strongly determined people can only match because he confidently admitted to resuming work before his injured finger healed completely. He also gives practical tips to intending or new sculptors on staying safe in the studio to avoid a similar incident.
“Safety is paramount in my profession, and I take precautions while working. I wear gloves, welding shield to protect my face, coveralls, and safety boots to protect my feet from heavy objects. An extra tip I learned the hard way is to avoid wearing loose clothes or gloves while using a pipe bender or other tools that don’t require gloves. Tools like a pipe-bender can snag a part of the gloves and expose your fingers to damage if the tips of your finger aren’t fitted tightly to the tip of the gloves.”
He further provides collectors of metal sculptures with information on preserving their precious artworks:
“I always tell my clients that we need to do restoration at least once a year so that their pieces will last for a long time.”
Steve Ekpenisi started his sculpting career by using discarded metals. However, these metals soon became more expensive than fresh sheets because of the popular demand for discarded metals within the industry. Despite the challenge of increased cost and scarcity of discarded materials, he found alternatives to continue creating his art.
“I started with discarded flat sheets, but they became more expensive. So I decided to buy fresh plates and repurpose them to create my pieces.”
On the challenge of balancing family life and his career, Steve once again depicts wisdom in his opinion.
“One of the secrets to success is finding a balance for everything. Your family shouldn’t lack anything because you’re dedicated to your work. I spend most of my weekdays in the workshop, but the weekends are solely for my family. So yeah, we should just find that balance.”
A good name and priceless art pieces are a part of the legacy Steve Ekpenisi hopes to leave behind for his loved ones and posterity’s sake.
“At a point in my practice, I’ll stop selling my sculptures because that will be a part of the legacy I’ll leave for my children to inherit.”
Favourite Sculptures and Ongoing Project
We asked Steve Ekpenisi about his top creative pieces, and he replied us like the good father that he is.
“Asking me to choose a favourite piece is like asking a parent to choose a favourite child, but I can say that the ‘Aruan’ piece, which is a 12ft full-figure sculpture I’ll be showing during my next solo exhibition in the second or third quarter of 2023, is one of my favourite and most challenging pieces. This is because I started it in 2019 and will be completing it this year, four years later.”
Steve Ekpenisi further speaks on the message he tries to pass with his creative work.
“I pay great attention to details while creating new sculptures, and that’s one thing that makes me stand out. So, one message I try to pass on is originality. I portray myself fully in my creativity, so I try to encourage originality in everyone. Also, to produce outstanding commodities or results among your peers, you must present additional value to your audience.”
Still speaking on originality, Steve Ekpenisi answers one of the most common questions in the creative industry; commissioned work or personal projects – which one inspires creativity and freedom.
“I enjoy doing my personal projects more because commissioned projects tend to box me in. In my projects, I can adjust, remove or add anything whenever I want, but I have to work strictly to what’s in the proposal of a commissioned project, which becomes boring sometimes.”
With over a decade of practice and 150 sculptures to his name, several collaborative and solo exhibitions, and another upcoming solo exhibition in 2023, Steve Ekpenisi is an iroko tree (a strong figure) whose small stature defies his accomplishments in the visual arts and metal sculpting industry.
He has proven through his creative work and experiences that determination, consistency, extraordinary efforts, and daily-renewed creativity are the keys to gaining relevance in the creative industry. We are inspired by Steve’s past projects and applaud in advance all he’s yet to achieve.