Andrew Iro Okungbowa Prof. Phoenix Savage is a sculptor, curator, ethnographer, photographer, author, medical anthropologist and scholar. Assistant Professor of Art, Tougaloo College Tougaloo, US, she is widely published in many academic publications and has earned many fellowships, one of which is the J. Williams Fulbright Fellow, which brought her to Nigeria between 2011 and 2012 where she was a visiting professor of Art at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife.
While in OAU she not only encountered Nigerian art and culture in its rustic and evolutionary stage but also engaged with the Ifa culture and was crowned Chief Yeye Olomo Osara of Ile Ife.
She has a mixed and interesting background just as well as she grew up in both Philadelphia, PA and a small town in Michigan, called Inkster.
Early contact with art and craft
She is one of the few artists who came in contact with art and craft at a very early stage, all thanks to her grandparents who exposed her to craft materials during her formative years.
She didn’t quite fancy her Inkster countryside but rather Philadelphia, her granny’s abode, as she recalls that: “My parents moved us to Inkster when I was in primary school. I never really liked it there very much so my parents allowed me to spend my summers with my grandparents back in Philadelphia.
“It was through my grandparents that I learned and engaged directly with craft materials. They were retired and every summer they were doing something different.
One summer it was making rugs, another was candle making, then it was ceramics and even wine making.” What was most interesting for her was the fact that her grandfather was very expressive and experimental, which was to rob off on her in later years. “What this taught me was a quest for how materials work, and how to experiment with rules. If a pattern goes this way, my grandfather would say, ‘what if we do it this way?’
And we would try it and see the results – sometimes great and not so great. This type of play taught me to take risk with art making and not be afraid if something did not go as expected because there would be a lesson in it. And most often that lesson would come in handy down the line while working on a different project.”
What actually worked out perfectly for and put her on the road to becoming a professional artist was the support she got from her parents, who then thought immersion in the creative furnace was mere teenage pastime.
“My parents observed my keen interest and they supported this, with the type of toys and games they purchased for me. Interestingly, none of my parents saw this to mean that I would be an artist. To them it was just a hobby that one did, not a job that one aspired to.
Attraction for photography
Her attention in the world of creative may have been initially stoked by her encounter with art and craft, however, photography beckoned her as she later earned a bachelor of Art degree in Art majoring in photography:
“But as far as photography is concerned, it was my first medium as an artist. I initially began as a newspaper photographer for the Black Press in Washington D.C. and for the Gay Press in D.C. as well.
“I enjoyed it but it was not creative. It was editorial and needed to tell a story that went along with the article. I found it interesting because I was always learning something about another person’s world that was different from my own. “But deep inside I wanted to be freely creative. I had not actually had formal training in art. I was intrigued by the magical elements I perceived photography to be and continued to explore it on my own.
LimitedWhen I lived in New Mexico that is when I took up photography very seriously and began experimenting in the dark room I built in my closet. I took a few classes at the local university.
“My target was to create images that were very dimensional and tricked the eye. I did this with a lot of darkroom play.”
Transiting to being a sculptor
One would had expected her to make a fulfilling and thriving career out of photographer, again, for an emerging artist like her with a restless spirit and knack for experimenting, she found love in sculpting and swiftly shifted her gaze once more.
“Eventually l had to redirect my art making process from photography to sculpture,’’ she says with elation, adding that: ‘‘In great part because I no longer had access to a dark room and film photography was rapidly switching to digital and I did not have a digital camera. I shifted from photography to assemblage sculpture out of necessity. I eventually learned to cast metal and work in cast porcelain and metal as well as installations of ephemeral materials.’’
You wonder for an artist with such impulsive bent at switching to different media, you begin to wonder where she gets her inspiration or motivation.
“The idea of the art itself, once I have an idea, I have to decide the best way to show that idea. What materials will do the job of conveying the idea greatest.
I listen to what the art wants to say and use the words/materials that are best to convey the arts’ message,’’ she enthuses.
There is also the question of conflict to contend with when it comes to the choice of media to work with at a particular time when the muse takes over her. But for her, nothing of such as she says in a languid tune, “the only conflict is money.
I have to have the resources to purchase the materials, if not I have to look for an alternative which can also alter the message.
“So, through prayer I try never to have conflicts. The navigation is usually a learning process. I have to invariable learn something new every time I create a new body of work and that is exciting for me.”
No favourite media
Any favourite media for her one sought to know? ‘‘I do not have any one favourite, I love them all, because each one teaches me something and each one is critical at that time of its usage to put forward the message of the art. Therefore, I can never have a favourite,” she says in response.
When it comes to coping with her numerous engagements, Savage discloses that it is the easiest of thing to navigate. ‘‘Well, that is somewhat easy, teaching is full-time and is needed to maintain my life.
Art is needed to maintain my destiny and curatorial assignments are needed to keep things fresh and introduce new ideas into my life. “I have to balance it or else. But time wise I teach six months out of the year.
I work in the studio dur ing this time, or during my three months off. I also like to travel during the three months, so I must always think of my schedule a year ahead to know how best to use my time.”
Nigerian art is one of the most skillful in the world
Having encountered Nigerian art in its real environment and authentic form during her visit to the country and interactions with many of Nigerian artists in her country and around the world, she is fascinated with the art culture and the artists, describing Nigerian art as one of the most skillful in the world. “I sincerely think that it is some of the most skillful arts in the world.
My only critic of the art is that it could do with a bit more contemporary flare. It is far too representational, and while I completely understand why that is, I still feel as if some of the young artists were to branch out and try to be less representational in their works that they would be very well. Look at El Anatsui.”
For her, there is nothing as fulfilling as being an artist and art teacher at the same time, as she explains what both means to her:
“This is a difficult question. In many ways I am an artist that happened to teach because we all must pay our bills.
However, if I could be an artist only, I would like that far better.
Teaching has it rewards when you really connect with students, and that is very special but I think I can find ways to do that as a full time artist and leave the hassles of teaching to somebody else.”