In only eight years since moving to Edmonton from Nigeria at 17 years old, Emmanuel Osahor has made a name for himself in the local arts scene, and has an exhibition running at Harcourt House from January 11 to February 23, 2019. Last summer, he went national, achieving one of two honourable mentions out of 15 finalists in RBC’s National Painting Competition.
Q: What were your expectations when you came to Canada, and how does your time here come through in your art?
A: When I came to Canada, I had this sense that I was going to live in this society that was almost utopic — no poverty, no injustice, no inequality — and learn how to do things better back home, because I never expected to stay. But I started to learn that things aren’t so different.
When I finished my undergrad, I got a full time job at iHuman Youth Society, and working there exposed me to the realities of the society we live in. On a deeper, artistic level, it made me realize that a world where everyone is OK and has enough, and is treated fairly, doesn’t exist. The inequality is more extreme and overt where I grew up, but both [places] have these symbols of wealth and poverty at the same time.
Q: How did you get involved in the RBC Painting Competition?
A: I heard about the RBC competition through friends. I knew people who had been finalists or winners, so it felt right to throw my hat in the ring and just see. I was more intrigued by what the process would be like. I didn’t consider myself a contender.
Q: How did you get involved in painting? Were you always artistic?
A: Not really. It was more the artist’s life, than the actual art, that drew me in. I started making art around Grade 10, and struggled with it. But I had an art teacher who was a professional painter, and he was one of the first people in my life who I saw was really passionate about what they did. He was always drawing, always painting, and what really drew me to making art was seeing someone who loved what he did.
Q: What was that experience like?
A: On one hand, it’s a competition — there’s nervousness and anxiety. But one of the biggest benefits was the conversations I had with other finalists. And we had these one-on-one interviews with the jury, and that was so cool because they were like, ‘I was thinking about your work, and I think you could really push your colour,’ or this and that. These are people who have never met me, but spent time thinking about how to help me.
Q: After almost a decade in Edmonton, how has your impression changed?
A: I’ve been lucky enough to exist in a community of people who give me hope. That even though things on the surface might not look like they’re changing, things are changing. People are making impact. It’s sad that there are still youth who need iHuman, but many youths have been helped because that place exists.