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Studio Visit: Chukwudumebi Gabriel Amadi-Emina

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“In Nigeria, your name is the first blessing your parents give you,” says photographer and video artist, Chuks. Chuks (pronounced, chew-ks) isn’t his only name. The artist also goes by Chukwudumebi (his birth name, which translates to, “God is with me”) and Gabriel, his baptized name. “They are all my name, I am all those people,” he explains. 

Like many artists, ‘identity’ is an underlying theme of Chuks’ photography. His dynamic portraits are synchronous explorations of self and subject. Chuks places particular emphasis on the past/present and individual/community. With a smile and a few anecdotes, the artist explains how he associates each of his names with a distinct period in his life. Yet his names also function as a unit: They “[reflect] my journey as an  immigrant, artist, and Black man,” he says, collectively embodying the person he is  today. 

Originally from Lagos, Nigeria, Gabriel moved to the United States when he was  fifteen. “At the time,” he recalls, “it was just my mom and I who immigrated.” His parentsboth Nigerian, though from separate tribes (Igbo and Yoruba)applied for US citizenship through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery program before he was born. “Twenty years later, they get a call that we’ve been chosen for immigration.”

“Chosen” suggests good fortune, yet Gabriel describes his disinterest in leaving Nigeria: “I really didn’t want to go.” But go he did. First to Atlanta, Georgia, and eventually to Savannah, where he completed his bachelor’s degree. It was at this time that Gabriel experienced another life-altering transition, one that helped define the foundation of his artistic practice. 

 

DIVA/ DOM, Photographic art, 2021
Brother Moses in Trad pt. 2, Photographic art, 2021
She Stands Above the Lies They Made, Photographic art, 2021

Moving from Western Africa to the Southern United States was a jarring shift. Chuks recalls “struggling to conceptualize what it meant to be Black and a Black man in America.” An African American studies course in college oriented him to this “disconnect,” and exposed him to motifs that remain central to his art. “The professor opened my eyes to the Black history I was, am, and had always been, without realizing, a part of.” 

Evoking his interwoven identities, Chuks’ photographs are visually and conceptually grounded in collage. To create his compositions, the artist combines bright colors, deep blacks, and clear whites; he fuses street and studio photography; blends hand-drawing, recycled pictures, and text; builds his backgrounds with physical materials, before refining each image digitally. Constructed over weeks (sometimes even months or years) spent reading, writing, journaling, and experimenting with content and processes, Chuks’ portraits are vibrant, layered, and alive.

People and portraiture reside at the heart of the artist’s practice. Chuks prioritizes depicting Black men and Black male narratives in his work because, he says, “we find it [especially] hard to talk about and share our thoughts and feelings.” Through his photographs, Chuks reflects on and encourages dialogue around t/his silence. 

The artist dedicates his portraits to his subjects, male or female, aiming to personify and shed light on their backgrounds and stories. “It’s an honor to be gifted each photo… I have to be thoughtful, use the memory of the person to further a conversation in the right direction.” His photographs are empathetic undertakings, delicate efforts to honor the lives of others while exploring his own identity. 

My practice involves encapsulating moments of truth and duality in a realm of Blackness through portraiture.
Chukwudumebi Gabriel Amadi-Emina

SUBJECT: Chuks (Gabriel Amadi-Emina), 29 
WEARING: Black fedora, caramel-tan fleece jacket with white striped cuffs, brown suit  vest, burgundy oxford, tan chinos, marbled brown and white socks, brown loafers,  silver necklace chain, ring, black wristwatch  
PLACE: Mt. Vernon 
WEBSITE: https://www.artbychuks.com/ 
INSTAGRAM: @artbychuks 

You identify with and encourage others to call you by multiple names  (Chuks, Gabriel, etc.) that you’ve adopted at distinct moments in your life. What’s the  significance of your name and identity in your art and practice? How has your name influenced you over the course of your life?  

I was given multiple names as a child by my parents and elder members of my family, which is common in Nigerian tribes and cultures. But the use of different names in different environments came from a place of survival. Coming here at fifteen was a very complex time in my life. My family calls me by my birth name. Others by my English name, Gabriel. 

My name use in different stages of life… to me, signifies my moments of growth  and self-understanding. And I go by Chuks now to honor my roots as well as define who I have become through my experiences. 

Where do you feel most inspired to create?  

Where Black people are present, safe, and are allowed to express themselves. To be honest. 

You describe your photographs as forms of “therapy.” How does the concept of mental health enter into and/or impact your creative practice?  

A lot of lessons and traditions are passed orally from generation to generation. From this, I feel like communities are nurtured and healed inwardly. My practice involves encapsulating moments of truth and duality in a realm of Blackness through portraiture. I believe true healing and understanding starts from home, which is us. 

What’s something about yourself you wish people asked you more often?

Something I hope people keep in mind is my duality as a Nigerian and an African American. 

Writing is central to your photography. Can you expand on this relationship? How do words and language affect your visual practice? Vice versa?  

I believe my interactions, as moments, are very intimate and sacred. I write to embed  that moment as history… Something to go back to and reflect on, which is important when building an image to pay homage to said moment/history—to give it shape, form… life. It takes constant reflection and an openness to receive truth. 

 

Yanga no dey make person fire proof, Photographic art, 2022
Untitled, Photographic art, 2022
Heavy is the Head, Photographic art, 2022
P.T.O.N. (Paid Time Off N***A), Photographic art, 2021
The world provides us with unique corners, shapes, organic forms, roads, etc. to capture, duplicate, and source from. But one thing that stays unique and cannot be duplicated is the individual/individual’s presence. 
Chukwudumebi Gabriel Amadi-Emina

Do you have any unusual or quirky hobbies or interests?  

I love hiking, cooking, making, and dancing. Pretty normal. 

What local spots in Baltimore do you frequent when you want to relax?    

Mera, Cajou Creamery, Royal Blue. The museums and galleries around the city;  Eubie Blake, BMA, Waller Gallery to name a few. I am mostly a homebody. I like my  space and my time shared with people who make it precious. 

You say that working digitally helps you avoid “mess” and maintain “cleanliness” in both your physical studio and artwork. What do you mean by mess? Why is cleanliness important to you and your art?  

I think a better term would be “contained chaos.” I believe collage theory and practice are involved in one way or another—creating or making connections, whether it be through aesthetics or ideas. Using different sources and materials to make a whole image takes a lot of research. But one process is nondestructive, and the other, is. Which is not a diss at all. I believe my process is more of a mental labor than a physical one. Using one’s photography or found imagery as a missing piece/information to solve the puzzle simply requires the artist to do one thing: look. 

What’s a feature of your practice that’s surprising and/or unexpected?  

I think it’s the fact that all my images start with a photo or are a combination of multiple photos taken by me. If I take a photo of a bottle, I need an image of a bottle in a piece. I  don’t think I need to go far to find an image to play that role. 

A lot of my world building approach comes from collecting source imagery. The world provides us with unique corners, shapes, organic forms, roads, etc. to capture, duplicate, and source from. But one thing that stays unique and cannot be duplicated is the individual/individual’s presence. 

You mentioned that your understanding of Blackness and perspective(s) living as a Black man in the United States have changed over time. What prompted this shift(s)? How have moments of transition impacted your art? 

Coming here at fifteen years old from Nigeria, you move according to the lessons you have been told about the world. Music, movies, opinionated descriptions, etc… serve as education and a social map to follow to a place you have never been or experienced. 

How do you filter truth from lies; myth from fact; reality from fantasy? You break down  fallacies disguised as truths that were taught to you to protect you. 

I think the simple answer revolves around the journey of life and the search for truth in  one’s life and surroundings. An uprooted plant or tree will die unless it finds new  ground to replant its roots. Sometimes the soil rejects the plants and sometimes the  plant rejects the soil. But the journey continues until you find the right place where  growth can happen. But it is key to remember that growth is impossible without the  help of community.

Fade Catcher, Photographic art, 2021

Portraits of the artist by Justin Tsucalas for Issue 15: Migration and Art Images provided by the artist

This story is from Issue 15: Migration, available here.

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