Making art from coconut shells •The Nathaniel Hodonu story
The Badagry, Lagos-based artist and teacher is making captivating artworks with coconut shells and other found materials
PAINTER, sculptor and teacher, Nathaniel Hodonu, has joined the ranks of artists who make beautiful artworks from found materials (waste). While Professor El Anatsui is renowned for using liquor bottle caps and cassava graters amongst others to create sculptures, the teacher and sculptor, Raqib Bashorun skilfully reproduces found materials as objects of beauty and utility. Nathaniel’s forte, however, is coconut shells.
Born and raised in Badagry, Lagos State to an artisan father who makes basket, carpet, bamboo seat and fishing traps, Hodonu, who also teaches in a public secondary school, started experimenting with coconut shells a while back.
“I started using coconut shells as my medium for sculpture around 2006. I just wanted something unique and since I have coconuts around me, why not use them,” he begins in an exhibition space the founder of Whispering Palms Resort, Badagry, Professor Olufemi Pearse, has given him in the tranquil get-away to display his works.
His choice of coconut shells, he continues, “is not really because I’m from Badagry. Though I have them around me, what people do around here is to eat the content and use the shell to make fire. But, I know that you can create something adorable from what they know as waste.”
Expectedly, works made from coconut shells and another waste, caps of plastic bottles, are in the majority in the space. There are also wooden sculptures and a handful of wireworks but the most captivating are the works made with coconut shells, including souvenirs like key holders, cups and pen holders. Some of the works on display included ‘Celebration’, ‘Megacity’, ‘Menu Weh 1’, ‘Showers of Blessing’ and ‘Multitude’, while the works made with bottle corks included ‘Companion’, ‘Three Wise Men’ and ‘Harmony’.
Making the sculptures, he explains, “takes at least two weeks because I will need to cut the coconut, remove the debris, dry them and use sand paper to clean them inside and outside. Thereafter, I will cut them into the desired shapes.”
Their seeming fragility notwithstanding, the artist assures that the artworks are very durable. “There’s no fear of termite or other insects. The only issue is fire. But apart from that, there is no problem. In fact, I store some inside the sand. I started working on shells in 2006 and I just use some and keep the rest. I’ve had some of the shells for so long and I don’t have issues with them. I will just pick and use whenever I’m ready. It keeps well.”
The artist credits the training he received at the Lagos State College of Education, Otto-Ijanikin and the University of Ado-Ekiti, where he got a Bachelor of Art degree in painting for making him a rounded artist that can paint, sculpt and teach.
“Though I am essentially a painter, I had been doing sculptures before my degree. I did NCE and back then, we were given assignments to go look for wood that looks like an image and bring to the school. That was when I picked interest. Apart from that, I did sculpture throughout my NCE, even during my degree programme, I did sculpture up to 300 level before I picked painting as my area of specialisation in final year.”
The sculpting skills he picked back then, is now standing him in good stead, while he also relies on older artists like Bashorun for constructive criticisms.
The use of bottle tops, he admits, is not original to him but rather than use metal tops like a number of artists do, he opted for the plastic ones. “We all can’t be doing the same thing, there has to be variety,” he says matter- of- factly, adding that the idea came to him while he was teaching at a boarding school. “On every visiting day, pupils will take soft drink and throw the bottle away; sometimes indiscriminately. But I told them we can make something out of this, so we started picking the caps bit by bit,” he said.
Though Hodonu is still comfortable combining art practice with teaching, he agrees he will have to choose one very soon. “I envisage that a time is coming when I will leave teaching for art. There are so many things I need to do but I don’t have time because of teaching. By the time you go in the morning and come back by 2pm or 3pm, you are exhausted. So you can only do little or nothing. I’m planning towards picking between teaching and art practice but for now, I’m still able to combine both.”
On the lull in art practice in Badagry, Hodonu says there are artists but no patrons to encourage them. “Except for Professor Pearse, there are really no art patrons around here. There are artists but there is very little awareness about patronising us. But be that as it may, I won’t be deterred.”