My art is my channel for self-expression —Hannah Bassey, art therapist and founder of NanaArts

Hannah Bassey is an art activist, a painter, a photographer, a poet, a Mandela Washington Fellow, and the founder of NanaArts Initiative. Her paintings/works are about women empowerment, child abuse, environmental hazards, corruption and children with autism. In this interview by KINGSLEY ALUMONA, she speaks about her education and why she decided to study arts; her art projects, why artworks get low patronage in Nigeria, and her humanitarian endeavours.


Briefly tell us why you decided to study fine art.

My first degree was from the Cross River University of Technology in Calabar, where I studied Visual Arts and Technology. I also have a MFA degree from the University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. A PhD in Art Therapy is on the way.

I was naturally gifted in the arts from singing, designing, painting, drawing and crafts. My love for the arts started in my nursery school—credit to Mrs Emelda Bassey, who saw my talent and encouraged me to go for it. My mum and dad believe that a child should be encouraged to do things they are gifted in. I was told to follow my path of strength and the talents I possess.


Who is an art activist? And why did you consider yourself one?

An art activist is an individual who uses his or her art to drive positive change in their community. Why I consider myself an art activist? My art is my channel for self-expression. Through my art, I can get the attention of many people. During my first degree, my painting had themes surrounding women empowerment, child abuse, environmental hazards and corruption. This has become my way of life.

For my master’s dissertation, I created a painting style which brought to light the soot problem in Rivers State. I was concerned about the health of the people, who live in Port Harcourt and are affected by soot produced from illegal refineries, particularly my brother who was affected by this hazard. I created over twenty-five works of art—including poems—using soot, portraying how harmful it is to the populace. I later exhibited these art works. Now I not only use painting, but music, photography, graphic designs, spoken word, poetry and dance to speak out for the voiceless.


Tell us about Nana Arts and how you are using it to impact the creative world and the society

NanaArts Initiative started in 2011, when I just finished university. I decided to give back to my community by teaching children art—well, not for free. The goal was to keep children resourceful during the holiday period.

NanaArt has projects like: (1) Colour Holiday, which engages children to be productive during the holiday break. (2) Colour the Future, which serves to help orphans become productive, not leaving them idle to engage in social vices, leveraging on our free art lessons. Some of their artworks are sold for charity donations (3) Smile with Colours, is our new project aimed at bringing smiles to sick children, and children with autism by using colour psychology to improve their wellness and mood.

NanaArts is solving the problem of neglect and ill-treatment of children, particularly orphans in my community. I’m very particular about the holistic wellbeing of children. We’ve over 15 volunteers (artists) who work on these projects.


Art products and services get low patronage in Nigeria, unlike in the Western world. Why is that? And what could be done to change this narrative?

Our biggest problem is poverty. The basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are already a problem for most individuals. So the purchase of an art is not priority for them. And, I really don’t blame them.

There is what we call aesthetic art and utilitarian art. Aesthetic art can be art for beauty—like a painting on the wall, which is just there to beautify the house, while utilitarian art is an art that can be used to solve a problem, like a dress which is solving the need for clothing. So, artist can move towards making more of art that solves the basic need of a human.


ICT has dominated every aspect of human activity. How are you exploring these tools for your work?

I work with children with autism, using the arts as a medium to improve their development stage. Right now, we’re working with a game company in the Netherlands to develop a game that infuses the arts, music, fine art and writing to develop the children.


Tell us about your latest artwork/painting and how long it took you to create it.

Right now, I’m working on a project called ‘Spirit and Light’. It’s for the inward patients of a children’s hospital. It’ll consist of poetry and paintings which embody and portray only positive vibes and words. My goal is to improve the mental health of children in the hospital. Most children are very depressed and afraid of the hospital. So, using the arts will take their minds off the injections and bitter drugs they hate. How long it took me? Well I can’t say, because I’m on the project now.


Parents are encouraging their children to go for science and technology disciplines, instead of the arts. Do you think this paradigm shift has some negative implications to the society?

I can boldly say that science, technology and arts are related. In art, there is science. For example, my course mate who did ceramic had to do a course in chemistry to be able to understand the properties of clay. On the other hand, I’m using my art in medicine. Arts have now become an alternative means of healing. So, it’s ignorance in the part of some parents who don’t really understand the dynamism of science and arts.


You are also a singer, writer and poet. Did you do these things on personal or professional levels?

I do all of them on a professional level. I’ve a blog I write short stories and poetry. I’ve also published two books, compilation of my poems. I’ve three EPs to my name. Most of my short stories are like folk tales and love stories. My poetry are basically inspired by how I feel at the moment.


You are also into humanitarian causes. What inspired this passion in you?

It’s actually a sad story. I saw a child who was knocked down by a car that died in the middle of the road. The body of the child was left at the same spot for over three days. This was when I made up my mind to work with orphans. I decided to be the parent they don’t have and the big sister they need.


Tell us about December to Remember (DTR) and Gender and Development Action (GADA), and your engagements with them.

It started at Lagos Business School when we had a class presidential election and I was the campaign manager for my friend Gbenga, who I believed was capable of doing the job. So, I created strategies and we won the election. That year (2016), we (Gbenga and I) had the orphanage outreach in 10 states in Nigeria and in over five West African countries. I was the international coordinator. December to Remember has empowered thousands of orphans around Africa.

Gender and Development Action (GADA) is where I currently work and earn a salary. GADA is a women’s rights organisation that focuses on the development of women and girls in Nigeria. I work there as the communication officer and also the organisation’s photographer.


You are a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow. How did the fellowship experience shape your life and career?

I think empathy and passion for my work earned me the fellowship. The Mandela Fellowship has greatly changed my life for good. I was exposed to detail training on civic leadership, community organising, and very exciting volunteer experience. But most of all, it has greatly increased my network with other amazing Africans doing great works in their community.


What do you like doing at your leisure? If you were to make a wish on your next birthday, what would it be?

I love watching movies. For my next birthday, coming up this December 3rd, I’ll want to be happy and to enjoy life with the love of my life.


What advice do you have for young people, especially the female ones, who are aspiring to be like you?

I’m still a work in progress. But, I’ve just a few words to say to ladies: Love yourself. Every year, have a better version of you. Be focused, and don’t depend on a man for everything.


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