Keen, Odd and Ingenious: Neec Nonso Looks to the Ordinary for Extraordinary Art

Neec Nonso's work on covid19
Credit: Neec Nonso

It is common for great artists to be eccentric. Their weirdness seems to be a precondition for thinking outside of the box; they have to step beyond the borders of normal to impress their audience. This probably explains the artistic genius of Neec Nonso, a visual artist whose works often inspire an ‘oh wow’.

Neec is brilliant, if a little weird. “555555,” he will often type in response to a joke. If you are a typical Nigerian, and interacting with him for the first time, you’d probably be weirded out, or at the very least confused. The simple explanation is that Thai people pronounce the number 5 as “ha”. So when the Thai laugh while talking online, they type “555” for “ha ha ha”. Neec’s written laughter, which he imported from Thailand and has used for years, is emblematic of his sometimes odd disposition, and often out-of-the-box thinking. 

Neec was born in Aguleri and spent his most early years in the southeastern village of Nigeria which influenced his project Aguleri Stories — a masterful collection of photos and words from the Igbo village popular for its boundary disputes. From colourful pictures of masquerades celebrating ancient festivals to fierce young men wielding rifles in defence of their village boundaries, and playful children enjoying the camera’s attention, this collection tells vivid inside stories of Neec’s birthplace.

After a few years in Aguleri, his parents sought greener pastures in urban Abuja, as families in Nigeria are wont to. There, Neec says, he picked up the English language which at first seemed a mystery. “I remember when we first arrived, I would ask ‘what are they saying’ in Igbo”. Then onwards they moved to Lagos after his mother refused to continue the ‘visiting husband’ arrangement that saw his father ply trade as a cloths seller and part-time pastor in Yaba Lagos, away from family. 

Neec remembers himself as a very observant child, mindful of many of his parents’ actions and inactions, particularly his mom who is now of blessed memory. One time he gave a neighbour some of their table salt and got scolded for it. His mom, whom he fondly remembers, instructed him to “say we don’t have salt next time.” It seemed like hypocrisy to young Neec, “the bible teaches us to give.” Church values weigh heavily on his upbringing and are responsible for his moral compass, even to date, despite now being rather agnostic.

While very interested in traditional religious practices from a storytelling perspective, Neec sees himself as indifferent to organised religion. A sceptic. The indifference and scepticism crept up on him just after secondary school and developed because “I haven’t had any real encounter to make me believe” in the teachings of any particular organised religion. Despite being the church keyboardist, Neec welcomed leaving for University as an escape from being a ‘pastor’s son’ and having to attend church.

Becoming Neec the artist

Early on, his mindfulness made colours, shapes, patterns and words jump at him. Especially words. He was in love with literature, so much so that when he failed to make his school-leaving grades on the first attempt, his father blamed it on the literature books he was “always reading.” 

But Neec never really foresaw life as a visual artist or photographer. As a writer, perhaps, given the love of literature. But not a visual artist. 

His early foray into photography was as a hobby, taking pictures with a Sony Ericsson camera phone and posting them on Facebook. It was around that time he created #EveryPictureIsAstory, in which he created photos, had his friends write literary captions and shared them on social media. The feedback was great.

“I have a shot at this”, the artist told himself in 2016, and that was his conscious leap into professional photography. He started the long process of developing his skill and knowledge. “I attended all the free photography programs I could find…I met close to a thousand photographers around 2016 by attending all sorts of events in a bid to develop myself.” 

Meeting people who recognized some of his works from social media posts was a big boost for his morale. Awards for his phone photography also raised his confidence. Then around that time, a cousin gave him twenty-eight thousand naira to buy his first ‘proper’ camera, a ‘point and shoot’ Fujifilm X10. His photography career took wings.

Creating visual gems out of the everyday 

If you’ve seen any of Neec’s works, you already know how evocative they can be; whether haunting, depressing, or animating, there’s something to be felt. So, one wonders, how does he find inspiration for these works? 

Many of his ideas just pop out, he says, without any real preparation, although they are often inspired by his environment or real-life events. A recent project about the afterlife came to him at Ikogosi in Ekiti state after repeatedly noticing graveyards.

“I’m always looking for different ways of telling a story. When I happen upon an ingenious way of executing an idea, the urge to do that work becomes really strong.” So, at this point, he then starts to look for a sociological or philosophical perspective to the work to imbue it with some sort of messaging for his audience.

For example, at the outset of the Covid19 pandemic, he, like many others, was anxious and wondered if the world was facing a biological apocalypse. This led to imaginations of a post-apocalyptic world with a new fashion inspired by face masks. It was from this that Neec created an eerily remarkable body of work that features persons wearing coloured nets over their heads. The images are hard to describe even with a thousand words – see for yourself.

“I try to see ideas where people don’t see ideas, by being very observant,” a reference to his mindful personality. “And then, I spend a lot of energy and time connecting these ideas to my personal experiences.”  

What’s a brilliant work of art to Neec? “Everyone experiences it [the idea behind the work] but no one sees it or thinks it worth creating until someone else creates it.”

An interesting technique Neec has taken to recently is self-portraiture. You see images of him in many of his recent works, and when asked why, Neec says he’s developing a visual language for himself, and this technique is an element of that. But there’s also the convenience of not needing models, from whom you need to obtain consent, as well as the logistics of photographing other people for personal projects. Interestingly, this technique works just fine for Neec – one might have expected monotony from seeing the same person across different images, but that is not the case.

He is one artist to watch.

In a world where nothing is new under the Sun, Neec’s determination to create extraordinary art out of the ordinary sets him on the edge of things, where the most creative outcomes tend to come from. 

Neec Nonso