While we’re busy deciding between a cold drip or a flat white in the morning, 36-year-old Nigerian visual artist Ekene Ngige is pondering how best to use coffee to grapple with issues like terrorism, poverty and religion.
By dipping his brush in the caffeinated drink, he creates paintings that are eye-catching and urgent in equal measure. Through his artwork, Ngige engages with the oft-troubling aspects of life in Nigeria. Face of Chibok is Ngige’s way of drawing attention to the harm caused by militant organisation Boko Haram. Bond is a depiction of love between an African father and son. His themes encompass everything from racial and tribal Inequality, to domestic violence, child abuse and war.
“I sketch my canvas myself,” he tells SBS. “I add a rough texture to the canvas. Then I dilute my coffee powder with little drops of water, so I can easily control the light shades with my wet brush. Then, I paint the canvas with the light shade of coffee. After it’s done, I varnish the painting with a gloss for a shiny effect and a long-lasting life span, and it’s ready to brace any wall or home.”
His chosen medium not only appears brilliantly on a canvas, but it might also say something about wider consumption trends in Nigeria, too. Quartz reports a growing demand for coffee in Nigeria, especially among the middle class and the well-travelled; consumption could continue to grow and hit more than 1000 tons in 2020.
“Coffee is getting bigger every day in Nigeria,” Ngige says. “A few farmers now grow their own coffee in Nigeria, and have taken their business as far as starting their own coffee shops where they brew their own coffee, like Umutu Restaurant in Lagos.”
Ngige discovered his knack for caffeinated art back in 2015, through what he calls a happy accident. “I had a spill of coffee on my notepad during a meeting and I loved what I saw,” he says. “Experimenting with coffee had never crossed my mind until then. My first coffee painting turned out very nice, and people were amazed the piece was actually made of coffee.”
Fast forward to 2018, and Ngige is balancing a busy career as a cartoon animator with the need to make coffee art – he spends at least five hours a day in his Lagos studio painting, because, as he explains, art is his life.
“I had a spill of coffee on my notepad during a meeting and I loved what I saw."
“I started drawing as early as three years of age, so it was crispy clear as a kid that I was going to be an artist,” he says. “I can’t possibly have a career without art and stay normal and happy. I breathe art.”
Ngige’s subject matter isn’t always light, yet he retains an unwavering hope for the future and belief that his practice can bring real change in his community. “When our art stands out, it gives us the privilege to pass our message on,” he explains. “Art touches the hearts of many when the message is properly depicted. The message lasts for decades and becomes part of history, to remind us in the future to not to allow the mistake to repeat itself.”
Plus, as far as art goes, Ngige’s smells wonderful. “The sweet part [of my work] is that it retains the coffee aroma until I put it in a glass frame.”
Ngige hopes to host coffee painting exhibitions all over the world in the near future. Keep an eye on his Instagram page for developments.