Story by Dorcas Bello for bird story agency
When Jacob Onoja opens the door to welcome guests into his house in Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria, the first thing that catches one’s eye are the exquisite paintings on the walls. This is an artist who lives and breathes art.
“As far as I can remember, I have always loved scribbling, drawing, painting, and visualizing imaginary things in the sky. I did it in my teenage years, and I still do it in my adult life,” he said.
Onoja only started to paint professionally in 1987, when he opened a studio, the Diadem Art Gallery. To refine his talent, he enrolled at Ahmadu Bello University, where he earned his first degree in fine and applied art. After his mandatory National Youth Service Corps, Onoja displayed some of his paintings at the NICON Hotel in Abuja, Nigeria, and, after attaining a master’s degree at Ahmadu Bello University, enrolled for a doctorate in art history. After earning his doctorate in 2014, he then joined the University of Jos as a lecturer. But he never let go of his private studio engagement.
“It hasn’t been an easy ride juggling both the academic world and my private studio practice, but what keeps me moving is the long-term result of the impact of my work. I have already started seeing the fruit of my labor as some of my students are now professional artists,” he said.
While Onoja uses his brush to depict a wide range of subjects in his canvases, the theme of peace is close to his heart.
“I was born and still live here in Plateau State, a place that has suffered numerous insecurity, both cross-border and inter-communal,” he said.
Through his art, Onoja projects peace as a value. As such, it is presented not only as a right but also as something that every individual needs to consciously strive for. He refers to this as a type of community therapy.
“I try to tell stories of peace to entrap people into my space of therapy,” he explained.
In 2014, Onoja launched an annual exhibition dubbed “Landscapes and More” that brings people from within and outside of Plateau State together to talk about and discuss peace as they experience the stories behind his paintings. Since then, it has been held every December as an artistic event to “wrap up the year.”
“It is a time of the year I look forward to, and many attendees who have consistently been a part of it have made it their annual routine,” he said.
One of those who have been attending the exhibition is Nenkinan Deshi.
“Onoja’s consistency in delivering peace messages is extremely healing… The scars of the instability in our state that I had nursed for years have been healed by the exhibitions. I appreciate his work and determination to preach peace through his art,” Deshi said.
Onoja says he draws inspiration for his work from nature: flowers, buzzing bees, the skyline, waterfalls, and everything else nature offers. But above all, he is inspired by the divine.
Onoja’s work has enabled him to lead the Zaman Tare project, a peace partnership between CANFOD, an NGO based in Abuja, and the European Union, from January 2018 until January 2020. Zaman Tare means “peaceful co-existence” in the Hausa language.
Its impact was summed up by a community youth leader in one of the “hot zones,” Nasarawa Filin Ball, Anas Ibrahim Suleiman: “I have never experienced something so great, and more than ever before, I have seen the need for us to work for peace together as a community,” said Suleiman.
Onoja has also been engaged in other group and solo exhibitions, with some of his paintings appearing in foreign publications and receiving great patronage. He also claims that, in addition to being a fulfilling career, art pays the majority of his bills.
His paintings sell for between 7,000 naira (US$15) for the smallest size and 350,000 naira (US$780) for the largest pieces. However, the prices can also be higher depending on the venue and organizers of the exhibition.
To reach a broader audience, Onoja has gone digital and is also using non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to sell his work.
“Digitalization, especially the NFTs, is revolutionizing African art. More creatives should leverage the technology to advertise and sell their artworks,” he said.
On future plans, Onoja says, “I want to grow and nurture this “baby,” the Diadem Art Gallery, into a huge enterprise specializing in collecting paintings and exhibitions on the theme of peace and co-existence,” he said. “I will continue to devote all my energy to art, my career as a lecturer, and my role as a peace crusader.”