Great men and women are always known by their ability to step out of their comfort zones and execute ideas that will not only benefit them, but their entire generation. They are known for their resilience when the going is tough and never resting on their oars when the going is smooth. Great minds do not dance to the noise and empty blabs of a society that celebrates hype over originality. But they, in truth and simplicity, discover their true place in the society and work to make the world a better place.
Such is the story a great mind, Chinelo Enemo, the founder of Nelen Arts, a Nigerian based creative space. In this interview with her, you will find out how, amidst all challenges, she was able to start up her visual arts studio and mentor many young talented artists in different fields of creativity.
MAY WE KNOW YOU?
My name is Chinelo Jennifer Enemuo, an urban planner by profession and a lecturer of Urban Planning at Federal University of Technology, Owerri, (FUTO). I am also the Founder and Principal Director of this creative art space (NELEN STUDIO), here in Awka.
I am from Agukwu-Nri, Anaocha L. G. A in Anambra state. I grew up in Enugu state, had my first degree in Ghana and my MSc. in the United Kingdom where I worked for a while before I came back to Nigeria to set up Nelen studio.
I was born into a family of five. I am the Ada. My dad is a retired doctor while my mum is a teacher at government technical college Enugu. Actually, my family is a normal average Nigerian family.
I relocated to Nigeria to start up Nelen studio, when I resigned from my job as an urban designer in the United Kingdom. As an urban designer in the UK, I was privileged to work in several countries like Gabon and Jamaica, designing spaces for them, though I found little or no job fulfilment there. So one day, I told my Boss that I needed to resign and move back to Nigeria. He was surprised at such a resolution, probably thinking my relocation was as a result of marriage plans or someone had died, but I told him no, I needed to kick start my childhood dreams. Because if I had spent one more year in the UK, I wouldn’t have come back and that would make me so unfulfilled. My boss sincerely thought I was joking. (Laughs). Well, I moved back to Nigeria and that same year, I started Nelen Arts.
CAN YOU GIVE US A BRIEF BACKGROUND OF NELEN STUDIO?
Okay, I think the best way to describe Nelen studios is like having a baby. When you want to become a mother, you imagine your child growing up. You start with labour pains. You know when you want to setup something it’s just like bringing your dream to limelight.
I had this dream of owning a creative space that was the main reason I went into architecture. I just didn’t know how to explain it then. So, architecture was the closest thing to my dream that I could think of. So, I had it in mind that after studying architecture, I would work, make some money and start up the venture.
As time went on, I started to realize that as I got older, my dreams grew, my responsibilities increased and I knew that if I didn’t keep this dream alive it was bound to fade. So I felt it was the best time to take that risk. I gave up what I was doing in the UK, came back to Nigeria and started up Nelen Arts. And since then it’s been a learning experience, because, like I said before, I had the final product in mind, and I started and made all the mistakes because I am still learning. All I have been trying to do is to keep my head up, because many times in the environment that is not as welcoming to this type of creative arts, as I would have wanted it to be, I would have given up easily many times. But I keep restrategizing until the day one day when I see it boom. It just like having a baby, you see it growing up.
WHEN DID YOU START NELEN?
Effectively I would say getting two years now. The first year was me getting to gather all I had in my head and making people know about what I had. I actually felt I could make Nelen a place where people can train, but I learnt soon that I had to be a brand first before making it a money-making venture. I Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie was the one who started this up, you know far it would have gone because she has made a name for herself. So, in the early days of getting Nelen studio to be, I learnt that you have to build the brand first. I knew my stuff and I needed the world to know that I knew it. Thus, I had to step back and build content first.
Today, Nelen studio comprises many projects like storytelling, visual arts, performance, stage and music
SO, HAS IT BEEN EASY COMBINING THE BUSINESS WITH MENTORING PEOPLE?
No, mentoring has not been the problem, the problem is social expectations from family and other people, economic value. Not making the money that people expect you to make, because people here are not giving it attention as needed. If I were to be in Lagos or Port Harcourt, the story would have been different. Like you know Awka is a civil service environment and people are not really open to these kinds of things.
Trying to set up a part of this space to make money in order to support while I move on was a challenge but not in the aspect of mentoring or impacting. Even though I had to go lecture as an Urban planner, I had to do that as early as I could, so as not to interfere with my dreams for Nelen.
So, when I discovered that Nelen studio is now a personal journey and whoever that I am impacting as I am moving on Nelen studio cannot be a money-making venture right now, unless I want to rip people off.
Personally, I don’t like mediocrity, I hate hype and that is what thrives here in Nigeria. People want hypes and mediocrity and no impact. I really try to take myself away from that. I advised myself, that if I my name is going to be this, then it must make sense. So anything hypes, I pull away.
SO, LETS TALK ABOUT FUNDING, HOW HAS IT BEEN LIKE FUNDING NELEN?
I got a lot of support and encouragement from my family, even though until today, half of them don’t still understand what I do. But I think my biggest financial support came from my Dad. He really believes in me, because right from the beginning till now he believes I have always proven myself.
The studio is part of the family house. I also do other jobs to fund Nelen, like writing scripts.
Funding for me has not been as impossible as people think, because for me, I am a very honest person in my lifestyle. You know there is a lot of hype here, when people walk into the studio and see me, they expect most times to see a woman dressed so extravagantly. That is what people expect me to look like. But I try my best to live simple and be real. Most people spend much on frivolities to maintain a certain lifestyle, and later end up struggling through life. Right from my days in the UK, I maintained my true self and I invested in little projects that will enable me to maintain my dream lifestyle. So, people get surprised when they get to discover that I never got one big sponsor pumping in money into Nelen. I just achieved that by being true to myself. My appearance reflects where I am now, so I have no need to pretend.
HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO INSPIRE ANYONE?
Yes, a lot more than I thought or expected. These days I get to meet a lot of people who walk up to me and tell me how I have inspired them.
As I said earlier, there are many projects I am involved in, and to be sincere with you, many of the guys that now contribute to the growth of Nelen Arts are people I have blindly inspired. Because of me, most of them today can confidently pursue the dreams they never had the courage to pursue.
So, people see me putting in a lot of courage to make my dreams come true and they put in the same courage to pursue their dreams. That to me is inspiring.
For my Visual Arts projects, when I initially came up with that idea, I scouted for artists that are really good, went into partnership with them and that was it! We had a successful exhibition last year, and now it has become an annual event.
With writing, when I moved down to Nigeria, I noticed many writers could not afford to pay professional editors and publishers, so I invited them to be coming to Nelen Studio. We all began to write together and with that, I also improved on my writing skills. Today, a good number of them have published their books, some others won different contests. And I still engage and inspire them to greater heights. When they write they send to me and I proof read. I also do encourage the others to finish their books.
So those are the ways I inspire people on a low key, and that for me is amazing.
HOW WERE YOU ABLE TO FISH THESE TALENTS OUT?
Hmmmm,I went on a vast and deliberate talent hunt around Awka. I engaged a lot of people on one-on-one basis. I created heavy awareness around UNIZIK Temp Site many other places. Through that grass root approach, I was able to gather a lot of talented guys who I started with. Some others heard about me and decided to be part of Nelen.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who have dreams but never know that it takes a lot of courage to get those dreams actualized. Some would ask me, I have this dream, but can you make it easy for me? Can I shine that soon? I just tell them, you must create content first. Most people that came to me couldn’t keep up with the demands of pursuing one’s dreams. But the few ones around me now are those who are willing to make that extra effort.
DO YOU HAVE ANY MENTORS?
Yes, I do. For any one that knows me, they know Walt Disney the founder of Disney World is my Mentor. I want all my works to be like his. I have read so much about him and his life. So, what Disney has accomplished in the world of arts and entertainment really inspires me. His, is the kind of legacy I want to leave behind.
WHERE DO YOU SEE NELEN IN THE NEAREST FUTURE?
Eeermmm… I do not want to speculate or sound unrealistic…Hahahaha.. But I hope that I can release much more content to people out there.
Recently, I was selected for Afri Young Adult Writing contest, which is an African based contest. So I believe it is going to give me more depth into creative writing and publishing.
So, I see Nelen having a lot of content, unique sounds, great instrumentals and books.
IN YOUR OWN OPINION, IS THERE ANYTHING YOU THINK THE GOVERNMENT CAN DO TO HELP FOSTER TALENTS IN NIGERIA?
If the govt provides the basics, that is electricity and good public transport system, that is quite affordable, everything will go well.They just do the basics, Nigerians are very creative, but the environment is not conducive enough.
YOUR ADVICE TO YOUNG PEOPLE.
Live by truth. What I mean by that is, be true to yourself as in what you can do. Most people live by what their society expects from them; they get married early; they must work in a bank; they must be this or that.
Always get to ask yourself a personal question and be true to yourself. Ignore the noise and hype that the society pushes into your mind. Live by your truth. Once you find that truth you will figure out your path and find your place in the society. When everyone wants to be a doctor, because of the perceived aura that goes with doctors even when they don’t care about human lives, then it becomes a problem for the society.
Some people just focus on hustles and money making, for a very long time, and finally, they die without fulfilment. But when you live by your truth, you remain fulfilled and happy and then you tend to inspire others.
Finally, I advise all young people to look for people who believe and encourage them, then have the courage yourself to pursue their dreams.
THANKS FOR YOUR TIME
You are welcome