Tracing the Rhythms of a Creative : A Conversation with Sonny Nwachukwu by Nolan Stevens

Continuing my conversations with staff members from the UK’s Unlimited commissioning programme run by Shape Arts and Artsadmin, I caught up with Sonny Nwachukwu. He is the 2018 intern at Artsadmin. Through our discussion, which ranged from his practice as a dancer to living with a stammer, I rediscovered Africa through the eyes of a creative living in the diaspora.

NOLAN STEVENS: I guess I’d like to kick this off from a cultural perspective, just because we both share an African connection. You mentioned that growing up, you felt you were the odd one out – the only black kid in your school. Could you elaborate and tell me how that informed who you are today?  

SONNY NWACHUKWU: Yes, it was interesting growing up in Kingston in southwest London and not inner London. In primary school, the only black people were me and my family. In secondary school there were a few more of us. I struggled to relate, and it wasn’t until I went to uni[versity when I was studying Psychology, that I truly fell in love with my culture. I did extra-curricular courses on African history and my Igbo culture. Something that I’ve seen now working in the arts is that people are trying to make a change in that regard and that’s quite nice.

NS: It’s interesting that people are opening up to these ideas now.

SN:  Yeah, it’s slowly improving but there is still obviously a long way to go.  I do feel like art can be used as a space for creating awareness and healing. Healing could happen through writing, dancing, painting – all art forms. That’s why I’m trying to create a piece to bring awareness, because I’ve discovered, and this isn’t just for black people but the human race in general, the struggle of knowing who we are and loving ourselves for a lot of people is a daily struggle.

NS: Here’s something I’ve wanted to ask but haven’t known how to ask, obviously I really enjoy the African dynamic and identity that you’re coming from and engaging with, but I’m a little curious about something… you are gay right?

SN: Yeah mate, I am but that’s a whole other chapter (chuckles).

NS: No doubt, but I’ve been wondering if that’s a topic you engage with in your art at all?

SN: Currently, no. That’s because it’s only in the past three years that I’ve come out. It’s a huge topic within an African household. What the older African generation usually don’t understand is, if you are gay, that doesn’t mean that that’s all you are. It took ages to get to where I am at this point. I have thought about bringing it into my artist world but at the moment, my plan is to create a piece that explores the male and female relationship dynamics within black culture. I’ve noticed that there’s kind of a strange identity thing happening where we hurt each other subconsciously. I call it post-traumatic slave disorder. I would like to make work that talks about how to heal within relationships or how to accept who you are and to be more conscious of how we talk and act. I want to explore these ideas of how we get to harmony.

NS: I love that man, that’s deep on so many levels.

SN: To be honest, this only started to happen in the last year-or-so. Last year, I had a huge injury. I was dancing on stage and my shoulder came out of place. Twice actually, first in rehearsals when I dropped to the floor to do a move and secondly on stage when I popped it out again. After having an op and being forced to take a year off from dancing, I had a lot of time to think about my life and what I wanted next for my art career. Sort of like a ‘who am I now?’, conversation with myself.

NS: So, how has your time at Unlimited influenced your process?

SN: I’m very busy on the Unlimited programme but I’ve acquired a lot of training by working there. It’s helping me to apply my skills in this industry. I’m hoping that after my year is up, I’ll be able to earn money in the arts industry. So, at the moment, outside of Unlimited, I’m trying to work on my play, Circles, that I spoke about earlier.

NS: So, the project you’re working on at the moment isn’t a dance project, it’s a play?

SN: Yes and no; I don’t have it all strictly sorted out. Let’s just say, for now, that it’s a choreo-poem. What I mean by that is there’s choreography and there’s poetry in the play but each element informs the other, if you get what I mean.

NS: So then, what role would you play in this project? Would you be a performer?

SN: I’m not in it.  I’m currently working out how all the poetry will fit together with the choreography that will be created. I would like to find two dance artists who can also act, to try and test things out. To answer your question, I want to be the creator and director of this piece.

NS: Alright, but why the decision not to be in this work as a performer? 

SN: Because, I would like to experience it from an audience perspective. Also, I’m not an actor. I guess the idea of seeing it come to life through someone else is exciting to me.

NS: Initially, when you started speaking about your project, I thought you’d be doing the onstage work and the behind the scenes conceptualising of it. When you said you wouldn’t actually be in it I wondered if that decision came about because you thought your stutter would be a problem. Would that be a factor in your decision?  

SN: I do have some pieces that I’ve done that relate to stammering and stuttering but this one I like to be a space of androgynous healing.

NS: I see. Your stuttering, or is it stammering? I’m not sure what the difference is. How has that affected or influenced your creative process?

SN: Well firstly, stammering is just the British term for it, but it’s the same thing really. In short, it affects and influences my life a lot. Growing up was quite hard. I was quiet because I had a stutter. Of course, for someone who is black in England, has a stutter and is also gay, that’s like a triple threat, you know what I mean? That’s also something that has had a major effect on me. Coming to terms with the fact that I stutter has only really happened in the last year which is crazy, I know.

NS: In your application to the traineeship at Unlimited what was the basis of your consideration? I mean if the prerequisite of the application is that you have to be a disabled creative, I’m wondering if your sexuality or your stuttering was the major consideration because both would see you being marginalised by society. I am of course, asking from a South African context and limited understanding of the landscape here.

SN: To be on the traineeship you have to identify as disabled which I do. In regard to sexuality, I feel the UK is a lot more advanced than in many countries.

Whilst the discussion I had with Sonny Nwachukwu was particularly insightful for me because of the African heritage we both share, it is his tenacity and dedication to his ever-evolving craft that truly struck a chord with me. This, is something that I am eager to instill in both my creative and personal life. Credit must also be given to Artsadmin for the supportive, behind-the-scenes role they play in the artistic and personal growth of those they work with.

Published 20 August 2018

SONNY NWACHUKWU comes from a varied background, having studied Psychology at university, then worked in National Health Service administration for numerous years, all whilst pursuing his passion as a dancer/artist. He loves creating work using dance (West African and Caribbean styles) and spoken word to draw on subjects of importance to him; race, stuttering and the psychology of relationships. He wants to continue working on his craft and believes being at Unlimited will help push him in the right direction.

A colour photograph of Nolan Stevens standing near a wall covered in street art. He is wearing a light-blue peak cap and pointing to the wall.NOLAN STEVENS NOLAN STEVENS was born in exile in Swaziland but has lived the better part of his life in inner-city Johannesburg. His mother, Stella May Ntsihlele wrote children’s books, short stories and plays. He attributes his love of writing to her. Nolan is a visual artist who works with ideas of Blackness in an Afro-urban context. He explores various aspects of black identity in his art making, arts writing and curatorial projects.  He was chosen as UK Unlimited’s 2018 international placement. The experience has shifted his perspective of how he views disability and how he sees himself as a disabled creative contributing to the understanding of disability arts. Nolan feels that barriers faced by people with disability in South Africa are difficult to overcome, both in terms of infrastructure as well as public education. He was the only disabled artist at art school, university and in his immediate artist environment. He did not want to be pitied and tried to fit into the ‘norm.’ He has always had to make do and try to work within the structures that are already in place. He is only now beginning to seek out others in the disability arts community.