Since we launched this column, An Exclusive in January this year, we have interviewed and featured about 14 fascinating women from various parts of the world in this newsletter. This week, we travel across the Atlantic to Belgium to introduce you to a special man – an activist against human rights violations, including female genital mutilation (FGM). Yes, a man who campaigns against FGM. Sit back and listen to what Godfrey Williams-Okorodus has to say.
GWPF: Godfrey, thank you for allowing An Exclusive to profile you. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Godfrey Williams-Okorodus: I was born in Lagos, Nigeria and grew up there before relocating to Antwerp, Belgium in 2002.
GWPF: Where did you obtain your education?
Godfrey Williams-Okorodus: I got admitted into the University of Benin in 1988 where I obtained a degree in Fine and Applied Arts with specialization in Graphics. I graduated in 1992.
GWPF: When did you begin your art design career?
Godfrey Williams-Okorodus: After graduation, I was a Graphic Arts Lecturer for my National Youth Service for a year at the College of Education Hong Adamawa State in North Eastern Nigeria. Then I worked as an illustrator and cartoonist with the Guardian newspaper for a couple of months. After it was closed by the Military Government in 1994, I went into full studio work, and have remained a full studio artist since then.
GWPF: Tell us about your art design background and places you have worked.
Godfrey Williams-Okorodus: I have a degree in Graphic and Advertising from the University of Benin. I worked briefly as a Lecturer during my youth service, then as a Cartoonist and Illustrator, as mentioned earlier. I also did a brief stint as a Graphic Artist with a publishing company before I went to become a full studio artist at Curio Studio, first in Lagos from 1994 to 2002. I later opened my own gallery and studio gallery called “Labalaba” in Antwerp, Belgium in 2002 until to date.
GWPF: Would you share the story about how you came to open your own gallery?
Godfrey Williams-Okorodus: When I first arrived in Europe in 2000, I was made aware of how very little African artists were represented in Europe. When I tried to show my work to galleries, they all told me that their interest was not in African arts, and that they had their own artists whom they represented. I also saw that African ethnic arts were sold exclusively by European dealers and they were very snobbish to Africans who came to their shops, because they felt they were all sellers of “fakes”. So bearing this in mind, I decided, along with my wife, Karin Eykens to open our own outfit gallery, “Labalaba”, with the aim of giving African artists and arts, both ethnic and contemporary a chance to be seen and appreciated by the European public. For over 14 years now, we have been steadfast in this. Karen also makes beaded jewelry, which we also sell in the gallery. www.gallerylabalaba.be and www.gallerylabalaba.com
GWPF: You are using your art to exhibit love for humanity. Tell us about that.
Godfrey Williams-Okorodus: In 1998, I was invited by Joy Keshi-Walker to produce works campaigning against FGM; and ever since then, I have not relented in my efforts in using my arts as a mean of fighting all human rights violations. I strongly believe that every human being has a part to play in fighting against all human rights violations. Artists are usually viewed as those whose sole aim is to produce work which they show the public, who will either buy the work or not; but art that can be used to fight against human rights violation is not seriously considered. However art can be a very effective mean of communication in ensuring that human rights violations are stopped. Art can soothe the raging beast in man; art is a medium that is easily understood (most times) by everybody of all ages and background. So in using art, one can get across to a wide sector of the society and messages can be transmitted easily and results achieved faster.
GWPF: We understand that something happened to you on September 11, 2009. Do you mind sharing that story with us?
Godfrey Williams-Okorodus: OK, you mean when my friend and I found a wallet belonging to some tourists from the U.K. in Ieper, Belgium. We called them to come and retrieve their wallet. When they arrived, they were amazed that two black men had found a wallet on the street and returned it to the owner. We opted not to take it to the police station because we were sure that they would have suspected us of having tampered with the wallet. The couple was very, very appreciative and the wife was in tears when we refused their offer of any sort of reward or gift. They thanked us profusely and the day ended even more memorable for me. We were in Ieper because the traveling exhibition I curated on FGM by African artists was showing there that evening, and at the opening, I was not even called on by my organizers; they just ignored my presence and it was all the more painful because I wanted to pay a small tribute to my late friend, Davis Obaye, whose sculptures were in the show. He had died months before the show started, but in the end I was allowed to give a small speech.
GWPF: As you are aware, Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation advocates against female genital mutilation (FGM). We know that you are also an activist against the practice. What inspired you to dedicate your work and time to the FGM cause?
Godfrey Williams-Okorodus: I decided to use my art in fighting the senseless and barbaric act of FGM because I saw in my teens a documentary on Nigerian television on VVF sufferers; and the image of young girls and women who had walked around all day with urine bags stayed on my mind, and when I learned that FGM can be a cause of VVF (Vesico Vaginal Fistula), I did not hesitate in 1998 when the call for artists who wanted to produce work against FGM came out. Since then I have had the chance to show my work, campaigning against FGM in several venues worldwide, with several shows and talks at the United Nations in Geneva. I have also motivated other artists, both male and female in producing work, campaigning against FGM, and I have conducted several workshops in Benin Republic, Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal to pay homage to the late Efua Dorkenoo, one of the most foremost campaigners against FGM, who died in October 2014. The works were shown at the U.N. in Geneva in February 2015. I was also commissioned in January/February this year by UNFPA and the Guardian newspaper, U.K. to produce three trophies which were given to winners of the “Efua Dorkenoo Award for Reportage on FGM”. I have also produced several book covers for Uncut Press against FGM, as well as speaking both at events and conferences. I also speak to individuals on the dangers of FGM as well as on the plight of immigrants and street children.
GWPF: Do you have a family? If so, is your wife also involved in your work against FGM?
Godfrey Williams-Okorodus: Yes I am married to Karin Eykens and she has been one of my greatest supporters. Without her support, both financially and morally it would have been very difficult to carry out my campaign. She wholeheartedly supports my cause; she and all other amazons in the fight against FGM, like Elisabeth Wilson of Global Alliance Against FGM, Professor Tobe Levin of Forward Germany and Publisher of Uncut Press and Madam Rosaline Koupaki, wife of the Prime Minister of Benin Republic have been my greatest sources of inspiration. It is through their support and advice that I have been able to move on in my campaign.
GWPF: There are so many women involved with the campaign to end FGM but not enough men. Do you feel more men should be involved?
Godfrey Williams-Okorodus: I strongly believe that more men should be involved in the campaign against FGM because this practice prevails mostly in male-dominated societies and with male participation, the practice will be eradicated quicker. Men make the decisions in most indigenous societies where FGM is carried out and they have to live with women and girls who suffer from the effects of FGM. Their marital lives are disrupted and in the end, it leads to divorces or even death of their female folks. So men need to be sensitized to the harmful effects of FGM and how it affects the men too.
GWPF: You are an inspiration to other men. How do you use your art to help fight FGM?
Godfrey Williams-Okorodus: I use my art in fighting against FGM and other human rights violations by making art dedicated to women and girls. In these works, I show the viewers my interpretation of what effects FGM has on women and girls and I also try to make works which also give the female folks hope of a brighter future without the scourge of FGM. In 2010, I made a series of over 50 paintings called the soul gazers (portraits of unknown women), which is solely dedicated to women and girls around the world who have to bear the brunt of a world ravaged by war, pain and destruction.
GWPF: What advice do you have for other men reading this Exclusive?
Godfrey Williams-Okorodus: My advice to other men is to stand firm against any form of human rights violations. We should not live in a world that believes in looking out just for oneself. Every human being must do their bit in ensuring a peaceful world. I on my part will not rest until the world is a place where every human being can have a sense of well-being and live safely and amicably with others.
GWPF: We usually ask our interviewees, do you foresee a world free of FGM in the future?
Godfrey Williams-Okorodus: Yes I firmly believe that if the fight against FGM is steadfastly continued, we will soon see a future free of FGM and other harmful bodily practices meted out on girls and women.
GWPF: Is Godfrey Williams-Okorodus living his dream life?
Godfrey Williams-Okorodus: Yes I am living my dream. My life is a fulfilled one. I am master of my own destiny. I have been able to live the life I have always dreamed of as a child, and even now I look back at the journey to where I am today, and know that given another chance, I would not have done things any differently.
GWPF: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Godfrey Williams-Okorodus: In 10 years-time, I see myself as a 56 year old man, still doing my bit in ensuring a world free of wars, pain, hunger and prejudice. I send regards from Godfrey Williams-Okorodus in Antwerp, Belgium.