PROFILE: Sarah Sanni is on high mural ground

by Emeka Nwankwo

Sarah Sanni is doing something no one else is – and there is a whole vista of opportunity ahead.

“I never saw myself as a painter. It just came up! I didn’t plan it. I never sat down to think of it,” says Sarah Sanni, the founder and creative director of Cera Cerni Company – a small company that paints and design murals on walls.

You won’t hear her name on the streets, not unconnected to the fact that muralists are yet to get mainstream popularity, Sanni, possibly Nigeria’s only female muralist at the moment, is certain that mural painting is an under-explored market that will grow rapidly.

Mural ground

Her choice of career is, in a manner of looking at it, unconventional as is her choice of painting materials. Sanni – who started drawing as a hubby when she was 10 – paints on walls, buildings and/or ceilings rather than on canvas or wood.

“Not many people understand the word: mural, so I just normally say wall painting,” she says, adding that mural painting is similar to graffiti but the difference is that graffiti’s are made using spray paint while mural painting use water-based paint.

“We paint, just paint,” she says. Using paint, Sanni draws and paints different types of designs on walls – from cartoon figures to abstract figures.

And she is making money she says: “Yes, it is quite profitable,” she shares, explaining that she holds a monopoly in the market.

In 2014, without any job prospect or plan on what to do next, Sanni, a graduate of computer science from the University of Benin, took an uncalculated gamble. Despite her love for design and knowledge of computer and systems administration, software development and programming language, Sanni says she was unfulfilled at her job – like a piece of her was missing and she felt incomplete. She quit her job with an Information Technology firm.

“I worked as an IT personnel for about three years and I wasn’t just feeling fulfilled so I resigned and picked up the drawing.”

Unsure about what to do next with her life or how to get another job, Sanni stayed at home for a while, confused about what the future holds for her or how to move on with her life. To relieve boredom, Sanni drew and painted a design on the wall of her bedroom. A neighbor liked the painting and asked that Sanni paint a design on her wall too.

“I did it for her –it was for free though. I didn’t think of it as a big deal,” Sanni says.

But for her neighbor, it was a big deal.

Sanni’s neighbor, enamored by the painting, took pictures of the mural, posted it online where it was seen by another person who requested that a mural be painted on his wall too. Within four weeks, the otherwise jobless Sanni had a business and was quickly swamped with orders from prospective clients – from Kebbi state to Abuja and Lagos.

“That was how I started,” Sanni says with a slight chuckle. Painting, Sanni says, gave her greater fulfillment more than her job as an IT personnel.

Using social media, Sanni built up a following, acquired more clients which have led her to working with prominent schools, hotels, corporate offices and home owners within and outside Lagos.

Sanni grew up in northern Nigeria where she was exposed to the act of body painting especially the laali –a temporary tattoo worn by brides in the north – and her interest in visual art was born. She moved to Ibadan, Oyo state, for her primary education and continued painting as a hobby before finally settling in Lagos. After failing to secure admission to study Architecture, Sanni settled for Computer Science, graduating in 2010.

All this while, art was something she did as a hobby not seriously – to say nothing about professionally.

Despite the fact that her job is manual and often involved getting her hands and clothes stained, Sanni is a fashion enthusiast and, like most young women, her social media pages are laden with selfies, pouted lips, a made-up face and painted finger nails.

She is soft-spoken, each of her words standing on its own or sometimes lazily running into each other as we talk about her work and her hopes for the future – but her sentences are short, precise and almost businesslike.

Being a female and doing the sort of job that she does is an advantage, Sanni says. People are often surprised, fascinated and taken aback by her career choice; somehow, Sanni takes it that as a blessing. “Yes, it’s quite fascinating. I feel happy when people make such comments and remark once they put their mind to it.”

“First, it was a natural talent,” she says. Sanni says she didn’t train or receive any formal education as a painter or muralist, it was something that she unconsciously found herself doing as a child and she enjoyed it immensely. Up until two years ago, Sanni hadn’t considered any form of painting style as a career option for her.

She, however, hopes to acquire formal education soon even as she consumes books on art to train herself further.

Proudly, Sanni says that she sometimes employs other painters to repaint the base (the wall) before she can draw and paint her designs on it. “But for the drawing part, I have apprentices they come and go, so no employees for that yet.”

“Sometimes, I could have a big project so I employ five painters but usually a minimum of one or two.”

She hopes to continue in this line. “Not many people know about it yet so I intend to create a lot of awareness – newspaper, TV, online adverts, blogs. From there, I feel, I can expand and then employ more hands, you know, create employment opportunity for young people – it doesn’t matter if they’re educated or not, as far as they’re ready to work and they have the skills, the talent and the passion.”

Apart from nominating the art scene, Sanni has other ambitious plans too. She intends to open an art school to train and guide would be muralist – an opportunity she didn’t get.

“Some people are difficult to handle,” Sanni says of her challenges. “You have some difficult clients, you know,” she laughs gently before telling me that sometimes overall the job has limited challenges.

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