Essay: Sussan Omagu

Thinking of Sussan

Tuesday, July 03, 2007 at 3:50 PM WAT

Sussan Omagu:
Graffiti of an interventionist

YOU would think that the nebulous albeit inchoate argument about the place of minimalist art in a figural artistic tradition such as Nigeria’s has been over-stretched; that all the gladiators have since reached some consensus on the possibility of 'form' as an alternative to the 'figurative' or 'representational' art that has characterised (in fact, dominated) practice and discourses of the Nigerian art exhibition scene.
Particularly, as some critics had observed in the past, many of those – form-wise – who dared to stretch their vision beyond the common template of existing painting traditions have since seemed to retrace their steps. Some of them had been hounded by peer criticisms to submit to the ‘common line’, while others simply discovered how frustrating it is to step out of the ‘mainstream’, even if for a short while, through a real or perceived unrestrained flirtation with experimentation.
The truth is that the Nigerian exhibition site remains a close circuit, almost intolerant of exuberant experimentation; and so has little sympathy for art for the sake of philosophical cogitation.
But Sussan Ogeyi Omagu has rebelled against the quaint silence; thus returning the argument that form as against content could indeed drive the character of art. Not only that, her art points a new direction for the debate and raises the heat of a redefinition of the boundaries of artistic vision.
The painter equally highlights a new direction of the argument, which is whether or not it is possible for the minimalist to escape the trap of sacrificing content for aesthetics; meaning for form; and draughtsman-ship, sometimes in expressionism modules in colour use. Or whether the minimalist navigating on a vast field of concepts but confined to the properties of few symbolic colours can be trusted to produce a work that is complete in all the departments of traditional painting culture.
OMAGU's latest collection entitled 'MINIMALISM' going on display, late March through April, 2007 in the Goethe Institut, Lagos, is no doubt a "leap" (as contended by a fellow painter) from what she did in the past. Whereas the tendency for a reduction in the content of her canvas/board, especially the volume of figural representation – itself a sort of departure from the Ahmadu Bello tradition where she trained – had manifested even as early as when she debuted on the exhibition circuit, Omagu perhaps has never been as daring on canvas as she appears in the current collection. She has remarkably fused symbolic motifs (newspaper cuttings, graffiti, patches of canvas), expressionistic colour use with romantic aesthetics (design patterns defined by poetic lines and verses, signs and symbols from anyaa facial scarification tradition of her Ogoja native home in northern Cross River State), to produce paintings that bear uncommon signature. And considering her strength in composition even in her deceptively lean content, she manages to evoke a cathartic denouement in her viewer. She commits her audience to a deep sense of reflection not just through her sometimes versified theme as in the work Courage, but also through her deployment of effusive lines and temperamental patterning in such a way that she invokes the image of a painter in unending dialogue with her canvas.
The result of this flight of creative temper are poetic pictures that are forested with hideous motifs whose implied meanings are sometimes coded in the tenor and intensity of her colours as in 'All Things Bright and Beautiful', where the onyaa script shares characteristics with nsibidi patterns.
Specifically for this collection, Omagu dots on themes of afflictive social and political orientation as in 'And the Man Died' – (recall wole Soyinka's prison memoir, 'The Man Died') – a work compositionally suggestive of a thriller movie scene, with imageries of anger, fear, poverty, sickness streaming out of the screen. Her three-part 'Handle With Care' series, in particular, seeks better life for children. But rather than draw empathy with images of depressed, pathetic children with poverty-oriented motifs strewn all over the face of the canvas, the artist puts the meaning in the motions of her lines, the newspaper and patches of canvas graffiti and, of course, the emotive raw colours.
Notably too, her predilection for feminism and the politics of gender discourse comes across in some of the works.
Though she once in a press interview, declined the feminist tag, saying: "when I paint I see myself just as an artist, not from gender perspective", 'Dear Sister' – which bears the expression of a woman resolute to break free from a certain enslaving condition – hints at a strong feminist contention. 'Dependable' with a newspaper rider caption 'More Women Must Be Involved In Governance', like Dear Sister, is a poetic sermon on the trials, if not travails of womanhood.
Largely, however, Omagu's thematic contention is consistent with her career profile as an artist. She once established her social concern thus: "In my country Nigeria, we have abundant human and natural resources and yet there is still hunger, unemployment and dejection in the land. In fact, an average Nigerian is not getting the basic necessities of life and everybody knows that a few people feed at the expense of the huge mass of the people of this country".
In "most of my works I try to give hope and courage to our people and to say that there is always a brighter side to life. So, I tell people, as in Tomorrow's Far, get up from that depression, go out there and accomplish your dream".
This sermonic voice is also found in 'Loss is a Protagonist', an installation with newspaper, which she explains "Whatever you lose, you learn in the process. If you are positive-minded and maleable; every experience comes with a price." Also 'This Too Shall Pass', is "a word of encouragement and hope that "things will get better as long as you stay focused and works towards a better date".
Hope and Courage, these are the dual resolutions driving Susan Omagu’s artistic vision; she is comfortable preaching, and seeing the finest points in every human condition, no matter the depth of despair or anxiety. In fact, the miniature series, 'My City is Under Construction', sums her conviction – "there is hope that things will definitely get better when the right people are sought and put into place to play the right role at the right time; it’s a process akin to a city under construction, which will reach its desired end". The choice of theme is the romantist in her, and this may be her greatest attraction to her audience.

IT is not really Omagu’s theme or subjects that excites one in this show, however; it is the dimension to which she has extended the frontiers of her chosen form. It is here that the strength of the artist, her competence in handling her medium as well as her depth of vision are celebrated. And her treatment of the subjects as well as deployment of objects in accomplishing the various mixed media works are only amplified by the form she has chosen.
One supposes that the essentials of Omagu's intervention in the earlier referenced discourse on the essence of form ‘minimalism’ – is to contend that it is possible to achieve a synergy between content, form and aesthetics, without losing out in the usually delicate area of depth both of artistic vision and technical sophistication. Interestingly, this has been the usual pitfalls of many later day minimalism converts as is very vivid in the art exhibition circuit, especially in Lagos.
However, it should be clear even here that it is not as if the works of minimalists or painters who show predilection for this style must always be held with suspicion; as if minimalism itself is an escape from the perceived laborious vocation of painting; a negation of the rigour of draughtsmanship. The point is that the sudden advent or shall one say the preponderance of minimalist paintings on the local exhibition circuit, tends to throw up many questions about the competence of certain painters in the handling of the several technical requirements of the genre of painting; drawing, effective/innovative exploration of colour scheme, pictorial composition and symmetry being very vital. Added to this is the often seeming impatience, perhaps apparent disregard, of such so-called ‘minimalists’ for the process of accomplishing a rounded piece of painting; a complete piece of artwork.
Here Omagu distinguishes her work through her seeming deliberateness to strike a symmetry among the divergent particulars of painting – where she negates drawing, she engages objects or employs the direct communication vehicle of graffiti in the context of mixed media format. Through this approach she carries her commentary on various social and political tensions in the national polity as well as in human relationships. Where she declines to drench the whole face of the canvas in generous paints, as prevalent in most works that currently grace most local galleries or display foyers, she applies colour to convey the intensity of the mood and tenor of the subject, or object of contention in the painting (See 'Spillage', 'Apparition', 'I See You', for instance). Sometimes, the inter-course between colour and object is so knitted that, viewing 'U Learn' for instance, one is drawn to query which is her central motif, the poetic colour or the newspaper/canvas graffiti?
Remarkably, aside the form, the minimalist predilection also manifests in her engagement of colour, which appears more like an interrogation of what had been; a sort of rebellion against the established mode of rendition, in which colour is seemingly subservient to content. In other words, colour was used only as an appendage, engaged for mere aesthetic purposes, such as in elucidating the theme; or as mere embellishment, to create an atmosphere to the content. In this instance, Omagu could be said to be a mere aesthete, who cherishes evoking emotive response in her viewer through atmospheric effects.
In most of the current collection, she is significantly, bolder in her experimentation playing, essentially, with shades of red, black, white and gray, and in rare occasions, with blue and green. Her colours appear almost ritualistic in some instances i.e so deeply engaging that one suspects an addiction, a sort of worshipping of the evocative power of those hues to inspire deeper meaning beyond the mere appearance on the board or canvas. It is curious for instance, that Omagu would rather deploy the raw texture of the colour than variegate its character or graduate its intensity to buoy the ambience of the painting. Perhaps this comes in the context of the minimalist’s orientation, in which case, having eliminated the more traditional particulars of the painting such as figures and a motif-bristling face of the canvas, the artist must have found alternative paradigms to elucidate her artistic contention.
Beyond the riches of her colour scheme, however, the temperament of her strokes and the cadences of her painting vocabulary present are reflexive of a poet at work in visual representation.
IN a press interview, during her first solo, Expectations, held in 2005, Omagu had hinted at the source of her influences; she admires the forms and motifs of fellow artist Ndidi Dike – who herself is currently experimenting with space, shades and colour (not only on her traditional wood panels but on canvas). Omagu said: "As an African artist I try to incorporate things African in my works. I also like the colour scheme of Jerry Buhari, who happened to be my teacher at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. As an artist I enjoy fresh and live colours and I try to see how to apply them in my canvas".
Omagu hinted in the course of preparing this exhibition that the theme she desired to explore drove the forms she has adopted. This is perhaps another departure from the lean club of minimalists here, who often operate like absurdists with the with the form seeming to interface with, sometimes intrude, on the meaning.
THE current show, her second solo, provides a different template to evaluate her emerging voice. Thus it is perhaps, providential that she has chosen to experiment with form and colour – two platforms that give her ample room to stretch her imagination and creative temperament. But she ensures that the experiment immunises her against afflictions from the sometimes cacophony of influences in the visual arts circuit.
Should this show be taken as a ‘one-off’ or suggestive of a new direction for her not-so-old career as a professional painter? The answer may not be so glaring now until her artistic ouvre in the next few years (or exhibition) is studied. But what Susan Omagu has shown is that there is a limitless possibility to which she is ever willing to push her creative intervention in experimental art.
Jahman Anikulapo,
March, 2007

NB: Article was written without knowledge of the fact that the title of the collection of work is MINIMALISM. It was sheer coincidence.


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