Essays on Visual Arts

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Sussan Omagu and Milimalism

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.

posted by EniOlorunda at 1:47 PM 0 comments links to this post   

Identity and the Art

Identities & Labels: Deconstructing Traditions And Prejudices
By Jahman Anikulapo
( 2004)
There are just too many tales drawn from the recent history of the Nigerian visual art to serve as background to this comment. Particularly, where the serious issues of identities and gender in art are involved, these tales bear testimony to the fact that discourses had always been very vibrant on very relevant aspects of our art historicity; even if they seem to happen more at informal sites.
Perhaps the very first tale to recall here was that woven by the former director of the Goethe Institut, Lagos, Mrs. Renate Albertson Marton (late). Just a quick reminder: Renate was the amiable lady who served as Deputy Director of Goethe Institut between 1989 and 1995; left for Bremen 1999; and then returned late 1999 as the substantive director of the Goethe. It does not need much retelling that while Renate served here, she was instrumental to what was eventually considered the boom in the Nigerian art. She journeyed round the various centres in the country where arts were being produced, particularly the various schools, and uncovered many hidden talents that probably would have been lost in the maze of the social, political and economic travails that challenged Nigeria at the time. Many of her discoveries are the most discussed artists of today.
So Renate left in 1995 but at the time she returned four years later, she seemed to be in a hurry to top what she had done in the first eight years. Specifically, she had always lamented that much as she had done what she wanted to do, she felt inadequate that she never really gave voice to the 'voiceless'; she felt that Nigeria art was still very much patriarchal. It was peopled by men, practiced by men, promoted by men, patronized by men. The women were too few on the field and even at that, they had such a huge weak voice.
One of her dream then was to have an all-female artistic show. But not just any female. She contemplated women who are stretching their imagination and capacity beyond the usual pedestrianism that pervaded much of Nigeria's national life.
Notably too, she was thinking of female artists who are not necessarily consigned to engaging female related issues, but dealing with themes of man and his environment in all ramifications - politics, philosophy, economy, society in general among others. She was not into 'isms', so she probably was not thinking of an art show to flag such ideation as feminism, womanism or whatever the usually 'lamenters of the female woes' and activists were thinking. As she stressed in an interview she wanted women artists who perceive themselves as creators of artistic and cultural ideas and materials; and not as a set of artists that considers itself deserving of sympathetic hearing from the general visual art viewership .
Though she did quite a few solo showing of certain women artists, her real dream was a large show that will feature a long list of women. "I want to have about 20 female artists in a show that would travel round the country", she said in the interview with this writer. She worked hard at that. But as if she knew that she had indeed very little time to live, she decided to experiment with a select few; just to test the waters. That was when she brought four women to the gallery: (NKECHI PLEASE CHECK THESE NAMES, AM I RIGHT?) Ebele Okoye; Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo; Angela Isiuwe; Juliet Ezenwa. That show, 'Women About Women', which held at the Goethe Institut, Lagos, though not the first all-women show, was definitive of the direction of new art as practiced by the Nigerian women.
In choice of themes, form predilection, style and techniques of rendition, 'Women About Women', perhaps represented a most definitive statement on the question of art and gender equation; of course, with a subtext of art and identity albeit the undercurrent discourse on what constitutes contemporary Nigerian and African art.
A peculiar note from that show was the fact that women artist do not necessarily have to engage issues of gender or use motives that are strictly women in content or context to practice as artists. That women are capable of engaging any subject, form, stylistic or technical options to express their innermost desires. Also it shows that paintings as had been known through the checkered Nigerian art history had been subjective in the hands of the men. That for instance, the 'Fulani Milk Maid'; 'Mother and Child'; or the ubiquitous nude model, which is often drawn to the very details of her precious materials are the whimsical creation of men.
Several of the artworks on display were obvious (even sometimes subtle) reactions to the archetypal portrayal of the female being by the male artist. Not that such reactions had not been attempted in the past, but for many 'Women About Women' was perhaps the first time in recent memory, in this environment, that there was such a robust repudiation of what has almost become a legend in artistic contention. Moreso this was perhaps the first time there was such a multiple of voices interrogating a tradition in local exhibition circuit; or in a single show.
Remarkable in the assemblage was an installation by Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo on woman and labour. In its picturesque depiction of the pain of labour, the work (title), an effigy robed in white, with splatter of blood at the genital part, lying prostrate, spent or perhaps comatose, haunted the viewer's conscience to the realities of the burden the woman bears.
"Gender does position me differently from my male colleagues, but does not define or articulate my artistry. First, I am an artist who happens to be female within a social order that has an overwhelming tendency to relegate women. My experiences and perceptions are on a different psychological and emotional plane. I find that women are able to empathise with most of my work while men are often disturbed by their content".
--Chinwe Uwatse

"I see the urge to explore and succeed in my chosen field before I see my strength or weaknesses as a female or human. Being a woman does not lower the expectation and standards of art produced. A good painting is good irrespective of whether done by a male or female artist".
-- Peju Layiwola

The second tale was an accident of history, but it underscores a core objective of the current show on identity i.e that every people or group of people must attempt to develop their own voice(s) and express same in their own originated vocabulary else others would speak or continue to speak for them. And of course, when others speak for you, they engage their cognitive structures constructed out of their own selfish motives, preferences, prejudices and as well subjective definitions and conclusions in depicting your affair. Africa and its people have suffered this debilitating adversity for centuries. And even in the 21st century it is not about to get out of that canyon.
Like Africa, the women have been perennially under that yoke in which -- the men - speak for them. And the effect has been most psycho-somatic, particularly, in a society where certain cultural norms and man-made rules have helped to (almost un-resolvedly) condition the women to be second rate in many respects. This has indeed been a recurrent subject of many decades in art circuits, in classrooms, seminar rooms, among art intellectuals, especially between men and women.
Often, one had pondered what must be going on in the minds of women when they stepped into the exhibition room, and they behold the prurient predilection of male artists celebrated in the famous nude figure, which has been favourite subject for ages. artists. This as said earlier, is at the very core of the question of art and identity, quite equidistant to the cross-borders perspective of the germane question.
But this is pontificating. Back to the accidental shot of history as referenced earlier...

" ... naturally I feel the need to
express issues that affect the woman - issues of child bearing, fertility, and barrenness and overpopulation, women's work and perspectives..."
-- Peju Layiwola

A happy jollificating collection of Nigerian culture elite was recently at a send-forth reception for an expatriate culture worker somewhere on the Lagos Island. Expectedly, discussion drifted to the state, nature and character of Nigerian visual art and performances. This was when a female proprietor of an art centre in the city made a statement that has continued to ricochet in one's consciousness. Spotting a scornful smile, she looked straight ahead - into the eyes of a painter in the group and asked (paraphrase): 'Tell me, if you were a woman would you have been happy to walk into a gallery and see an artwork showing all the details of the genitals of a woman. Would you feel dignified that before you, especially when your husband or children are standing by your side, that you were viewing a painting that shows the female organs...?'
Silence fell on the gathering of all male except the woman flanked by her husband...
The painter attempted an answer... "Well, it is just a painting..."
The woman continued: "Why don't you men draw the male nudes with all the male genital organs intact. Why should it always be the woman's breast, and others that get frequently, without respect, depicted".
Another male painter came in: "Madam, but it is only a piece of artwork; it is the subject that fascinates the painter that he worked on."
"Whatever! It is horrible. You need to see the picture of two women, one in red colour and the other in black, naked in everything. It was too detailed and conferred no respect on womanhood".
"But there have been such other s over the centuries of the female. It is a common subject", offered a journalist in the group.
The woman said, "But it doesn't have to be perpetuated. It may be something of fancy to them in the West, because of their excessive liberal culture, but for us in Africa, we should be very careful. Motherhood and womanhood are still sacred institutions here.' This was another member of the gathering, a teacher.
"For instance, would you have drawn your wife, girlfriend, or daughter in that nude posture. I am sure it has to be someone else's daughter..." continued the woman. She was the only one not smiling through the informal symposium oiled by red wine and small chops.
"The lady is my model; she posed for me. Many artists use such model. It is a profession for many of them", said the painter in the dock.
"Oh yeah, and I am sure that picture was recorded after some other transactions between the artist and his model..." offered the woman spotting mischief on her pretty face.
She continued, "Honestly, there are so many ways that you men abuse the women and help to perpetuate the lack of respect and dignity of women by what you do. That is why you have many young women on the streets who believe that the only thing they have to offer to survive this harsh economic environment is their body; the temple of the Lord".
The talk would not end, but this statement was apparently the fundament of the debate.
"I am an artist who happens to be
female within a social order that has
an overwhelming tendency to relegate
- Chinwe Uwatse
The appropriate response to the male-domino assessment of art by the womenfolk is provided in this (above) response to the poser: 'Does gender position you differently from your male colleagues'.
Specifically, there is a resonance in her conclusion that the object of her artistic production and expression is not to assert her femininity or assure of her femaleness; for she says "My work is an extension of my being".
And there is something indeed instructive in Nneka Odoh's statement on same Identity and Gender vis: "I would prefer to have paintings assessed on their individual strengths or weaknesses as valid statements in art just as one would assess works of my male counterparts".
Remarkably, as it is in the visual art, so in the other disciplines within the art. The Theatre and the film, especially the new Nigerian film culture characterized by the video drama (Nollywood) is suffused with materials that do not hide prejudice against the female being. Especially in the videos, the women are objects of carnal exploitations, and debasement; sometimes tools for the villain to realize his negative actions. In music, whether in video clips or live in performance, the woman is for no other use but to titillate the sexual instincts of the audience. Hence no band or clip is complete without women wiggling their waists or bobbing their boobs. And in a few cases where women lead the band, they merely assist the men to continue the objectification of the female being as a mono-brand: sexual pawns.
But the reassertion of the yearning by the female artist to be seen as artist rather than through any prisms of labeling is carried forcefully in the poet-painter Nwosu-Igbo's submission thus: "I choose for my work to be approached on terms of strength in communication and appeal and I strongly advocate that my art is identified and categorized not by gender but by its message and style (which is what it should be)".
And Layiwola, the painter-sculptor, says "Although gender differentiation exists in the use of materials, I find a rather interesting response to my works. In my chosen use of metal as my medium, I think people make a shift and become more receptive when proven wrong. There appears to be a kind of conflict in perception. Sometimes on one hand, the audiences may view the sex of the artist before appreciating the works, but on the other hand, I see my art before realizing that I am a woman in a male dominated field. In this complex situation I find in my experience that ingenuity and hardwork are commended irrespective of gender affiliation. I have had no discrimination whatsoever in my art practice. If anything my efforts have always been greatly appreciated and commended."
No less instructive of the un-necessary-ness of the male-female dichotomy in artistic production is the experience shared by lara Ige-Jacks thus: "Lara be gentle with your strokes, take it easy, you may not need to do much of this in future..." my male colleagues would go on and on. I was the only female student in a painting class of fourteen and so this foundation did influence my vision as an artist. I never placed myself differently from my male colleagues".
Stella Ubigho's attempt at delineating the cognitive structures of the male and the female in relation to contemplation of creative enterprise, may not be general in all the ramifications of artistic contentions, but it helps to elucidate the fact that creativity for any human being is a function of received stimuli and past experiences as well as the nature of the personality producing.
She states: "Gender has nothing to do with the kind of artwork I produce, my being a woman does not make my artwork less than that of my male colleagues though the man and the woman have different sensibility.
The man promotes reasoning than the woman, the woman is more emotional than the man. The woman displays this emotion occasionally in her works as a result of her nature. While the man passes his message more direct (reasoning) to the people in his works but this does not make the work sing gender".
However, in explaining her choice of motive, Odoh perhaps, offers a fresh perspective to why the female character is obsessive to many male painters: "The choice of the female personality owes its usage to reasons of convenience, flexibility and its readability and not strictly as an advocacy on gender-related issues. However, this does not imply that I may not tackle gender issues if the issue at stake infringes on my rights as an individual".
The patriarch of contemporary Nigerian art himself, Ben Enwonwu, in an interview with The Guardian in the early nineties to mark his 70th birthday, had offered that "the female figure is the most beautiful creation of God, the most perfect form of nature", though he added in same breath, that the pregnant female is "a distortion of form".
Indeed, would women, especially female artist want the old order of portraying women as object of visual mockery, pieces of worthless objects to satisfy the sexual reveling and desires of men to continue? The subtext here is how the female artists engage their talents and skills to redirect societal attitude to the worth of the female being. In the context of Identities and Labels rests an answer to the poser.
For this one could take the final affirmation from Titi Omoighe who says: "The gender issue shouldn't come up in the art profession. An artwork should simply stir the emotions of the viewer".

Culture is not fixed and I agree with Eddie Chambers that people who insist on seeing works produced in Africa necessarily reflecting 'africanity' about them is equivalent to these people maintaining that artists who are geographically located in the continent, Africa should live in huts and paint on caves and bodies using indigenous materials and tools. I believe that the term AFRICA makes specific references to geography also and not a strong linkage to a fixed past culture.
--Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo

The third tale backgrounding this comment is rooted in a statement that one had to make few months ago, while writing an introduction to an exhibition of a select group of six Nigerian artists at the Air Gallery in London. Titled Africa Passage, the exhibition in its ambitious albeit patriotic conception re-echoed that ageless poser: what is African art? Is there a contemporary art - just as the interrogative underscore of the current show, Identity and Label?
Following is an excerpt of the statement that one had to make:
"To most critics, especially in the West, Africans lack capacity for logic and cultural sophistication to be able to master their space in its entire connotation. They may never be able to master their environment. This conclusion perhaps, explains the attitudinal approach to the cultural - material and non-material - emanating from the continent. It is one of the reasons African culture producers have been eternally dumped in the age of (as popularly propounded by some critics) primitivism in ideation and production".
This statement is at the core of the three positions canvassed by Sylvester Ogbechie (Artistic Identity); Dele Jegede (Identity and Tradition), and especially, in Eddie Chambers (African" Identity) -- the three posers themselves being the fundamental objectives of the current show.
As a matter of fact this show, going by the conviction of the individual artists must address the stream of undercurrents, which manifests no matter how subtly, the prejudices of the West about the capacity of the artist that originates and as well operates from the continent.
Hence it should be possible to review the misconceptions that Africa is a monolithic cultural entity, in which case, the arts from the diverse peoples of the continent are often ignorantly or sometimes mischievously lumped under the term 'African Art'. And this in spite of the fact that the multitude of tongues as well as ethnic conclaves suggest that what could successfully encapsulate the art of the continent is art from Africa and never African art.
It should also be possible to challenge the notion that not much quality art happens within the continent.
And more significantly, it is time to assert with authority and substantive creative portfolio that an artist from the continent can participate effectively in the discourse on the global stage. That a 'modern African artist' in the quest for global acceptance does not need to kill his creative being to assume an expected character that bothers on the stereotypes. That he does not need to "ape the ancient forms, contents and styles and win instant acceptance or, deviate and dare to win critical opprobrium for having been so sucked into western techniques that he lacks authenticity of vision and production". That to be successful on the international market, the artists need not become a slave to strange influences wrought mostly in the West whose cultural contentions are most times at variance with the African cultural cosmology.

'Identities & Labels' stands at the threshold of affirming that the Female Artist is capable of musing on philosophy, social-political- economic conditions, human triumphs and travails; as well as engaging her art to reflect ideas beyond the mindset of the kitchen, the bedroom, and the baby nursing room.

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Africa passage

By Jahman Anikulapo
Passage throws up imageries of motion, movement, dynamism; a ritual of transiting from one position to another; one status to a newer status; space to space; ethos to ethos. And yet this is the story of Africa, which has for centuries being in perpetual passage; journeying from one social, political and cultural experience to another. Particularly, the dynamics of its being has been most eclectic; sometimes defying regular rhythm of action; at other times confounding logicality and seemingly incoherent in temperament. Yet, this inconstant mood of motion is what has frustrated most observers of the passage of the continent and its people. To most critics, especially in the West, Africans lack capacity for logic and cultural sophistication to be able to master their space in its entire connotation. They may never be able to master their environment. This conclusion perhaps, explains the attitudinal approach to the cultural — material and non-material — emanating from the continent. It is one of the reasons African culture producers have been eternally dumped in the age of (as popularly propounded by some critics) primitivism in ideation and production. However, recent attitudinal shift in some more patient and objective critics have begun to liberalise understanding of the dynamism of Africa's cultural space.
The Western intelligentsia can see Africa Passage as an exhibition concept from the perspective of the currency of shift in attitude; and relaxation of the shackles of perception noosed around the being of Africa. The exhibition is thus, another major attempt by the Western elite to interrogate the fundaments of the dynamic cultural experience of Africa. The success of a delicate venture such as this, premised conceptually, on debunking certain mindset and entrenched sensibility about the continent, will depend on a set of paradigms. Prominent among these is sincerity of vision and purpose of the sponsors of the project and, thorough grasp of the missionary undercurrent of the project by the participating artists.
The collective of artists itself is reflective of the very idea which Passage as a word-concept represents. These are six individuals from same country that is deceptively culturally homogenous. Also, the artists in their divergent perception of passage and stylistic rendition of the thematic objective of the show, have explicated the authenticity of the vast cultural milieu of Africa that cannot be strait–jacketed into one linear concept. In other words, does there exist the concept African Art? Isn’t the term a convenient description of a confoundingly expansive experience that is beyond easy comprehension to a non-initiate? Some critics have indeed argued that the idea African Art is an illusion. Perhaps, indeed, it is a fraud. Maybe, a floating reality. This, however, is a subject of on-going discourse.
Africa Passage connotes dating as in the passage of a given period of time. It also tends to blow stress Africa as a mono cultural entity. It is indeed, a fact that outside the shores of Africa, many people including anthropologists, art critics, historians, and curators still see the continent as a unitary cultural tendency.
Although findings and facts of history have proved this view wrong, their counter arguments are documented mainly in textbooks and research journals.
But the consequences of the critical misconception about the correct status of arts from Africa, are more felt in contemporary arts practice where inadequate research, colonial hangover and insufficient participation of post-colonial African artists in global meet, help perpetrate the notion that not much quality art happens within the continent.
That is how much the title African Passage gives in to an aberration. The error here is that archeological findings have made ancient African artifacts special treasures in many of world’s public and private art collections.
Since the later half of the 20th century, many experts, especially Africans have argued (though without much weight) that the phenomenal fame of those rich treasures have largely overshadowed other arts coming out of the continent. In other words, not much is recorded or acknowledged of modern artists’ works.
The tendency heads in the direction of old argument that the looted and acquired ancient African artifacts represent the permanent visual art experience of Africa. And these works are preponderantly spread around world’s collections.
The experience of most modern African artists in the quest for global acceptance has been sometimes traumatic albeit, killing self to assume an expected character that bothers on the stereotypes. The artist either apes the ancient forms, contents and styles and win instant acceptance or, deviate and dare to win critical opprobrium for having been so sucked into western techniques that he lacks authenticity of vision and production.
The African artist who is successful on the global stage is quickly seen as having been civilised by his encounter with colonialism and Western (art training) institutions. The result is a profusion of productions of paintings, potteries, and sculptures, designs and installations that regurgitate the aesthetics of the past (in order to be relevant to so-called Western aesthetic taste). This explains why in many of the world’s collection or shows, what often features in the African art section are mostly sculptures, because they easily capture the aesthetic properties in antique pieces as well as fall into the expectation of global art viewer-ship.
Artists who appear to challenge these status quos are seen as rebels. They are rebels because they seek to capture contemporary realities of modern Africa. Why would they paint landscapes of skyscrapers, boulevards and sports cars in a continent assumed to be a jungle of huts, camel rides and footpaths?
Western Art historians tend to ignore such artists. This may explain why many writers tend to box the history of African art into two over-bloated confines: Ancient African Art and Contemporary African Art.
The allusion to existence of modern, postmodern, traditional, prehistoric art in the continent, to some critics, is abnormal.
But what else could justify the exclusion from history books of the phenomenal developments in art movements than the theme of the current show? The dynamism of trends and epochs in the art of each of the over 54 nations of Africa are buried in the definitive tag — Africa Passage?
The ‘Passage’ thus needs explication.
Hopefully, this is what this show has set out to do. This is a delicate subject, compounded by the word ‘Africa’. Indeed, for example, why not another word for ‘Passage’?
If every artist from the continent inserts Africa in his exhibition title, the position of researchers and historians who discuss African art as a one-headline-subject might eventually be legitimised. It may also justify the assumption that there is one way African art must appear – resembling the artefacts in Louvres and the British Museums.
In spite of its lofty objectives, there is a sense in which Africa Passage sounds a conceptual error, when viewed in the context of divergent orientation and character of African treasures. For instance, the Ethiopian Obelisk in North Africa and the Benin bronze heads in West Africa do not bear any semblance. And the Crypts on Egyptian tombs and the rock paintings in Zimbabwe are different in aesthetics and cultural context. Even the artifacts from neighbouring geographical locations are different in aesthetics. The Nok teracotta found in areas within the Middle Belt region of Nigeria and the Igbo Ukwu findings from the East of the same country, bear little visual correlation.
In spite of its seeming contentious philosophical base, Africa Passage is however, a reality. It is a major statement in the current argument. The artists believe (see appendix) they are participants in the dialogue on the dynamism of the cultural milieu that define their essences and being.
Significantly, the artists perceive themselves as the voices of Africa at the Globalisation forum, seemingly already appropriated and annexed by the scientific, technological, industrialised-muscled West with its huge economic wealth.
What the artists want to bring to the table is their identity, which though not homogenous in contents and forms and techniques are shared values and ideas. It should, therefore, be understood when each of the works, each of the artists displays here reaches deep into the innards of sensibility of each guest at this show.
The idea is to interrogate sitting perceptions, open up closed prejudices and radiate new vision in our individual understanding of the mystery that is Africa.


Harvest Of Statement
The six artists in African Passage share a coincidence of circumstances in many respects. But the most germane to this discourse is the circumstance of their birth. They were born either a few years before or after the surge of Independence for colonised nations of Africa. Nigeria, their country of birth only became an independent state in October 1960.
The artists were thus born into an atmosphere of hope, an era of unfettered imagination when the former ‘slaves’ (colonialism was itself a sort of moderated slavery) began to emerge from the shackles of debasing psychological, moral and cultural impositions and, notched up to being ‘real’ human beings by taking up the driving of their own destiny. It was a time of high hope for socio-cultural and economic boom.
Even if they were minors at the time of the oil discovery and wealth of the late 60s and 70s, the artists participated by accessory in the petro-naira boom of the mid 70s to 80s that was finally aborted with the advent of the International Monetary Fund, IMF in 1985. And they had then been unwilling witnesses to the waste of the political and economic fortune of the nation in the last two decades and half. Thus the undercurrent of forlorn hope and despondency in their visioning process can be understood. Otherwise, the artists are vibrant in their forms, colour schemes and stylistic deportment. They are of course, products of the Western art institutions, hence their approach to techniques.
Notably, however, each of the artists is competent in experimentation, thus offering a tapestry of harvests of studies and daringness.
However, in an exhibition of this nature, 'visual appeal' cannot suffice as the only standard of assessment. The aesthetics is as significant as the content and title, theme, technique and other factors chosen by the each artist count.
The artists -- Nsikak Essien, Ndidi Dike Onyema Offoedu-Okeke, Obi Ekwenchi, Sam Ovraiti and Tony Enebeli -- are all professionals with good degree of accomplishment. They belong to a generation that can unequivocally be branded the 'modernists`. Yet they have always sourced their materials and inspiration from the indigenous cultural properties and ideas. They have always been challenged to interpret these indigenous ideas and inspirations in the context of modern forms and techniques.
Though trained at different institutions thus acquiring divergent practical orientations, they share similar objectives, techniques and themes.
Essien, perhaps the oldest in the group, was a founding member of the phenomenal AKA Group of (13) artists, which since the late 80s has manifest as a key tendency in the determination of the direction of the current art production in Nigeria.
The group was reputed for unpredictable experimentation with the media and, Essien was about the most eclectic of the lot, which also include the internationally renowned sculptor, El-Anatsui and Obiora Udechukwu.
Essien's experimentation is sometimes eccentric but mostly expansive in scope. He would fold rigid wooden panels into scrolls, lay thick pastes of colour rings on his board, and indent his pieces with layers of strange motifs. These are evident in such titles as Heritage, Mirage, Nostalgia, and Eternity, featuring in this show. In Sovereign National Conference he brings these attributes into his commentary on the contemporary political question in Nigeria.
Ovraiti is reputed for his brilliant colour scheme and beautiful pictures. He belongs to a group of young idealist painters that emerged in the late 1980s. Known as ‘The Colourists’, the group’s hallmark is expressive use of pigments. Ovraiti in particular, however, blurs the edges of the 'colourist’ movement by presenting pictures that are as impressionistic as they are expressionistic. His works sometimes combine the aesthetic virtues of watercolour and oil paintings.
In Ovraiti’s Portrait of Kano City, Rising Generations is representative of this approach. In The Call, Defaced by Incision and Two Musicians, he employs elements of cubism that create illusion of multitude from the few figures on the canvas.
Enebeli is a product of the famous master printmaker Bruce Onobrakpeya, reputed to have invented the Plastograph form of printing. Enebeli`s Ipu Afia series (a set of three pieces narrating the tale of a princess going to the market), Ikpu Ite, Egwu Ukwata III among others, are sourced from his folklore heritage. Like his master, Onobrakpeya, Enebeli's prints and their blocks are produced in a way that both can be served as art pieces. Every of his works is like a script with many chapters of motifs and stories.
Dike and Offoedu-Okeke are products of the Uli art movement later domiciled at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Uli art uses principally cryptic insignia and motifs with philosophical (and sometimes mythological) meanings.
The only female in the group, Dike has over the years extended the experimentation frontiers of the Uli design concept. She has taken the form beyond its mere decorative functionality to technical experimentation. In producing Totem Poles and Staffs, she locates the Uli in part of its traditional domain — shrines and palaces. But she implants certain modern elements like metal and deft colour patterning.
Though Offoedu-Okeke’s seeming predilection for blues and the purple appear strange to African pictures (indeed an error of conception by some critics), he engages symbols and signs that celebrate the mask tradition, totems and festivals in the deep of Africa.
His titles — Maiden Dancers, Oracular Gisting, Throngs of Expectation explicitly indicate his direction — homeland. Yet he paints Morning Cloth and Evening Weather which reflect his vast repertory of inspiration. But his colour scheme, which taps design motif from pointillism, exposes the infinite possibilities of his style.
Ekwenchi’s antecedent is in producing awesome public sculptures. This pins him in realism. But in his paintings, the artist is capable of variegated stylistic dimensions. His paintings often very simple without being simplistic come in rich, fresh colours and are laden with symbolic figures and motifs. These attributes are proficient in Rhythm, From the Spirit and Nomadic Life, which feature in the current show. As usual, he celebrates the African (often women) anatomy showing the poise, grace and elegance of the figure in an elegant picture. His sculptures often bear complicated and distorted forms. Benediction and Dialogue are just two examples.

o Research Assistance: CHUKA NNABUIFE



As part of preparation for the current show, the artists mounted a forum to dilate ideas on the theme and concept of the exhibition. For reasons of logistics (mainly location of individual artist), only Onyema Offoedu-Okeke, Ndidi Dike, Tony Enebeli and later Sam Ovraiti made the informal forum. The session however served to explore the perception of individual artist, as regards the current show as well as examine certain existing conceptions about Arts and Artists in Africa.
The session was moderated by Jahman Anikulapo.

How do you perceive the theme of the exhibition?
ONYEMA: I think of the theme in terms of features of the African society -- the lifestyle of the people, the festivals, languages, dance and other such authentic symbols and materials. To me, Africa Passage presents images that remind viewers abroad where Africans are and how they got there. I believe that even as we embrace the so-called western civilisation, we should still retain that Africanese, especially our cultural values. In my works, I intend to show those authentic African values and how they have passed through the various phases of human development.

ENEBELI: I see the theme as encapsulating the way we are: living, dress, walk, and work cultures that are peculiar to the African people. I shall show that African art today has changed in the sense that people are beginning to be fed up with the same kind of arts we met or have seen in the past years. Art today has changed for the fact that we are now using it to correct the mistakes of yesteryears. I see this exhibition therefore as a way of promoting our traditional heritage and its various transformations over the years to the outside world.

NDIDI: We shall use this show to help correct some of those stereotype views of the African art through the parameters of Western aesthetics, criticisms and history, which are written by the people I prefer to call ‘outsiders’. We should make bold statement for instance, that there is indeed contemporary art coming out of Africa or Nigeria. We should use this opportunity to tell our own story. Africans have not done enough research, enough writings on what we consider to be our own kind of aesthetics. We should begin to provide answers from our own perspectives, when people ask the question: what is African art? Is there African art?
We cannot deny the fact that we are Africans and therefore, we are aware of certain characteristics that define our contemporary art; that signify this is African art or Nigerian art.

MODERATOR: You spoke about challenging certain stereotypes; I thought this has been done overtime by African scholars, researchers and artists…

ONYEMA: Yes, much has been done but there is a lot more in terms of uprooting the idea that African art is still primitive.
Besides, most of the books on African art are on the antiques, the arts of old Africa. But today, we we ought to be talking about African renaissance just like the Italian renaissance. I think with what we have today, we have more than enough to inspire us. We are going to challenge the stereotypes by raising arguments on how far we have adapted what we have to modern artistic culture; how differently we have adapted the same old tradition through different means and methods to modern expectations.
They ask us how do we relate the African inspirations to the western products forgetting that even aspects of western (modern) art today were inspired by African art. So today, we are very free to use whatever products we come across as ours.

MODERATOR: How effectively can you challenge a culture that is so deeply etched in Western sensibility through a single show in Britain?
ONYEMA: This is just a part of a long-debate that has been on for a long time. We want to contribute our voices to the discourse. But we are a bit different in our approach. We are more interested in raising questions. We want to raise questions such as: who we are? What are our visions? What are our perceptions? How do we look at ourselves? How do we look at our art? We intend to start the process of challenging these stereotypes with this show. We know that it is not going to change overnight, because we are fighting an existing institution but this is just the beginning of a challenge to change those perceptions of Africa. We know that we do much of that challenging of status quo a lot regularly in Africa, in Nigeria but how much of that information gets outside of Nigeria?
We've been doing it for quite sometime but now that we are on international stage, where our art is going to be the focus of an international gathering, we can begin to hopefully, change that perception of how the West think Africa ought to be.

NDIDI: The status of our Art has changed; we are beginning to assert ourselves. And the West is beginning to recognise who we are, appreciate our lifestyle, so we need to consolidate on this new consciousness. We don't need to wait until an Oyinbo (Westerner) man comes to tell us that what we have here is good. What I mean by that is that the artist has to go beyond repeating the same thing that his public had seen in the past years. There is need to change his perception of his role in the society.
We are now trying to change the system. By allowing our immediate environment to influence our creativity and perception, using what we experience daily to influence our creative work, we are going to correct the wrong impressions of the gone years.


MODERATOR: But certain critics even Africans, have indeed, argued that some of the so-called African cultural symbols, materials, ideas, do project certain negative values about the heritage of the black people.

ONYEMA: They are not negative. Rather, it is the perception of those viewing them because they subject them to their own cultural experiences and standards of valuation. And much of this deliberate wrong interpretation of those materials and ideas is what the older artists tried to change. And we the younger artists, of the moment, we recognise these facts; it is not that we are writing off the efforts of the older artists; it is a continuation; we are continuing from where the older artists have stopped.

OVRAITI: We have to be sensitive to how we put this across. We don't want to be antagonistic but at the same time we want to challenge or correct misconception that has been put out about us maybe in the past.
In fact, I thought that when Onyema used the word challenge — the way I understand the word challenge — he was actually referring to perception of Western people.
Let me say something here; you know we're talking about international politics, international art perspective, and politics, there are so many things that come into play.
We know that even some of our people -- researchers, and historians have not been sincere and thorough in their vocation. Some of them have had to misrepresent or deliberately distort information about what is going on here so that they can get the acknowledgement from their Western colleagues and sponsors.
They now want to come to Africa to make certain statement so that they will make their papers, their qualifications and their PHD. Again, most of people who write these things are scholars, they are not even artists. They only came in to study African culture and the only things they have to look into are the wood carving, the stone carving and maybe, metal works that our forefathers produced.
I think with this show, we should be looking at redirecting the understanding of the history of African Art. When you say African art, there is one direction they always look at — mask, shrine designs, body adornments etc, but a contemporary artist has gone beyond that level. It does not mean that we don't have spirit; we have the same spirit and experience, but our focus has changed. We are now creating arts, not for the use in the shrine, but art that are both functional and aesthetically relevant to our contemporary experience. This is what we have to stress in the current show.
NDIDI: Even in terms of practice, we are expanding our space of operations. We are looking at the various opportunities available to exhibit in the right place, to make a point. That is why this show is very important.

MODERATOR: There is a very important point we have to also stress. How do we want to be placed in the global art discourse? Are we trying to place ourselves as modern artists, post modern artists, artists in Nigeria… because there is a difference between Nigerian art and artists from Nigeria? So if we are going to place ourselves we should know where we want to place ourselves and we should be very focussed in our presentation.
Where do you want to place yourself?

OVRAITI: I wrote a poem in 1998 that I am not an impressionist yet I am. I am not a realist yet I am. I am part and pieces of all these things that have been before my experience and me. This question of labeling or categorization is sensitive, so the question is very germane.

ONYEMA: I would rather we stress that we are artists from Africa and not African artist.

NDIDI: Oh yes, the term 'African Artist' is sometimes used in derogatory terms at global forums. You are either an Artist or you are not. So, we would like to be seen at this show as Artists from Africa.

ENEBELI: The only difference between us and any other artist from any other part of the world is the matter of where we come from.

I detest labeling as Nigerian or African Artist. I am an Artist. That is what I am.

MODERATOR: Could we say we as artists, that we still transiting or…?

NDIDI: There is a sense in which we can say we are still transiting, yes, because we are still exploring new ideas, new forms…

OVRAITI: Transition is the period of instability as in government. In the life of a person whether in social or business life, any time of transition is a time of upheavals. It is not steady. For anyone to aspire to the fact that he is part of development in transition is to bow to instability. Transition is instability. I don’t believe we are transiting.

ONYEMA: I believe that transiting is not instability; it is part of a process of growth; it’s part of the evolution!


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