Ndidi DIKE at CCA, Lagos

It is almost 25 years since Ndidi Dike graduated from Nsukka Art School and started her professional career as an artist. Looking at the works on display at her current exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos one cannot but remark her consistency and continuity over the years.
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Her recent wood panels –unfortunately there are only three in show- continue her familiar exploration of the use of motifs on (and in) a base of timber planks and panels. But these works are less “decorative” than similar panels in the past. There is a greater depth of meaning. As she matures as an artist, her works are more and more about the appropriation of meaning and less and less about the formal qualities of patterns and motifs. It is a gradual movement from tradition to post-modernity, all the way keeping her characteristic identity as an artist.

I asked her why for the panels she uses “pine”, a wood not native to these lands. This is her answer sent by SMS: “The planks are from harbor pallets. The type of wood is important. Slaves were taken away in wooden ships and canoes. Their homes and cabins in the new world also made out of wood. They gazed out of the wooden windows contemplating their freedom…”

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Ndidi didn’t say it, but this is also a formal device: the smoothness and whiteness of the pine planks act as a counterbalance to the roughness and blackness of the charred areas and the rusty irons. The tactile qualities of the found objects, the mirrors, the old coins, the wire mesh, sit well on the plainness of the wood.

At the exhibition there is also an “excursion” into a less familiar territory for her: installations. The two canoes (blood and sugar) hang powerfully from the ceiling, just hovering above the ground full of subtle allusions to the “transatlantic passage”

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George EDOZIE

In preparation for his coming exhibition at the National Museum, George Edozie will have on the 15 and 16 of March a private viewing of his recent works. It will take place at the Pan-African University, Victoria Island Campus.
I copy the few words I have writen as an introduction to the exhibition.

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Expression of a journey

George Edozie has titled this exhibition of his recent works “Expression of a journey”, and this label is only partially apt. Those of us who have followed his growth as an artist know that expression is a recurrent word in his vocabulary and a defining concept in his self-understanding as an artist. But he is not, he can’t be, an expressionist in the way Herwarth Walden used this term for the first time in 1911. Much less is he in line with the neo-expressionist painters in Germany, Italy and USA in the late 1970’s: Baselitz, Clemente, Kiefer, Schnabel.

In a loose way, he is, and we are all “expressionists”. We express ourselves through all our actions: when we choose a pair of shoes or when we decide what of telephone handset to buy… In an artwork, the themes, colours, techniques and materials, what is present and what is absent, the shouts and the silences, always tell us something about the artist, and about the time and cultural milieu in which he or she lives. Whoever has stayed for a few minutes in front of the Guernica knows how powerfully Picasso expresses his anger and his pain. Anybody in front of the Pietá, is touched by Michelangelo’s expression of tenderness and grief.

No, George Edozie is not an expressionist, but he shares a good number of the formal characteristics of the “fauvist” and “post-impressionist” painters at the turn of the 20th century: Cezanne, Matisse, Gauguin, Van Gogh. In different ways, these artists went beyond the manner in which impressionism focused on reproducing the impression caused by the physical world. For the “fauves”, what mattered were the subjective, personal emotions provoked in the artist and their expression through strong, colourful, vibrant use of formal elements. They were not trying to reproduce the impression brought about by the immediate physical reality, but to express the artist’s inner world and his or her reaction to the external one. In common with them, Edozie’s works show some recurrent features: (1) use of bright, primary colours, (2) use of the impasto technique, and (3) use of simplified forms.
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“I exaggerate the fair colour of the hair, I take orange, chrome, lemon colour and behind the head I do not paint the trivial wall of the room but the Infinite. I make a simple background out of the most intense and richest blue the palette will yield. The blond luminous head stands out against this strong blue background mysteriously like a star in the azure. Alas, my dear friend, the public will see nothing but caricature in this exaggeration, but does that matter to us?” These clear words of Van Gogh, said a century ago, have been learnt well by George Edozie. One only has to look at any of his numerous “tilting heads”.

Edozie does not just stand in front of a person or a still life and paints what he sees. He paints what he feels. What pains, gladdens or worries him… Like the Yoruba woodcarver, he does not try to reproduce. He paints what he knows, not what he sees. That is why his faces are always “the face”; made of exactly the same elements repeated over and over again throughout the years: two oblong white eyes with a circular black iris, sensuous lips (always closed, always red, always the same…), no ears, long, tilted neck, black contour lines, flat –perspectiveless, monochrome- background…

In this, he follows the famous Van Gogh dictum: “Instead of trying to render what I see before me, I use colour in a completely arbitrary way to express myself powerfully”. In his works, there is neither an imitation of reality nor a quest for the “creation” of perfect beauty. For him, expression rules over mastery and he tries to achieve it mainly through the use of colour and texture. In the works shown in this exhibition, he generally disregards the tonal graduation of traditional painting and gives autonomy to colour (mostly, unmixed) and brushstrokes. That is why some of these works might seem strident and brash at first sight. Lately, he has started introducing “collages” and pastel colours and this is softening considerably the strength of his paintings.
Edozie is not an “expressionist” because -though there are some formal similarities- the mood, the ethos, are different. The members of the pioneer expressionist group Die Brücke (The Bridge) —Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff and Bleyl—were obsessed with dark images of anxiety, angst and alienation. George Edozie is not, though few of his works are cheerful and there is no much joie-de-vivre in them. In the best ones, there is restraint, permanence and calm.
Perhaps because he studied at Benin, and not at Nsukka, Zaria, Auchi or Ife, George Edozie is a loner among Nigerian contemporary artists. Unlike in the case of most of Nsukka or Ife artists, tradition does not play a central role in his works. He is not enriched (or burdened?) by the past, but he is also able to go deeper than the shallow formalism of many the Auchi artists.
Because he does not believe in art for art’s sake, there is a “narrative” behind each painting, an engagement with people and society, an active look at persons, situations and the dynamics of social groups. This is, in my opinion, his greatest strength and what provides significance and potency to these singular works.

Ben OSAGHAE & Ogbemi HEYMMAN

In 2007 we organized at the Pan-African University an exhibition of paintings by Ben OSAGHAE and Ogbemi HEYMMAN. I am posting a couple of pics from each of the artists and the write up I prepared for the brochure.

Artists, University and Society

Pan-African University has pursued from its first steps a long-term commitment to support the visual arts and to make them more relevant not only to the academic community but also to the larger society. This University believes artists have an important role to play in the process of creating and disseminating a culture that puts the human person at the centre of history. With the classics, there is an understanding of culture as “cultivation of the person”, an acknowledgement of the pivotal responsibility of the artist in bringing this humanism to society and a conviction that the task ahead of the contemporary Nigerian artist goes far beyond the “decoration” of public and private spaces. Today’s artists are called to inject fresh air in a rarefied environment and to render a true “social service”. Ben Osagahe and Ogbemi Heymann have wholeheartedly accepted this responsibility.

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For well over two decades Osaghae has chronicled the adventures and misadventures of his land and his people; he has looked at the immediate social and political reality, mainly in an urban setting. He, like few of his colleagues and contemporaries, has remained attentive to social and cultural developments in his environment; at times as a chronicler, telling us a story; on occasion, as a foreigner, but always attentive to reality. His works borrow from photography: the unexpected angle and the unconventional point of view are reminiscent of the amateur snapshot, rather than of the studio portrait with its artificiality and rigidity.

For Osaghae and Heymman the canvas is a medium between society and the onlooker. Through their works they communicate, they comment on what happens around them. There is always a “narrative” in these works, but not at all linear, unequivocal, direct. We find an ambiguity of meaning that challenges the viewer to interpret images and discover subtle references. They are the artist-seers and the artist-prophets of society.

Store’keeper’s delight

Osaghae’s works are a forceful account on the human condition as affected by our present historical circumstances. His paintings are chronicles, metaphors and prophecies on social life. There is a subjectivity constantly affirmed through the contingent, precarious character of the works. Precariousness and Fragmentation are central characteristics of his paintings. They are not grandiloquent discourses on central issues of the human person, history and society. Neither are they disclosures of his private, autobiographical history. They are just small glimpses of passing realities. No distinguished personages appear in them, but little stories told with affection and in a very personal way, without the aggressiveness of so much contemporary art. We mention the precariousness in his works and this is shown also in the way he uses the media. He does not aim at academic, formalistic, static perfection in the treatment and representation of the subject of his paintings. Particularly in his most recent works there is a tension between the urge to create and the concern to achieve a “finished” (completed) outcome. In a way we can say that his works appear not by design, but by chance.

A recurrent concern for little realities pervades Osaghae’s and Heymman’s paintings: the works in Faithful Mirrors are not monumental, categorical works of epic character. Not nihilist existentialism, but a joie-de-vivre, a light mood, a pervading affection for the subject. Subjects are depicted with tenderness, with respect. It is clear that these artists look at their subjects with empathy. Though at times there is irony and sadness, we rarely find anger.

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Contemporary discourses and influences are clearly present in Osaghae’s works, but he does not go to the extremes of deliberate ugliness found in some expressionist, dada or post-modern artists. A superficial reading of his paintings might suggest that he is not concerned with beauty, balance and harmony, but it could be argued that he is not against beauty, that simply he is against prettiness. Of the three classical “transcendentals”, he puts truth first and, only then, goodness and beauty. He does not want to fall in the trap of sacrificing truth on the altar of attractiveness. He bets everything on the expressive strength of drafting, colouring and a strong narrative. At the same time, his art wants to be “sincere”. His works are not about beauty, but about communication. For him, equipoise, a state of equilibrium, is not the primary concern. If in a painting he thinks contorted human figures, ragged edges, impatient brushstrokes and brash colours help transmit his message more forcefully, he is ready to use them at the expense of any form of “serene” beauty.

Heymman is an artist that clearly enjoys the materiality of painting, the texture of the surfaces, the vibration of the colours, the opacity of the pigments. He paints with sweeping brushstrokes that are fast, firm, painterly and at the same time have great gestural intensity.

All in all, the works in this exhibition are a strong statement dropped in an artistic milieu full of weak and trite works. For this reason, Faithful Mirrors is a significant contribution to the current Nigerian art scene. Pan-African University, by bringing this exhibition to an academic environment makes art a little bit more visible and a great deal more accessible. This will no-doubt benefit students, faculty, staff and the many visitors that will not want to miss this opportunity to see the recent works of two of the most prominent contemporary Nigerian artists.

Jess Castellote

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