Joseph EZE: Assemblage Art Made in Nigeria

At the beginning of last century Picasso and the cubists started applying paper collages on their canvases and creating sculptural forms made of found objects (“objets trouvés”) and discarded materials. Incorporating materials traditionally not used for art into an artwork was at that time a defiant action but it opened many formal possibilities to artists.

There was a gradual change, but for many decades the shift was within the boundaries of predominantly formal (aesthetic) considerations. Artists used collage mainly as a way of adding texture and meaning to their works. Little by little artists moved from the flat (two dimensional) “paper collages” of the beginning of the 20th century. What started with the use of old news papers, cards or magazines eventually embraced all sorts of materials and objects. From painters applying non-traditional materials on the surfaces of their works there was a move towards three dimensional assemblages created by sculptors. By the 1950s assemblages were produced regularly through Europe and North America.

Joseph EZE.   Filthy rivers intersecting on a dying field
Joseph EZE -- Filthy rivers intersecting on a dying field

Almost 50 years ago (in 1962) the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized an exhibition titled “The Art of Assemblage”. Many of the old great names were present: Braque, Picasso, Man Ray, Rauschenberg and, of course, Dubuffet, the French artist that coined the term in the early 1950s to refer to his “collage type” works. “Assemblage art” had come of age.

The evolution of assemblage art has continued during the last decades. For some years, there has been a move lead by non-formal considerations. For instance, it is not by chance that a show last year at the Art Museum of an American university that featured young artists using discarded materials was presented as an “eco-friendly exhibition” or that the Australian artist John Dahlen –well known for his use of found objects from Sydney beaches- calls himself an “environmental artist”. Environmental issues have appeared regularly at international exhibitions and increasingly at continental, national and local ones. The last Dakar had a large number of such works. A few of the most forward-looking exhibitions in the Nigeria last year featured assembled art and it is possible to find it even in the mainstream commercial galleries in Lagos.

Joseph EZE    Desert encroaching on garden
Joseph EZE -- Desert encroaching on garden

I write all this because a few weeks ago Joseph Eze, a young painter I have known for a few years showed me some of his recent works. Used to his previous productions -well drafted paintings with paper collages and striking resemblance with those of his contemporary at Nsukka, Uche Edochie-, I was surprised by what I saw. These were unusual works. Several of them consisted of used plastic slippers (flip flops) pasted (“assembled”) whole or in pieces on the board. The first thing that called my attention was the significant similarities between them and those of the great assemblage artist Louise Nevelson (1899-1988). Like her, Eze had covered the discarded objects (in his case plastic slippers, in her case junk collected in her early morning raids in New York) with a monochrome layer of paint. What a coincidence, I thought; I had just read in an article in the New York Times Style Magazine how El Anatsui saw some of her works in his first visit to the US with occasion of a sculpture exhibition in the 1970s. I knew that El Anatsui taught Joseph Eze in first and second year at Nsukka. This could not be coincidence, but the continuity of tradition…

Joseph EZE     What Johnny Mitchel said
Joseph EZE -- What Johnny Mitchel said

Louise Nevelson had written half a century ago: ”When you put together things that other people have thrown out, you’re really bringing them to life – a spiritual life that surpasses the life for which they were originally created.” Joseph had learnt that lesson. But he is not alone in that discovery. Despite its relative isolation from contemporary currents, Nigeria has had more than a few good examples of artworks in which the artist has used discarded or found materials. He is not just one-off in his attempt to transform these banal materials into artworks of sculptural strength and content.

After more than a century of artists using discarded materials Eze’s works can’t be called totally innovative, but there is quality in them. The restrained and sober way in which he arranges the slippers on the background board is formally suggestive and even poetic. But this is not empty formalism, there is also a clear social commentary. This is not a small achievement in the current Lagos artworld. For those of us tired of seeing young –and not so young- artists wearing their so-called “africanness” on their sleeves this approach and this exploration is most welcome. In his words:

“Beyond the mere fascination which I must admit I have for working with tactile and found objects, going as far back as 1999, I considered these recent works to be beyond a certain formalism. I have been asked if I used these found materials (flip flops, pure water sachets etc) for the mere fact that they are banal and plentiful and cheap. At the risk of sounding shallow I could say yes. Of coursed that could be a reason. Couldn’t it? But I decided to use these media because they are banal, plentiful, cheap and – they are destroying the environment including a little garden behind my apartment.”

I can identify two major focal points of recent assemblage art in Nigeria: the one in Nsukka under the leadership of El Anatsui and the one in Yaba under the influence of Olu Amoda. Though they share a concern for the materiality of the artworks, there is a substantial difference of approach to its realization. While El Anatsui works by repetition Amoda by aggregation. The heavy, clunky metal sculptures of Olu Amoda before he moved to the US use a great variety of scrap and discarded metal pieces assembled in extraordinary ways. There are a good number of YabaTech students that continue producing metal sculptures using scrap materials.

Joseph EZE    A dark footpath through a garden
Joseph EZE -- A dark footpath through a garden

From what I know, the group of students that have passed through Nsukka and learned from El Anatsui his concern and attraction for everyday materials and objects represent one of the most promising lines of development in contemporary Nigerian art. Obviously, there are also talented artists from Auchi, Zaria, Ife, IMT and the others, but generally their artistic discourses look stale compared with the freshness of the best disciples of El Anatsui.

Joseph Eze studied at Nsukka. When I asked him what he learnt there from El Anatsui, he summarized it succinctly: “He taught me that art goes beyond colour”. This is not a bad lesson, and it continues being learnt by others. Independently of the diverse levels of quality and talent of artists influenced by El Anatsui at Nsukka I am interested by what they have in common. Many of them work with discarded materials and they seem to have taken of collective direction. Few people can remember specific names of members of the “California Assemblage Movement” in the 1960s, but as group they occupy an important position in the art of the 20th century. They were not successful financially, but their contribution is undeniable. Perhaps, the same may occur to Eze and others working in the same line, or perhaps they some will achieve the recognition of El Anatsui. At least, I hope they are first recognized locally and perhaps one day somebody “out there” “discovers” them. I hope there are many others who-like me- believe that their works are more than “trash”, even if they use old plastic slippers to make them. Good luck, and keep it up, Joseph!!