Nigerian abstract painting now

Some time ago Oliver Enwonwu asked whether I could put together an exhibtion at the Omenka Gallery of the Ben Enwonwu Foundation. After some work and a few nice surprises the exhibition (titled “Beyond figuration“) will open on July 10. This is the introduction prepared for it:

Nigerian artists have not been very much inclined to pure abstraction. The older generations -Onabolu, Enwonwu, Wangboje, Okeke, Onobrakpeya, Grillo, Barber, the Oshogbo artists- moved comfortably within the broad confines of representation, even when passing it through highly personal filters. After then, isolated attempts have not created schools, styles or groupings capable of producing on a regular basis quality abstract works. Unfortunately, the of Gani Odutokun 15 years ago stopped a truly promising experiment in free abstraction.

Gbolahan AYOOLA, Untitled 12
Gbolahan AYOOLA, Untitled 12

It is within this context that this exhibition is conceived. It attempts to present a few examples of non-figurative art –mainly painting- created by young artists. It casts a look at what is being done now: a snapshot of the present to help us understand in which direction abstraction is moving in Nigeria. The scope and size of the exhibition is not broad and I hope a more ambitious one is put together showing the works of established artists who produce non-figurative painting: Uwatse, Kainebi, Buhari… Abstract photography is another field left unexplored.

This exhibition started with a desire to look for young artists that do away with representation of external reality and attempt to create self-referential works, moving from re-presenting the world to presenting small new worlds. Of course, artists can’t work ex-nihilo (from nothing), they always carry their cultural, historical, formal baggage. They come from Auchi or from Yaba, Nsukka, Ife or somewhere else and these different backgrounds show in their works.

In my search –cursory, incomplete, limited to emerging artists- I have come across various approaches to abstraction, works that could fit easily under different labels: “abstract expressionism”, “lyrical abstraction”, “colour-field painting”, “post-painterly abstraction”, “neo-expressionism”, “minimalism” or any of the currents of non-figurative, non-representational art created since the first attempts by Kandinsky more than a century ago. The works selected for the exhibition gravitate generally towards those that emphasize immaterial (spiritual) aspects in painting. This does not mean that there is a lack of works full of a rich materiality.

Uchay Joel CHIMA, Open invitation
Uchay Joel CHIMA, Open invitation
The three works that Uchay Joel Chima shows in the exhibition excel in this respect: his exploration of texture over line and colour is a success. The rich, painterly quality of Gbolahan Ayoola’s canvases, with thick, well textured surfaces is also of great interest.

Wale Alimi’s works, so close to Rothko, are unusual in the Nigeria art scene. Their coolness and sobriety contrast strongly with the overworked and overdone so prevalent in shows, galleries and collections…

Wale ALIMI, Less is more II
Wale ALIMI, Less is more II
Busayo Lawal
’s approach is also novel. His recent works start from computer generated prints of his initial design and this allows him a freedom he did not have with his previous works. It is still early to know how far he can go with his experimentation, but he is already obtaining good results.

This exhibition includes only three works by Tony Nsofor. I wish more could have been displayed. In these non-figurative works Nsofor takes an improvisational, additive approach to painting that is full of spontaneity. He allows room for the al and they look as if no preconceived design guided the process of painting. This spontaneity adds great freshness to them.

Tony NSOFOR, Today is red, red, red
Tony NSOFOR, Today is red, red, red

George Edozie and Bob-nosa Uwagboe take a much more planned approach; under the strong brushstrokes and collage materials pasted on the surface there are deeper layers of drafting structuring their works.

Benedict Olorunnisomo and Uche Igwe are highly independent artists. They rarely exhibit, they do not form part of any group, do not follow any defined style, their works are not particularly “marketable” as a commodity but they have an intense quality. There are artists that first look around and then paint what they see, there are others that also look around, but then they paint what they feel, not what they see. There are still others that simply “decorate” a surface, without any look outside or inside. Finally, there are those that do not look outside, they create from the inside. Benedict and Uche are among them.

Tayo Olayode and Norbert Okpu works generally show a loose figuration but for in this exhibition they present abstract works.

Benedict OLORUNNISOMO, Vibrations
Benedict OLORUNNISOMO, Vibrations

The exhibition is mainly about non-figurative painting, but the two-dimensionality of the panels showed by Gerald Chukwuma (wooden panels) and Mukaila Ayoade (panels made for newsprint) fits well in it. Both of them present an abstraction that goes beyond formalism and is rich in references and meaning.

Joseph Eze continues experimenting with discarded materials, but this time formal considerations seem to take precedence over the discursive ones.

Well aware of how easy it is for abstract art to remain on the surface, with a shallow formalism that might be pleasing to the eye, but has little to say to the mind, the exhibition tries as much as possible to stay away from purely “decorative” products. All in all, this is not small achievement.
The Ben Enwonwu Foundation deserves praise for an exhibition that attempts to go beyond the conventional.


12 thoughts on “Nigerian abstract painting now

  1. The silence is loud on this particular posting. Interesting in view of the responses to the other post. Why? Because it is indicative of the state of painting in the country. Overwhelmingly figurative, leaving no room for discussion about any other form or genre of painting. When an exhibition such as this – which i did attend and found the potential immense – that goes out of they so called ‘normal’ purview comes up, it is not seen as a space for discussion but as a time to retreat and hope it goes away. But I hope it doesn’t go away and that Jess organises more – maybe make it a yearly collaboration with the Enwonwu foundation who had the foresight to initiate it.

    Most Nigerian art ‘collectors’ find it difficult to buy non- figurative work. No matter how intelligent, supposedly exposed, well travelled, well educated etc etc they claim to be, their visuality (or is it their brain) does not allow them to compute in the abstract. Does that show a lack of imagination then I wonder?

    Anybody ( meaning the viewer) with an iota of intrinsic creativity should be able to take a blank canvas and from there be able to visualise how it would or could be populated. Abstract art allows your imagination to go further than the eye can see, to liberate your mind, and to let your imagination to – as i love to say – boldly go where it has never gone before. When art allows you to be free, does not circumscribe you then it begin to move you as an individual and the society as a collective to a higher realm. And of course the benefits will accrue to the artists in the end.

    The I ‘need to chop’ artisanal art we are constantly force fed barely allows us to lift one leg off the ground let alone take us into a different state of being.

  2. this is encouraging and i think that this sort of exhibitions should be encouraged and if there is any way we could also share our own work 0of art it would be great

  3. Abstraction is a mythical stage of imagination to focus on Artistic implementation with resultant impact in interpreting life and her short comings. In all, it inspires the brain and thus our thoughts are more resourceful when we can read logical meanings to Artistructural Abstractions.


    OluOdun Aliu.

  4. I’m extremely impressed together with your writing abilities well with the layout on your blog. Is that this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it is uncommon to look a nice weblog like this one these days..

  5. I just discovered your blog (so much reading to do!) and thank you so much for this well-written piece. Figurative art is encouraged more in art schools and studios here (I’m a product of this), but more and more, artists are pushing for a space to speak in their own language. I discovered Joseph Eze this year at an exhibition and was delighted to visit a family friend and find his walls covered in Wale Alimi’s works. So we’re getting there and the buying market (which discriminates at all artforms except sculpture in Nigeria in general) is slowly coming round.

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