WURA NATASHA OGUNJI & RAOUL DA SILVA

A couple of weeks ago, Wura Natasha Ogunji and Raoul da Silva opened a join exhibition, organized and curated by Sandra Obiago, at Temple Muse in Victoria Island.  The exhibition is still open till de end of April. The works that Wura and Raoul present to us in this exhibition couldn’t be farther from the shallow exoticism that still pervades large sectors of African contemporary art more than twenty five years since “The magiciens de la terre” (1989) and “Africa explores” (1991) exhibitions.

Untitled by Raoul Olawale Da Silva, 90cm x 127cm, Mixed Media paper, 2001
Raoul da SILVA, Untitled, mised media on paper, 90 x 127 cm, 2001

Definitely, neither Wura nor Raoul’s artistic practice is based on these tired clichés, on shifting artistic fashions or, much less, on the dictates and fads of the market. For Raoul, spontaneity, improvisation and the primacy of the gestural brushstrokes are central to his practice. In marked contrast, Wura’s approach is more analytical and rational. But, both are giving us something that comes from inside.

Shelter, 2017, Thread, Ink, Graphite on Trace Paper 61 x 61cm
Wura Natasha OGUNYI, Shelter, Thread, ink, graphite on Trace paper, 61 x 61 cm, 2017

Wura and Raoul’s works are intensely personal, albeit strongly different. Wura was born in the USA and lived there till just a few years ago. Raoul lived his early years in Lagos but left the country at a very young age and did not settle back in Nigeria till also a few years ago. The fact that both of them have spent most of their lives outside Nigeria and both of them are of mixed parentage has made their artworks to be inextricably linked to their existential journeys. Their artistic itineraries have significant differences and this fact is reflected in their works. In them, it would seem as if Wura is trying to understand herself, while Raoul tries to express himself.

6 Catch Your Breath by Wura-Natasha Ogunji, 61 x 61 cm, Thread, ink, graphite on trace paper, 2016

Wura’s works are not loud. They don’t shout at us, but they are works of unapologetic beauty and simplicity. Part of the reason why her small pieces on tracing paper work so well is the delicate, intimate, careful attention given to detail. She treats the fragile materials with respect and there is quality in each finished piece. The bright colour-rich inks on the translucent paper are subtle and restrained. The ordinary sowing thread becomes in her hands a metaphor of connections, of links, of relations, both physical and immaterial. The threadwork could have remained simply a craft, but it becomes much more.

In this exhibition, Wura presents a few works in which only geometric compositions can be seen. In their conceptualism, at first glance they appear as inexpressive, cold and detached, but it is the colour and, specially, the physical fragility of the medium that brings them to life. They stand out in way that the geometric constructions of Mondrian, for all their compositional perfection, are not able to achieve. The lines that delimit the coloured areas have always a focal point and, therefore, they indicate a direction. As a result, the surface of the pictorial plane on which they appear loses two-dimensionality and suggests tree-dimensional space. The fact that the flimsy paper is affected by the ink pigments makes the flat, weak surface become slightly uneven and adds a new suggestive layer of complexity. The hardness and precision of the lines is balanced by the lightness of the paper. She explains: I use tracing paper, the kind that architects use for preliminary drawings. I love the way the thread looks against it and the way the large sheets of paper move against the wall. It can appear fragile but it also has a weight to it. When I’m working on the drawings, especially when I’m sewing into the paper and because of its translucency, it feels quite filmic, as if I’m creating one cell of a filmstrip. We can talk about the meanings of the paper, but for me, it’s about a simple love of the material. This sentence offers perhaps a key to understand Wura’s works: “a simple love of the material”. But there is more than materiality and geometric composition. The frequent presence of the “Ife head” is an iconic figure that recurs in her works. It brings with it associations of the past, of tradition, of roots, of identities. But even if it is just a tenuous thread or a few lines and colour bands emanating from it as rays, the “Ife Head” is a metaphor for a link, a line of communication between different, but interrelated realities. And all this, said with softness, in an understated way. This fragility is one of the main strengths of Wura’s works on tracing paper.

Ife and Orchids Thread, Ink, Graphite on Trace Paper 61 x 61cm 2016
Wura Natasha OGUNYI, Ife and Orchids, Thread, ink, graphite on Trace paper, 61 x 61 cm, 2016

For years, there has been a recurrent concern in Wura’s works about connections, communications and associations, particularly, the transatlantic bond between Africa and the American diaspora. Her work “I brought you this”, in two pieces, with the Ife head on one, and a female figure in the other, both of them tied by a fragile bond of colour rays, exemplifies these concerns and successfully embodies these ideas into a physical form. Who brings what, to whom? In which direction is the communication? Does the “Ife head” –and all it represents- say something to the present, or is the direction of communication the other way, with the contemporary figure listening to what the past has to say?. Wura´s works are ambiguously open. Can we take Wura’s subtle references to history, memory, tradition and identity as an attempt to understand herself and help us understand ourselves in our specific cultural, temporal and geographic circumstances? There is no doubt, that her works question us.

90cm x 127cm Untitled Mixed Media, 2002 Paper
Raoul da SILVA, Untitled, mixed media, 90 x 127 cm, 2002

Though not directly influenced by them, Raoul’s works, with their forceful brushstrokes and the spontaneous approach to the painting process, have many features in common with the great German Neo-expressionist and gestural tradition of the second half of the 20th century: Gerhard Ritcher, Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jorg Immendorf. Markus Lupertz. Like most of these artists, Raoul looks inward for the sources of his works. Memories and instinct are important for him. The content, the subject matter, the communicative value of his works, generally matters less than the works themselves. The source of Raoul’s inspiration is intensely personal. He is an artist working within an expressionist tradition and method: spontaneity, expression, improvisation and gestural action are important in his works.

Raoul da SILVA, Untitled, oil on canvas, 140 x 138, 2014
Raoul da SILVA, Untitled, oil on canvas, 140 x 138cm, 2014

The process of interaction with the pigments and the canvas is central to his way of painting. Each painting, each drawing, is “revelatory” of inner forces, desires and memories. As he says: in my way of working, the intuitive and impulsive work together as well as against the rational, reflective and explorative side, which helps to bring that balance. In the moments of outbursts, pouring out, and coming from the feeling, it’s having that trust and faith that all these memories, which are very abstract and not specific, but even just in the color choice comes from memories which I choose not to pinpoint or overanalyze. Raoul’s works develop from inside out. Their formal strength comes from within. That’s why they are so unmistakably personal. To look at Raoul’s works the spectator does not need to be distracted by a search for meaning, contextualization or conceptual justifications. These are works to be “enjoyed”, rather than to be “comprehended”.

4 Wura-Natasha Ogunji_Field Theory, Green_2016
Wura Natasha OGUNYI, Field Theory, Green, Thread, ink, grahite on trace paper, 2016

His paintings oscillate from decidedly abstract compositions to those filled with expressive biomorphic references, but they seldom try to offer a window into the world as all the traditional western art did for centuries. They are self-referential. There is randomness in his “coffee” works, in which the unpredictability of the shapes is part of the process. For Raoul, the significance of the process is at the core of his works. His colours, lines, stains and forms cover the whole space. In contrast, Wura lets the delicate architectural drafting paper, of subdued yellow tint, take most of the pictorial space. Her figures, made of stitched lines and colour, float in space while Raoul’s works fill the canvas with an outpouring of gestures coming from within. Different as these two artists are, there is a shared sincerity and genuineness in them. Their works offer a rare opportunity for us to experience art that goes beyond the merely retinal and decorative. They engage our senses, but they also engage our minds. In the commercialized atmosphere of the Lagos artworld this is not a small achievement. We are grateful for that.

Jess Castellote

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With Wura and Raoul

Uchay Joel CHIMA

THE EARTH AND THE PEOPLE THAT LIVE IN IT
A few weeks ago Ugoma Adegoke asked me whether I could write a brief introduction for the catalogue of Uchay Joel Chima’s new exhibtion. Uchay is an old friend and an artist I respect, so, I agreed happily.

Blokes, strings on canvas, 42inches by 42inches, 2015Crafts and ordinary objects, no matter how skilfully executed, are rarely able to communicate with the viewer or user. Instead, with good works of art, it is possible to connect. If the viewer looks and listens attentively to them, she can discover what they quietly say. The more complex and richer the work, the greater its capacity to permit different levels of interpretation and allow multiple readings.

Yellow Sisi Dey For Corner, mixed media, 36inches by 36inches, 2013.Uchay Joel Chima’s works on canvas might look simple enough at a first glance. Probably, some viewers will be happy with it and not go beyond a superficial reading of them. Those conversant with Uchay’s experimentation over the last 15 years know that there is in them more than a cursory look will tell.

The Earth and the People that live in it, mixed media, 61inches by 61inches, 2013-2015.

I Thought As Much iii, mixed media, 35inches by 35inches, 2015Uchay Chima continues in this exhibition with his untiring effort to explore the possibilities of materials. This has been a constant in his works since he came out of the Institute of Management and Technology in Enugu in 1997 as a fresh graduate. For years, Uchay has used paper, newsprint, ropes, strings, cloth, charcoal, sand and other ordinary materials to look for ways of conveying meaning through his works. His main concerns move around two axes: issues and materials.

Sound of Abundance ii, mixed media, 36inches by 36inches, 2015Uchay sees his work as a commentary and a vehicle for action on the land and her peoples. As if to prove it, one of the works on display in this exhibition is titled “The Earth and the People that live in it”. This is an apt title for his approach to art creation. Societal and environmental issues pervade and give meaning to his artistic production. These works have a strong formal presence and character, but at the same time, they are rich in embedded narratives.

Leaving The Past Behind, strings on canvas, 44inches by 42inches, 2015In this exhibition Uchay presents works of three main types: the “string” paintings, the mixed media, high-relief works and the “string” line drawings. The first two groups of works are familiar territory for him and have been frequently incorporated in the past in Uchay’s oeuvre. The works of the third group, the large size line drawings using strings and threads, are new.

Sidon Look, mixed media, 36inches by 36inches, 2015  On A Second Thought, mixed media, 36inches by 36inches, 2015 Though in the past he had experimented with small size works –what he calls miniatures- using this medium, it is only with this exhibition that Uchay shows his excellent draughtsmanship and his capacity to create highly expressive works while using such a meagre vehicle as a plain canvas and some yards of string and thread. These works are much lighter in meaning than the other ones but they have a playfulness and freshness that –in their simplicity and economy of means- makes them particularly successful.

Pinging, mixed media, 36inches by 36inches, 2015For a good numbers of years, Uchay has used strings as a metaphor and a medium for expressing connections, links and ties. As he said referring to them: “I have elected to work with materials that I believe are synonymous with the notions of bonding, togetherness, intimacy and entanglement: strings, ropes and knitting wool. In an era where global upheaval; whether natural, economic or social are the issues of the day – in terms of survival, there is a desperate need for people who can and want to make a positive difference to others”.

You Break Down My Walls ii, mixed media, 36inches by 36inches, 2015 You Break Down My Walls i, mixed media, 2015 These are ambitious aims for anybody, let alone for an artist striving to make artworks that embody some meaning and armed only with his creativity, a canvas, some pigments and a few ordinary materials. This is a truly worthwhile endeavour, and one to which Uchay is applying his not few abilities and talents. It is good to have him back, reminding us that we all play our role in caring for “the Earth and the people that live in it”.

Jess Castellote

With Uchay

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Raoul Olawale DA SILVA’s world

Seven years ago, I was invited for an exhibition at the National Museum, Onikan by an artist unknown to me at that time: Raoul Olawale da Silva. It was a good thing I decided to “risk” and visit the show. Surely, I was not the only one among the visitors that felt excited in front of Raoul’s works. The exhibition goer in Lagos –and there are a few regulars, out there- is rarely confronted with works of such intensity and character. Without knowing the artist, his background or his artistic trajectory I was immediately struck by the works before my eyes.

Mixed media, 200 x 200 cm, 2012
Mixed media, 200 x 200 cm, 2012

Just two years ago, when I was exploring some contemporary art collections in Lagos, I visited Agatha da Silva –Raoul’s mother- and was able to see in her house a good number of works left behind by Raoul. This time the experience was more intimate, deeper. These works -some of them uncompleted- were challenging me. I could not remain indifferent in front of them. A couple of months ago, thanks to the good efforts of Sandra Obiago and –of course- Agatha da Silva, we were fortunate to have him back in Lagos -the city he left in 1981, when he was just 12 years old- for another exhibition.

Slide05 a

Raoul is a complex and intensely independent artist. His rich personal history is, no doubt, marked by the fact of having a Nigerian father (a Neurosurgeon from a well known Brazilian-Lagosian family) and a Swiss mother. His is a multifaceted creativity finding expression through different media: painting, photography, craftsmanship, music. Perhaps, I should add skateboarding, an activity he considers a true –though ephemeral- form of art. He is passionate about it: “I am street skater for more than 20 years now. Skateboards, boarding is an art and an art form always crossing borders and boundaries, influencing and being influenced, always developing and staying young for the young state of mind. Maybe just like dance or Asian martial arts, it is a most direct and sincere forms of expression.

It is difficult to fit Raoul’s works into a neat, clearly defined artistic pigeon hole, to associate them to a recognizable name or qualifier. But, perhaps this search for “sincere forms of expression” provides the key to access the paintings, drawings and installations in this exhibition. His works appear as an externalization, an “expression” of a many-sided personal world. And in this process of expressing -of bringing out- inner realities, spontaneity plays a central role. This is the way he explains how he starts a new work: “I start from somewhere deep within almost on a subconscious level letting the canvas or working surface to get stained or “randomly” marked, trusting that there is enough material inside me to work with that will come to show an idea or at least a route I can follow…  This process is being repeated over and over till I feel I have something that can evolve into meaning for me. Then I try to transport/transform that aesthetic to a plane where I now sharply observe and act and react to what is going on on the surface and around it. Taking off, scratching off, peeling off paint and then putting on, slapping on, dripping on, brushing on paint till a harmony or dissonance starts to create tension which is a sign that I am on the right path”.

ROdS - September 2012 - Untitled oil on wood A

More than 60 years ago, the critic Harold Rosenberg coined the expression “action painting”. He wrote in his well known essay of 1952, “The American action painters”: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act — rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyse or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event. The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter”. Rosenberg’s expression “an arena in which to paint”, seems particularly apt to refer to most of Raoul da Silva’s works.  

Untitled 130 x 93 cm Mixed media on paper a

In this exhibition Raoul juxtaposes works produced over a span of ten years (2003-2013). This allows the viewer appreciate the continuity and evolution of his oeuvre. Two formal elements call immediately our attention. First, there has been a progressive increase in the size of the works. The use of larger canvases (some of them over 2.00 meters wide) shows a much more self-confident artist, not afraid to face increasingly challenging works. Second, the “painterly” works of ten years ago, with their blurred contours, broken shapes and overlaid colours, have evolved into pieces in which lines and boundaries are more defined and prominent than in earlier works, when gestural brushstrokes had pre-eminence. The organic, fluid, dream-like creatures have given way to more defined shapes taken from the real world. While some of these older works brought to mind references to Osogbo artists (specially, Twins Seven Seven), or to de Kooning and Pollock, the recent ones are more akin to the explorations of Basquiat, Bacon or Ritcher.

ROdSoil on canvas 1,72m x 1,63m - September 2012 - 03 a

In addition, there is a more subtle development: these new works engage the outside world in a much more distinct and direct way than the older ones. For instance, the insertion of four telephone handsets in one of the 2013 works would have been totally out of place in the ones produced ten years earlier. It seems there is a gradual shift from works emerging from an “inner”, self-referential universe to a messier, more real world.

ROdS, oil on canvas 1,68m x 1,97m  - September 2012 - 01 a

But despite the development of his artistic identity, Raoul’s works still grow from inside out. Their strength -and they are undoubtedly, strong- continues coming from within. Perhaps, that is the reason why they are so intensely personal. Like with good music, or with dance, the viewer is not encumbered by the demands of meaning, rationality and context. His works need not to be “understood”, but to be enjoyed, letting them tell each of us a different story.

ROdS oil on canvas 1,85m x 1,85m - September 2012 - 07 A

This is an exhibition to enjoy quietly. Raoul da Silva is allowing us a view of a personal, intimate, suggestive world of great formal beauty. This is a privilege rarely available. I am glad not to have missed the opening. The works are on display till August, 15. I might go to see them again.

ROdS - September 2012 - 02 A

ROdS  oil on canvas 1,86m 1,75m - September 2012 - 04 A
Oil on canvas, 175 x 186 cm, 2012

ROdS oil on canvas 1,95m x 2,90m - September 2012 - 05 a

Raoul & I

His web site is www.rods.ch/home.html

Ade ADEKOLA

Ade is a sharp observer. Since he came back to Nigeria in 2005, after almost 25 years away, he has looked with empathy at this unique micro world that is Lagos. Finally, he has put into words and images a very personal portrait of the city. A few days ago, Ade mounted an exhibition titled “Icons of a metropolis”, accompanied by a book and an excellent web site. I was lucky to visit it twice.

First, he has identified twenty “icons”. He could have selected places, wares or objects, but he has focused, almost exclusively, on people. As he says: “Icons of a Metropolis” offers a non-judgmental look at 20 character archetypes – they are the ICONS. They are a creative force, a self-organizing and self-referential manifestation of the zenith of urban survival. The ICONs add colour, help to reflect our consciences, test our moral compasses and above all offer signals to the fragile points of the rapidly expanding ecosystem of a megacity. In their guise as evolutionary change agents they can be considered as the city planner’s guide or muse and as such are living mentors on the design requirements for mega cities”.

These are his twenty icons: the cart pusher, the beggar, the load carrier, the street hawker, the opportunist, the scrap man, the traffic policeman, the thirst quencher, the masquerade, the molue, the okada, the water peddler, the oil scavenger, the praise crier, the prayer warriors, the sand dredger, the displaced, the child bride, the challenger, the load carrier. We all know them, and we take them mostly for granted. Despite their ever-presence, they remain invisible, impersonal, but they make this city what it is. Individually, they dissolve in the urban fabric. Together, these icons “create” an urban fabric. They sustain the identity of this living assemblage of flesh, concrete, steel and blood. Ade, unveils that identity. Taken separately, each of these “icons” tells us a personal story. Together, they give the story of the metropolis.

Exit Ade, the social anthropologist. Enter Ade, the social archivist.
He has photographed these “icons” and made them visible. But documentary photography is only the raw matter for his work. His images are more philosophically ambitious than most of what we are accustomed to: Ajegunle, the markets, Makoko, the oil spills, etc. Referring to his artworks, he says: “(they) seek to tease the mind and invite viewers to engage, as a means of reflecting on their own lives and that of the society in which they live“. I think this is an apt observation.

Exit Ade the “documenter”, the archivist. Enter Ade, the artist-craftsman.
He does not present to the watcher an aseptic, realistic view of the icons. He has processed these raw images, manipulating colours and hues, contrast and saturation. Undoubtedly, Ade is extremely skilled in the use of image processing software, but he has not stopped here. The processing of the images enables Ade to give them a new life, conferring them a layer of disconnection from the realities they portray. Uncoupling from reality is accentuated by his use of solarization and colour shift processes. This is particularly successful in the photographs in which he plays with complementary colours: red on green, blue on yellow. In addition, by “detaching” the foreground from the background and playing with them in multiple combinations, he transforms a single image in a series of images.

Exit Ade, the computer craftsman. Enter Ade, the artist-creator.
Producing the individually processed images is the beginning of a compositional work. The brief essay that accompanies the exhibition is succinctly titled: Repetition. This is the key word to his compositional strategy. In his words: “Repetition, whether it be visual, verbal, or cognitive creates conditions for new meaning by placing the old (that which is repeated) in a new context of an expanded range of considerations. Conceptually, repetition is powerful; it creates infinite combinations from finite elements – just as the ICONs create infinite possibilities from limited choices. He is passionate when he says that, through repetition, he would like his photographs to “go beyond a visual record of something we have experienced and become the source of a new experience. To become art”.

The end result is deceptive. What might have seemed the starting point, the photographs, is -in a way- the destination point. Does he go from reality to idea or from the idea to the concrete reality? Did the idea of the icons come before he went out to photograph them, or did he arrange them as icons once he came across them in his photography excursions through the city? Are we in front of a well structured (and manipulated) tableau of reality, or are we presented with the photographic embodiment of his “understanding” of the “icons of a metropolis”. What is first, the idea or the photograph? I am inclined to think that in Ade’s case it is definitely the former…

His web site for the exhibition can be seen at www.iconsofametropolis.com

Kelani ABASS

The art year is closing in Lagos. The auctions are over, few exhibitions are planned for the remainder of the year and artists, dealers and collectors are already thinking of their Christmas holidays. And then, unexpectedly, Kelani Abass and Omenka Gallery give us a Christmas present: the exhibition “Man and Machine”.

It has been only four years since Kelani graduated at Yabatech as the best painting student, but in this short period of time he has moved from a conventional, stereotypical mode of representation, to an intimate, highly personal body of work. He seems to have left behind the market scenes, the skilful depiction of motor parks and road sides, and delved into the creation of an imaginary world where man and machine take the whole space. He has moved from merely re-presenting the surrounding environment, and particularly people, to enquire about issues, both personal and societal. That is why a purely formal analysis of his new works would be insufficient. Looking exclusively at their formal properties would not be enough. These works can be “read” at different levels.

I met Kelani in the morning hours, when only he and I were at the gallery. This allowed me the chance of listening to him without hurry and getting a better understanding of the background and genesis of this exhibition. He explained to me how the thread linking these recent works is the industrial printing process and the machines used to make it possible. His late father had a printing press and he spent countless hours there. Even before leaving primary school he was already involved in the preparation of artworks for the printing jobs. By the time he left for Yabatech, he was conversant with the mechanical processes involved in printing. And this was before the arrival of “offset printing” or digital imaging!. As he says in the exhibition catalogue: “it is fascinating to observe the way machines operate as different parts to achieve a common goal. This informs my thinking and my ideas, and thus inspires my art in this direction”. He is especially interested in the wheels, as central elements in industrial machines.

The influences are still discernible. The way he works the textures and the materiality of his canvasses brings to mind some of abstract works of Kolade Oshinowo, his teacher at Yabatech. The freedom with which he approaches them echoes the ways proposed by Mike Omoighe.

These works go beyond the easy realism. They are more in line with neo-expressionist experiments. There is in them a mixture of abstract backgrounds with superimposed figurative elements and applied objects. The play between real and drawn mechanical elements is particularly successful. And this makes me think of the way aesthetic and non-aesthetic (or should I say, visual and non-visual) properties interplay in the best samples of traditional and contemporary art. These works are beautiful to the eyes, but there is more than what the eyes see. There is something only the mind can apprehend, and it is this “something” that puts these works above the usual stuff.

There is restrain and these works and there is “soul”. They radiate warmth that is not only the result of the subdued and earthy ochres and greys. This is a personal story, and the canvasses abound in subtle personal references, like the insertion of a small photographic plate in which Kelani’s father appears. But he also transcends the personal and the intimate; the numerous references to political and societal leaders also show an artist going beyond “his” art. This is uncommon and this is encouraging. It seems, there is life after the market places, the motor parks and the other “genres” so sought after by tourists and nouveau rich.

It is always heartening to come across artworks of this quality. I am glad I did not miss this exhibition. I am already looking forward to the next one.


 

Ben OSAGHAE. The untiring chronicler

Ben Osaghae is a remarkably consistent artist. Since he finished his studies in 1986 he has been working quietly and unassumingly, but he has never lacked strength in his formal approach to painting and in his relentless commentaries on social issues.

Service delivery (2009)

I started looking at his latest exhibition at Terrakulture (March 6 -11) with a sense of “deja vu“. I felt like saying “Ben, I have seen this before…” but it did not take long to realize that this would have been a simplistic comment. For sure there is continuity in Ben Osaghae’s work. For years we have seen him working on a well defined palette, his black lines marking the contours of the figures are always there, the way of applying the pigments remains largely unchanged, the size of the canvases and the compositional strategy with his “floating figures” are the ones we know. Nevertheless, Ben Osaghae keeps renewing himself. Each new work is a new story that “needs to be said”. and, he is good at telling is “stories”.

Blackboard

At a time when so many “fireworks”, that glitter for an instant and then die, are being lunched by all types of artists, Ben Osaghae offers “serious works”: well drafted, well composed, well executed, well inserted into a socio-political context. Unfortunately, he is little known outside a relatively small circle, but as the years pass his artistic stature grows. This exhibition might not be a milestone, but it is definitely a stone that strengthens his position at the forefront of contemporary Nigerian art.

Cell Number 10
Prayer Warriors 2
Job hunt
The young mothers league

Prayer warriors I

I copy below what Kunle Filani wrote as introduction to the brochure of the exhibition.
I hope you can wade through his prose, dense and over-rich in adjectives.
He points out at a few interesting features of Ben’s works.

RADlCALlSlNG THE CANVAS: BEN OSAGHAE’S FORM AND CONTENT AS INTERLOCKING SYMBOLS FOR SOCIAL RE-ENGINEERING

Ben Osaghae paints from memory. He snapshots with his mind’s eyes and processes mental negative from the depth of his intellectual pool. For him, art is a means of accessing and assessing realities; it is a window for increased social awareness and a means of evaluating the human condition.

In order to effectively understand Ben Osaghae’s artistic (r)evolution it is pertinent to key into the depth of his intellect which hallmarks his ingenuity. A curious perusal of the inner crevices of his mind reveals peculiar creative nuances attributable only to introspective thinkers. He is sagacious in content analysis and schematic in formal presentation. Ben derives creative energy from being a perfect draughtsman. He can quickly absorb spectacular details from life experiences and process perceived images in schematized formats. He often times depicts socio-political innuendoes in surprisingly innocuous manner. He encapsulates his message in formal witticism, thereby luring the viewers into poetic conversation. Ben does not engage in pictorial sophistry to obscure the truth; he seems to prefer fact far above fancy.

Curiosity grips me each time I see Ben Osaghae’s painting. There is an irresistible presence; somewhat futuristic and adumbrated. I find it difficult t o decipher the sense of premonition that accompanies the picture plane. Beyond the intellectual directness of the form and content lies a vertical sensibility connecting the physical with the spiritual; a commune of the human and the divine. Ben multiplies visual illusions by creatively managing spatial platforms. He uses volume to create avoid and vice and versa thereby alluding to ambivalent spectacle.

In comparative creative classification, Ben Osaghae ought to be a poet, a poet who abhors canons. His grammar would have been constructed in staccato. He would have knitted his words into meaningful lines with imaginary blinders. His space would be participatory, and the reader would have filled it with speculative imagery. His paintings are his poetry.

Ben Osaghae paints by drawing with brushes. This makes line his most significant element of design. Line defines forms, creates shapes and suggests space in his pictorial frame. He uses lines to interlock the fragments of images that punctuate his canvases. A good draughtsman, he creates a symbiotic balance between fine, thin and thick strokes. He also creates subjective connection with imaginary lines in-between the images. He lends solidity albeit flat and graphical to the forms by filling the space with colours achieved with rapid brush strokes. The brush strokes are sometimes lazy scribbles that mirror Joan Miro’s Kinetic lines.

Ben Osaghae’s figures and objects are mobile in pace and in space. He situates his human figures in dramatic gestures His drawing ability manifests in his skillful foreshortening poses. He allows his images to levitate in space without losing sight of relative spatial perspective. The images are comical or melancholic depending on the intended message of each painting. He interestingly crops off upper parts of the limbs of figures depicted at the edges of the picture plane. This is done with so much articulation that, rather than give the impression of amputation, participatory visual illusion of wholeness is created.

In the hands of Ben Osaghae colours become instrument of social commentary both in application and appearance. He liquefies oil colours with attendant circumstantial drippings. Transparency that is peculiar to water colour is creatively achieved with over lapping variety of hues. He characterizes his figures with symbolic colours and dramatic movements. Whereas Ben was a prominent member of the Auchi School where painters romanticized their canvases with evocative sweetness, he no longer engages in boisterous attractiveness. He does not apply oil with definite hard-edge impasto anymore he now lays thin coats of fluid hues to create silhouetted images against the vast compositional space. Ben Osaghae colours are now flat, fluid and almost frigid. He nevertheless experiment with the application of variety of hues derived from primary colours.

Ben Osaghae’s compositional arrangement is largely asymmetrical. His paintings are often off-center focused. He seems to intentionally distract from the centre thereby creating an illusion of mobility. He stabilizes the pictures visually by the introduction of amorphous objects and cropped limbs creeping in from the edges of the canvases. He achieves a peculiar delicate balance between the volume and the void thereby creating levitational perspective. He flouts gravitational rules and subjects objects to sensational float.

There is a plausible linkage between Ben’s experience in the desert region of Northern Nigeria and his emotion for atmospheric space. For a few years after graduation he lived in Sokoto, an arid Nigerian city and the seat of the caliphate grandeur. Images shimmer in the hot hazy and dusty harmattan seasons and Figures levitate in the glitter of mirage. Illusion of space is exaggerated and spatial relations of volume and void becomes specious. As a painter of distilled memories, Ben Osaghae seems to have defined his compositional arrangement and stylistic organization from the Sokoto experience. His forms, though naturalistic are no longer sincere to reality -they shimmer in relative stylization. The objects are no longer fidel to spatial perspective; rather they are creative motifs fulfilling design obligations.

In Ben’s paintings, space is glorified. One cannot help comparing the pictures to possible snapshots of future human activities in the moon. For Ben Osaghae, space defines the foreground, the background and even sometimes constitutes the objects in the composition. With the ambivalent use of space as volume and void, he creates in his works an ambience of schematic abstractions, especially when viewed from the perceptive sense. The contextual appreciation of his paintings is located in two visual polarities- the narrative and abstract structures.

To appropriate an understanding of Osaghae’s contextual disposition one must scrutinize beyond the formal rendition and connect with the meanings that the paintings generate. Ben maintains a measured balance between reality and illusion. He develops the intellectual offerings in tandem with the emotional outpourings, thereby lending robust aesthetic credence to social understanding. It is significant to contextually associate Osaghale’s dynamic formal intellectualism to the mental alertness displayed in his writings. For an artist who trained in a skill –oriented polytechnic, it is remarkable how well he developed himself intellectually. He is one of the few artists who can articulate their thoughts in theoretical presentation.

For Ben, art is a mental construct; he defines the creative process as a challenge that brings release. Painting is not merely fulfilling the urge to create. It is a means to liberate the self from the shackles of pent-up memories – human frailities, innermost passion, childhood imagination, socio-political flashbacks, humiliating, economic conditions, spiritual contradictions and the binary of polarities. Ben Osaghae romanticizes the grim realities of the Nigerian society and sometimes paints a series of the same theme. He employs sequential narratives as a means of expression. He confessed to constant soliloquy while unraveling mental challenges that come with form and content as interlocking symbols for social re-engineering. The implosion of contesting and contextual ideas as subject matter, and the manner in which they should be formally arranged generates robust aesthetic experience for him.

I have once remarked that Ben Osaghae “satirises the basic conditions of human life with cartoonist expertise” For Ben like the cartoonist, message is very significant; yet the artist in him must appeal to the viewers’ aesthetic response the trough a skillful appropriation of formal elements and principles of design. The titles of his works are seemingly innocent, yet when subjected to deeper reflections, they become venom for social commentary. A few examples of his serial themes shrouded in binary allusions should suffice.

The Prison series come with specific titles such as Prison Food, Cell Number 10, Lock and key, The Prison Choir etc. They are visually and thematically unified by the prominent presence of barricading grids locking up deprived figures within and even without the compositional balance. The satirical pun in Ben Osaghae is at play in the Prison Series. He seems to be saying that “we are all prisoners” in this world; especially in the Nigerian society. He uses motifs of incarceration and dehumanization to drive home the agonizing conditions of Nigerian prisoners. Predominant among the symbolic forms are locks and keys, bars of iron, shackles of chains food containers; and suggestive cropped limbs. The horizontal and the vertical criss-crossing bars of barricading motifs predicate human and divine justice, not only for the criminals, but also for leaders who are responsible for social aberrations in Nigeria. In spite of the physical space of freedom that dominates Nigerian societies we are yet slaves and prisoners in our homes, offices, public arenas and even spiritual graves due to social and economic insecurity fostered on us by inept, wicked and corrupt leaders and officials in government.

In Ben Osaghae’s Spiritual series, there are also specific titles such as Prayer Warriors1 and 2, Prosperity Envelopes etc. He equally unifies the forms and motifs by depicting worshipper in supplicating gestures and punctuating the pictorial surfaces with instruments of votive offerings such as tithe and offering envelopes, crosses, candles and musical instruments. He explores the mundane within the context of the supernatural by revealing the quest for riches and miracles in a society where poverty drives many to pastoral pastures. Ben seems to highlight the unwholesome emphasis on financial prosperity in the church at the expense of salvation of the soul, while also expatiating on the futility of faith without work as espoused by the patriarchal Apostle Paul.

There are other expression like Vox Pop series consisting titles such as BRT Bus, Pay Toilet, Service Delivery, Old Girls and Room 33. The themes are mundane but critical to the understanding of the social conditions of Nigerians. He exploits dramatic and schematic forms and composes in unequal spatial relations. The background is spacious and rendered flat using one predominant colour. Images are gingerly scrawled on the flat surfaces of the picture frame without special recourse to linear perspective. A sense of disorientation is usually created, thereby lending form to the unsavoury social circumstances in which the masses find themselves. The series are exquisite excoriation of government’s neglect of public service and an indictment on visionless leadership at all strata of governance.

Ben Osaghae has matured over the years especially in the matching of creative images with thematic imagery. He certainly has dematerialized human figures in pictorial arrangement relies heavily on motifs and forms for compositional balance. For him, the concept of “finishing” is quite elastic. He pushes the limits of vision with austere visuals and he gives room for the viewers’ imaginary participation in the seemingly unfinished paintings.

Should Ben be careful with over-intellectualizing art at the expense of craft? The answer levitates, like his images, in the womb of space.

Kunle Filani (MFA, Ph.D)
Provost
Federal College of Education, Abeokuta, Nigeria

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.