George EDOZIE and Uche PETERS at Lagos Business School (LBS)

George and Uche belong to the same generation. Born in 1972 and 1973 respectively, they are good friends and they have more than a few things in common. Now, they have one more: the last two additions to the growing contemporary art collection at Lagos Business School are works produced and placed “in situ” by them. Both pieces, Peters’ “Free yourself” and Edozie’s “LBS” can be seen, suspended from the ceiling, in public areas of the LBS buildings at Ajah, Lagos.

In 2009 I helped putting together an exhibition at Omenka Gallery titled: Nigerian abstract painting now. George Edozie and Uche Peters (at that time his name was still Uche Igwe) participated in it. Since then, Uche has produced only a few works, mainly using  galvanized steel wire, while George has been a prolific artist, increasingly incorporating textiles into his works.

Uche is an unusual artist. He did not study art; he does not earn a living through art, he is not a member of any professional art body, but there is no doubt about his being an artist. His works prove it, even if some art bureaucrats might disagree, adducing that he is not one, because he is not “registered” somewhere.

He has experimented with wire sculptures for the last five years. He “crochets” and twists the thin galvanized steel wire into two-dimensional “fabrics” that he then uses to create three-dimensional works. Since he runs a catering business that takes most of his time, producing one of these sculptures requires of him months of work.

Uche’s works have little to do with the ubiquitous wire sculptures sold at tourist markets all over southern Africa. He is not interested in producing tourist crafts, but he is an excellent craftsman. As he does not use soldering for his work, the cold joining method forces him to “bound” the wires around themselves. This is heavy, physical work, but the end result is excellent. The wires are beautifully intertwined creating works of delicate complexity.

But there is much more than skill and hard work. Each of his pieces explores issues, questions assumptions, and engages the viewer on a discourse. Uche has a great ability to “embody”, to materialize ideas into physical art works. In this case, the underlying narrative is about freedom and about the sad capacity we human beings have of creating self-imposed boundaries made of fears. The human body enclosed in the wire fish has his/her eyes bound. He can’t see that the tools to free himself are close at hand, because, also within the belly of the fish, there is a mallet, a saw, a pair of pliers, a phone and a knife. If the hopeless figure were to remove the cloth from his eyes, he would be able to use these tools to free himself…  This is a powerful metaphor, delicately crafted into an arresting piece.

The other new artwork at LBS is also a suspended “sculpture”. Produced and mounted in-situ by George Edozie, in the main foyer of the School, this is a suitable piece for the large, high-ceilinged, bright space.

George trained as a painter and has always worked as a painter. It shows in the way he has treated this tri-dimensional piece. In his paintings on canvas he normally applies raw colours on the cloth and works them with the knife. The play between surface, colour and texture is central to his work. In the LBS letters, it is as if the “canvas” had been wrapped around the steel frame that supports the letters. His work is two-dimensional even when the surface is not. In this sense, his work is “superficial”, and with this word I do not suggest that it lacks depth. It is simply that he works on the surface of a tri-dimensional object, as if he had done it first on two dimensions and then enveloped the letters, like a flat cloth covering a body and taking its shape. He is still a painter that has “painted” these letters not with brushstrokes but with shreds of cloth… This piece is not “moulded”, this is a piece “covered”.  It shows that this is not the work of a sculptor, but the work of a painter, and, again, I say it not pejoratively.

In this work George decided to arrange the cloths in vertical shreds. This is a subtle and successful choice. From the distance at which the piece is seen, the cloth is not “read” as cloth, but as an aggregation of multicoloured, vertical “scales”.

The central place given to “surface” is clear, but the volumetric, spatial quality of the work can’t be dismissed. The “body” is not fully hidden under the “cloth” that covers it. The sheer size of the letters (more than 2.00 meters high) plus the tension created by the dialectic between large volume and “floating” suspension are also at the centre of the success of this work.

Lagos Business School has taken a risk with these two artworks. Perhaps they will not be appreciated by everybody; the detractors will continue asking the old question: but, is this art? I do not know whether it is or it not, but I think LBS has done the right thing risking a little and going beyond the conventional. I hope they continue inviting many other artists to surprise, inspire and challenge us with their works. George Edozie and Uche Peters have done so quite creditably. Congratulations to them (and to LBS).

with Uche
with George
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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.