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

IMG_20170224_184331
With Wura and Raoul
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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