With the opening of his landmark solo exhibition yesterday, Ibe Ananaba relives his creative odyssey so far in this e-dialogue with Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
Fond memories of childhood years... Like waves they wash over Ibe Ananaba as he recalls how this “jolly ride on the drawing adventure” started. For him, it was an “eureka” moment, when he realised by watching his elder brother Ugo – his first artistic role model – what impressions pens or pencils could make on paper.
Then, there was his mum, who he called his “biggest supporter”. With tender forbearance and solicitude, she had watched him deface virtually every available surface with his childish doodles. “All the backs of my exercise books were my initial sketch pads,” he says.
This was in the south-eastern commercial city of Aba. During his years at the Aba-Owerri Road Primary School, he derived his kick from drawing DC comic characters, objects and calligraphy. “As time went on, I began to appreciate graphic designs based on my love for fonts and calligraphy got a great share of my attention.”
Then followed his secondary school years when the love of hip-hop and R&B jostled for his attention. He soon found himself flipping through magazines and studying figures, honing his skills on what he would later know to be called “fashion illustration”. Thus, his love for the human figure deepened.
Decades after, his solo exhibition, Identity Check, opened yesterday at The Homestores Gallery in Victoria Island Lagos. This solo outing, which ends on Saturday (October 20), is his first since 2009 when he dazzled aficionados with his deft draughtsmanship at the old Goethe-Institut premises along Ozumba Mbadiwe Street in Victoria Island, Lagos. That exhibition, titled Against All Odds, proclaimed his proficiency from the rooftops.
Call Identity Check, Ananaba’s response to these troubling times. Value systems are nose-diving and the abnormal no longer surprises anyone. Does this guarantee anyone a bright future?
“With this on my mind, I pause and ponder on what role to play in the midst of this seemingly organised chaos and how to contribute towards a sustainable change,” he explains.
This was also how he came about the title, Identity Check. “Identity Check goes beyond just an array of art pieces. It aims for our hearts (as individuals or as a group of people), poking our consciousness to look inwards and re-evaluate the values that drive us; the factors that influence and shape who we are as well as define our identity.”
Ananaba invites the viewers to a heart-to-heart dialogue with the offerings on display at The Homestores Gallery’s exhibition space.
First, there is the series he calls, Who Are You. A row of portraits done in what he called de-saturated colours fasten their conscience-piercing gaze on the viewers. “They boldly interrogate and challenge the viewer’s mind to re-evaluate the values that define who (s)he truly is,” says the Institute of Management and Technology (IMT), Enugu graduate. “This was inspired by the digital age we live in where the social network sites provide juicy platforms for people to create and hide the shadows of so many alter egos. ‘Who Are You’ also aims at deconstructing these alter-egos in order to dig out one’s true personality.”
Lagos State of Mind series is what the artist calls “an on-going series”. So far, he has produced four paintings under this series. On his 10th year as a Lagos resident, he recognises the megacity as a hotchpotch of the good, the bad and the ugly. “The spark came after series of replaying and nodding to Modenine’s version of Lagos State-of-Mind off his PENTIUM IX Mixtape... The yellow colour and black stripes is iconic for Lagos. The whole idea is to tell my ‘Lagos’ story ideologically and not from a geographical viewpoint using human forms in warm yellow hues as my medium with the classic two black stripes that stands as the tribal marks for Lagosians.”
This series offers works with titles – or is it subtitles? – like “The Optimist”, “Wetin”, “Shine Ya Eye” and “Shakara”.
For the vintage Ananaba, Victors or Victims is the series to see. It features works depicting a variety of facial expressions, ranging from sadness and joy. With these, he attempts to wring coherence from out of the global happenings of the past decades and the new millennium. The viewers, in his opinion, belong to either the Victor or Victim end of the spectrum.
The Brother’s Keeper series challenges the viewers to rekindle the fast-waning positive attributes that reality makes up a man’s humanity. Among these are love, care and warmth.
Inspiration, according to Ananaba, can be likened to air. It comes from anywhere, everywhere and everything, he adds. “I’m like a sponge. I absorb from my immediate environment, people around me, jokes, music, nature, sound, moods, emotions...everything!”
He deems himself lucky to have encountered a grouping of vibrant guys, who helped shape his art. They are Ugo Ananaba (his elder brother), Okechukwu Iwundu, Chima Etu, Chamberlin Ukenedo, Henry Morkah, Iheanyi Ihediwa, Enyinnaya Ihediwa and the late Damian Onyekuru. “Watching these guys do their thing expanded my view on art and its appreciation,” he gushes.
Flip over to his one-year industrial training experience in 1997 at the Dolphin Studio. This was where his cross-fertilisation of ideas with this “bunch of free-spirited creative hot bloods” like his brother Ugo, Ihediwa, Uche Iroha and Henry Morkah, who later joined.
“That was also the period I first met Kelechi Amadi-Obi, who blew me away with an acrylic portrait work and I reciprocated by doing some mad calligraphy on the same portrait work, which was a present to Father Tansi.”
His interaction with creative minds continued after his Industrial training. But unknown to him, he was already forging his own identity in this furnace of creative exchange. This period was also his preparatory ground for his Higher National Diploma programme in IMT, Enugu. “Back to school, I started exploring and searching for content and relevance instead of basing my creativity on aesthetics which was what seemed to be the ideal.”
With his tertiary education behind him, he began to frolic with his calling. He had more time to paint during his National Youth Service Corps year. Proceeds from a few commissions here and there enabled him raise enough funds to relocate to Lagos.
In bustling commercial capital, he got his first job in an advertising agency. “I discovered I couldn’t do without my art practice despite the agency ‘8am-till-whenever’ job so I decided I’ll have to work out a balance,” he continues.
Ten years later, he is still in advertising as an art group head with the Ikeja-based Insight Communications. “I’m still searching for that perfect balance trying to carry both official work and my studio art practice without regret. I’m happy to say that advertising has helped me understand communication better and how the human mind reacts to information being fed. It’s like the arts. It’s fascinating how you sit and create a campaign that will later dictate or spark up a culture.”
Even as an advertising practitioner, the 36-year-old artist has left a trail of landmark exhibitions behind him. Among them are Dots in Motion (a joint exhibition held at the Quintessence in Ikoyi, Lagos in 2003), Colours Nigeriana (a group show held in Johannesburg in 2003), Strokes of Value (another group show held at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs in Victoria Island, Lagos in 2004) and Lines and Reason (a joint exhibition) held at the Quintessence in Ikoyi, Lagos in 2005).
He was, in addition, part of another group exhibition, titled Exploring the Wonders of Nigeria, held at the Givatayim Theatre in the Israeli capital Tel-Aviv in 2006. The following year, he held a solo exhibition, Ed’stravaganza, at the Ice House, Fayetteville in Arkansas, US.
Ananaba was among the Nigerian artists, whose works were featured at the maiden edition of ARESUVA at the International Conference Centre in Abuja in 2008.
Among his subsequent shows were Essence (a group exhibition at the French International School in Victoria Island, Lagos in 2009), Art Expo Lagos (at the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos in 2009), Against All Odds (his 2009 Goethe-Institut solo show) and Linear Conversation (a group exhibition at LeatherWorld in GRA Ikeja in 2011).
Ananaba has been featured in reputable publications like Uche Iroha’s Unifying Africa, Ben Bosah’s 101 Nigerian Artists and Jess Castellote’s Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collections.