Two Nigerian Artists represent Africa at the Triangle Artists Workshop, writes Amber Croyle Ekong
The scene is the DUMBO Arts Festival, an event attracting thousands of art lovers along with critics, curators, and gallery owners to the neighbourhood under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Known for its views of downtown Manhattan, pricey real estate, and saturation of artist studios, the public makes its way through the crowded streets watching live performance art and installations, entering in and out of open studios, galleries, art collectives and non-profits like the Triangle Arts Association.
Each year, Triangle Arts offers a two-week workshop for mid-career artists from around the world culminating in a showcase as part of the DUMBO Festival. It is a competitive program, where hundreds apply and, in this case, only 30 are accepted, including two Nigerians, the only two representatives from Africa.
In the presentation, the work of visual artists Okoronkwo Ikechukwu Francis and Olaniyi Rasheed Akindiya (Akirash), hang in side by side installations utilizing the open central space of Triangle Arts for ceiling to floor installation pieces that demand notice from every passerby.
Francis’s largest piece, World Wide Webbed, features a giant spider constructed from aluminium foil and wire over an armature of fabric, suspended from the ceiling above a spiral arrangement of boards that rest on white fabric and are painted to represent a selection of flags from around the world. At the centre of the circle, interior computer pieces rest on a bed of cotton, neon green fabric at the centre. The installation presents a simplistic treatment around ideas of nationhood and international identity in the framework of the interconnectedness of a web, symbolised by the menacing metal spider.
This particular work feels like a starting point for deeper exploration, echoing the goals and intentions of the Triangle Artists Workshop. The first group of artists who founded the workshop, hailing from the original US/Canada/UK “triangle,” came together in an organic and spontaneous way to offer themselves concentrated time for studio work and escape from the demands of everyday life. Their goals were to alleviate the traditional “loneliness of the studio” by providing contact with peers and a focus on process and development rather than finished work.
In Francis’s experience this was certainly the case. In a time of intense hard work and long nights spent at the studio, conversations with fellow artists yielded an introduction to the Ashanti spider character, Anansi, who he plans to explore more deeply in future work, along with new knowledge of the French artist, Louise Bourgeois, with whom he feels he shares similar imagery.
In his studio space, Francis also presents four paintings in a series called Inter-zonal Identities. Colourful portraits in pastel in jewel tones are counterpoised with the dramatic lines of black and white barcodes below, each incorporating a different flag. Reflecting a sense of abstracted individualism in the context of commodification and consumption, the most successful of the four presents a figure whose features seem to melt, making them particularly hard to distinguish. The lines of the barcode extend into the portrait, offering a more direct connection between the individual and super structure of capitalism. What elevates the painting to particular significance is the flag imagery it presents -a mash up of the Israeli and US flags in the corner of the barcode lends an undeniabledrama to the piece in the midst of a moment when the relationship between the two countries has reached a level of intense, geopolitical hyper-relevance.
Akirash’s work also engages political themes, interrogating decision-making, foreign policy, and the global economy. His piece Eni Balaya/Hot Seat, a large scale sculptural installation, features bodies made from transparent plastic wrap with an overlay of red and black string, all suspended above a cloud filled with transparent human limbs. Printed slips of paper in the cloud and in a floor arrangement offer single word messages such as “fear,” “revenge,” “sabotage,” and “transgression.”
Located in his studio space, Akirashalso presents two large-scale installations along with a video piece that includes headphones for private listening. During the festival it was Enikan Lomo/State of Our Economy, a dense layering of woven neckties, rope, thread, cutlery, paint, glue and canvas, that attracted the most awe and attention. This dense, mat-like piece offered extreme textural interest and an opportunity to lose oneself in its intensity and intricacy. Amidst the busy energy, Akirash offers a bulging vein at the centre of the work that opens to reveal an interior space of bold red string; it becomes a place of refuge and focus in the piece, presenting a location of opportunity and alternative possibility in the midst of organised chaos.
Now a veteran to such workshops, fellowships, and residencies, Akirash valued the opportunity to “observe the work of all participants and how they brought their creative efforts into focus” along with the pressure cooker environment created by comparison, motivating everyone to “move on, get busy, [get] crazy creative, and go deep into the inner being of creation.”
While both Francis and Akirash valued the opportunity to gain from others, the existence such a workshop, facilitated among artists from an international pool and incubated in what is arguably the artistic centre of the art capital of the world, begs the question, what do these two artists bring to the conversation? As Nigerian contemporary art continues to rise to the surface of international curiosity, intrigue, and importance, and is increasingly sought after as such, many of us will find the need to continue to reflect on that side of the equation.
• Croyle-Ekong writes from New York