From the simple beginnings of figurative paintings, Moyo Okediji extends the concept of Ona to what he deems its “new modern” forms. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
O.K., so the works are experimental. Yeah, that word might sound clichéd. But then, how else does one capture this obvious impulsion of an artist to express his seething emotions? Strips from shredded soda or lager beer cans are deftly woven into colourful, patterned tapestries draping over the white walls of the Lekki-based Watersworth Gallery. Then, there are ink depictions of mythical images on re-purposed hand-woven reeds.
Obviously, some cryptic messages lurk beneath these recent efforts of Moyo Okediji. Yet, it is their adherence to post-modern canons of aesthetics that tugs at the viewer’s consciousness. The US-based professor of art history would rather use the expression “new modern”. That explains the solo exhibition’s apt title, The New Modern: Explosive Images, Incendiary Times.
Explosive...Incendiary... Something about these words resonate with these dire times. Depressing tales of bomb blasts, oil pipeline or tank explosions and assassinations, among other man-made disaster, whizz towards readers, viewers and listeners from the print and electronic media. Distraught Nigerians carp about the prevailing insecurity and the government’s apparent helplessness. For the artist, an opportunity offers itself on a golden platter to give vent to his frustrations.
Close up on one of these works at the Watersworth Gallery, a metal collage on canvas. He titles it, “Ceremony of the Innocent”. Several strips of soft drink and lager beer cans hang down from the work, hinting at a kind of explosion. Or, maybe they are not really alluding to an explosion. Perhaps, it’s just the artist’s way of unbridling his emotions and depicting the unpredictability of the times.
Cut to the White Space. It’s along Raymond Njoku Street, off the Southwest Ikoyi arterial thoroughfare Awolowo Road. A coterie of artists converges in one of the rooms. They are holding a retreat here as finalists of the fifth edition of the National Art Competition, organised by the African Artist Foundation and sponsored by the Nigerian Breweries. And Okediji is among the facilitators of the several workshops held here for them.
His clean-shaven head and not-so-luxuriant silver grey beard as well as his embroidered blue wax print shirt confer a dignified look on him. His probing eyes seem to reach out into the soul of his interviewer like a pair of laser antennae. And his upright sitting posture belies his assertion, “I am really old.” If indeed he is qualified to be deemed “old” at 56 years, age has etched none of its lines on his face. Nor has acuity of his memory seem to have waned. He still, for instance, recalls the details of a conversation he had almost a decade ago with this journalist sitting before him. This was at the former location of the Nimbus Art Centre in the same neighbourhood.
His take on the prevailing artistic trends is simple. Artists can no longer be restricted to the old ways of expression. They are discovering newer ways of expressing the inner stirrings of their spirit. The incoherence and urgency of the current happenings demands it. Found objects displace conventional mediums.
Flashback to the previous year... The artist held a joint exhibition with his University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) contemporary, Tola Wewe, at the Civic Centre, along Ozumba Mbadiwe Street in Victoria Island. The show, titled The Return of Our Mother, featured works contrived with shards of broken earthenware pots.
The exhibition, which turned out to be the strongest statement yet from the Ona circle, was curated by an American Fulbright scholar, Janine Systma. Besides the significant representation of the Lagos-based collectors’ Who is Who, a busload of lecturers and students of the Obafemi Awolowo University also graced the occasion.
That exhibition, Okediji recalls in an article, “celebrated the triumphal return of Wewe’s mother from captivity, following her abduction in 2010 by unknown kidnappers. The other reason for the exhibition was to keep alive the waning flame of the Ona Movement.”
Ona, the common denominator between Okediji and Wewe, has become for the Obafemi Awolowo University-trained artists what uli represents for the graduates of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka’s Fine and Applied Arts Department.
Flip over to the present. It’s obvious that Ona has reincarnated in Okediji’s “new modern” works. The ink paintings of his Pharaoh Series at the Watersworth Gallery corroborate this. They depict distorted human and animal forms, which hark back at the Yoruba folklore. And this was the hallmark of the so-called Ona “Movement” in its primordial phase.
As for the hand-woven metal and metal collage on canvas works, they extend the Ona credo to the modern times. A series he titles End of Meaning revels in its incoherence of form and content. “The established meanings now feel jaded,” he explains lucidly in his exhibition catalogue. “Nigeria now belongs within the insecure space of a new time, in an era thrust upon us by the birth of international mindless terrorism, and the experience of new technologies, and novel possibilities before now unforeseen. It is an emergent world in which ‘tradition’ is losing the vantages of firmness and continuity.”
A quick recall of that conversation between Okediji and the journalist at the old Nimbus Art Centre premises: it bordered on the artist’s warped notion of freedom. He goes to a restaurant and counts on the cook to get the recipe right. He, afterwards, does not expect his digestive system to experiment. Yet, he yells for his unassailable right to break all rules and expect to be applauded for it.
Enter the time of unravelling. Protracted periods of misdeeds cannot fail to exact their vengeance in accordance with the natural law of justice. Now assuming scarcely believable forms, they unleash untold suffering and misery on Nigerians. Similarly, distortions of the natural order by artists are bound to attract appropriate anguishes. Back to the present, Okediji mulls over the theme of the National Art Competition: “Consequences”. Does he discern a link between the confounding events of the present and the injustices of the past?