Survivors of 21st Century Slavery in Artistic Splendour


Nyemike Onwuka’s ‘Exodus’, an exhibition of paintings, mixed media and installations, was not just about the survivors of the 21st century slavery or its perpetrators, but was also about how the artist feels the need to depict the ordeal of survivors, writes Mary Ekah

Although Nyemike Onwuka’s exhibition, titled ‘Exodus’ held recently at the Signature Art Gallery, Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, basically examined the experience of victims of the 21st century slavery and the effect of these experiences on the survivors, it further exposed viewers to drawings, paintings, mixed media, installations and performance art on the subject as the artist employs different media to drive home his message and feeling on the subject.

Onwuka, who holds an HND from the Federal Polytechnic Auchi where he majored in Painting, explores dynamism of eye pencil, liquid latex and oil bars in creating works with extraordinary aesthetic component and depth. In his just concluded exhibition, he introduced the use of stencil in depicting patterns, words and symbols to tackle the social decadency affecting women and children around the world today.

Onwuka in his this exhibition exhumed this contemporary slavery narratives expressed in parts by his application of different techniques to distinguish the thought process. In the contemporary society, the artist’s new offering in his last exhibition, calls for a conversation on the rights and value of true freedom in such a way that it celebrates the women and children.

“This represents the survivor of the 21st century slavery, that is what this, is all about and like we all know, women and children are more vulnerable when it comes to abuse. That is why I am using more of women and children in these works,” he explained.

The 21st century slavery, he said was often traced to the abuse of the rights of women and children in contemporary societies. “Uneducated children are often the targets and many are guilty as underage children were employed as house helps for whatever reason.”

The artist also sees trafficking as a form of modern slavery that thrives under a form of secrecy and a lost of human conscience and morality where the woman becomes a commodity, a property that yields returns to her owners in a systematic form of imprisonment. These owners who have commoditised these women, he said, often put a brand of ownership on them.

These brands are hidden in the form of tattoos and fashionable markings, which might often be a source of embarrassment to the women. He portrays this in the series called, ‘Oath Keepers’. With his new experiment, the artist introduces the ‘Hidden Brands’ used by sex traffickers in sophisticated societies. His research on the subject has also informed the subtle placement of these hidden brands as signs and embellishments with coats of happy colours.

Oath Keepers is an argument on consent and pretense. Onwuka argues that it is a kind of rite passage activity for most traffickers in Africa where no one seeks to help you financially without asking you to swear an oath. He further submits that there is more unsaid by the victims than known, adding that testimonies abound of victims who have lost their lives when they break the oath in rebellion.

“The Hidden Brand series emanated from my personal encounter with an ex- branded prostitute in New York. There is a bar in New York where my friend and I used to hang out after we have done all the work for the day. There were a lot of ladies working in the bar but there was something about this particular one – beautiful aural, good-looking lady and well mannered. She just drew my attention and we became friends. Normally when I see guys and ladies with tattoos, I make comments, they are usually excited and want to talk about it but for this lady, she wasn’t excited about hers and was so reluctant to talk about it. But when we got more familiar, she now told me about the history of her tattoo.

She told me the secret behind some tattoos and she opened up a whole lot of things about branded prostitutes. That was like three years ago and that was when I started the research. She told me that her boyfriend then deceived her into branding her to work for his gang, so that wherever she goes to, they can always fish her out. She went further to say that a lot of ladies who were so branded have tried to escape but as long as they remain in the United States or neighbouring countries, they would always fish them out because the logo they carry as tattoos are very well known among this gang.

She said she can only be freed if she cleaned off the tattoo through a medical process which is usually very expensive,” Onwuka noted, adding however that his next exhibition will be held in New York, where the proceeds from the exhibition would be given out to an organization in New York, which focuses on resuscitating such women who are so caged so that they can find a way to set themselves lose from such slavery.

Another series at the exhibition that focused on the plight of children in the 21st century slavery and also evoked so much emotion was ‘We see, We speak, We hear, We conquer’. Here, the dark paints grated on Onwuka’s usual grungy canvas finish with close up figures of children expressive poses. This also throws light on the current global talks about child security and the Chibok girls readily come to mind with these works – the release of the 21 girls and the hesitation of the other children to return home to their parents and loved ones because they have been scarred by force marriage, pregnancy and abuse, raises a concern for the future of the girl-child in developing societies.

In this exhibition, Onwuka take on the narratives of emancipation with a rather contemporary approach, lending new techniques to his already famous gritty patches on canvas. He tells his story of emancipation and metamorphosis in a very systematic way. First, a black cage as an installation piece, welcomes the viewers.

This cage house a number of found items such as school bags, children’s school sandals and shoes, strips of different colours hanging from the roof of the cage, articles of clothing to symbolise feminism. This exposes a metaphorical trap of cognitive freedom, infringed civil rights, political disenfranchisement, girl-child endangerment, denial of girl education and so many possible insinuations.

From this heavy–laden cage full of found objects and oddities, fossilised footprints pasted on the floor from the cage lead viewers to the artworks hung in display on the walls, which now represent the emancipated women and children once bound by grief and burden of slavery.

For Onwuka, combining the need to evolve as an artist with the need to express his feelings has brought about the body of works, which he calls ‘Exodus’. “In this collection, I have opted to explore a more colourful approach to painting, combined with my use of latex and figurative representation of the subjects and ‘Exodus’ has proven to be a different experience altogether in creation and in viewing,” the artist noted.

The need to further strengthen his message, prompted Onwuka’s extensive research which led to his use of bold texts, that is, alphabets, numbers and shapes patterns in his artworks with the major aim of entertaining and more especially, pleasantly sensitise his audience on the subject of 21st century slavery survivors.

Exodus is synonymous with Onwuka’s artistic evolution; from his experimental/figurative platform he sprouted the distinctively unique style of elegant urban decay. Once again, we see today a style driven on progressive transitional journey using text and patterns ingeniously to project his thoughts onto canvas and also to embellish. The evolution of art is a result of experimentalists of the art world, a mind class of artists, which Onwuka over the years has proven to belong to.

According to the Director of Signature Gallery, Chief Rahman Akar, Onwuka’s ability to tell stories with his expressionistic painting style exhibits a deep level of understanding of his crafts. “No doubt the combined mix of curiosity, art education and exposure are key contributing factors to his unique style as an artists,” Akar added.

For the Curator, Signature Gallery, Burns Effiom, the artist creates a stew of 3-dimensional installation and 2-dimensional paintings to height both his visual and colour language, resulting in an intense and powerful message.

‘Exodus’ therefore presented works that are pleasurable to look at as figurative, as urban realism yet symbolising struggles. This is an excellent application of a post-modern technique in arguing contemporary issues.

Through a skillful combination of neo-cubistic sensibilities, traditional painting techniques and new media technologies, Onwuka views his subject and contest, using installation to capture and represent their situation as a screen so that the viewers can explore the image and also access the path in which the artist has chosen. The materials and process of labour amounts to a kind of index of hope using letters scattered over the canvasses almost insignificantly as shorthand to achieve deep tooted aspiration of hope.