LOOK FOR THE ART IN THE EXPRESSION

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A quartet of conceptual artists feasts on the corruption-ridden Nigerian political landscape in an exhibition taking place in Lagos. But this exhibition offers no glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel, Okechukwu Uwaezuoke discovers

VISUAL ARTS

Odd title, At Work. This could be a ploy to stimulate reflection. Isn’t that, after all, the whole point of conceptual art? May be not entirely. For the less scholarly exhibition habitués would rather be on the look out for Wow! Moments.

Alas, not many of such moments are evident in this four-man exhibition – still ongoing at Kia Showroom along Akin Adesola Street in Victoria Island, Lagos. Besides Olumide Onadipe’s mixed-media installation “Conversation with Self”, there is hardly any other flicker of novelty in the hall.

Close-up on Onadipe. Experimentation, by the way, is the theme song of his studio practice. The University of Nigeria, Nsukka-trained sculptor apparently has a predilection for manipulating tactile materials.

This is how come such found objects as polythene bags, metal, wood, jute bags and glass seem pivotal in the creation of his recent works. In a bid to repurpose these objects, he gives them new forms through a process that involves melting and twisting. Thus, the artist – as part of his residency project with the Arthouse Foundation (the organisers of the exhibition) – examines how individuals interact with their environments.

Among his offerings at this exhibition, which opened on March 18, the mixed-media works “Road Map to New Lagos”, “Wheel In, Wheel Out” and “World Apart” proudly stand out. They indeed proclaim his artistic credo.

Move over to Tyna Adebowale’s acrylic, pen and ink on canvas portraits of black African women. Obviously, this Auchi Polytechnic graduate is fixated on gender issues. Of course, these complemented by tangential issues like sexuality and identity.

Take the images of her women – as in “Bodii”, “Mystyk” and “Tom” series. They are densely-patterned by traditional design motifs. Before them, the viewer needs to linger a little longer. Defiantly, they seem to inveigle their way into the viewers’ consciousness from their section of the exhibition hall. Ditto her 10-panel acrylic, pen and ink on canvas graffiti-like work “Here, Here and Now”.

What else are they there for, but to do the bidding of their creator? Through them, Adebowale stridently rails against the marginalisation of her gender.  It is understandable, therefore, that they are part of her residency project with the Arthouse Foundation. Talking about residencies, the artist, who is currently an artist-in-residence at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, had previously completed residency programmes at the Instituto de Arte e Cultura Yoruba in Brazil and Asiko Art School in Ghana.

The other artist, Dipo Doherty, seems more at home with colourful stylised grotesque depictions of human forms. These forms, which seem largely inspired by the African traditional art, also hint at some Western and modernist influences. His residency project indeed orbits around his contrasting colour scheme in which a viewer easily spots vestiges of his monochromatic expression.

Yet, what would his paintings be without these contrasting hues and patterns? Thanks to them, a viewer discerns a hint of emotional intensity or restlessness in the paintings. Take the acrylic on canvas works like “Eden”, “Woman Bathing at Night”, “Woman Bathing on a Beach”, “Abstract Figure” and “General on a Horse”, for instance. The fragmented, distorted parts of the figures create an illusion of movement. The dispersed facial features, hair and limbs suggest the still images in the various stages of an activity. It is as though the artist is hurriedly documenting these activities.

Naturally, he would have to jettison the traditional canons of aesthetics to be able to achieve this. Besides, to be visually intelligible to many aficionados, he would first have to claw his way from out of the gloominess of his ethereal environment. Truth be told, the grotesqueness of these forms are consistent with the contemporary Zeitgeist.

But this is not all the University of Virginia graduate offers. If there are figures or forms in his patterned and somewhat blurry “Ecstasy” series, they are hardly noticeable. Indeed, there are forms lurking in the midst of the somewhat subdued acrylic and oil colours.

In his “Covalence” series fragments of photographic prints pasted on board peer at the viewer from beneath a slapdash arrangement of burnt rulers. Here too, the artist’s conceptual whims overrule the viewers’ clamour for some form of coherence.  Doherty, a finalist for the a prize at the inaugural ArtX Lagos held late last year,  is not entirely unknown in the Lagos scene. For he had recently held solo exhibitions at the Victoria Island-based Red Door Gallery and the Lekki-based Nike Art Centre.

Finally, there is Jelili Atiku. This 2015 Prince Claus Award recipient is best known for his performance art, though he is basically a multimedia artist. His fixation on the somewhat tumultuous political environment provides the fodder for his drawings, installations, sculpture, photography, video and performance art.

For his residency project, he deploys performances in public spaces for his exploration of the Nigerian socio-political experiences from 1914. To this end, he conceives a fictional political party he calls the People’s Welfare Party (P. W. P.) through which he plunges headlong into the shark infested waters of Nigerian politics. The party’s manifestos, printed beside a portrait of the artist smiling for the camera, suggest that it is a messianic platform for the liberation of the suffering masses from their kleptocratic leaders.

A highly committed artist,  he takes a swipe at the decadent political environment and dysfunctional government policies. His oil on paper drawings, which are conceptualisation of the performance “Recession No Be Mistake” (Manifesto III) , seethe with so much anger and cynicism. They complement the actual performances depicting a black-clad, cape-draped figure, whose head seems encased in what could pass for a stash of antlers or antennae. This Satan-like figure, also holding a white miniature cow in his hand, could be the artist’s perception of the ethereal form of recession.

If his other performances “Senate, Are You a Rotten Head?” (Manifesto IV) and “HUNHUN-UN-UN” (Manifesto V) seem more synergistic than the former, it is because they involve a handful of collaborators. Nonetheless, they are only a foretaste of what  should be expected from this graduate of the University of Lagos and Ahmadu Bello University at the official Nigerian exhibition of the 2017 Venice Biennale.

Meanwhile,  At Work, which is on until Friday, April 7, leaves a trail of sordid tales across the exhibition hall.  The exhibiting artists, who are so caught up in the web of Nigeria’s self-created entanglements, offer the audience little hope for the future. Surely, their depictions of the contemporary realities is no ashen heap from which one expects Phoenix to rise.