Ayodeji Rotinwa reports his findings from a tour of three solo exhibitions that all have one common, unusual thread: youth.
When exhibitions don’t hold in galleries, the chosen location can be telling in the kind of work to expect. Art in hotels, in Lagos at least, are usually decorative, an accompaniment to other expensive furniture, light fittings assembled to entice the potential guest into being impressed enough to book an overpriced room. For interior decorators (presumably and not competent curators) tasked with the job, the art serves the purpose of just looking nice on otherwise bare walls. An aspiration to sophistication. The art hardly ever means or expresses anything, has no discernible story that inspired its creation.
William Chechet’s exhibition, We are the North held on the open ground floor walkaway of a nondescript but elegant hotel in highbrow Ikoyi. Only six of the works were hung. The rest were laid against the wall.
Guests walked past them on their way to lunch or a dip in the pool. They were a few metres away from the public rest rooms.
The exhibition almost exceeded my expectations.
The context of the work was promising enough. Chechet, in his early twenties, a graphic designer and pop artist had displaced easily recognisable cultural icons of Northern Nigeria from the background with which we have come to associate them. He moved them onto canvasses of colour and cool: magenta, yellow, graffiti, painted-on Instagram iconography. Chechet who grew up in North was inviting us to see his region in a different light.
These days, the most popular kind of artistry that comes out of Northern Nigeria is documentary photography. The subjects are always dire: bullet shells, torched churches, cars, malnourished children, IDP camps, all by-products of a stubborn insurgency by terrorist group, Boko Haram.
Chechet’s work on the other hand featured stately gentlemen in turbans, richly embroidered baban rigas, who accessorised with foreign items: a fuchsia pink trumpet, a space helmet, a levitating gold crown, ornate, complicated-looking sunglasses (the kind we might soon see when virtual reality goes mainstream) These gentlemen were cool and cool to look at. The clash of traditional fashion with tech age objects of attraction for today’s millennial was aesthetically pleasing. But what did it all mean? Just art for art’s sake?
Ultimately, it turns out, Chechet’s colourful, “different” projection of the North was not that different at all. In all the works shown, only two featured women. One woman was accessorised with colourful butterflies.
As if to compensate for what I had just seen at Chechet’s, the next exhibition I went to, this time at Red Door Gallery, depicted women who had agency and were about to do something extraordinary: fly to space. I was on a tour of solo exhibitions that opened within days of each other and all featured contemporary artists under 30. The Nigerian art industry usually accused of being ageist and having room for only tried, tested and older artists was – finally! – bucking an unsavoury trend and giving promise and potential, a day in the sun.
Dennis Osadebe in his exhibition, ‘Remember the Future’ invites the viewer to fly within the star’s orbit.
Osadebe is a self-taught artist and a self-acclaimed Neo-African. The latter is an idealised tag that seeks to firmly establish that he is not traditional, that he will not create work that has become expected from or common amongst artists from an African origin. At least with artists from the modern era, popular with auction houses abroad. There would be no masks, masquerades, depictions of local gods or patterns or forms inspired by an indigenous local culture.
Remember the Future clearly follows this line of thought.
The exhibition was inspired by an evening news piece, of April 2016 on CNN where it was announced that Nigeria would be pursuing a space program. “I found it ridiculous. We were just queuing for fuel last week and this week we are going to space,” Osadebe says.
Presently and to no one’s surprise, the space program hasn’t been noted for much asides the announcement of its existence on a globally watched news network. Osadebe however has been at work since the news broke, a year-long effort that resulted in his currently showing exhibition which also happens to be his first solo.
The results are a bold, psychedelic splash of social commentary and depiction of a pessimistic, dystopic future. For Osadebe, a space programme chasing Nigeria will still struggle with oil shortages. The program itself might inspire a new rash of “help”-seeking Nigerian 419 princes preying on the vulnerable and too trusting.
Osadebe, however, on the second floor of the exhibition sheds the space program entirely, the surviving attachment for his new palette of discourse being the space helmet. He uses this cleverly as a metaphor for technology and isolation to comment on varied topics from religion, to poor leadership, importation of print fabrics and culture, to how Nigeria forgets to remember her heroes. Immediately, this all seems too much to take in at once. Notably, the second half of the exhibition could have been one on its own. Yet it all still works. Why? The curation of the exhibition as a whole is faultless. By way of a descriptive wall text, there is an admittance on the second floor that gears have shifted and the viewer should continue to keep focus, stay for the rest of the ride. This self-awareness though unsubtle, is the mark of a curator who understands how art is to be consumed and rescues the exhibition from going off course. The man responsible for this is Joseph Gergel. I daresay he deserves comparable praise to that which the artist will surely receive. Curatorial accidents avoided, the artist’s message is clear. A dystopic Nigerian future will look very much like its present. Full of broken promises and poor results. Projects, like the space program will be announced with confetti and fanfare and then abandoned. We may continue to have leaders who rule from behind a space helmet, removed from empathy, compassion for their citizens, and in competence and capacity to do a good job. Church leaders may continue to be isolated from the needs of their followers.
Ultimately, we will have no surprises and no change to look forward to contrary to inspired political campaign speeches. For an exhibition that makes such generous use of bright colours, its soul is quite dark.
There does seem to be a glimmer of hope in Osadebe’s work though in that the space engineers depicted in the first floor of the exhibition are all women. Was this a progressive comment on the artist’s part or the reverse, in saying a fictional – and therefore not real – future will have women running things?
Initially, I was convinced the artist meant the former. On second thought I wasn’t sure.
This is where the day’s uncertainties – of Chechet and Osadebe – ended.
From the unusual and fantasy of both aforementioned artists, I moved to the most familiar of all – family – in Eloghosa Osunde’s And We Have Entered Broken Earth (ANHWEBE, for short) showing at Rele Gallery. Unlike Chechet’s indifferent subject and Osadebe’s tentative translation, Osunde’s presentation is eagle-eyed. She knows what is at stake. She knows what she wants to say.
Admittedly, she has an edge over two previously mentioned artists. Asides her work as an artist, Osunde is also a burgeoning writer and film maker once endorsed as one to watch out for by the iconic Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for her writing. In this current exhibition, she brings this story telling skill to bear from the page to the canvas.
ANHWEBE is a collection of manipulated photographs that explore intergenerational family cycles. Osunde notes that in family there are things we inherit that we cannot see, things we learn but we do not know how, things that repeat themselves and we do not know why. These things may be familiar: violence, neglect, depression, trauma that does not leave scars on the flesh. Fathers and sons beat their wives. Mothers choose unhappiness, comfort over love, and years later, ask their daughters to make the same mistake. Children find love in short supply and as adults are unable to give what they do not have.
It seems very clear to me that young, untested artists are more competent than they are given credit for. If Chechet, Osadebe and Osunde are a median barometer with which to judge the swelling pool of millennial artistry, there’s promise in the potential here. However, though critically noteworthy, their works might remain a commercial gamble for some time. One of Osadebe’s works was priced at N700, 000, a heady amount that an art dealer or gallery might find difficult to close on for an older, more accomplished, artist.
Yes, in today’s art climate and market, to borrow a cliché, talent is not enough.
Better judgement, in addition might suffice.