From Onali’s depiction of a woman in the throes of pleasure, to Idu’s poignant depictions of women and children, this art exhibition has something to say, writes Solomon Elusoji

On a cool Saturday in early June, lovers of art convened inside a whitish hall at Mansard Place, Victoria Island, to witness the unveiling of an art exhibition titled ‘Covers and Contours’.
The exhibition, which will run till the end of June, features seven contemporary artists: Polly Alakija, Adeola Balogun, Promise Onali, Chika Idu, Diseye Tantua, Omoligho Udenta and Godwin Ekhanemeh.

“Covers and Contours is a celebration of our rich diversity and talent,” the exhibition’s curator, Moses Ohiomokhare, said. “These works provoke various questions, are city inspired? And the artists have explored new techniques to express themselves.”

Ohiomokhare, a lean man who speaks with quiet grace, told THISDAY that the theme, Covers and Contours, speaks to the universal vicissitudes of life. “Life is full of waves and you have to wade through it.”

It’s all about the view
Alakija, one of the artists on display, creates visually stimulating works and she replicates that quality at Covers and Contours. One of her displayed works is the frazzled painting of a beach landscape. “I was just standing on the side of the beach that day and it was raining, stormy,” she told THISDAY, speaking about how the work was conceived. That spontaneity is a thread that runs through her works.

There is another of a woman practicing yoga and an aged man with a hat posing with an idol. “The yoga woman is my yoga teacher,” she said. “I love working with the human form and body, so I asked her to pose for me. I met the old man at Susanne Wenger’s house in Osogbo. He was trained by Susanne.” To celebrate him and capture the essence of his apprenticeship, she asked him, too, to pose for her.

Alakija says her works have no underlying theme. “I am not that deep,” she said, “for me, art is simply a visual response to life. There are no rules. It’s a visual response to how you see the world.”

“Alakija’s work as a designer, artist and illustrator, educator and social activist has distinguished her in the eyes of the local and international community,” Ohiomokhare noted. “Her heart for people, allows her to relate with all ethnic groups and social classes. Her deep commitment to social justice and human right alongside showcasing the wealth of African culture shines through in all her work.”

A simplified process
Udenta’s work with flower-shapes makes a prominent statement at ‘Covers and Contours’. Using cardboard, crepe paper, cloth-pieces and even printing plates, she offers an array of art that is both subtle and brash.
“I used to make them as backdrops for events such as weddings and birthdays, when I realised I could infuse my own characteristics into the flowers and give them personality,” she said.

One of her works at the exhibition, titled ‘Perspectives of Perception’, is a collection of 24 petals made with different shades of fabrics from some of Nigeria’s diverse ethnic groups and a white lace at the centre. “Virtually every tribe in Nigeria uses white lace for one thing or the other and I wanted to show the different ways we do.”

Udenta also has a wide installation that speaks to the whistle-blower phenomenon currently sweeping through the country: within a black petal is embedded petals made of fabrics and another made of pieces of Ghana-must-go, with whistles hanging from the centre. Udenta explained the idea behind the design: “The black colour symbolises our natural resources, our oil; the different fabrics – lace, George and ankara, symbolises the three major tribes; the Ghana-must-go is the storage mode for the stolen funds; and, of course, the whistles.”

Udenta, who teaches Graphic Design at Yaba College of Technology, does not leave things to chaos; she goes through a systematic process while creating art. “What I do is to break down things into lines, colour and texture and lines, look for things to symbolise them and then use them to say what I want to say,” she said.

Interestingly, the mother of three, who used to work in post-production television, creates as a therapeutic method to avoid the stress of motherhood; “It’s a way to calm myself,” she said. But, she told this reporter, the joy of art, is that it helped her to “find a voice.”

Freedom and will
Onali’s depiction of a woman in ecstasy, titled ‘Ecstasy in Gold and Grey’, is perhaps the most visually stimulating work at Covers and Contours. It offers a stunning, picturesque window into the black alley of female sexuality. The colours, bright and tantalising, give the work a liquid feel, like an abstraction of the ocean.
“It could be about freedom,” Onali said, “the freedom to explore something new. But it’s something that talks, more, about me being deflowered. In my alternate life, I am this amazing superwoman that jumps out of skyscrapers, wears six inches and fights bad people.”

His superwoman alter-ego is the creation of Onali’s obsession with Marvel and Universal comics since he was a child. “I grew up drawing a lot of comics and that helped shape my imagination.”

According to Ohiomokhare, Onali has gone through various stages of incubation and has always been driven by the desire to create brutal images that invade the imagination. “Now that he has opened himself up to the public, we are seeing abstract works that speak to us and provoke various questions about life and existence.”

The young man does not disagree; his works, these days, are focused on “the evolution of consciousness, of humanity, of the mind, of technology and, of women taking charge of their lives,” Onali said.

Another of his work that catches the eye at the exhibition is ‘In Our Veins’, a sparkly painting that could be easily mistaken for a poor depiction of an embryo in the womb. “I was trying to depict the nerve endings of a typical Nigerian,” Onali said. “We have that will to do things for ourselves, to succeed. It is something that is borne out of our government not doing things for us. So our nerve endings has this sort of spark that other people from other countries do not have.”

‘In Our Veins’ is accompanied by lines from a rap verse that reads, in part: “Pay no attention to how we are portrayed on CNN, Nigerians are self-sufficient, we are not as poor as they seem to make us look in the media.”

For the pondering mind
The most poignant works at Covers and Contours come from Idu, an artist whose works are characterised by a heavy texture and hazy rendition technique which he calls ‘light against visual distortion’. With ‘Reflect’, a sharp illustration of a battered woman, Idu tells the story of domestic violence, an issue he is very passionate about. “In our days, when we were kids, domestic violence was commonplace. People speak against it today, but it still exists; a lady comes out looking good, but you don’t see the pain underneath.”

‘The Coming’ speaks to that masking of pain by women suffering from domestic violence, either physically or psychologically. In the painting, a woman is dressed, ready for the world, but she is about to put on a mask. “I created this to send a message about women who pretend that all is well, despite being in abusive relationships.”

For almost two decades, Idu has been committed to exposing the plight of the African child through his works, and ‘The Sun Will Shine’, where four children with schoolbags are seen with their arms wrapped around one another, is a brilliant depiction of the innocence of childhood. “A child grows up thinking everyone is the same,” Idu said, “it is we adults who sow the seed of discord and teach them about the difference.”

Idu, who has been involved in campaigns for the protection of the environment as it affects the health of children, is also exhibiting ‘Life As It Is’, an utopian illustration of children swimming in clean water. He lives in Ikorodu and is a witness to seedy state of the lagoon. “It is quite sad the way we treat the environment,” he said.

A complete package
The other artists at Covers and Contours, Diseye Tantua, Godwin Ekhanemeh and Adeola Balogun complete a circle of mouth-watering art. Ekhanemeh features some unconventional furniture along with his sculptural pieces and the organisation of interior space is apparent in his sculpture and furniture, according to Ohiomokhare. And Balogun applies his work to engage subjects as diverse as politics, nature, humanity and survival via exploration of numerous available and unusual materials serving as his vehicle of interrogation in a multiple layered format, while Diseye Tantua is a bundle of energy who engages with pop-art in his work, drawing inspiration from traditional proverbs.