Seven artists’ perceptions of Lagos unfurls on a group exhibition in Lagos, titled At Work, which as the outcome of the Arthouse Foundation’s Residency Programme enters its second edition this year. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

EXHIBITION
At Work heaves with inspired visions this year. This group exhibition, which is on its second edition, consolidates on the thematic gropings of the previous one, held between March 18 and April 7, last year at this same venue: The Kia Showroom in Victoria Island, Lagos. A fallout of the final projects of the beneficiaries of the Arthouse Foundation Artist Residency Programme, it bases its narrative arc on the Lagos scene – “a conceptual mapping of the city”, as the organisers ingeniously dubbed it.

Perhaps, there is really something about this recurring allusion to Lagos as an invaluable selling point, which gave its opening, yesterday (Saturday, January 27), its allure.

On until Saturday, February 10, the exhibition – supported by Kia Motors – features projects by François Beaurain, Nengi Omuku, Thiérry Oussou, Kadara Enyeasi, Jimmy Nwanne, Gloria Oyarzabal Lodge and Christian Newby, which they produced during their three-month residency programme with the Arthouse Foundation last year. The septet’s exploration of this theme traipses through painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, collages, mixed-media and textiles, rummaging through the archives and experimenting with tactile materials.

Expectedly, this mosaic of narratives re-echoes the artists’ diverse backgrounds, which inevitably leaches into their divergent takes on the mega-city. Take the 39-year-old Christian Newby, the American-born artist who lives and works in London, UK, for instance. Isn’t there something Freudian about his offerings? His motif-laden tufted wools already hint at his provenance. This explains why his obvious deft use of the carpet-tufting gun leaves a culturally conflicting trail on his offerings. Yet, the aftertaste on the viewer’s palate is pleasant, as he begins to see textile materials and their aesthetic potentials in an entirely new light. Newby’s exploration of the tufted surface as a site of technical and aesthetic mutability beams the spotlight on the various uses and roles an object can assume.

Similarly, the 30-year-old Beninese-born artist Thiérry Oussou, who lives and works in Benin and Amsterdam, offers a compact – albeit inscrutable – visual impression of Lagos. In his mixed-media on paper offerings, there is an apparent indecision between abstraction and representation. The outcome is a space cluttered with childlike images, which sometimes evoke ghoulish forms. This, perhaps, best captures the ethereal environment of Nigeria’s commercial capital. And this is one good reason why Oussou’s vision of Lagos as an outsider deserves to be taken seriously. It takes his otherness to thus interpret the city’s legendary energy through the imageries of the tricycle riders, the water and fruit vendors. This is evident in his mixed-media on paper works “Life in Ikoyi”, “The Orange Seller” and “Energie”.

Oussou’s unintended otherworldly forms find their alter-egos in Nengi Omuku’s haunting images of, sometimes, fragmented bodies and ominously brooding skies. There is indeed something mythical, if not arcane, about her landscapes in which her forms float like spectres. Thus, the fact that the 31-year-old Port Harcourt-based painter seeks the point of convergence between abstraction and formal representation becomes more and more self-evident, especially in her oil on canvas paintings “Sweet, Sweet Home”, “How To Be”, “On Low Cut” and “Akimbo”. Omuku’s intentional fuzzy representations seem to italicise the transience of matter with a breathtaking nimbleness. Her images seem to call out to the viewer: “Here today, gone tomorrow.”

One of the most engaging artists among the septet is Kaiserslautern, Germany-based Jimmy Nwanne. The 29-year-old is a dab hand at conjoining fabrics, local newspapers, magazines, cardboard and charcoal to achieve his ultimate goal of exploring the themes of boundaries and transcendence. Thus, he parses the issue of identity, tribe, gender and social hierarchies. The inter-connectedness between these diverse cultures and social standings are highlighted with his cut and paste technique, which the viewer easily discerns in the mixed-media works, “Identity”, “Connection”, “Demand” (Prosperity), “Beyond” and “Situation Room”. To produce these works, Nwanne, the story goes, was inspired by separate conversations he had the same day with his friend’s neighbour and a taxi driver. Thus, the co-existence of diverse cultural groups within the same geopolitical space began to interest him. There is a quality in these works that proclaims his message of unity before a babel of voices clamouring for sectional interests.

Meanwhile, Frenchman François Beaurain discerns this unity in Nollywood movie posters, which he had been collecting for years. For the 42-year-old, who lives and works between Paris and Rabat, Morocco, these posters are appropriated as raw materials for his collages. In these collages, he focuses on the isolation and repetition of a single figure while adopting a “cloning” process that evokes the way that these posters are displayed in streets and markets throughout the continent. The titles of the collages “Rest in Peace”, “Princess of the Moon”, “Fear of a Woman” and “Return of Book of Evil” parody the typical Nollywood titles.

As for the 24-year-old Nigerian-born Kadara Enyeasi, the human body is a medium to express emotions and, perhaps, tension. The Lagos-based artist deftly combines elements of photography with those of drawing and sculpture as an approach to a psychological study of the nude human figure. Indeed, there is nothing voyeuristic about the seated nude male model, who turns his back on the viewer in a contortionist pose. Enyeasi might never have seen Lucien Freud’s misanthropic nude female studies but there are obvious parallels between his work and the latter. But among his acknowledged influences are Rotimi Fani Kayode, Jean Hans Arp, Henri Matise and Rei Kawakubo, whose efforts he reinterpreted in addition to imagining their intersections.

Finally, the 46-year-old British-born Gloria Oyarzabal Lodge scours through the archives of the National Museum, Lagos among other sources in her bid to explore the vernacular representation of African women. Lodge expands the discourses of feminism, drawing her audience’s attention to alternative models beyond the familiar Western concept of the nuclear family. The Madrid, Spain-based artist appropriates archival photographs in their historical context and interrogates those overlooked factors that constitute the generally accepted notions of of gender and identity.

The exhibition’s real selling point lurks behind the fact that it provides a platform for artists to expand their practice and experiment with new art forms and ideas. This is a nod to the raison d’être of the Arthouse Foundation’s residency programme, which has since inception been clear about establishing a network that supports cross-cultural exchange between Nigerian and international artists. The non-profit organisation’s stated aim to encourage the creative development of contemporary art in Nigeria also embraces the medium as an educational model to engage communities, promote social dialogue and advance the critical discourse of artistic practices.