Woman-Cradle of Civilization by Reha Shishodia, string and charcoal installation, 2018

Yinka Olatunbosun

The rolling trolleys with an assortment of pastries may be the only distraction to the eclectic art collection paraded along the corridors of Wheatbaker Hotel, Ikoyi. At the moment, it’s inevitable to pause and take a good look at some of the pieces displayed by seven female artists in an exhibition organised by SMO Contemporary Art. This show is the third edition of Standing Out exhibition series which coincides with the global celebration of International Women’s month while tapping into the global campaign for gender equality.

At a recent press preview of the works in Lagos, two emerging curators, Nneoma Ilogu and Moni Oloke revealed the central idea for the show titled, Unmasked. The mental health of women is explored by the artists using varying artistic expressions such as painting, ceramics, sculptures, performance poetry, burned wood, digital art and multi-media string installation.

Unlike the previous editions, this show is very varied also on the cultural background of participating artists. Sourced from Nigeria, Cameroon, Gambia, India and United States, all the artists have links in Lagos and they are Nengi Omuku, Djakou Kassi Nathalie, Somi Nwandu, Nyancho NwaNri, Koromone Koroye, Reha Shishodia and Queen Nwaneri.This year’s Standing Out exhibition also puts a spotlight on the highly publicized women’s issues such as lack of access to education, gender-based violence, and the need for economic equality. Perhaps, the mental health issue is one of the least discussed in Nigerian society due to a culture of silence hovering around the subject matter.

To be sure, the World Health Organisation held that over 7 million Nigerians suffer from depression and 4.8 million Nigerians (2.7% of the population) suffer from anxiety disorders. World-wide just 3% of total government spending is for mental health. Clearly, there is a need to raise awareness about mental health in women and proffer solutions.

“We believe that art is an important tool for advocacy and change in society,” the two curators explained. “We choose artists who have a strong message and presence, and could help to publicise the need for society to focus on the mental well-being of women.”

For Koromone Koroye, who hails from Bayelsa State but practised performance poetry in the US as a college student, owning her art was a big challenge. First, the reception in Nigeria was not impressive at her first show so she retreated and forgot performance poetry for a while. After a successful one-off performance at her church, she was encouraged to write more stimulating verses, some of which she will be performing at the grand opening of the show.
Nyancho NwaNri, with both Nigerian and Gambian parentage, emphasised the need for encouraging more conversations around mental health issue in public sphere. She frowned against pretense or masking inner emotions that could later have very damaging effect on the individual or her loved ones.

Reha Shishodia,the artist from India, who has taught children living with mental health issues, said that women still revolve around her thematic preoccupation. Queen Nwaneri, whose personal experience drew out her painting powers said she likes to deface her subjects, mostly women and children, to de-emphasise physical beauty and concentrate more on intellectual ability. Her abstract paintings are inspired by her knife-palette technique and the knowledge of a male-glorifying society.

In all, the show explores complex questions of identity, breaking down stereotypes, and dealing with societal pressures in the congested, over-populated mega-city of Lagos.

The Founder & Artistic Director of SMO Contemporary Art, the Wheatbaker’s long standing art curator, Sandra Mbanefo-Obiago also added that “UNMASKED is a bold and honest expose of what goes on within women’s mindscapes through the intricate and emotionally charged work of these phenomenal artists. We are excited that the hotel can advocate for better support for mental health in Nigeria by providing an important platform for these vital issues to be addressed through art.”

UNMASKED runs from March 11 to May 4 and is supported by Louis Guntrum, and the Wheatbaker.