Survival in a crises-plagued society leaves a bitter aftertaste on Ibe Ananaba’s palate and inspires his fifth solo exhibition in Lagos. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

Are these carefully-lined up jerrycans extending the message of the paintings looming above them? Obviously. At first, they convey the impression that this exhibition, titled Long-drawn Shadows, is all about fuel queues. But this impression soon dissipates when the viewer moves on to the other parts of the exhibition hall.

Talking about the exhibition’s title, it was a product of a prolonged cerebration. The artist Ibeabuchi (better known to his friends as Ibe) Ananaba was mulling over recent poignant personal experiences. And these experiences were the inevitable consequences of living in a dysfunctional society. It was when he decided to communicate them visually to his audience that he discovered that a ghastly writer’s block was standing between him and the choice of an appropriate guiding title.

It was then that Professor Frank Ugiomoh came to his rescue. Ananaba had reached out to him, because – besides being “a dear friend”, whose views he respected – the University of Port Harcourt-based professor of history of art and theory had also witnessed the spectacular progress of his studio practice.

“I poured out my heart, had a deep conversation and after a few deliberations, Long-drawn Shadows was birthed as the title of the show with the help of Professor Ugiomoh,” Ananaba recalls.

The title, he thought, was apt for the message he had planned to visually communicate with the audience. “I went with the title because of the metaphorical approach I toed while titling the pieces and how I wanted or envisaged the audience to receive the message. This was intentional, because I thought going satirical with a tinge of humour would be a good way to communicate the heavy heart-felt pain of a concerned citizen, because I’ve always wondered ‘for how long would we live with these age-old issues that seem unresolvable?’”

Back to the exhibition, which opened on Friday, April 13 at Art Twenty-one Gallery within the Eko Hotel and Suites premises in Victoria Island, Lagos. As the artist’s fifth solo show, it lifts a corner of the veil on the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of his creative dispositions. Indeed, the works on display could have been mistaken for works taken from the different stages of his artistic development.

But this is not so. They only represent the “bits” of what he has always been doing and are clustered in such subtitles as “Give Us This Day, Our Daily Fuel”, “Cabal”, “Forced Crown,” “Waiting till infinity”, Hustle in the Dark”, “This Houses Are Not For Sale”, “Shay Na Like Dis WE Go Dey Dey?”, “Rise Again”, “No More Empty Promises” and “Forlorn Hopes” series, among others.

“Perhaps having the pieces all in a show creates a different kind of experience…I respond to how the feelings come and what the mood at the time presents.”

Then, there are the jerrycan installations. Isn’t their inclusion an overkill? Didn’t his paintings – and drawings – sufficiently convey his message? “The array of paintings (including the drawings), on their own, did justice in proclaiming the desired message but I believe in going the extra mile to bring the idea to life,” he says. “So, I accompanied the series with installation so as to help deepen my message. The reason is that it makes the message easily relatable. People saw it and it resonated with them and I’d like to believe that it’ll make the exhibition memorable. On the other hand, it’s a bit disruptive, which also helps in driving the desired message home to the audience’s consciousness.”

But, conspicuously missing in this exhibition, which ends on Friday May 11, are his masterly ballpoint-pen on paper drawings, which were featured at his last major outing in 2009, titled Against All Odds and held at the former Goethe-Institut premises along Ozumba Mbadiwe Street in Victoria Island. “The absence of the ballpoint-pen works was intentional because, first, it requires some extra time and attention to create,” the 1999 Institute of Management and Technology graduate says. “Secondly, I felt I was being a bit boxed with the label of ‘that pen-drawing artist’. So, I thought to show the other sides of me. This isn’t the first time I’m exhibiting with the pen drawing series absent. I believe an artist has the right to explore and try out new things. That way, one gets to discover some hidden things and grow in the practice. I thought to pause on the pen-drawing series so I can deepen my love and learn more about paints, colours and their usage.”

Ananaba is highly optimistic about the future of his studio practice. While he confesses not being able to predict what the future holds in store for him, he senses it would be “blissful”.

“In the next five years, I hope to have inspired as many souls across globe as I can with my art. Thankfully, there’s technology at our fingertips to help achieve that… I see my art practice as ministry. I remain extremely thankful that God blessed me with the gift of creativity. So, it’s my main responsibility to nurture it and use it to challenge, question and reshape thoughts as well as inspire people through many art projects and ventures. The creative mind never sleeps. My next artistic project could be anything, so far it’s creative.”

The Belgian-born artist, who was raised in the south-eastern commercial city, Aba, is constantly seeking new ways to hone his skills. Currently, he is engaged with an “International Watercolour Portrait face-off” with a California-based art professor David Lobenberg. “It’s our joint portrait challenge initiative where we both exchange images of ourselves and paint. So he paints me and I paint him. The exercise shines a new light on how borderless and interactive art can be. Social media brought us together, though we are based in different continents and have not physically met each other. Interestingly, what seemed like a casual idea has gradually morphed into an incredible cross-cultural discourse.

“For both of us, it has been a privilege to study and paint each other’s personality from a different culture in many sessions. Also, it’s been a great way in strengthening each other’s courage and confidence in using a delicate medium (watercolour) as the major tool for this cultural exchange.

Asides the above and the future exhibitions that would come, initiatives to engage communities and our social spaces with the arts are being put in place.”

Ananaba’s artistic odyssey started from his childhood years. That was the first time he noticed the magic a pencil or crayon could perform on paper. His elder brother Ugo was at that time “pulling visual stunts on paper as he recreated Super Heroes”.

He must have been three years old or so. All he could recollect about that experience was that it was lovely and that he soon joined his brother in the doodling spree. This was also how it occurred to him that he could become a successful artist.

Thankfully, he grew up in a family that encouraged art. “My mother was the first art supporter. I knew from childhood that she was the one buying all materials and I needed to bring my ideas to life. I’m lucky to have siblings and relatives who operate in the creative field.”

Thus, he traipsed through an exciting world that has seen him work at top-notch advertising firms and feature in several group exhibitions and art projects. Looking back years later, he owes a debt of gratitude to a host of creative kindred spirits like his brother Ugo, Okechukwu Iwundu, Chima Etu, Henry Morkah, Chamberlin Ukenedo, the late Damian Onyekuru, Uche Iroha, Kelechi Amadi-Obi, Nsikak Essien, Duke Asidere, Edosa Ogiugo, Sam Ovraiti, Abiodun Olaku, Segun Adejumo, Rom Isichei, Kainebi Osahenye and Uche Joel Chima, among others.