Even as one of Nigeria’s most accomplished artists, Rom Isichei has rooted his practice in what he calls “an enduring material and objects exploration”, thus expanding his visual vocabulary and adding to contemporary discourse. This is a journey, he tells Okechukwu Uwaezuoke, that prohibits any form of complacency
A plea lurks somewhere in those eyes. This plea, reinforced by the prayerful stance of the hooded youngster, tugs at the viewer’s heartstrings. His half-open mouth, which reveals a gap in his dentition, suggests he is verbalising his fervent wish. And the mixed-media on canvas painting spells out this wish with the title: “Bring Back My Yesterday”.
Somehow, a yearning tenderness seems to have crept into these words and hints at nostalgia. It is the nostalgia for the youth’s wonder years. Yesterday may be gone, but the repository of its records hold his most memorable moments.
Back to the painting. The misty grey monochromatic hue of the work is brusquely interrupted by the youngster’s red vest peering out from beneath the hoodie. Monochrome is a feature the work shares in common with 11 others in this three-floor studio. They are being prepared for a solo exhibition, titled Every Thought Has a Face, which opens towards the end of next month at Rele Gallery’s new outlet in Victoria Island, Lagos.
For the artist Rom Isichei, these large-sized portraits of mainly youngsters and women produced with sawdust and oil on canvas, are only extensions of his patented experimentations with mixed-media. And this form of mixed-media expression has remained the theme song of his studio practice for a long while. So, could he have found a comfort zone in them?
Not really. For an artist, who is continually exploring new visual vocabularies, the words “comfort zone” should be anathema. “They allude to a state of contentment and security,” he argues. “It’s a journey that forbids me any form of complacency.”
Even so, he has not entirely turned his back on the traditional media. It is rather a case of having sometimes to step back in order to step forward again, he explains. This is why he enthuses about his future compositions embracing the traditional media in all their glory.
Nor has he entirely abandoned his famed Crossroads Series, which are now being enthusiastically imitated by younger artists desperately seeking relevance.
Like virtually every artist in the contemporary Nigerian art scene, he had started off with the traditional media. Along the line, as he progressed from one biennial solo exhibition to the other, found and repurposed objects began to inveigle their way into his body of works. Perhaps, his 2015 solo show at the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos – titled Someday Is Today – was the boldest statements he would make with these experimentations. In that exhibition, all kinds of found objects – plaster cast, fabric, metal, wine covers, plastic comb, corrugated cardboard and wood shavings, among others – joined forces and resolved into engaging images on canvases or on boards.
But what makes the upcoming exhibition unique is the fact that it is less eclectic in its repurposing of found objects. Indeed, all the paintings for the solo show are basically produced with the same materials: sawdust and oil on canvas. This is what makes such works like “They Glanced Backwards with Amused Delight” and “That Same Old Feeling” share a kind of “visual fellow-feeling” with “Bring Back My Yesterday”. Besides, they all belong to what he calls the Grains of Dust Series. According to him, they form “a single invariable collection and in a scale I have always dreamt of since I produced the very first piece of these series.”
There is also the fact that the dimensions of these works “presented a daunting but auspicious space to be expressive unlike the smaller scale” he had been working on. “Until now, my past solo shows have tended towards a collage of two to three modes and styles of expression, but the forthcoming show, Every Thought Has a Face, utilises the grains of dust mode as the only medium.”
Obviously, relocating to a new space has emboldened his experimentations with large-scale works. He bases this on the premise that a new space often projects new ideas. “Yes, my new studio space will afford me the opportunity to realise works I have previously shied away from due to space constraints,” the 52-year-old Delta State-born artist affirms.
Then, there is this obvious deliberateness about his attempt to coax out a 3D effect from the flat surface of these paintings. Hence, he admits that “all dots, all marks, all scratches and scribbles were part of the process that tends towards a 3D effect and at such deliberate.”
Curiously, unlike most committed artists, Isichei apparently shuns works that make veiled or obvious allusion to the raging political issues of the day. He would rather settle for the less “offensive” sociocultural issues, which are not necessarily unique to the Nigerian environment. “In this age of modern technology, our local environment is not immune to happenings in the global sphere as sociocultural issues that are topical in the West now impact the rest of the world,” the 2013 Chelsea College of Art and Design, London MA holder says. “Native cultures are being eroded by homogeneous customs due in part to social media and its cross-pollination of ideas and tenets. As an artist and an impassioned observer in this global village, I enact this issues and events in my visual compositions.”
True, there are such recent works as “Kingpin”, “The Past Is Still Present”, “Coronation of the Kingpin by the Faithful Nomads”, “In a Fit of Pique” and “The Ruling Class” among many others, which he says are “well layered with political undertones”. “At the moment, my inspirations and subjective ‘doctrine of necessity’ are inclined towards compositions with sociocultural and religious motifs,” he adds.
On his apparent predilection for depicting children and women, he argues that his “inclinations and inspirations are in a constant state of flux”. “I have dwelt on the female being in past shows as a vehicle of expression and now focusing on children as my expressional motif. I may direct my spotlight on older people in the future for my compositional framework as my consciousness directs.”
Isichei’s works – which have featured in auctions like the Arthouse Contemporary, Bonhams Africa Now, Germany’s “Postwar and Contemporary Art” Auctionata, New York’s Philip de Pury’s “Africa” – seem to increasingly appeal to a wider audience. “Modern technology has compressed the world into a global village and at such given visibility to all endeavours,” he offers by way of an explanation. “It has become easier to reach viewers and audiences across varied continents through the platform of digital media. My works have gained global visibility via the various instruments of digital media with a sensibility that tends towards universal.”
These works, he hopes, will be remembered beyond their aesthetic embodiment since they “are often imbued with ambiguous connotations beyond the facial façade”.
Having been featured several exhibitions both within and outside Nigeria, Isichei’s works are enthusiastically collected and cherished by aficionados. Thus, the artist has earned his seat of honour among the leading artists of the contemporary Nigerian art scene.
Still, he looks forward to the future with expectations. As for the directions his creative paths would take, he says: “Only time shall tell.”