Juliet Ezenwa Pearce: Goddess of Masks

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

It was like stepping into sacred territory. When I walked into the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos venue of Juliet Ezenwa Pearce’s Beyond 2018 art exhibition, the personable exhibitor who we fondly call “Painter” insisted I must take a photograph beside “my fellow gods” on her wall!

I had to pay heed because Juliet represents “she who must be obeyed.” She has transcended normal mundane fare and now communes with the spirits. In traditional lore only the superwoman dares to master the cult of the masks which ought to be the preserve of titled men.
She does not bend the knee to orthodoxies.

She breaks bold ground with her work on “Agbogho Mmuo”, to wit, maiden masquerades. The 2017 oil on canvas painting depicts two maiden masquerades daintily soaring along in fellowship.

She explains matter-of-factly that “many of my masks I have adjusted to be able to tell my story about them, for instance, assigning horns, a symbol of strength, to maiden masquerades as opposed to chauvinistic traditional association.”

Juliet is unapologetically feminist, reiterating the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the tenets of bringing up the girl-child thus: “Teach her to reject likeability. Her job is not to make herself likeable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people.”

Through her Girl-Child Rights series of paintings Juliet transcends the worn narrative of training females to only aspire towards becoming only good wives. It is incumbent on the women to make marks on their own instead of just being attachments to men in the course of accomplishments. It aids complementary humanity for women to be involved in the decision making process on issues affecting the entire community.

Juliet gained her early inspiration from the wall-decorating feats of her grandmother in her native Delta State. The Uli foundation as espoused by the Nsukka School of Art finds visual expression in the masterwork of Juliet Ezenwa Pearce.

The influences are deep and vast, ranging from Prof Ben Enwonwu to Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya. A graduate of Bendel State University (now Delta State University), Abraka, Juliet gained the Arts Business Management Techniques and Methodologies at Terra Kulture, Lagos and undertook MA in Educational Admin and Planning at National Open University of Nigeria.

In May 2009 she won the Caterina De Medici International Painting Award in Florence, Italy. The Society of Nigerian Arts (SNA), Lagos Chapter, gave her the Sheriff Adetoro Prize for Industrial Design (Ceramics) in August 2009.

She started exhibiting her works right from her NYSC days in Ilorin, Kwara State in March 1991. Ever since, she has been busy, participating in well over a hundred group and solo exhibitions and workshops. She compiled and edited the epochal book Issues in Contemporary Nigerian Art – 2000-2010.

According to the curator Luciano Uzuegbu, “alongside a few other artists including Peju Layiwola, Ndidi Dike, Angela Isiuwe, and Odun Orimolade, Juliet’s over 27 years of illustrious practice ranks her amongst the few top females with such enduring dexterity that continually measures the depth of contemporary visual language in Nigeria, and proudly challenges what appears a male dictated milieu.”
The genie behind the mask is the goddess who enjoyed distinguished tutelage from deans and dons such as Sam Ovraiti. Juliet runs a home of art with her husband, the celebrated writer Adewale Maja-Pearce, author of The House My Father Built.

Juliet’s range is indeed quite vast. Her mixed media work in what she tags “Paintergraph experiment” is at once arresting and very avant-garde. The “Happy Family” offering showcases father, mother, children, relations and ancestors in a wondrous sphere of images. She reveals that the painting “highlights the peace of an African family and how they enjoy the benefits of extended family system; so that marriage is not an isolated case of man, wife and children living alone from other relatives.”

Black and gold are the vistas that shine forth from the brush of Juliet Ezenwa Pearce. The colours of life and living lend to the paintings aesthetic grace. Beholding the almost otherworldly “My Favourite Things” is indeed a showstopper, a mixed media offering of uncommon beauty.

For Juliet Ezenwa Pearce, art is forever as she says: “The great and best reward for creativity is glory, and glory usually comes when you’re dead. It is only very few Picassos in the world who actually get to enjoy it while they are alive. The greatest artists of all time, we call their names today like they existed yesterday, but actually they lived 700 years ago, 500 years ago and you are calling their names as if they lived yesterday; that’s because their art is still alive today. “ The quote attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates, “Art is long, life is short,” belongs with Juliet Ezenwa Pearce.
––Uzoatu writes from Lagos

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