Installation shot of Kainebi Osahenyes work

Three artists’ creative take on the human condition offers unique perspectives of Nigeria’s 58 years of nationhood. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports


On the contemporary Nigerian art scene’s timeline, the exhibiting trio do not normally belong together. Yet, Kainebi Osahenye, Kenny Adewuyi and Kelani Abass are joining forces for a group exhibition, titled The Contemporaries II, thanks to the SMO Contemporary Art Gallery’s curatorial whim.

The exhibition, supported by the Wheatbaker and Louis Guntrum Wines, opens tomorrow (Monday, October 1) at the Wheatbaker hotel premises in Ikoyi, Lagos and will be on until Tuesday, January 19, 2019. It will also be part of London’s 1.54 Art Fair, which as the largest fair of African Contemporary Art that attracts over 18,000 visitors holds from Thursday, October 4 to Sunday, October 7.

It is no happenstance that the hosting of this exhibition at the Lagos-based boutique hotel is intended as a commemoration of Nigeria’s Independence Day anniversary. Indeed, the three conceptual artists – albeit products of different schools – share a common patriotic vision. This is succinctly expressed in their visual takes on contemporary issues, bordering on politics, the economy and environment. In all, they are offering 38 sculptures, paintings, and mixed media works.

As individuals, these artist have earned their seats of honour among the leading lights of the vibrant Nigerian contemporary art scene. Take Osahenye, for instance. He takes a swipe at the society’s unbridled consumerism through his adroit experimentation with spray paint with oil, pastel and acrylic. What the viewers see are fuzzy images, where are labouring to express themselves through the lush coating of colours. Here, indeed, is one artist who has unapologetically and consistently receded from realistic figurative expressions.

Man and machine chronological (remuneration ix) by Kelani Abass acrylic oil magazine cut out corrugated card and twine on canvas diptych

“In my recent work, I have been engaged with the idea of melancholy,” he explained in his artist statement. “Pain is a part of life. Pain can drive one to a place of isolation… As a people, we have had really bad times and even still treading on rough edges. The marks of pain are now deeply edged on the faces of people across our landscape. We continue to sit and wait for a change to come. Indeed, Nigeria has been in a reclining position for too long waiting for her light to shine. Blinded by her corrupt practices, she is unable to see and utilise the enormous treasures buried within her…”

The Delta State-born 54-year-old artist has in recent memory riled art purists with his daring manipulation of aesthetic canons in his solo exhibitions. Perhaps, the most controversial of these exhibitions is the one he titled Thrash-ing, which opened at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos on September 12, 2009. A highly-respected artist and critic Mufu Onifade accused the Auchi Polytechnic and Yaba College of Technology alumnus, who originally majored in painting, of transforming “the cosy art centre into a depository of thrash” with his large installation. “The artist himself did not mince words in accentuating his thoughts and how he arrived at the dumping ground,” Onifade wrote in his article in The Guardian, reproduced in a blog owned by the Spaniard Jess Castellote. “He has run out of creative ideas, having painted all that was there to paint. He has exhausted his creativity in the purview of aesthetics and so, had to resort to something more degrading: the thrash.”

Nonetheless, the Goldsmiths College of London’s Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) degree holder moved on to other platforms with his love for repurposing found objects. He has since participated in many international fairs, biennales and exhibitions. These include The Biennale Jogja in 2015, Art 14 in London and Afropolis at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, Germany. He was also featured in Okwui Enwezor’s and Chika Okeke-Agulu’s Contemporary African Art since 1980 and Phaidon’s Art Cities of the Future: 21st Century Avant-Gardes. On the local scene, he has also exhibited at the National Museum, Temple Muse, and at ArtXLagos.

Then, there is Abass, who like Osahenye is a Yaba College of Technology, Lagos graduate of painting. The 2010 Caterina De Medici/third Black Heritage first prize in painting winner, who has taken part in numerous artist residencies, will be attending a residency programme at the Headlands Center for the Arts in San-Francisco in from October to November, this year.

Among his recent solo exhibitions are If I could Save Time at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (in 2016), Aso Igba at Art Clip Africa, Lagos (in 2016), Asiko at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (in 2013), Man and Machine at Omenka Gallery, Lagos (in 2011) and Paradigm Shift at Mydrim Gallery, Lagos (in 2009).

He has a predilection for complex multi-media works. He repurposes small mechanical parts, which are retrieved from his family’s printing press, layers them with photographs and archival materials. Thus, he explores personal stories against the backdrop of social and political events frozen in time and memory. His Man and Machine series on canvas explore the interchangeable co-dependency between man and technology.

“I am intrigued by how the past and present coalesce,” the artist writes. “I attempt to make a statement on the future that concedes the interdependence of different moments in time. I explore these themes through painting, photography and printing, using archival materials to highlight personal stories against the background of social and political events frozen in time and memory.

“My oeuvre also probes the shared history and character of men and machines through a wide range of different media including installations, acrylics, oils, pastels and charcoal. I engage the use of technology with the printing press, which I use as a metaphor for obsolete materials, transporting them into modern relevance, usurping outmoded machinery and tools such as printing cases, letterpress types, metal plates, rubber blocks and the stamping tool to generate new contemporary narratives.”

As for Adewuyi, whose sculptures of elongated figures are endowed with disproportionately exaggerated large limbs, viewers will be enthralled by his nostalgic appropriation of the Igbo-ukwu wax technique dating as far back as the 9th century. Thus, he hopes to keep alive an ancient artistic tradition. The 59-year-old artist focusses on the universality of of humanity’s struggle for survival and sustained livelihoods.

“My sculptures express my inner feelings and communicate how I interpret my immediate and extended environment,” he said. “Humans are social beings who cannot exist in isolation. My figurative bronze sculptures, in exaggerated and elongated forms, explore the day to day difficulties and challenges of human existence.”

A 1985 Bachelors of Arts graduate of sculpture and 1996 Masters of Fine Arts from Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, the artist has featured in several international exhibitions including at the Galerie Brulee in Strasbourg (in 2017), the Musée Pierre Noel in Saint-Die-des-Vosges in France (in 2015), Galerie22 in Coustellet, France (in 2012), the Mojo Gallery in Dubai, U.A.E. (in 2011), and at the Brunei Gallery of the School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London (in 2009). He has, in addition, exhibited locally at Maison de France, Alliance Française, the National Museum in Lagos, and at Temple Muse.

The happily married father of three has also held workshops on bronze sculpting at the Centre Alternative, (C.P.I. F.A.C.) in Velaine en Haye, the Atelier Céline Laurent in Jean Liancourt, the Maison de la Céramique in Mulhouse, and at the Ecole des Arts Plastiques in Monaco in France.
The exhibition, according to the Wheatbaker’s director, Mosun Ogunbanjo, also commemorates the boutique hotel’s seventh anniversary and reaffirms its commitment to celebrating the very best of African creativity. “The second edition of the Contemporaries continues the impressive standard set by the first quarterly exhibition we hosted in 2011, providing a regular platform for celebrating our exceptional local and international talent.”

The Wheatbaker’s art curator and founder of SMO Contemporary Art, Sandra Mbanefo Obiago enthused about the fact that the gallery is showcasing the artists on two important platforms simultaneously. “Art is an important avenue for addressing global issues, and we depend on our artists to be good global ambassadors for Africa, she said.