Bob-Nosa Uwagboe’s second solo exhibition in Lagos once more dredges up his familiar ghoulish images and challenges the viewers to reflect on the realities of their environment, writes Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
Obituary? Now, here is one word most people would rather avoid. For not even the certainty that death is imminent makes any difference to them. Indeed, an indefinable trepidation overwhelms many on hearing about the passage of an acquaintance or a relative. Yet, Bob-Nosa Uwagboe chose this word as the title for his second solo exhibition, which opened yesterday at Signature Beyond Gallery along Awolowo Road in South-west Ikoyi, Lagos.
“I couldn’t find a better title than Obituary for the exhibition to adequately express my thoughts,” the dreadlocks-sporting artist explains. Inwardly grieving the demise of his parents and a fellow artist was one reason to be obsessed about the word. But then, he just couldn’t ignore the constant daily reminders of man’s inevitable mortality.
No, the 2004 Auchi Polytechnic graduate’s intention is not to offend with the exhibition’s title. Nor is it to shock anyone. He’d rather the title makes his viewers reflect. And talking about reflection, myriads of sorrowful experiences constantly give Nigerians things to mull over.
Besides, the Edo-born artist doesn’t need shocking exhibition titles to sustain his acrylic and mixed-media paintings in the spotlight. After all, his patented haunting ghoulish forms, rather than the nebulous memories of his debut solo exhibition held seven years ago at the African Artists’ Foundation’s former premises in South-west Ikoyi, already distinguish him from the pack in the talent-glutted local art scene.
Then, the fact that the 44-year-old positions himself as a proponent of “Protest Art” explains a lot about him. Perhaps, the title of his debut solo, Homme Libre (French for “Free Man”) – and his nightmare-inducing figures – ought to have forewarned aficionados about his predilection for iconoclasm. For it is obvious: he does not seek to play to the gallery through the depiction of delightfully charming or attractive forms.
And, really, what do viewers expect? Aren’t the hideous conditions of their physical environment the obvious reflections or manifestations of their inner propensities and realities? Of what use would it be if the artist lulls them into lassitude with flattering images of beauty? Uwagboe, as a modern-day Jeremiah, rails against the downward-hurtling values of most African countries in general and Nigeria in particular. Perhaps, that is why he constantly rattles the collective consciousness with grotesque forms.
In a manner of speaking, he is mourning this morally-bankrupt humanity in his current exhibition, which ends on Sunday, December 2. So evident is the constantly blurring concept of morality in the society that it changes with each new generation. Indeed, it changes so much that what would have previously aroused contempt and disgust soon gets accepted as the norm.
About the exhibition, the transience of man’s earthly pursuits is one theme that runs through its three segments – the Obituary series, which reminds the viewers about their imminent mortality; Yeye Man series, which ridicules the bottomless pit of human stupidity, and the Immigration series, which beams the spotlight on the current issues of migrants crisis and human-trafficking.
As a committed artist, Uwagboe has re-established his relevance through the burning issues addressed through his works. If more and more people were to be constantly reminded that the grim reaper lurks around the corner, evil would probably disappear, he reasons.
But the obvious naivety inherent in this line of reasoning is evident in the fact that things are fast deteriorating. Besides, the artist’s realisation that even the “mourners too will be mourned” numbs his intended audience to the passive acceptance of the inevitable. Ignorance about life beyond the physical curiously fuels the passion for fleeting earth-bound pleasures. Perhaps, there are no better depictions of this mindset than the works, “Legless Leader” and “Dying in Power”. Taking a swipe at sit-tight leaders, both paintings at the same time lift a corner of the veil on their blinkered world-view.
Moving on to other works, the painting “The Mourners” grips the viewer’s attention with its depiction of three ghoulish figures clutching their heads with their hands in obvious despair. The artist calls this work a tribute to the victims of the rampaging herdsmen in Benue State and other similarly afflicted states in Nigeria. The mourners, who not only allude to those directly affected by the mayhem, also metaphorically represent the mood of the whole nation.
Uwagboe’s obsession with the human condition stands him in good stead to run a dispassionate commentary on current events. He sees the connection between the “disturbing images” of sub-Saharan Africans trapped in crisis-ridden Libya, which he saw online, and the rudderless leadership in most African countries. In his opinion, it is this rudderless leadership that should be blamed for these conditions, which necessitate the emigration in droves of desperate youths from their countries, as he depicts in “Walking Away” and “Tortured Youth”. “Those who lost their lives in Libya were victims of poor leadership in their home countries,” he argues. “I am trying to mourn these poor people through my art.”
Obviously, these “poor people” were first made destitute by the activities of their so-called leaders before being forced out by the consequent infernal conditions. These conditions in turn breed a dysfunctional system, which favour a corrupt police force. Hence, the miniature works running uncomplimentary commentaries about the activities of the Nigeria police. In these works, the artist draws the viewer’s attention to the fact that the Police only reflects the larger society.
But, Uwagboe is not necessarily rooting for the fleeing youths. Indeed, he decries what he calls their “quick-fix mentality” as regards the problems of the society and urges them to fight for what rightly belongs to them. This, he captures metaphorically in his series of paintings depicting pugilists.
With the latter, he urges his viewers not to give in so easily to challenges.
Married with a seven-year-old son, the artist has come a long way, defying all odds to assert his unique identity amidst the babel of expressions in the art scene. Along the line, it has become evident that his kind of figurative expressions are not exactly collectors’ favourites. Nonetheless, he happily soldiers on….