French-Nigerian artist Wilfred Ukpong hopes to use art as an agent of change in the narrative of the marginalised oil-producing communities of his native Niger-Delta. His about-to-be-concluded exhibition in Lagos, which is complemented with a short film, is only a fall-out of a seven-year project funded with a grant from The Netherlands-based Prince ClausFund, Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

For the wrong reasons, Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger-Delta region was consistently in the news. And Wilfred Ukpong found these “echoes of devastation” from his homeland “profoundly unsettling and troubling”. Then concluding his MFA programme at the Ecole Supérieure d’Art in the French town of Lorient, he was already researching performance, installation and video art. Works by such artists as Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden, Matthew Barney and, most especially, Joseph Beuys were his Open Sesame to this creative wonderland.

As for the disheartening news from his native Niger-Delta, he was able to recognise therein a clarion call. “It became imperative for me to explore ways of working in the Niger-Delta,” he disclosed in a recent interview by email. “I was conceptualising projects that can mediate the frameworks of social practice and contemporary art and how such a model process could be utilised in changing the narrative of the region.”

Then, like an answer from Above came a special grant from The Netherlands-based Prince Claus Fund in 2010. As for the reoccurring topical issues in the oil-producing communities, they became the grist he needed for his creative mill. Thus, between 2010 and 2017, he conceived and developed the project he called BC-1: Niger-Delta/Future-Cosmos, which is being displayed in an exhibition that ends today at the Alliance Française de Lagos/Mike Adenuga Centre in the upmarket Ikoyi neighbourhood.

For the artist, who fervently believes that art and creativity can be catalysts for social development and transformation, this exhibition and film screening became “substrates to create conversation on pivotal socio-economic, cultural and environmental issues in the Niger-Delta region.”
Recently, on Thursday, January 23, the artist turned both the film screening room and the exhibition space into platforms for “inclusive dialogue among stakeholders, who could be engaged as ‘agents of change’ in oil-producing communities.”

Among the distinguished guests at the VIP preview of the exhibition was the ExxonMobil Nigeria vice-chairman Udom Inoyo, whose support for the development of youth empowerment structures through art, creativity, and pedagogy in Akwa Ibom put him in good stead as a patron in this project.

Back to the exhibition, which opened on Saturday, January 11. Its short duration didn’t allow the members of the Lagos art community enough time to engage the themes. Hence, the decision was taken to prolong it for another two weeks. Ukpong did not factor in the dynamics and timings of the Lagos art scene when scheduling his exhibition. “I was invited for a show in January and I thought for the sake of provenance, it was essential to begin the show in the country in which the project was conceived and developed before travelling to other important art and cultural venues abroad,” he explained.

Indeed, this exhibition will travel to other important venues in Europe and North America and will be pivotal during the coming FotoFest Houston Biennial 2020 central exhibition, African Cosmologies: Photography, Time, and the Other.
The actual precursor of this seven-year project was the initiation of a series of workshops, dubbed “Blazing Century 1: Drill” (BC1: Drill). These workshops culminated into what the artist described as “disruptive interlinked site installations and ephemeral performance actions in important oil-producing and fishing locations”.

A hundred local youths eventually participated in the project, which could be adjudged successful. “At the end of the six-month project, I felt [a pang of intense] guilt to return to Europe,” he told the publication Omenka Online in a recent interview. “Indeed, I was genuinely uncertain about the afterlife of this project amidst a series of unfolding sad events that took place in connection [with] some of the youths who participated in the project, so ending my work in the region at that time felt deeply apprehensive.”

In the Niger-Delta, the artist discovered “an engrossing critical site for long academic research and a place where a significant body of work can evolve within the frameworks of contemporary social practice”.
Besides bringing the grievances of these Nigerian oil-rich littoral communities to global awareness, alternative ways of developing and sustaining creative possibilities and empowerment structures needed to be explored. “I became preoccupied with grant applications while developing the concept that can straddle the realms of aesthetic volition and a sense of ethical-social responsibility,” the artist said.

Ukpong’s creative focus has shifted away from the ancient writing system of some southeastern Nigerian communities called Nsibidi. Nonetheless, his preferences and aesthetic sensibilities had, over the years, evolved from his earlier appropriation of the writing system evident in his sculpted paintings to what has become a socially-focused transdisciplinary practice. “My present practice tends to encounter a wide range of contextual materials, concepts, and approaches. My works have been influenced by living and working out of Oxford, Groningen, Paris, Johannesburg, and the Niger-Delta.

My intellectual grounding and interdisciplinary experiments have also opened new working possibilities. These encounters have aligned my work with the defining cultural tendencies and global issues within the Zeitgeist of our times.”
Ukpong, who lives and works from Nigeria, France, UK, The Netherlands and South Africa, is not impervious to the osmotic influences of his globalised landscape. His works are, therefore, a nod to the influences of these various cultures and landscapes.

The artist had, even in his early teens, had been omnivorous in his sensibilities. He had grown up in the 1980s with a predilection for the American hip-hop scene and its kindred visual graffiti. Then, there was his father, who though then a manager at ExxonMobil, was interested in both photography and video as his hobbies and was quite keen on his children learning music in their free time. For the young Wilfred, having a keyboard, synthesisers and cameras around him further stimulated his creative whims.

Also, there was his cousin Victor Ekpuk, who was at that time an art student at the then University of Ife. Ekpuk had formally introduced him into the world of the visual arts and proudly displayed his mastery of drawing and painting techniques, whenever he spent his holidays with the Ukpongs.
Despite providing a creativity-friendly environment in his home, Wilfred Ukpong’s father still urged his three sons to study engineering. Eventually, two of them who studied chemical engineering went on to work for ExxonMobil and Shell.

As for Wilfred, fate had other plans for him. Grounded in the exact sciences, he had admission to one of the many Nigerian universities to study mechanical engineering. But, then, what he called ” a series of strange encounters” changed his career’s path. During a visit to Ekpuk in Lagos, he had come across an art history book Flash of the Spirit by a Yale professor Robert Farris Thompson in his flat cum studio. It was this book that fast-tracked his trading his planned engineering studies for an artistic career. “My parents and Ekpuk were furious, but finally, he advised me to consider a course in fine arts,” Ukpong recalled.
Ekpuk’s friend, a senior lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife’s fine art department encouraged him to explore the possibility of studying art outside Nigeria because he feared that Ukpong’s enthusiasm could be dampened by the Nigerian educational system.

With his parents dismissing the idea of his studying art abroad, Ukpong found himself at a crossroads. What would he do now? He took the readily available option: immerse himself into African art and philosophy through personal research and practice. “I was partly self-taught with the support of two private tutors while living in Ife. During an invitation to an art lecture at the United States Information Service (USIS) in Lagos, I was introduced to an American PhD student at Yale, David Doris, who was conducting a one-year research programme in Nigeria.”

Fast-forward to his debut exhibition, titled Emblems of Prowess, which was hosted by Quintessence in 1999. Doris wrote the exhibition catalogue’s introductory essay. The curiosity-driven members of the Lagos art community thronged the venue in and out of the venue. For Ukpong, this was the validation he had been looking forward to …that of being recognised as an artist.

Talking about validation, what could be more gratifying than his winning theGolden City-Gate Film Festival award in March 2018 in Germany, with his seven-minute film, Future World?

On the short film, which preceded the about-to-be-concluded exhibition at the Alliance Française, he said: “It was indeed a high-budget production for a short film in Nigeria. While consciously challenging the concept of poverty porn which I believe negatively contributes to subordinate identity for the African continent, I was propelled to envision and create a sophisticated universe (with strange indigenous beings in opulent costumes, high-tech props, and expensive sets) where their visions of futuristic identity, hope, and social justice are expressed. This was a high-priced endeavour to achieve. The actors are local youths who were auditioned and trained in a series of acting workshops I had initiated before filming. Their immersive experience in the project was stunning.”

The black skin tone of the film’s characters’ bodies is easily reminiscent of oil sheen or carbon skin. There is also the colour, red, which is a metaphor for “the violence of spilt blood”. The third colour, yellow, represents the hope for a better future.

Ukpong is currently collaborating with the French Embassy for a second installation project, which would hold sometime this year in Abuja. Besides, he is planning a show at Omenka Gallery in Lagos, which has tentatively been planned to hold in the third or last quarter of the year.

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