Exploring Migration, Memory in YSMA’s New Group Show


Yinka Olatunbosun
A surge of images flashes through the mind as the eyes travel from one canvas to the other.  The mind’s eye sees moments of departure of a friend or family member from Nigeria. The themes of migration, cultural dislocation and memory cut through the works by various artists at an on-going exhibition, titled Water Under the Bridge.

Mounted at the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art (YSMA), Pan-Atlantic University, this body of work – curated by Olufisayo Bakare – is an ingenious collection of cross-generational artists, including artists in memory. Featuring works of Aina Onabolu, Alex Nwokolo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Dele Jegede, Kelani Abass, Rom Isichei, Olu Ajayi, Tola Wewe, Uche Okeke, Nike Davies-Okundaye, Wura Natasha Ogunji, Joy Labinjo and others, the show dredges up the complexes of transatlantic slave trade and juxtaposes it with present-day realities.
In her curatorial statement, Bakare revealed how the story of Nigerian exodus permeates through the works. “The exhibition explores the complexities of migration and memory, probing works by 50 Nigerian artists whose ideologies encompass a syncretic collective, leaving clues to challenges emanating from issues of identity, authenticity and positionality,” she said.  

“Water Under the Bridge opens with strong visual inferences between forced migration during the Transatlantic slave trade and the present-day rerouting of Nigerian immigrants who are forced to leave home due to structural, economic and political degeneration.”
Using installations, sculptures, paintings and mixed media expressions, the voices of the artists are in unison on the subject matters raised at the show.

During a recent guided tour of the exhibition, the curator spoke about how the theme for the show resonated with her water-inspired fabric design. Typically, Bakare adapts her grooming to the thematic preoccupation of her shows. At her debut show Invincible Hands, she wore adire –themed fabric in memory of her late grandmother, a renowned dyer.
From her perspective, the messages embedded in the works are deep, meditative and multi-dimensional in its interpretation. Some of them transcend their years in terms of national and global relevance.

Drawing attention to Joy Labinjo’s 2021 painting of a classroom situation in the piece titled “What is the Effect of Colonisation,” she observed how the painting reflects the plight of young immigrant children in a new home. The imagery evoked in the work is that of loneliness, disconnection and diversity.

On the other wing of the exhibition hall, the sad memory of the slain Damilola Taylor was evoked in Lara Ige Jacks’ piece of the same title. The portrait is protest against hate crimes and acts of racism.

Aina Onabolu’s 1941 painting, titled “Slaves Awaiting Shipment”, relives the memory of the slave trade era while echoing the same sentiments found in the 2022 show-stopping installation by Ken Nwadiogbu, titled “Jesus of Lubeck.” This centerpiece work shows a boat packed with colourful boxes made of charcoal, acrylic, aluminum sheets and carved wood. Every box is built like the human head with perforated parts that represent the human eyes. Their varied faces symbolise the immigrants in search of better living conditions in the western world. A parallel is seen in Uchay Joel Chima’s “Human Resources” a large-size mixed media abstract painting addressing immigration.

Omoligho Udenta’s 2016 installation, titled “The Perspective of Perception,” delivers a feminine touch to the show with the ornamental pieces made of metal buttons and a variety of fabric such as Ankara, aso oke, damask, lace thus revoking the aso-ebi rave among Nigerians, serving as cultural memory. In continuity of the theme of cultural assimilation and identity crisis, Dele Jegede’s “Yo” explores the hip-hop culture and its reflection of the black identity.

Taking the audience back in time is Amarachi Okafor’s series, titled “I am the Light”, made of pastel, permanent marker acrylic and handmade paper. Executed with texts, the work is reminiscent of ancient biblical scrolls. The work embodies a vault of memory of early forms of communication.
This show continues till May at YSMA inside Pan-Atlantic University, Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos.

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