In Affinity Art Gallery, Women Artists Weave Cultural Narratives

Yinka Olatunbosun

Chiwendu Kelechi, a 2018 graduate of history and international studies at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, has always been fascinated by history. Weaned on Uli culture, her childhood was influenced by surrounding art forms as well as her experience, watching her brother during his drawing and painting sessions.

Upon her graduation, she delved into a deeper study of cultural history, comparing cultural practices across continents. It was like taking a bite of the forbidden fruit.

“Some accounts of history are not taught in our schools. For instance, the teachers in the east are forbidden from teaching us about the Biafran war,’’ she revealed at the opening of the new group exhibition inside Affinity Art Gallery in Lagos. With the overarching title ‘The Thread That Binds,’ the show is aimed at recontextualising historical narratives without losing the authenticity.

For Kelechi, her body of work comprising 22 paintings depicts on ancient fertility images across the world. The collection explores the similarities in aesthetics, function and use of objects.

“The paintings are done in my Ukara Ohuru style which serves as a continuation of the usage of cloth as storytelling and record-keeping material in traditional Igbo society,” she explained. “This collection of ancient fertility images is a part of my ongoing research into the similarities of ancient cultural practices, symbols and aesthetics worldwide.”

 The show, which runs from March 26 till April 29 also features the works of a Tiv artist, Wanger Ayu who moved to Lagos two years ago in pursuit of full-time studio practice. A UK-trained lawyer, Wanger Ayu’s journey into art began with her passion for fashion and the keen eyes for fabric designs. After she was called to the bar, she began chasing her dreams in the arts. The COVID-19 lockdown was her opportunity to paint more. Eventually, her works caught the attention of someone who invited her to be part of a group show.

“Interestingly though, I did oil and then I worked fluidly with acrylic as well,’’ she explained. “But then I started interrogating fabric patterns.” This perspective fuelled her interest in the concepts of connecting threads and boundary lines. “Things like boundary lines were not necessarily really defined back then in early history. I feel boundaries- that is borders and divisions-are artificial and economic.”

In her mixed media series titled, “Who is in the Garden?”, she examines the societal pressure on women to get married. Through the pieces, she argues that a woman’s success should not be measured only by the ability to give birth.

“Childbearing seem to be a part of the economic plan for the family,” she continued. “The more you have, the more you can harvest. Cultures are fluid and shifting. A lot of them are man-made. At what point do we sit and try to negotiate this? Obviously, this is not to downplay on marriage, it is important to the survival of the species in a controlled manner as against everyone jumping around and having kids.

“At the same time, when it comes to affecting the psychology of the woman in the society, we birth movement and we birth ideas. The things that you plant that can outlive you are just as important as having a husband and children. It is more or less to challenge the notion and to liberate the woman.”

The South African artist Nikiwe Dlova also explored textile art to present an incredible body of works that articulates cultural hairstyles and its embedded symbolism. Her love for fashion is woven into her hair motifs.

“Expressing textile art through portraiture has made me aware of the past and how I can merge it with the present to create a visual language that can live in the future to remind people to never forget African craftsmanship in hairstyles, weaving and African masks, symbol writing among others,’’ she revealed in the artist’s statement.

In the same vein, a self-taught painter and mixed media artist, Stephanie Unaeze uses her art to express and document the nuances, complexities and layers that surround the modern African lifestyle. Using patterns, geometric design and colours, she evokes the strong flavours of the African continent. She explores faceless fingers to project the idea that the self is always present through cultural shifts, new forms of expression and societal changes.

Her work is a reminder that as individuals, we are a sum of many moving parts. Some of her pieces include ‘Self Preservation’ ‘Lagos 77’ and other pieces that allude to cultural history.

“I am trying to show Nigerian popular culture in this body of work. I want to show that we have our own pop culture that is not whitewashed, authentic to us and influences us.” With reference to FESTAC ’77, she seeks to reaffirm cultural heritage as an integral part of new thinking.

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