For Nwaegbe, It’s Inspired Lurch Towards Abstraction

A just-concluded solo exhibition in Abuja, which is a captivating sequel to his past exhibitions in Lagos and Accra, reveals Obi Nwaegbe’s profound longing for his conceptual provenance, he recently tells Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

A cacophony—or better still, a startling collision—of colours and rhythms must have assailed Obi Nwaegbe’s senses as he stepped into the vibrant chaos of Lagos’s gritty, claustrophobic streets two decades ago. He had just completed his studies at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he was also raised as his professor dad’s only son among his sisters and mom. Hence, these impressions, which were akin to a culture shock, must have hit him like a thunderclap. Nonetheless, he chose to remain steadfast in his resolve to earn his daily subsistence as an artist.

Thus, Nwaegbe, upon finding himself engulfed in a tumult of uncertainties, had to take really hard decisions. He had indeed left behind him the protective bubble of academia—that dreamlike space where the mind could soar unfettered, where mere musings birthed worlds of unbridled imagination. But then, stepping out into the stark embrace of reality demanded a renegotiation of those ideals he once held sacrocant. So with measured resolve, he shed the conceptual armour that he was cocooned in during his student years to confront this new so-unkindly-scripted mise-en-scène.

Somehow, Nsukka’s pedagogical ethos, steeped in lofty ideals, lingered in his subconscious as both a beacon and a lament. This was as he plodded on on this path of creative uncertainties that saw him relinquish the whimsical realms of imagination for the grounded allure of representational art—a deliberate pivot egged on by the demands of the art market. This pivotal shift not only birthed his earlier body of works, which featured in a pair of compelling solo exhibitions across two vibrant cities: Lagos and Accra—christened Tainted Visions and its sequel, Tainted Visions II—but also became the cauldron pot in which his latest solo exhibition, Inspired Visions, which was held after several others, was conjured.

“Life after school was pretty difficult, and I had to start learning to fend for myself and get established,” Nwaegbe, who is currently the executive director of Artstier Company Limited, an art production and consulting company based in both Abuja and Lagos, reminisces. “Much of what I learned in school, which were systematic concepts of creativity, was difficult to thrive on as an individual who had to pander to certain commonplace sentiments and aesthetic tastes in order to be able to make a living through art.”

As for Inspired Visions, which ended only last Sunday, May 5, days after its private opening was held on Friday, April 26, it symbolises a poetic detour that echoes the homecoming of a prodigal son. To the artist, this latest solo outing at Moeshen Art Gallery in Abuja’s Life Camp district might as well have been a bid to reclaim the conceptual essence of his artistic heritage in a symphony of a glorious rebirth.

Besides this, the fundamental vision behind the exhibition has been reinforced by the influx of homogeneous thoughts, resonating together like a symphony with a unified purpose. Now, amidst this collective harmony, the artist is inspired to transcend ordinary aspirations, reaching towards lofty ideals that promise to awaken his artistry from the reverberating depths of his very soul. “When I set out to make a body of work that contributed to these series, I reminded myself that it was over a decade since the ‘Tainted Visions’ debacle and a time to reaffirm my commitment to creativity at its purest form,” he says.

Today, Nwaegbe’s captivating creativity unfurls like an ancient tapestry, intricately woven to navigate the labyrinthine confines of “Africanness” in an ever-shifting world. Within this evocative creation lies a profound dialogue, resonating with echoes of strength as it strives to guide Africans towards reclaiming their dignity amidst the tumultuous currents of human sociopolitical engagement. The exhibition, bathed in a luminous glow of resilience, emerges as a jubilant ode to the indomitable spirit conquering existential trials, a testament to the boundless powers housed within the realms of imagination.

Of course, there is a remarkable distinction between this solo exhibition and the artist’s previous ones. This lies in the intricate interplay of themes rather than their mere material essence. Nwaegbe’s artistic endeavours have never fixated on the tangible but rather on the ethereal cohesion of underlying motifs that harmonise the diverse assemblage of creations within his exhibitions, transcending the boundaries of medium or texture. Indeed, the repurposed soda cans, which were initially juxtaposed as a catalyst for global environmental dialogue, are unyielding in their poignant message amidst changing tides. An undisputed hallmark of this curated collection is the deliberate departure towards a realm of abstraction, where figures exist in splendid anonymity, with heads and feet stripped away to unveil a canvas of pure form and essence. Recall that at the initial stage of his studio practice, he seemed to have found his comfort zone in a stylized version he calls “abstract expressionism” while working almost exclusively with oil, acrylic, and sometimes watercolour and pastels.

Meanwhile, the artist is currently engrossed in his MFA thesis, whose pivotal focus delves into the metamorphosis of expressionist musings into geometric abstractions—a transformative journey reflected in the enigmatic characters adorning the exhibition’s vivid tapestry. Naturally, the possibilities of exploring other mediums are completely open to Nwaegbe. “Part of the reason I went for a master’s degree in studio art was to give myself access to more intellectual information about art mediums and more technical diversities. I am also looking at the possibility of making relief sculptures out of my soda can experiments as well as three-dimensional sculptures on metal and wood.”

As for the artist’s candid assessment of the just-concluded exhibition’s success, he reverently adheres to the set parameters instilled during his academic days at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. For him, the sanctity of a successful exhibition reverberates in the moment of its grand opening—an event glorified as the addition of yet another feather in the cap of an accomplished artist. Sales, attendance, and other metrics become tangential in the wake of this paramount achievement. “So by this parameter, I say that the exhibition was successful in spite of everything else that happened in the course of the exhibition, which included a sizable number of visitors as well as the sale of work.”

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