From Across Two Cities, a Fraternal Handshake…

A recent exhibition in Abuja lifted the veil on two contemporary Nigerian artists’ celebration of their African roots while signposting their current and future artistic tendencies. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports 

Surely, a joint exhibition of the works of two contemporary Nigerian artists, bound—as the organisers seem to have highlighted—by “a shared passion for figurative representation and a continual obsession with colourful palettes,” could not have gone unnoticed and unsung by the Abuja art scene’s cognoscenti!    

Though art events are often short-lived in collective memory, an inevitable question will nonetheless persist: what could have inspired the two kindred spirits, Timi Kakandar and Obi Nwaegbe—one from Lagos’ vibrant exhibition circuit and the other rooted in Abuja’s artistic hub—to join forces for this common aesthetic venture? 

The reminiscences of that exhibition, which was held at Ashanti Gallery from June 7 to 12 and was titled Expressions of Form, dredge up the remarkable synergy between two artists bound together by an over five-year “technical relationship.” Through the event, for which Christine Girlach—a stalwart of Abuja’s art scene and the founder of the gallery, which is said to be “one of the oldest surviving galleries” in the federal capital city—duly takes the credit, the artists regaled the Abuja art public with their unique perspectives on the beauty and complexity of the human experience.

Undoubtedly, both Kakandar and Nwaegbe, despite their shared appreciation of their African identities, profess a belief in the limitless possibilities of human existence, both in terms of its depths on the physical and emotional levels. Even if the subjects and content of their works vary, their heritage unquestionably informs their ideology. This is especially evident when they engage in issues revolving around human equity and fairness, ingenuity, diversity, and other social and economic concerns.

Not too long before this exhibition, Nwaegbe’s solo exhibition, titled Inspired Visions and held in another gallery in same Life Camp area of Abuja, reaffirmed this “Africanness,” especially when it borders on the resilience of the human spirit in his bid to overcome existential trials. Also, despite his proclaimed attempt to return, not unlike the proverbial prodigal son to his conceptual roots, his proclivity for figurative expressions continues to assert itself like a theme song of his studio practice. 

This is an attribute that he shares with Kakandar, whose fixation on women’s hairstyling has become almost legendary. Kakandar, since his graduation from the University of Port Harcourt in 1999, has never hidden his fascination with the human figure. For him, they have been portals for delving into the challenges, social political issues, and, sometimes, the joys that are associated with living and working within the African space. 

Additionally, there is a strong intensity of vivid, unprocessed hues and expressive lines that give each of his works a presence that captivates the observer. Perhaps this is what distinguishes his paintings, which seem to be much sought-after worldwide. This could also be why, even after his six solo exhibitions and over 30 group exhibitions within and outside Nigeria so far, the fascination for his works has not waned while his Pied Piper-like followership continues to grow.

The artist, like in past exhibitions, encourages visitors not to overlook the importance of hair styling in African and African Diaspora culture. He specifically mentions the traditional African comb or pick, referring to it as a mark of status, tribal connection, and religious views, as well as having ritual functions. He  cites, for instance, the decorations of the handles of these combs with objects of status, such as the headrest, human figures, and motifs that reference nature and the traditional spiritual world as examples. There is, of course, the 20th-century political and cultural message of the clenched fist, in a nod to the Black Power salute, which decorates the handles of these combs. 

In the exhibition Expressions of Form, Kakandar’s contributions depict black African women with hand-woven hairstyles, which are supplemented by traditional African-carved haircombs suspended precariously from dramatically placed swirls of banded woven hair. The concept of displaying them hanging loosely is his method of criticising the current generation of Africans’ apathy towards their culture.

Meanwhile, the vibrant detailing of Nwaegbe’s offerings suggests that he intends to bring the psychology of music alive. He pushes for a more in-depth look at musical aesthetics in African art as a way to better comprehend the rhythms of modern urban life. Nigeria’s independence era saw a creative flourish, with artists embracing a variety of instruments to help form the continent’s musical character. Genres such as juju, highlife sounds, and afrobeat dominated the airwaves, with great musicians making their imprint. Fela Kuti’s revolutionary spirit, despite being restricted by the mainstream media, found expression in his unofficial venues. Nwaegbe’s most recent works bring a new theme, blending his abstract figurative style with the rhythm of musical aesthetics while continuing to educate and celebrate African consciousness.

Expressions of Form affirms the artists’ celebration of their African roots and indicates their current and future artistic tendencies, even if it has been documented, as concluded in the annals of the Abuja art scene.

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