Relatively young, Nigerian award-winning artist, Kelani Abass (b.1979) is already a firm fixture on the Lagos exhibition circuit. His soaring career as an artist is marked by several significant exhibitions across Nigeria, where an unprecedented variety and complexity exists. In addition to painters, sculptors and photographers, there are many other artists whose work embraces performance, installation, video and cutting-edge performance art. The materials they employ range from the traditional to the highly unorthodox, as does their imagery. However, though some of these artists are relatively unknown, their aesthetic currents are drawn from the rich fountains of a rich cultural past, underscoring the unresolved tension pitching indigenous traditions and sensibilities against acquired Western techniques and modes of representation.
This exhibition titled, ‘Man and Machine’ is an important turning point in Abass’ artistic evolution and affords the public a deeper understanding of his working methods. Abass started with drawings and paintings of real and ordinary people with themes that strongly resonate urban Africa. His canvases once captured magnificently, the chaotic dynamism of the market places, lorry and motorcycle parks and shanty towns. His endeavours contributing to the work by the glut of talent on the local scene whose mastery of Western media, is proof of Africa’s contribution to a wider discourse of contemporary art.
Sifting through the works on exhibition, what is clearly evident is Kelani Abass’ commitment over the last two or more years to the exploration of socio-cultural and historical issues. In this exhibition, he probes the difficult relations of belonging and identity and in particular, the shared history of man and machine through a wide range of different media including sound. In addition to acrylics, oils, pastels and charcoal, he employs modeling paste, disused printing machine parts, collages of magazine cut-outs and newsprints. Educated at the renowned Yaba College of Technology, where he graduated as a painter with distinction, Abass had a long spell in his father’s printing press. With this show, he focuses on the wheel as a significant component of the machine. A series of charcoal drawings complement the paintings. It is in these drawings on paper that Abass himself mimics the output of the digital camera, proving himself as the consummate draughtsman. Each drawing reveals a dual nature; at once a blurry abstraction suggestive of movement and a detailed description of closely observed reality. Squinting through the eyes, a point arrives where the picture plane suddenly resolves into startling focus.
Interestingly, this bi-focal technique is indicative of how the artist has evolved in his experiments with technology and more traditional media. From Abass’ perspective we understand how a mechanized world mimics our existence. A world of machines configured of individual, yet significant parts that must work in harmony to achieve a common goal.