Nigerian artist, Duke Asidere is by far one of the most exciting painters on the Lagos contemporary art scene. Recently, I caught up with him at his studio in Egbeda to see his new work, which increasingly engages contemporary African politics. Through visual metaphors, the artist comments on the everyday human drama that surrounds him be they political, social, psychological or cultural. Furthermore, he adds an element of surprise to his sketches of human drama, by infusing them with irony and humour.
Asidere’s present studio is located in his living room, where he has access to the television, a source of his inspiration. Admist the organized chaos are clocks of different shapes hung on the walls and at several points in the room. Asidere has a special love for clocks and draws on their faces using a marker. He explains that they are “symbols of remembrance.”
Our discussions take us on an interesting journey. He talks about the political upheavals in Egypt, Libya, and the massive corruption in Nigeria and wonders why some Nigerian artists are doing nothing to document these events, but content with painting canoes and market scenes. He asserts that artists working in Nigeria today owe our generation and calls for a platform to give them voice. He cites; the ‘Occupy Nigeria’ protest in 2012 against the removal of fuel subsidy; government’s misplaced negotiations with Niger-Delta militants; and the foolishness of assigning 16,000 policemen to a political convention, which poses an easy target for fundamentalist religious groups, as examples of engaging issues for artists.
Duke Asidere believes that Nigerian artists must engage these issues to remain relevant to the society and expresses surprise at our art historians who are so aggressive in acquiring PhD degrees instead of documenting contemporary artists and art developments. If he had his way, he would hold a big workshop titled What They Did Not Teach in Art School. In encouraging societal change, he attends House on the Rock Church and holds mentoring classes at Daystar Church.
Asidere works in series to support his convictions. Some of the most recognisable and politically engaging are Black (2008), Power Play (2009), Corruption (2009), Silence and the Chalk Board (2009/2010). His painting Locked Palace is a narrative on the Nigerian government’s secretiveness on late President Musa Yar’Adua’s ill health. Coincidentally, the day he delivered the work to a patron, the Nigerian leader died. In his Brain Drain series, he attaches car number plates to his canvases, symbolic of first rate Nigerian professionals who seek their fortunes as second class citizens in foreign countries and are forced to return home with failed expectations because of their inability to secure jobs. The Brain Drain Corruption is a fine example from this body of work.
Over the years, Asidere’s varied subject matter has included headless or limbless figures and faces of strangely hybrid beings. Asidere does not paint from photographs, but from memory and observation. A deeply emotional man, he paints his feelings intuitively and then refines his instincts by continually adjusting his lines and colours and planes to reflect his mental state. His emotional sensitivity and his artistic refinement make his art a pleasure to look at.
Duke Asidere poses the question to Nigerian artists, “Why stay in a comfort zone?” He believes in reading books that inspire artists from cover to cover and not just staying stuck on page ‘22’. He complains about how artists continue doing the same thing for four years and never get tired. He recalls how a work by celebrated artist Ben Enwonwu amazed him in Sammy Olagbaju’s collection. It was very different from the artist’s generally known styles. “A work has to have the surprise element” he asserts.
Asidere’s Chalk Board series is inspired by his desire to guide children with proper instruction to ensure they become responsible members of society. He believes firmly that the creative spirit of a child should be emulated because it comes from their depths and is not based on pleasing viewers. The serialized canvases, 97 by 97 cm in dimensions, share several elements and are characterized by miniature toy cars suspended in circular travel-at once, a metaphor for the stagnation of contemporary Nigerian society.
Asidere uses all colours except Prussian blue, which he finds too harsh, as he is unable to employ them with his other colours. He also does not use burnt sienna or umber in his work. He uses a variant of orange, which he mixes on his own. He explains he is allergic to orange and has a low tolerance for ultramarine blue. He cannot understand why it was touted as a colour to draw with while at school because it is too strong to cover up. He asserts that he took to car enamel paint, which he applies with a spray gun because he wanted a surprise element in his work and he wanted to stretch liberties. He preferred the new medium because he hated having to remove left – over bristles from his work or cover up spots and irregularities. He explains he likes to achieve a broad flat ground on his canvas, to build his forms on.
The artist claims his best work has been produced on the prompting of voices he hears. Asidere believes that creating good art depends on one’s ability to follow his “nudging”. He speaks of a work he achieved by spreading blue over a large canvas. Following a voice prodding him with instructions, Duke Asidere incorporated the very surface on which he painted into the meaning of the work by stamping the bottom of an acrylic bottle in specified spots. He duly named the work Making of a Miracle.
Asidere’s recent work expresses an increasing simplicity of form betraying his admiration for the work of Alexander Calder, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Jasper Johns and Jacob Lawrence. This simplicity of form comes to a peak in his painting Discussion with Henri Matisse. In this work, Asidere describes the torsos and limbs of his sitters in a few shapes. The painting is executed with an economy of strokes and borrows the bold outlines and contours; the French expressionist is famed for. In The Black and White series and Bedroom Blues, he expresses himself in increasingly liquid and fluid ways. In a sense, nothing is permanent and matter exists in a volatile state of becoming. The artist makes such a feeling intuitive with his selection of materials; car enamel paint, acrylic, spray paint applied with a spray gun oftentimes on huge wooden panels. Dripping, they leak and flow with such immediacy across the surface, creating spaces where form and formlessness converge to project our own desires, imaginings and fears.
For artists like Asidere, paint is not simply the medium used to achieve the final image. The surface the paint creates, its materiality, often built from bits of old newspapers and glue into his work, scrubbed over skilfully with layers of paint with his palette knife, is held by the artist to be as important as the image itself. Today, he is recognised as one of Nigeria’s most important painters and has held eight solo exhibitions and more than 43 joint exhibitions in Nigeria and Europe. His works are well collected in Nigeria and internationally.