Duke Asidere: The Artist and His Muse

Duke Asidere: The Artist and His Muse, … an unlikely title for an exhibition let alone for this somewhat lengthy essay about one of the most exciting artists working in Nigeria today, in a medium several critics and scholars alike, consider a dead form of artistic expression.

The title conjures many a thought in the reader; perhaps a Nollywood blockbuster on a philandering dandy, or more likely, the artist in a torrid love affair with his model. However, this could not be further from reality as this solo exhibition of Duke Asidere opening at Omenka Gallery is indeed the culmination of a long appreciation for women who have played significant roles in inspiring and shapinghis art. Above all, his mother and chief muse who remains the most important influence in his life, and whose virtues he interprets and celebrates in paintings of
his several models.

Indeed, Asidere paints women out of a deep desire to identify with their strengths of character. Many of these paintings are created through voice promptings, whichhe hears in his head instructing him on what colors to choose and how to employ them.2 The import of these assertions thus necessitates this incisive study of an important aspect of this compelling artist’s ouevre.

Beginning with a brief investigation of his early influences, as well as works from earlier periods including collage, this essay serves to examine the unfolding and diverse nature of Asidere’s painting, his use of a blend of different artistic media such as car enamel paint, oil, pastels and pencil, and an increasing engagement with contemporary African politics. It also explores his use of visual metaphors and satire to comment on the everyday human drama around him whether political, social, psychological or cultural.

This art historical documentation of Duke Asidere’s partial oeuvre thus provides a foundation for future research on his life and work.

Early Influences, Training and Teaching
Women have been a source of inspiration for Duke Asidere, from very early on in his life—his mother Victoria, wife, relatives or friends, and models. Born on October 7, 1961 in Lagos, he spent his formative years in his mother’s shop where he was strongly influenced by the vibrant patterns and colors of the wax fabrics like Abada and Hollandis, which he would later try to recreate in his later paintings. Victoria was a strong figure, who mainly raised Asidere along with his six siblings.3 Her maternal presence was a stabilizing factor in the home, particularly when Asidere’s father Omemite, a sailor retired early from Elder Dempster, an international shipping company.4 Duke Asidere admits that he owes his radical nature to his father who repeatedly threw him playfully into water to help him overcome his fear. However, his mother remains his strongest influence; his obsession and idea of ideal beauty and love.

This relationship with his mother has inspired him to produce some of his greatest work through the 1990s and 2000s, mostly because he based several of his figures on her. This exhibition of recently completed portraits thus examines the artist/muse relationship. Here, Duke Asidere pays tribute to Nigerian women who have enthralled him with their virtue, beauty, talent or charm. These deeply felt affirmations underscore the powerful impact these muses cast in roles as guide, protector and sacred ideal, have had on the artist.

In 1973, Asidere gained admission to Eko Boys High School, Mushin, and left home to live with his aunt Bolanle Ati-John, who lived close by in Surulere. She would become the second important feminine figure in the young Asidere’s life.6 In her home he learnt to draw by copying action figures in comic books with his cousins Kenneth, Deji, Supo and Femi. They shared a fence with a maternity hospital, and all through the night they were “tormented” by the agonizing cries of women in labor, an experience that also partly informs his deep compassion for women, as evident in his paintings.

From 1985, Asidere studied Fine Art at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, graduating with a first class in 1988. In 1990, he completed his Masters of Fine Art in Painting at the same institution. Two drawings of Mallam Garuba were produced in fulfilment of his Masters degree programme, and betray influences from his early comic drawings. At this early stage of his development, his technical faculty and visual sensitivity are evident in the bold lines which exhibit a freedom of expression and fluid elegance that would become the hallmark of his art.

His collage Concepts, Fashion League, submitted as his final project, and supervised by Gani Odutokun is arguably his first collage and first significant study of women. The experience gained from his mother’s textile business provided Asidere with adequate inspiration for this adventure. By attaching to the surface of his canvas, pieces of ordinary and vulgar off-cuts of textiles manufactured in Europe, but adopted by Africa, Asidere examines the shared and complex histories of both continents while commenting on fashionable Lagos society women. The three works remain part of artist’s personal collection. However, Asidere no longer makes collages because not only are they less durable than the more traditional media but also the right binder is difficult to find.

From 1990 to 1995, Duke Asidere taught Painting (Pictorial Composition) and Art History, and was a project supervisor at Auchi Polytechnic. Arguably, Asidere’s legacy rests partly on his contributions to the school’s reputation along with a crop of his contemporaries including Ben Osaghae, Sam Ovraiti and Kent Onah, who all taught there during the same period. They were joined from time to time and set out to Lagos on March 9, 1995.11 The next day, he moved into a threebedroom apartment at 28, Orelope Street, Egbeda. It had a large living area and he converted a room to his studio. He would live and paint here till 2000. From then on, he rented another apartment at No 32 of the same street to live, while the old studio-residence was used solely for painting and stocking his work.

Asidere’s first oil painting, Aerial View of Ahmadu Bello University from the Painting Department still forms part of his personal collection. The work retains much of the freedom of the sophisticated drawings of Mallam Garuba, and marks a defining point in his development. The painting has the intuitive simplicity of a child, and is vaguely reminiscent of the work of the French expressionist Henri Matisse, whom he much admires. Here, simple shapes and lines become bold thick patches of color that emphatically decorate the surface despite the distant view, at once expressing the artist’s feelings while downplaying the imitation of reality.

To support his convictions, today, Duke Asidere works in series across several themes including poor housing and social infrastructure, contemporary African politics and women, which have all long preoccupied him from early in his career and re-occurred prominently throughout his practice. Because of the difficulty in maintaining two apartments, Asidere was compelled to move his studio in 2007, to his residence at 32, Orelope Street, where he occupied two floors. These constant relocations of his studio caused by increasing rents inform his engagement with
basic housing infrastructure, through which he asserts the significance of shelter and the environment to human existence.12

With canvases densely populated with high-rise buildings or lower structures, he draws our attention to the several failed housing schemes by successive Nigerian governments, the increasing tensions between landlord and tenant, and the struggle for daily survival by the average Nigerian. Housing Project emerges against this background. Two fine examples from this series Housing Project II and Housing Project III, employ dizzying perspectival virtuosity to depict buildings rising vertically from the centre of the picture plane. The cinematic sweep and rigid elevations are
accentuated by inverted “V’s” massed together, which represent distant rooftops set against the cerulean blue sky and ochre foreground.

Contrastingly, in the paintings, Housescape and Housescape II, Asidere spreads his buildings horizontally across his canvas. The extreme elevations of the horizons emphasize dense housing and are further accentuated with thick strokes of vivid color from his palette knife. The works draw comparisons with the richly textured urban landscapes of Ghanaian artist Ablade Glover, as well as Alex Nwokolo from Nigeria, while recalling vaguely his earlier painting Aerial View of Ahmadu Bello University from the Painting Department. They emphasize a revision of his earlier
style that draws from the rich patterns of his mother’s textiles—a clear indication of her continued impact on his art.

In recent years, Duke Asidere has grown increasingly political. Though he spent his formative years during the height of Nigeria’s political turmoil between 1966-79, a eriod which witnessed three violent changes in government including two coup d’états and an assassination, Asidere claims that these events had no direct effect on him or his art; rather it was his reaction to the consequences of inflation and corruption that birthed his new direction.13

Some of the most recognisable series in this direction include Black (2008), Power Play (2009), Corruption (2009), Silence and the Chalk Board (2009/2010). His painting Locked Palace is a scathing criticism on the Nigerian government’s secretiveness about late President Musa Yar’Adua’s ill health. 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. Failed Dreams is a fine example from this body of work.

Asidere’s Chalk Board series is a satirical commentary inspired by his desire to guide children through proper instruction to ensure they become responsible members of society. The serialized canvases, 97 x 97cm in dimension are characterized by miniature toy cars in abstract space, suspended in circular travel. Artist Ben Osaghae observes that the artist’s clever use of circumambient motion is at once a metaphor for the stagnation of the country.15 Duke Asidere likens this situation to Nigerian artists who paint canoes and market scenes to satisfy the tastes of a few patrons instead of speaking out against issues that affect them like corruption, government’s misplaced negotiations with Niger-Delta militants, and their removal of fuel subsidy.

However, there are an increasing number of Nigerian artists embracing relatively new media including video, photography and sound, as well as engaging with contemporary issues, including performance artist Jelili Atiku, photographers Mudi Yahaya and Adolphus Opara, and painter Ben Osaghae. There are also platforms like Omenka Gallery and the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos that are actively promoting new work. Nonetheless, what seems to be of major concern is the absence of adequate structures for the production, dissemination and consumption of art.

Duke Asidere does not paint from photographs, but from memory and observation. For artists like him, paint is not simply the medium that is used to achieve a final image. The surface the paint creates—its materiality, often emphasized with bits of old newspaper and glue, is judged by the artist to be as important as the image itself. He claims his best work was produced on the prompting of voices he hears and believes that creating good art depends on one’s ability to follow his “nudgings.”17 He recalls a painting achieved by spreading blue over a large canvas. Following a voice prodding, he incorporated his very picture plane into the meaning of the work by stamping the bottom of an acrylic bottle in specified spots. He duly named the painting Making of a Miracle.

Asidere uses a full palette except Prussian blue, which he finds too harsh and incompatible with other colors. He also does not paint with burnt sienna or umber but employs a variant of orange, which he derives himself. The artist explains he is allergic to orange and has low tolerance for ultramarine blue because it is too strong to cover up. He asserts that he took to car enamel paint, which he applies with a spray gun on a broad flat ground because he wanted a “surprise element” in his work, as well as “stretch liberties.” He prefers this tool because he “hates” removing leftover bristles or covering up spots and irregularities. Clocks also hold a special place in Asidere’s heart and he draws on their faces using a marker, explaining that they are “symbols of remembrance.”

In recent works like the Black and White series and Bedroom Blues, he expresses himself in increasingly fluid ways. In a sense nothing is permanent and matter exists in a volatile state of becoming. The artist makes this feeling intuitive with his selection of materials; car enamel paint, acrylic and spray paint often applied on huge wooden panels. Dripping, they leak and flow with great immediacy across the surface, creating spaces where form and formlessness converge to offer several possibilities for interpretation.

A discussion of Asidere’s oeuvre would be incomplete without an investigation into his paintings of women. Though he has not achieved renown as a portrait painter, portraiture represents a substantial part of his oeuvre. Asidere does not base these paintings on careful preparatory drawings, rather, the more fully formed paintings are created in the studio from scribbly, often indecipherable pencil sketches. The figures are depicted mainly reclining or suspended, at once exploring the tensions between form and space. Betraying an admiration for the work of artists like Ernst
Ludwig Kirchner, Alexander Calder, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Jasper Johns and Jacob Lawrence, torsos and limbs are reduced to their essentials and express the artist’s subjective feelings. His approach is to suppress what seems superfluous or gives the work too obvious a meaning. With arms or heads often cut off, the human bodies reveal what is most intimate, the resulting paintings non-the less completely finished. Here, traditional rules of perspective, academic proportion, and foreshortening are also abandoned to heighten immediacy. Color too is impulsively scrubbed thickly with a palette knife, sometimes over a layer of bits of old newspaper. Reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionists, his work is detached from naturalistic representation, color becoming a symbolic means of
expressing his deep emotions.

Asidere and His Muse
This fluidity and simplification of form present since his early work, as exemplified by his portraits of Mallam Garuba remain evident in his recent paintings inspired by his muses. The emergence of the muse dates back to ancient Greece, when the nine divinities—daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne inspired artistic achievement.20 Indeed, art history is fraught with many an example of the artist/muse relationship. Writer Lee Siegel describes the muse as the “female figure-deity, platonic ideal, mistress, lover [or] wife whom poets and painters called upon for inspiration.”21 He also observes that “poets stopped invoking the muse centuries ago, eventually turning instead to caffeine, alcohol and amphetamines—but painters, musicians, even choreographers have celebrated their actual female inspirers in their work up until recent times.”

Other critics have attributed the near disappearance of the muse to unequal valuations of certain ideals across various cultures, as well as a growing apathy for the objectification of women.23 Both assertions bear a relationship to a diminishing importance attached to originality. As an example, Asidere complains that several contemporary Nigerian artists make paintings copied from magazines.24 Today, the muse is acknowledged as an exemplar of style, her sense of fashion, innate grace, and mystique serving to inspire artists to increasing heights of creativity.

Therefore, it may come as a surprise, that Duke Asidere along with a host of his contemporaries in Nigeria like painter Olu Ajayi, seek inspiration from the muse, though the once standard and legendary relationship, often with sexual undertones is no longer common place. A close observation of Duke Asidere’s canvases of female figures will reveal their representation as strangely hybrid beings. Furthermore, the faces appear the same, bearing the same strong features as his mother, and are captured in an angular and semi-Cubist technique drawn from a deep knowledge of classical African sculpture.

Noteworthy among the paintings presented in this exhibition are Re-connections and For My Daughter, Grace, which both at once reveal his deep yearning to build a close relationship with his daughter Grace Okeoghene. He explains that Okeoghene translates as “God’s time” and believes that at the right time, they would share the sort of close bond he has with his mother. These observations underscore the fact that his paintings are not inspired by a torrid love affair or an obsession with the female body and ideals of its perfect state, but are born from the memory of his mother’s strength of character, merely interpreted through his models.

Characteristically, his elongated figures often appear headless or limbless. This device employed by Asidere draws its origins from historic masterpieces like the Venus de Milo, a well-known classical Greek statue with missing arms. According to curator Helaine Posner, contemporary fragmented figures are deliberate and not the result of accidental breakages.

The dismemberment of the body in late Twentieth Century art is no accident. It is the result of living in a world in which violence, oppression, social injustice, and physical and psychological stress predominate. We may long for the
secure ideals of beauty and wholeness embraced by past generations, but experience tells us that this worldview is obsolete.26

As artist Suzanne Lacy observes, much of women’s social status is associated with the body.27 Asidere’s paintings of limbless and headless women serve to challenge and displace classical ideals of ‘beauty’, heroism and perfection. Here, the female body becomes a primary site and an important source of information, through which he celebrates virtues such as patience, long suffering, commitment and Framing Meaning In her 1989 work, Barbara Kruger proclaims in a text, “Your body is a battle ground.”28 In interpreting, Thomas Lacquer asserts that the body, including its expression in sexuality, “is one of the great political arenas of our time.” 29 These cultural battles over bodies are waged everywhere including the mass media over several issues, as scholars Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel put it “ … the most socially preferred size, shape, age and color of bodies; tattoos against specific forms of sexual expression; attitudes toward ramifications of medical decisions affecting the sick and dying; and rules
governing the treatment of prisoners, patients, and other institutionalized people.” They ask several questions including, “…who should be in control? Who is in charge of how we see a body, where we see it, why we see it, and what it means to us when we see it?” 30

Film theorist Laura Mulvey points out that Western visual representation of females typically assumes a male spectator gazing at the female as a passive object.31 Robertson and Mc Daniel have also argued that this gaze is voyeuristic when she is viewed as a pleasurable sex object.32 These representations of the sexualized female in total passivity have occurred throughout the history of Western art, and until recently, were almost invariably produced by male artists, and exploited for male sexual gratification 33. In the past thirty years, they have gained heightened awareness globally, through all forms of mass media, including movies, television programmes, music videos and video games.34

Asidere revisits this stereo-typification and objectification in his paintings of non-erotic women by offering a critique of patriarchal communities with accompanying social practices and political structures that hide sexual abuse, and normalize assumptions that women are subservient to men. The 24 paintings and drawings of traditional beauties and liberated women presented in this exhibition, raise awareness about these issues. Many of the enigmatic forms appear regal and are engaged in mundane activities including neighborhood banter and preparations for a party, their masklike faces and haughty appearances lending weight to the artist’s ongoing investigations into cultural perceptions of blackness; its physiognomies and behavior.

Painting for the artist is a subversive, anti-conventional means of expression, and therefore, his models cannot be real, live bodies, but belong to a set of definable typologies. They are mostly young and seeking for admission into tertiary institutions in Nigeria. Despite this, the artist maintains that it is of utmost importance that they are professional, and show a strong desire to be remunerated for their work.35 Though Asidere shared close relationships with several of them, he is only on a first name basis. Tolu was probably his first serious model. He met her through his friend, sculptor Jabar David. He was later to meet Merrit, who was his model for most of 2003 till she left to study Graphics at Auchi Polytechnic. There was also Joy, his longest serving muse, from the end of May last year to January 2014. She never tired of posing. Many of Asidere’s sketchpads are almost exclusively filled with drawings of her, which suggests the cordial relationship between the artist and his subject. It has been said that these sketches are among some of the most beautiful examples of his drawings. Soon after she left, Ijeoma modeled for him from February to August of 2014. Bukola (Bukky) is his present model. Many of the sittings take place in his sprawling new studio that occupies the entire ground floor of the red brick building that still houses his flat on the third floor.

Duke Asidere indeed adores women. He observes them without indulgence, leaving his models to wander freely in the studios as they pleased. He is of the opinion that despite the enormity of an artist’s talent, he could never know a model’s body well enough to understand and capture all its contours within a few weeks. Asidere advocates that enough time must be spent to achieve this task, and asserts that he expends a month, merely observing and barely drawing, to ensure not only a true likeness but also a semblance of temperament and spirit. Once accomplished, sketching or painting then becomes a most exciting venture, especially when a generous amount of wine flows to
induce the mood.

Much of Asidere’s success lies in his ability to render what is public and generic in a way that is intimate and specific. A deeply emotional man, Asidere paints his feelings intuitively. He then refines his instincts by continually adjusting his lines, colors, and planes to reflect his mental state, his sensitivity and artistic refinement evident in the soft pinks, blues, greens and yellows. A culmination of the simple shapes and textures inspired by his mother’s textiles, his artistic journey is a search for answers, at the same time advancing several questions regarding the meaning of contemporary beauty.

Today, Duke Asidere 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.

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