The canvases are masterfully crafted by the painter’s sure and steady hand. The seamless blend of diverse techniques; scraping, overlaying, lifting, as well as the ease with which she manipulates her medium, conceal the difficulty of her task. The vibrant, yet subdued hues heighten the drama, and are suggestive of a metaphysical experience. However, it is not Nengi Omuku’s dedicated pursuit of the painter’s craft, or her technical proficiency that distinguishes her art as exceptional, but her effortlessness in conveying smoothly, movement in imperceptible steps.
These works presented for Omuku’s first solo exhibition in Nigeria, A State of Mind, are a stunning collection of imagery; iridescent landscapes bathed with light from halfhidden globes, and populated by clouds and waterfalls; fantastical formations peopled with hybrid beings and floating organic bodies; imaginary vistas of intergalactic fields; and emerging cloud formations.
A close examination shows Omuku’s transiting clouds and waterfalls are representative of different physical states in the process of energy conversion. Here, we are reminded by physicist James Joule that energy can change in form but cannot be created or destroyed.1 Consequently, we gain valuable insight into Omuku’s oeuvre, largely a series of self portraits that document her strongly personal journey or escape across several energy levels as various expressions, bounded only by the law of energy conservation.“There are things I want to express about my body, and its relationship to the space I am in, and what happens when I encounter other bodies in a given space.
These elements of body, space and encounter have literally shaped my practice thus far.”2 She explains further, “Scape, escape and space are the environments these bodies move in.They reflect and respond to the mood of the body in them and mirror its experiences.”3 These assertions set the tone for a brief discussion of this remarkable young artist’s work while providing a foundation for future, more incisive studies of the unfolding nature of her painting.
Of particular interest is the painting Together Forever, born out of Omuku’s long preoccupation, since she was 17, with birth, one of life’s most fundamental processes.4 Omuku has developed alter egos she calls “furry creatures”, one of which appears in this painting and others, as a metaphor for her experiences.5 Here, she employs this device to gain a deeper understanding of conception, pregnancy and birth.6
Drawing close comparisons is her series on the state of madness or insanity. Several definitions of madness abound, but all generally agree that it’s a state of “mental derangement”, or more subtly, “being disordered in mind.” This latter description is fittingly appropriate for works like I Can Drive, which suggests a transient state — the
balance between self-control and insanity that often simmers beneath the surface of daily life.The artist locates this space and is at her satirical best in this work. Painted this year, shortly after she learnt to drive, the work draws its title from an accident she had at Port Harcourt, which she admits was her fault.7 According to the artist, “Suddenly, I was surrounded by men, they were everywhere yelling, ‘I can drive!’ — The name for female drivers in Nigeria.8 ‘Commot for road’, you should have put ‘L’ so we know you are a learner.”9 Being surrounded by several angry men was a most frightening experience for the artist. As in the painting, she imagines herself asa flightless bird balancing precariously on a unicycle, a metaphor for the engulfing drama— a balance between self-control and madness.10
Scholar James M. Wilce defines madness as a generic term that includes behaviors considered deviant. He asserts that deviance is always culturally defined, and varies significantly from society to society. “Although much evidence points to the universality of conditions like schizophrenia, culture shapes how people experience, and respond to, even that serious disease. In that sense, culture shapes the illness. Omuku examines the nature of sanity and insanity and how different cultures construct “normality” and “abnormality.” She agrees with Wilce that in semiotic systems,
madness, as a key cultural symbol is a profound threat to order. She thus employs it as a visual symbol for our own collective, heightened emotional states, then asks questions whether ‘madness’ and ‘rationality’ form our sense of ‘self’ and ‘non-self’.
These questions imply the centrality of madness in any culture as far as cultural processes guide ‘experience’ and specify its outer limits. After 8 years in “cold, wet London”, Nengi Omuku admits that on her return to Nigeria, she began to notice “little oddities” around her. She reveals she kept seeing the mentally ill everywhere she went; Ibadan, Lagos and Port Harcourt, in various states of dress and undress.11 Bodija Heiress arises against this background. It is precisely this characteristic ability to chart new directions that distinguishes Omuku’s art, especially when one considers her practice is located in a largely conservative society.
Nengi Omuku’s artistic career began as a violin player, before leaving Nigeria and following her dream to become a student of Fine Art, graduating with a BA and MA in Art from the Slade, University College, London. There she felt as “some sort of colorful exotic, creature that has been removed from her natural habitat.”12 Omuku recalls that
the experience of being the only African student in her class and for most of her time at school, led to an acute awareness of her body to heightened racial and sexual differences.13 She also reveals that several of her paintings like Botticelli, I Can Drive, Fear and Beckoning were created from a need to reflect how she felt through an alter
ego.14 Omuku’s critical outlook and response is thus an attempt to locate her own position within this system. She uses this resulting rubble of meanings to construct her own story, seeking intersections while examining issues such as the politics of representation, travel, migration and displacement.
According to writer and curator Ella Shohat, “Displacement is one of the central facts of contemporary culture.” She also asserts that it embraces “morphing, criss-crossing movements across regional and national borders” of “people, capital, digital information and ecological flow.”15 Some artists like Nengi Omuku moved to a new country to further their education.Several of their works are often syncretic, mixing or juxtaposing multiple cultural references and ideas. Understandably, art about displacement focuses on the journey itself, the condition of being in transit between places with different languages, customs, material culture and ideas— a conclusion theorist HomiBabha named “in- betweenness.”16 Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel also observe that, “Artists may explore the meaning and location of borders, boundaries and zones of transition.”17 They postulate that the displaced artists retain an emotional connection with the place left behind.18 The outcome is amplified by the distance, and further
compounded as in Omuku’s case when one takes into account that after completing her Master’s degree, she returned to Port Harcourt in Nigeria, where she now lives and works. In I Am Not Here, Omuku turns to language to articulate her predicament.
The single phrase bearing the title of the painting appears to float on the picture plane in front of a black hollow betraying a hidden form. The words are repetitive and presented sequentially to augment her visual response as she weaves a narrative around her shifting identities. The format of the words hold an increased significance. They are both visual and verbal as they can both be read and consciously seen — a delicate but transient balance that scholars Jean Robertson and Craig Mc Daniel describe as translucent.19 The painting thus assumes an additional function in drawing us on to a heightened level of consciousness as collaborators in confronting our contemporary realities.
As we contemplate Nengi Omuku’s paintings, we indeed become co-travelers and embark on a spiritual or metaphysical journey of self-discovery and becoming. Her efforts yield fruit as she underscores the transient and fragile nature of life, and succeeds in forging a new and hybrid identity that draws on the physical environment and cultural climate of each location and relocation.