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Towards a Shared History: Abass Kelani

Award–winning Nigerian artist, Abass Kelani is a firm fixture on the Lagos art circuit as evidenced by his soaring career, marked by several significant exhibitions and a mastery of several media, from acrylics, oils, pastels and charcoal to disused printing machine parts, and more recently archival resources including family photographs, posters, calendars, old type cases and hand numbering machines.

Like many artists working today, Kelani became keenly interested in art at an early age. “My aim has always been to be an artist. My printer father and typist mother, who encouraged me with an unlimited supply of materials– off-cut papers, printing inks and so on, discovered my aptitude for art at a tender age. Such access and exposure to various coloured materials enabled me to weave them into beautiful collage formations, cards, toys, mat designs and drawings. In the mid-80s, letterpress printing was about to give way for lithography, and I started making designs to be used for offset printing as early as age 7. This background has been the major influence on my practice today.”

Kelani would spend several years working at his father’s printing press as a machine operator, before gaining admission into Yaba College of Technology in 2002. He talks about his evolution since graduating, from a strong figurative style embracing themes like the chaotic dynamism of the market places, lorry and motorcycle parks and shanty homes. “My style of art is gradually developing, painting being important in my process. After graduating in 2007, I began working in a strongly figurative manner. In early 2010, I started introducing digital images and text to my work, as well as using wheels which propel movement in printing machines as a metaphor to express the complex relationship between man and machine. This birthed a body of work ‘Man and Machine’ in 2011. Afterwards, I started to introduce personal narratives and this brought about more research on family and collective histories.

Material usage became more important in executing my ideas and I began engaging historical and archival materials to narrate my stories. The more research I made while developing an artwork, the more satisfying the outcome, and the process soon became more important than the finished work. The concept or idea involved in my work now takes precedence over traditional aesthetics.”

Inspired by his early exposure to the printing press, the artist’s solo exhibition Man and Machine at the Omenka Gallery in 2011, arguably served as his launch pad and continues to influence his already successful career and present body of work. “Yes, printing history has been a major influence on my work today, alongside a research on my family’s autobiography in relation to the socio-cultural realities of my community, using archival resources gathered from my family’s collection. This collection includes family photographs, posters, calendars, old type cases, hand numbering machines and a hand-written book that documents over 70 years of my family history with recordings of events, child births, deaths, traditional invocations, orthodox prescriptions and autobiographies.”

Kelani also talks about his stylistic influences. “I much admire the works and process of John Baldessari. Born in 1931, the American painter, photographer and collagist is known for using found photographs and appropriated images in his work. Starting out in the early 1960s with gestural paintings, he soon transitioned to working with materials from billboard posters to digital photography, transforming his options and process. A fundamental development in his work was the introduction of text to his paintings. By using codes to convey messages, it was for him, the comprehension that texts and images behave in similar ways. His process has much influenced my work.”

Kelani’s fifth solo exhibition, curated by Bisi Silva is on-going at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos. He explains the message he hopes to pass across with it.

“If I Could Save Time launches new facets of my personal history and comprises of two bodies of work; ‘Casing History’ and ‘Stamping History’. They highlight the importance of family heritage and history, cultural characteristics, national belonging, fashion and social prominence, as well as the role of archives in history making. In so doing, they question how memory is shaped through archival materials, the way in which remembrance is structured – outside the human faculty of memory – from oral to written and print to electronic memory, while harnessing the visual power of remembering as a way of intersecting the past, present and future, the extent at which these materials should be used and whose responsibility is it to protect the archives.

Art is a perfect tool to use in questioning archives as they hold the evidence of what has happened before; they are means to recover the ‘truth’ about the past. Memory is embedded in archives and it falters without records.”

As time unfolds, Kelani probes the difficult relations of belonging and identity and in particular, the shared history of man and machine, creating new narratives which favour the intermingling of time and space, past and present.

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