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Of Being Present: Boundaries and Zones of Transition

Founded by curator, Sandra Mbanefo Obiago, SMO Contemporary Art’s commitment to provoking critical discourse on art developments in Nigeria is underscored by its well-received schedule of exhibitions. An increasingly active programme of publications supports this initiative, with critical texts aimed at situating Nigerian and African artists within broader global narratives.

The latest in the series of seminal exhibitions is Wanderlust, a term used in the late 18th and 19th centuries to describe what was then viewed characteristically as German predilection for wandering.1 In more recent times, sociologists and tourists alike are agreed that the word is more useful in reflecting an intense urge for self-development by engaging different and often unfamiliar cultural experiences.2 An alternative view is the confronting of unforeseen challenges and escape from depressive feelings of guilt.3 Other reasons advanced include the dissatisfaction with one’s local environment.4

In explaining her curatorial thrust, Mbanefo Obiago asserts:

The focus of the exhibition is the interpretation of ‘wanderlust’, the joy of travel, adventure, and exploring new worlds, vis-à-vis the global political, and economic issues of migration.

On showcase is the work of 6 of the more established names in contemporary African art; Dil Humphrey – Umuezulike Dilomprizulike, better known by his moniker ‘Junkman of Africa’; Chidi Kwubiri; Unoma Numero; Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko; Emeka Udemba; and Jimmy Nwanne. The selection of the artists is incisive, and takes into account, their close ties with Germany. Individually, they have on one hand been born, raised in Germany and relocated to Nigeria and on the other, studied and live in Germany. Moreover, they all share personal experiences of establishing a trans-Atlantic practice, which ensures they travel regularly between Nigeria and Germany to facilitate research, production, and exhibitions. As Mbanefo Obiago observes, they are at once, Nigerian and German, African and European, Bantu and Caucasian.

An overarching purpose of Wanderlust is to stimulate the Lagos exhibition circuit, while encouraging a cross-fertilisation of ideas centered on issues of identity, migration and belonging between African artists who define their practices on the continent and those in diaspora, that remain true to their roots.  The exhibition also seeks answers to questions such as how relevant is the concept of wanderlust to an increasingly polarised and fragmented world? Considering their European sensibilities, what meanings do their journeys portray? Does a process of internalisation or an external one accomplish wanderlust? This latter concern is perhaps the chief focus of this essay.

Their shared experiences are accentuated by the fact that the artists are separated by an age span of 29 years, the oldest, Junkman born in 1960, and the youngest Nwanne in 1989. Interestingly, this exhibiting group is part of a significant number of established international artists like ruby onyinyechi amanze and Wura-Natasha Ogunji whose practices are defined by a fusion of indigenous aesthetics and European modes of representation, acquired largely through Western education. This phenomenon of hybridity is intensified today because of the rapid spread of information and ideas through the Internet, as well as commercial forces.

According to historian Eva Langret:

Their cosmopolitan personal narratives have led them to develop echoing artistic languages, inspired by the experience of navigating life as hybrids. A result of growing up and living between several places and cultures, they envision a world where identity has no permanent, essential meaning, but is transient, continuously formed and transformed in relation to the cultural systems, which surround us.5

Perhaps more relevant because they are resident in Germany are the examples of celebrated artists like Ransome Stanley, born in 1953, Owusu-Ankomah, born in 1956 and Manuela Sambo in 1964, of Nigerian, Ghanaian and Angola descent. Stanley reflects on colonial clichés of exoticism and images of Africa rooted in Western concepts of rusticness and innocence. Sambo is well known for her depictions of nude female portraits and figures. Her work employs stylistic elements of the body painting traditions from her home country while integrating European elements, including ornamental pieces dating back to the medieval ages.

Onwusu-Ankomah’s figures are naked, bold, and powerful but differ from Sambo’s figures by a covering of complex symbols in a manner that renders them almost invisible. He is influenced by the philosophy of his Akan-speaking people of Ghana, reflected in his frequent use of the adinkra symbols.

Other similarities can be drawn between these various groups of artists in reasoning along Langret’s thoughts that theirs is not a story about dislocation or searching for their roots; one which is neither celebrating nor despairing their cultural hybrid identity. The narrative is simply about being present, a state defined by their critical outlook towards the condition of being in transit between places with different languages, customs, material culture and ideas.

This ‘in-betweeness’ as defined by Homi Bhabha, begins with a critical challenge and an attempt to break it down to locate their own position and construct their own story with new historical and conceptual connections. This state of becoming, fueled by multiple belongings rejects traditional definitions of gender, race, sexuality, class, religion, and nationality, to engender creative freedom, allowing numerous possibilities for re-interpretation, as can be seen from the blend of diverse cultural references in the artists’ work.

Works by Junkman set the tone for the exhibition. He studied art at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and taught between 1989 and 1999 at the University of Benin, Nigeria. He holds an MFA from the University of Dundee, Scotland and presently teaches creative concepts and self-development at the universities of Bonn, Soest, Giessen and Bayreuth in Germany. With a focus on Africa, Junkman investigates the city and the life of its inhabitants as a curious concept of modernity, against the influences of indigenous cultures and philosophies. Employing used and disused materials including old clothing and other detritus found on city streets, to create sculptural installations, he records the ensuing conflicts and tensions.

Although, not featured in the exhibition, his installation Wear and Tear is a fine example of his work that does well to define his overall creative output.

He explains:

Wear and Tear as a concept attempts to expose the often overlooked and underrated elements of the Africa-urban life, which largely influence it. The alienated situation of the African in his own society becomes tragic. There is a struggle inside him, a consciousness of living with the complications of an imposed civilisation. He can no longer go back to pick up the fragments of his father’s shattered culture; neither is he equipped enough to keep pace with the white-man’s world.6

Chidi Kwubiri, born 1966 in Umuahia, southeastern Nigeria discovered a love for drawing and painting as a child. In 1993, he was a guest student in Michael Buthe’s masterclass at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, later becoming a regular student and studying painting between 1994 and 2002, at the same institution under A.R. Penck. Kwubiri lives and works with his family in Pulheim near Cologne. He has exhibited his work extensively in Germany and across Europe.

In Kwubiri’s canvases, densely complex layers of small, distinct dots of intuitive colour are dripped, and sprinkled in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Pollock, and smoothened to create abstract backgrounds from which indigenous symbols such as masks and human forms emerge. This skilful balance of abstract passages and realistic forms, as well as modernity and the traditional, is perhaps the hallmark of Kwubiri’s art. The results rely on the ability of the eye and mind of the viewer to blend these spots of colour into a fuller range of tones.

Gérard Goodrow, director of Art Cologne, has described Kwubiri’s working methods as a reflection of his complex personality—an oscillation between his African heritage and his new life as an internationally active artist living in Germany.

Importantly, another quality of Kwubiri’s work is its spatiality. Here, the virtual and the abstract act as metaphors for the ephemerality of physical boundaries and the ease of mobility through space, across geographical locations. Implying the co-existence of several time zones, these dual properties of fragility and mobility imbue his canvases with functionality as flexible sites of exchange and connectivity.

German-born Numero Unoma, explains:

Apart from ticking the right professional box for the sake of my father’s Nigerian ego, my years in the belly of the beast amounted to a research sabbatical, from which I have been able to derive insider information on capitalism and globalisation, as well as gender and race politics and economics. I have experienced this from the geographical and cultural perspectives of two diametrically opposite continents – Africa and Europe, from which, incidentally, my own gene pool and identity, is composed.

From these stirring words, we gain a deeper understanding of her emotional connection to her art through which she expresses her motives and experiences. More importantly, we are allowed into her inner space and world.

Born in Enugu and raised in Germany, Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko, like Numero Unoma, is of mixed parentage. In 2000, her career began in the European country with an apprenticeship programme in advertising photography. Today, she is one of the most exciting photographers working in Nigeria. Ayeni-Babaeko draws from a deep knowledge of Western conventions of portraiture with a substantial part of her oeuvre engaging Yoruba mythology and folklore.

Emeka Udemba was born in 1987, in Enugu. He studied art and art education in Lagos but lives in Germany. Our place within the urban environment is a recurring theme in his practice. His work also interrogates media representations of violence, suffering and trauma while tackling issues pertaining to cultural diversity and memory, within a global context. According to the artist, his body of work including paintings explores the aspirations of those existing in the periphery of mainstream society. Here, he employs the human body to question and challenge pre-arranged systems or relationships in society.

Jimmy Uche Nwanne was born in 1989, in Kaduna, Nigeria, and later studied fine art, majoring in painting at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. Presently, he lives and works in Kaiserslautern, Germany. “Art is a fabric woven with the texture of life”. In these words, Nwanne’s underlying philosophy resonates strongly with the central thrust of the exhibition.

Portraits and figure studies form a special part of his oeuvre. Inspired by universal themes such as gender, race, religion, love and relationships, as well as contemporary politics. In an increasingly globalised world, Mbanefo Obiago also observes the artist’s growing focus in ensuring his work transcends geographical boundaries and specific national contexts through colour and the textural qualities of his canvases. To achieve his aim, Nwanne often divides his picture plane with faces of his subjects assuming a different colour in each segment to emphasize individuality. In his world, several parts function as a whole. Other pictorial devices are his incorporation of winged insects and iconic objects like ships, to suggest travel and boundaries.

Strongly individual, all the works presented here, are a testament to each artist’s quest in exploring new visual vocabularies and the development of new techniques. Hopefully, Nigerian audiences will approach their work with openness to a different worldview, one rooted in an ancient and distinctive cultural heritage, yet embracing the artistic expression of other regions of the world.

 

Oliver Enwonwu, M.A Art History

President, Society of Nigerian Artists

June, 2017

 

NOTES

 

  1. Etymology of Wanderlust from Online Etymology Dictionary
  2. P. Robinson, Tourism, 2002, p. 196
  3. Otton Femichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, 1946, p.369
  4. S. Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL), p. 455
  5. Eva Langret, All that is Solid Melts into Air in Magic exhibition catalogue, Omenka Gallery, Lagos, 2015, p. 8
  6. Peb Subiros, Simon Njami, Kobena Mercer et al, Africa’s: The Artist and the City, exhibition catalogue, Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona, 2001

 

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