Ascension, a Revival of the Traditional

The word ‘ascension’ connotes first, the mystical belief in many religions that certain rare individuals directly ascend into heaven without experiencing death the most commonly held example being the bodily ascension of Jesus into heaven, and second, the act of rising to an important position or a higher level.

It is perhaps upon this latter definition that this exhibition (titled Ascension) of recent works by Wallace Ejoh (b.1966) and Jefferson Jonahan (b.1970), hinges its thrust. At first glance this direction seems rather awkward because both artists are already established and well known on the Lagos art circuit. But arguably, their ‘ascension’ may be attributable to their contributions towards a revival of the comparably more traditional media of painting, amidst the increasingly more favoured means of expression today, that include video and photography, performance and installation.

Born in Accra, Wallace Ejoh earned a higher national diploma in painting from Yaba College of Technology, known famously as the Yaba School of Art, in 2000 after completing his industrial training at separate, short periods under Alex Nwokolo and Abiodun Olaku. Ejoh’s time spent under Olaku at the Universal Studios of Art located at the National Theatre, Iganmu in Lagos perhaps, had the most effect on his practice. Ejoh like Olaku is a leading member of the Yaba School, recognised in narratives of modern Nigerian art for its strongly figurative style embedded in naturalism that draws from a sound technical ability and a deep observation of nature.

Indeed, many other graduates of the school have gone on to establish their practices at the Universal Studios, underscoring the inextricable link between both institutions. The studios continue to engender the highest professional standards in recent school leavers, students on industrial training and enthusiasts alike, through the practical teaching of sculpture, painting, metal design, graphics and ceramics. The quality of instruction received by the students has over the years, depended largely on the strength of the instructors in these various genres. Importantly, the Universal Studios was founded in 1996 as a progression from the National Gallery of Art (NGA) Studios established by the NGA to build on the gains of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77), by encouraging professionals to provide mentorship opportunities for upcoming talents. Alongside maintaining an active studio, Ejoh has built a reputation as an accomplished instructor at the Universal Studios, judging by the quality of a younger generation of painters he has tutored, presently defining their spaces on the Lagos art scape. Here, in their development may perhaps lie the artist’s greatest legacy to contemporary art in Nigeria. Ascension, a Revival of the Traditional Ejoh’s paintings centre on several traditional themes including the Durbar and fashionable society women getting dressed for an occasion. His unique and expressive technique involves painting wet on wet with a balance of virtuoso brushwork against thick, opaque strokes for the lights. There is little modelling of volumes of clothing in his work, his paintings dependent largely on a posterization of large shapes of value. An accomplished painter, he stands out in his ability to manipulate his oil medium, his canvases united in mood by their rich and varied textures.

In contrast with Ejoh, Jefferson Jonahan studied basic art at the School of Art and Design of the Federal Polytechnic, Auchi in Edo State where he earned a national diploma in 1993. His work shows a marked departure from the Auchi colourist school and its affinities with Fauvism. Here, the artist embraces a subdued palette, and is less dependent on
colour, to mould form and convey meaning. Jonathan’s technical ability is evident in his ability to reproduce nature with exactitude, though he often times exaggerates hands, limbs or facets of his figures to achieve a sense of heightened drama. His recent works are commentaries on sociopolitical events in Nigeria, and are not only well known for their restrained technique and linear detail, but for their satire. Drawing on historical and mythological references in much of his work, he employs a limited palette and restricts his compositions to a single human figure or face, his sensitivity to light and shadow and the fundamental characteristics of the medium, assuming the focus.

Both artists are brought together by a firm belief in the foundational principles of drawing. Without doubt, the works on display will remain powerful and relevant statements long past their time of creation, an endorsement of Mydrim Gallery’s commitment to art “created from a fine tradition of skill and integrity”. This tradition in Nigeria can betraced to modernist artist Aina Onabolu’s pioneering efforts in European naturalism, to be challenged radically by the philosophy of Natural Synthesis, which sought to merge indigenous aesthetics with Western techniques and modes of convention, a movement which had its progenitors in Ben Enwonwu, and later members of the Zaria Art Society.

In Nigeria today, the movement may have lost its dominance, replaced not by a single or new orthodoxy, but by a variety of styles that stem from naturalism and these early experiments. It is upon the former that Wallace Ejoh and Jefferson Johanan frame their artistic practice, their work becoming at once, a significant part of the trajectory of development of our rich visual heritage.

Oliver Enwonwu, MA Art History
President, Society of Nigerian Artists

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