Held at Ford Foundation in the exclusive suburb of Banana Island in Ikoyi; ‘Design is the Personality of an Idea’ drew together eight promising African female artists working across the continent and its diaspora in diverse media ranging from fashion to digital collage, painting, photography, sound, film and installation.
The common thread running through each artist’s work accentuates issues of belonging, migration, travel, dislocation and identity. Individually, the works are strong and draw from the artist’s ability to capture her shifting realities in today’s increasingly globalised world. According to curator Allyn Gaestel, “We are all deluded. In the most dangerous ways, the most beautiful ways and the most banal and benign ways, we all exist in a world of our own design, our own creation, our own filter. Built with our beliefs, our histories, our traumas, our consumption, our interactions, our societies, our habits, our opportunities and dreams, we design our own reality.”
Self-taught Nigerian artist Modupeola Fadugba was born in Francophone Togo. Until her discovery in a science class at age sixteen, Fadugba believed the earth was flat. This revelation forms the foundation for her investigations into several long-held assumptions about human existence. Fadugba presents five works in the exhibition, three of which complete a series of portraits of women titled ‘8 Lazy Days.’ Her work has an almost graphic-like quality, generally informed by her experiences of living in Tanzania, the United Kingdom, Nigeria and the United States. However, she reveals that it is an early romantic experience of a long courtship ended abruptly that marks a defining point in her life and makes the most impact on her paintings. Though the couple remains friendly, the emotional scars are visible in the voids and empty spaces of the paintings – metaphors for her broken dreams. Her interest in surface textures is also evident in her use of beads, which accentuate the decorative qualities of the works. Begun in February 2014, and completed eight months later, ‘8 Lazy Days’ is aptly titled to describe contemplative moments in the artist’s life as she weaves a narrative of her struggles to carve her identity. Drawing vaguely from the nude figures of Henri Matisse, Fadugba admits that she is the woman in her paintings – her body becoming a repository for her varied experiences and the challenges she faced.
Originally trained as a graphic artist in Morocco, Ivorianborn Joana Choumali chose photography early in her career as a personal medium of expression. According to the artist, this early interest forced her to not only rapidly develop her skills to match those of her more advanced peers, but to also announce her emergence by donning sensational hairstyles, symbolic of a desire to distinguish herself. She soon found a kindred voice in the Pikine women of Senegal, notorious for their garish use of makeup to show off and assert themselves. These (often uneducated) women wear cheap makeup, mostly imported from China, beautifying themselves in order to attract suitors or please their husbands. Pikine women are famed for their competiveness, and they favour grand entries into social gatherings – their acceptance into society and status dependent on their ability to impress with their painted faces.
Ironically, there is a more educated class of Senegalese women who form an integral part of Senegalese high society and disagree strongly with the exhibitionist tendencies of their less privileged counterparts. Choumali intervenes in the ensuing debate with her series entitled ‘Adorn,’ comprising of photographs, a documentary and interviews. By capturing the images and voices of nine Pikine women in heavy makeup, she creates profound, intimate and elegant portraits that challenge these stereotypes – and, in celebrating the virtues of these women, counters the widely accepted judgement. Choumali effectively exercises a measured control over negative visual perceptions, helping to reinvent the women in large, vibrant, elegantly arranged images that blur the boundaries between painting and photography. The sitters peer through frames made of two thousand threads of beaded sequins, specially constructed by the artist. Their theatrical poses and visual embellishments are at once graceful, somber, surreal and poetic, and aim to inscribe them within classical ideal, as well as highlight their marked differences in skin tone.
Ultimately, the series serves as a point of convergence for the artist’s talent as a jeweler. She is at her most ambitious with a large installation occupying the left side of the exhibition hall. Drawing large crowds of visitors, it is the highlight of the evening. Measuring approximately six-by six-feet in dimension, the surface of the installation is entirely covered with a glass mirror. Strewn across it at opposing ends are four circular embroidered frames, the same Choumali’s sitters bear in their portraits. Glittering, they cross diagonally at the centre of the box. As visitors file past the installation, they peer at their reflections through the circular frames, and are immediately cast in the roles of the Pikine women, forced to interrogate contemporary notions and ideals of beauty.
Another featured artist is Nkiruka Jacqueline Oparah. Unlike Modupe Fadugba and Joana Choumali who were both born on the continent, Oparah was born in Los Angeles, California to Nigerian parents, raised in Atlanta and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. After a brief stint working in a pharmacy, she began to explore digital media to express her varied cultural experiences. A three-year period of self-exploration to “find her truth” culminated in a recent firsttime visit to Enugu. She describes her work as “spiritual,” a carefully constructed world populated with collages that represent the contrasting identities and influences in her life.
In five digital collages printed on delicate textiles and suspended from the ceiling, Oparah presents her series ‘Love, Unrequited’ – “a strange paradise and the paranoid ideas of the mind towards the fulfillment of self pleasures.” Through the ephemerality of the medium, she poses several questions about loving deeply and having those feelings returned.
Nigerian-American Nkechi Ebubedike describes her life as “peripatetic.” Having lived in Baltimore, rural Nigeria, Paris, London and Florida, her works can be viewed as an interpretation of her various experiences living in these hybrid urban and suburban environments. “I often place characters into temporal meditations on landscapes. I examine delineations of space or create characterisations of my encounters within various intersections of culture.”
Her work incorporates video stills and specific iconography from contemporary urban culture. In ‘Bright Boys,’ a series comprising of four digital collages printed on canvas, she turns her gaze to black men, often victims of physical abuse by constituted authority in the United States. With vibrant colours and distorted imagery, she portrays them in several psychological states of hope, despair and isolation in challenging various stereotypes of terrifying hyper-masculinity, present in mainstream media.
Award-winning Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo/ Tamil writer and filmmaker whose themes revolve around “psychosexual dislocation, traditional spiritual practice, loss and death, and the intricacies of navigating humanity.” Her work, Ududeagu is a visual mythology that examines loss and leaving from multiple perspectives. It is also a gendered selfportrait in which the subject’s male body becomes a proxy for the artist. Originally written in English, the artist translated the narrative to Igbo, betraying a constant yearning to identify with her roots despite her extensive travels, her work consequently becoming her habitat.
Dakar-based Selly Raby Kane works predominantly with garments and is largely preoccupied with “evolving Dakar into a sustainable hub for creativity on the continent.” Kane’s work borders on the fantastical, her installations serving to raise awareness of the city’s vigorous art scene to a larger community. In Alien Cartoon Collection she imagines an invaded African city, peopled with strangely hybrid beings and humans. Through her surreal and playful universe, Selly Raby Kane poses several questions about our collective existence, modernisation and how we can negotiate our personal spaces amidst the influence of Western culture.
Both presenting works incorporating sound, Moonchild Sanelly and Helen Parker-Jayne Isibor offer an interesting angle to the exhibition. Growing up, Sanelly was strongly inspired by the musical influences around her; her brother, a hip-hop producer, her mother, a jazz player and her grandmother’s house full of local Kwaito dancers. Drawing upon these various influences, Sanelly sings in Xhonglish, employing the sax, trumpet, guitar, drums, synths with electronics and her vocals to produce her unique sound she terms ‘future ghetto funk.’ Creating a personal aesthetic, from her hair to the lighting of her videos, Sanelly describes her music as “edgy and electronic.” She likens this contemporary interpretation of traditional Kwaito music to early South African hip-hop, carefully blended with her memories of people wearing bucket hats on the dusty streets of Soweto.
Helen Parker-Jayne Isibor, better known as The Venus Bushfires, is a Nigerianborn singer-songwriter, composer and performance artist. She cross-fertilises multiple visual and musical styles by exploring the “ethereal” sounds of the hang, the power of the talking drum and the quirks of children’s toys. Describing her music as “ambient Afro-folk,” Isibor “harnesses influences from the avant-garde and the psychedelic, as well as tribal and meditative arts while drawing inspiration from 70s musical pioneers such as Fela Kuti and Can, to create stories that explore the sensual and the spiritual.”
In all, what brings the eight artists together is their critical outlook on the condition of being in transit between places with different languages, customs, material cultures and ideas. This ‘in between-ness’ begins with a critical challenge and an attempt to break it down to locate their own position. The resulting rubble of meanings is then used to construct their own stories with new historical and conceptual connections.
Oliver Enwonwu is an artist, curator, art administrator, and brand strategist. He is also the director of Omenka Gallery and founder/editor of Omenka , Africa’s first art, business and luxury- lifestyle magazine. He writes regularly on art and investment for several important publications including the Vanguard newspaper, as well as speaks, moderates and participates in public events and discussions.
‘Design is the Personality of an Idea’ is an initiative of the Female Artists’ Platform established by the African Artists’ Foundation (AAF) to highlight the importance of investing in female artists, designers and women in the arts and culture industries in Nigeria. The exhibition ran from 19 July – 3 August at the offices of the Ford Foundation in Lagos.