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Engaging the Enemy: The Voices of Interrupted Lives

Updated: Jan 30


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Creative practice and political crusading could well be the sub-theme for this exhibition. Through the ages, the role of the artist in society has been revised in various ways. From cave art to tomb art; shrine art to church art; homes to churches; Art has been the tool of hunters and magi, magicians and politicians, priests and the affluent in society serving their immediate needs and answering the peculiar questions of their time. Interrupted Lives is a timely intervention that showcases the work of Creatives working in present-day Nigeria, artists who live here, and who have, through the trauma of existence and malady and decline of the Nigerian dream, created critical works evaluating Experience, Society, Identity, and the Affecting Politics

As art movements emerged, artists constantly tried to rewrite the status quo of Art. In defining the role of Art, Picasso famously said that ‘painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy.' The seven artists in the third art exhibition of the Lagos Book and Art Festival-Jelili Atiku, Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo, Tola Wewe, Sam Ovraiti, Duke Asidere, Abiodun Olaku, and Uche James-Iroha seem to have identified the ‘enemy’ and formed an ‘attack’ line.

Shocked society is frustrated by the anguish of our times- subsidy issues and bomb blasts, fuel and visa queues, anti-corruption wars, and the crisis of leadership. Jelili Atiku, a sculptor and performance artist who graduated from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria is perhaps the most vocal in his protest performances against the flawed political fabric of Nigeria. The Program Chairman of the Committee of Relevant Art, Jahman Anikulapo calls the performances of Jelili Atiku ‘a revelation in the life of LABAF’, and thus, has exhibited him in three of their past exhibitions. Born in 1968, Atiku felt the first sense of loss at an early age. His father, a soldier during the Nigerian Civil died upon his return from the war front. The poignant story of the circumstances surrounding his father’s death came to him from his mother. Early after graduating from Zaria, Atiku recalls the beatings he received from military men when he tried to enter his uncle’s petrol station at Ejigbo, Lagos. He soon understood the gestures of the human body in trauma; and soon began using the language of the body in Performances protesting the political state of the nation. As a ‘multimedia political artist’, his works have been featured in exhibitions across the African continent and Europe. The principal preoccupation, as Jelili Atiku sees it, of the artist is to expand human consciousness of the ills in Society through his work. Politics dictates, and the artist counters.


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In January 2009, Uche James-Iroha won the Prince Claus Award in recognition of his work as a photographer. The University of Port Harcourt graduate of Fine Art majored in sculpture, but upon graduating, took to photography, becoming a pioneer member of Depth of Field, a group of photographers that included Kelechi Amadi-Obi. Uche James-Iroha has chosen to investigate space and light using the photographic medium to create strong conceptual black-and-white images. He believes that color distracts from the importance of what is being said. Over the years, he has been exhibited at the Goethe Institut, Lagos, at the Biennales in Dakar, Senegal; and as one of the artists that represented the Nigerian exhibition in Manchester at the recently concluded London Summer Olympics. In 2010, he edited a book of photographs and drawings titled Unifying Africa, illustrating football’s relevance and calming effect on troubled societies in Africa. This artist is a major force that has informed a wider acceptance of Photography in Nigeria as a key medium of expressive artistic content. His committed practice has, over the years, influenced a new stock of light-stalkers who have embraced the immediacy of the translation of ideas inherent in digital photography that allows multiple writings and investigation of Line, Light, and Space.

The myriads of aborted dreams forced exiles, nomadic border crossings, and dislocation have numbed the psyche of youth in Nigeria. As the artistic part of this exhibition of the Arts, the conveners of the exhibition, the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) presents this group of artists whose practice typifies the communicative creative response to the times we live in. Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo, in an introductory post on Interrupted Lives (on her Facebook wall) pointedly notes how artists seem to have turned from narratives that engage the issues of the day that affect Society at large; preferring instead to represent individualistic ideals, to interrupted lives. In shock, artists seem to have withdrawn into personal worlds and longings, and allusions to the dissipation of the human spirit. Their response and discourse are an outcry that questions the numbness and reticent undercurrent one feels sustains tolerance of these chaotic days. When these voices merge, the effect is the deafening scream of Interrupted Lives.

Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo has consistently confronted existential issues- gender differences, the plight of women in Society, and the state of the nation. One recalls the poignant title of one of her past exhibitions ‘Not Ready to Walk Away’, a defiant grandstanding against the daunting odds that featured poetic phrases that described her multi-colored textural works. She studied Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and majored in Painting. Since then, Nwosu-Igbo has shown a strong sense of poetic interpretation and tongue-twisting in the themes of her paintings and installations, crowning it with a publication of poems. Two factors come to play when confronted by her work- the theme of her works, and the physical presence of the artwork.

On occasion, Nwosu-Igbo shows containment and a bias for the Nsukka School preferred referencing of traditional Uli, and paints the familiar partitioned windows filled with symbols drawn largely from traditional Uli art forms; but rise again to soar with powerful installations that engage Space in an emotional, personalized design that delimits the lines between Art and Audience. When she breaks free from the limiting positioning within the context of Nsukka Uli (as often happens in her installations and poetic verse), her works gain a new strength that synthesizes Experience into a personal revelation and discourse with her environment. She is married to Uche Edochie, a young painter who gained prominence in the late nineties and whose works had much patronage and success in Lagos galleries. Her engagements as curator of exhibitions (particularly for recent LABAF exhibitions) and agitator for critical contextual evaluation and collaborative work between artists have increased her prominence and visibility in the Nigerian Art scene.

In October, at the opening of the art exhibition titled The Ankara Portraits, of Gary Stevens’ artworks which opened at the Omenka Gallery in Ikoyi, one had a rare meeting with Abiodun Olaku. He confessed that it has been a while since he last attended an exhibition opening, and then explained a political commentary that applies to an understanding of his landscapes. With a long list of collectors waiting, it is hard to assess a sizeable number of his works in one location for either an exhibition or a comprehensive reading. Abiodun Olaku studied Art at the Yaba College of Technology. Upon graduation, he teamed up with other artists to form the Universal Studios of Art, located on the grounds of the National Theatre, Lagos. Over the years, many young artists have worked as apprentices under him. This has given him a first-hand witness to the weakness of the formal system of art education in Nigeria. At various times, he has been quite vocal in his assessment of the content and material of Art, its subject and presentation, and the poor management of the Arts. His poignant landscapes stress the atmosphere and are realistic documentation of the environment. Building up monochromatic color, he glazes over the work to achieve the trademark luminance. Color is last applied after the right contrasts between light and shade have been achieved. Olaku consistently illustrates the changing seasons, the trail of light passing through exuberant, popular human life- of horse riders, durbar, and a love for the outdoors.

Tola Wewe, alongside Sam Ovraiti and Duke Asidere are some of the Independence generation artists (so-called by Jess Castellote in his blog A View from My Corner when writing on popular Nigerian artists born within that period) Following a lucrative season and years of success as one of the most exhibited and patronized painters working in Nigeria, Tola Wewe was appointed Commissioner for Arts and Culture in Ondo State. Born Adetola Wewe in 1959 in Shabomi-Okitipupa, he studied Art at the University of Ile-Ife. He is one of the founding members of the Ona group of artists. His study of the Ijaw water-spirit mask and the narrative of Yoruba folktales have led to an outstanding body of work interlaced with Ona symbols. One sense the awareness of the works of the Oshogbo artists and traditional adire cloth motifs, and a close affinity to the rainforests and mangroves around him. His canvas is engaged with the vegetal patterns of his space and translates a modern realization of native tales. During his Master’s degree program at the University of Ibadan, his research into the Ijaw water-spirit mask precipitated in the re-evaluation of form. In his words, he is ‘the vehicle, and they are the drivers’. He mirrors the environment in a possessed flow of energy, ‘communicating with the spirits of the ancestors.’ This analogy ties his work to that of Suzanne Wenger, an artist who worked in nearby Oshogbo. Her renovation of shrines and other paintings bear the markings of that spiritual linkage, albeit in a more profuse way, that Tola Wewe talks about in explaining his creative process. Wewe’s recreation of the moonlight tales of his childhood addresses the new man in society, spotlighting the experiences and ideas of the creative person.

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Duke Asidere has maintained a vibrant and expressionist palette of colors in his paintings executed in the open air on the streets by his studio at Egbeda, Lagos State. After graduating from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, he received a Master of Fine Art from the same school that enabled him to lecture for a short while at Auchi Polytechnic. His works show a familiarity with the works of Ben Osaghae and Gani Odutokun, who he acknowledges are strong influences on his work, alongside the works of the Expressionists. In an interview with Tajudeen Sowole, on Duke Asidere’s 50th birthday anniversary, he bemoaned the ‘laid back attitude of artists’ in addressing issues related to the state of the nation. Artists’ commentaries have ignored (to a large extent), the political intrigues of post-military era Nigeria. Duke Asidere’s works emit the vibrant energy of creative ingenuity and soul-searching of an artist living in troubled times. The positive and negative spaces are balanced intuitively without reliance on familiar paradigms of perspective, with a firm knowledge of the human form that arguably surpasses that of some of his better-known contemporaries.

The tendency to relate the image of the Man emerging from the turbulence and disaster of our Politics and Times seems to be a recurring theme in the work of the artists presented in Interrupted Lives. The narrative has become a personal address of shared aspirations. With a shared experience of lecturing alongside Duke Asidere at the Auchi Polytechnic, Sam Ovraiti has a formidable reputation as an international watercolorist. Born in Zaria, he studied General Painting and Art at Auchi Polytechnic, Edo State, and later moved on to the University of Benin where he acquired a Master’s in Fine Art. The associations reveal an appreciation of realistic form (as witnessed in works from students of the University of Benin); and a spatial application of color irrelevant to considerations of formal depth (as in the works of the other colorists of Auchi Polytechnic) His works exhibit a personal sense of balancing of shapes in the landscapes that are the occasional subject of his work either relating to experience, or rendition of the human form.  He allows the expressive properties of his chosen medium, be it watercolor, oil color, or acrylics, to add character to his work, and deliberately reveals the gestures involved in the picture-making process. He has inspired artists from Auchi, notably Chika Idu, a watercolorist from the same school whose paintings show a stylistic association. Ovraiti wields a great presence on the Lagos Art scene and is a member of many of the Art associations. He has also attended workshops for artists, particularly the Harmattan workshops of Bruce Onobrakpeya which has become a regular stop-over. The workshop is a retreat inspired by those organized by Uli Beier in Oshogbo, a meeting point for artists that has created productive collaborations. Ovraiti’s works have strong similarities with those of Ike-Francis, his friend and fellow painter who studied at the Universities of Port Harcourt and Nigeria, Nsukka. This amazing similarity is in the interpretation of human form, particularly in their paintings. Ike-Francis ventures into multi-media installations while Sam Ovraiti has focused on a traditional painting style that continually promotes a very modern culture as evidenced in the fashion statements of his models.  

In realizing the theme of the exhibition, Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo has highlighted some of the most vibrant and active artists in Lagos, people whose works show a deep reading of the nuances and turbulence of their times. The Committee for Relevant Art has again shown a commitment to promoting critical platforms for artists to evaluate their output, and to access their role in Society. A similar intervention was the interactive session at Bisi Silva’s CCA of photographs from the strikes against President Jonathan’s subsidy removal gift on New Year’s Day. Hopefully, in the coming days, more artists will articulate their angst into creative outpourings that will bring the needed change in our sociopolitical world. Honestly, we are all part of the deluge, a community of people with truncated dreams, living interrupted lives.

With the theme Narratives of Conflict, the 14th annual Lagos Book and Art Festival will remain open from 16th- 19th November at the Freedom Park, Lagos Island.

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