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Seeing into Ibe, an essay

On a Lighter Note

A few years ago, Sandra Mbanefo-Obiago exhibited Ibe Ananaba and I at Temple Muse, Lagos. That event was the beginning of our friendship. The first thing you immediately realize is that Ibe Ananaba is an excellent draughtsman. Every other thing in his work is beside the fact. He pushes an idea, and that idea evolves into a series of two, sometimes three or more paintings. In this recent exhibition titled Towards the Light, Ibe presents a body of work created during this period of the pandemic- lockdowns, social distancing, and staying close to family. 

He has been painting between home and his art studio, a few blocks away. Oftentimes his children accompany him, as the schools have been closed. Since leaving the advertising industry to focus on his painting career, Ibe uses his work as a rallying point for strengthening family ties with his wife (who was in art school with him) and his two children (whose works were featured alongside Ibe’s in a joint exhibition in 2018 aptly titled Bonding). In one corner of the studio hang some of his children’s paintings, distinct for their non-figurative, enthusiastic use of color.

The artist often paints suited men in hats, but one is yet to see him dress like that. Growing up in Aba, South East Nigeria, he is accustomed to the vibes of that sprawling city market that supplies fashion wares to neighboring West African cities. The tailors and craftsmen of Aba are highly skilled workmen whose works give the popular fashion brands from the West a run for their money. Ibe recalls the family albums of black and white photographs of his parents, uncles and aunts posing for the photographer in their trendy clothes, hats and all. The well-dressed people in his canvases became stronger metaphors when he found out about the flamboyant dressers of the Congo, the Sapeurs (the group of eccentrics called La Sape is the acronym for the Société des ambianceurs et des personnes élégantes) The expensive outfits of these ghetto-dwelling people may illustrate a failure in the setting of priorities in some societies. This paradoxical flaunting of wealth while living in squalor totally blows the mind of any rational thinking person. Ibe Ananaba’s works situates in this mix- colorful and tastefully dressed subjects become burdened with the task of delivering strong political statements. This grand show must go on even as things go south. The figures mime poses reminiscent of shots from a fashion week. While enthusing about poise, elegance and glamor, Ananaba’s works reflects on the dark sides of the human condition. The paintings are all the more spectacular because of the artist’s preferred tool- the palette knife. He masterfully welds this obtuse tool to create riveting portraits. The monochromatic gradations of color show that the focus in the work lies elsewhere- in the drawing of the subject. The subject matter revolves around themes that connect with his creative process rather than to any final visual presentation. Yet he makes politically charged statements with a consciousness of the daily struggles of living in Lagos, Nigeria and the ineptitude of governance.

The idea of chiaroscuro is key to how he positions his subject. Then like an older Rembrandt he muddles up physical appearances without losing the essence. Ibe Ananaba understands that the light touching form is what delineates, what explains and gives meaning. Thus, he paints in darks and middle tones, finally resolving form in the lighter tones. To provoke deep thought, images of the human figure need not be broken as though one is looking through a prism.

Like his mother, Ibe is at odds with the idea of having a specific signature. His creative energy felt caged by the needed slowing down, monotonous marking. For a long time, the artist used a quickly doodled smiling face as signature. This was easier to remember. Nowadays everyone is advised to wear a mask as a health safety precaution to curb the spread of the Coronavirus. The mask becomes symbolic as a necessary monotonous obliterator of smiles, a stifler of laughter, and on the other hand a compassionate preserver of life.

Detail from the painting Amidst the Noise by Ibe Ananaba

In a series of acrylic paintings titled Amidst the Noise Ibe again sits the subject in the center of the canvas, drawn in using the palette knife with varying shades of color. The artist sends out a message of laughter and hope that must be included in our daily lives during these trying times of a ‘new norm’. Here he adds simplistic line drawings to contrast the central subject- hundreds of smiling faces in the flat background. Some of the faces resemble the stick figures that children draw when learning to represent humans. Upon close observation one finds that the randomly drawn faces vary stylistically from the quick one liner to more expressive caricatures. (Ibe points out that his two children doodled some of the faces. He wanted to keep them engaged) In public spaces these days a visibly smiling face is frowned upon as being ‘insensitive and endangering’. Seeking a way to explain the times to his children, he codes in shorthand human faces. Viewed from a distance, the recurring faces resemble textures of heavily applied color breaking the flat color plane, bordering the human figure drawn in with swift slashes of paint applied using the palette knife. Ibe is moved to recollect the myriad facial expressions of people.

For as long as he can remember Ibe Ananaba has been inspired by music. He used to sing in a choir, and as a student at IMT Enugu he enjoyed the mimed, rap concerts staged on weekends. In those days learning the lyrics of a song took arduous rewinding of the tape. This sort of repeated learning improves one’s grasp of the language. Understanding the lyrics of songs inspired Ibe’s admiration of the poetic genius of rap music. His all-time favorite artist became NAS the American rapper. Listening to music evokes the themes around which Ibe creates new work. Socially conscious, trendy, fashionable, politically conscious… these words describe rap music. You may also be talking about Ibe Ananaba’s paintings.

A set of 4 paintings called The Promisor and the Praise Singers questions the inaction/actions of political leaders and their crowd of sycophantic followersThe series echoes the critical tone of Long Drawn Shadows, Ibe Ananaba’s well attended 2018 exhibition in Art Twenty-One, Lagos. His social awareness and activism are encouraged by his wife’s Girl Child Art Foundation where he volunteers as Chief Art Consultant. He conveys the dire living conditions of everyday people in Nigeria. The titles of his works ring with the familiarity of headlines from the daily newspapers. His subjects pose like runway models in an international fashion show themed on the economic and political malaise of the masses. 

Nigerians thrive on the sense of community, shared activities and bonding so the idea of social distancing is particularly troubling. Some 10 paintings titled All will be well, are a body of work contemplating individuals making sense of virtual relationships over the mobile phone and online. These periods of isolated living have drawn the artist to make visual documents of everything. The tale is the same from Ojuelegba, Trafalgar Square, Eiffel Tower to Times Square- once crowded landscapes, streets and popular centers of human activity worldwide are now deserted, silent spaces. in this new body of workthe artist now includes some landscape paintings. Since this pandemic, we are rethinking the idea and relevance of spaces. Venues for holding large crowd gatherings like stadiums and churches are being redesigned to fit the new rules that humanity must adjust to, till a cure for the virus is found. These times give all humanity ample opportunities for self-recollection and reflection. Venues like The Wheatbaker are opening to the public to showcase adjustments of their interior decoration in line with WHO and NCDC health and safety regulations for curbing the spread of the virus. 

Another painting titled Conversation with the Future is a portrait of the artist’s daughter. The artist says that this work reminds him that there is a future (in his child’s growth) of moving on. This sentiment runs as a subtheme to the exhibition Towards the Light. Another painting titled Where do we go from here? has figures of seated people. The artist has worked from a picture of some detained suspects. Sadly, stories abound of some of these youths outstaying the time they would have done for the crime while awaiting trial.

Another new trend in this body of work for the exhibition Towards the Light are some charming still-life that the artist would normally use as props for human figures. Now the objects stand alone as subject matter with the light streaming in from one side of the canvas. The drama of these well composed still-life leaves an eerie feeling in the viewer. Where have the people gone? That is the question on people’s lip as we step out of self-isolation and lockdowns into a new way of living. There is a withdrawal from each other even as we meet and greet. Is it caution, self-preservation or fear? People’s gazes seem a bit distant as they breathe in the air and walk into the sunlight. It leaves this taste for a longing of another, past life. We all would prefer to go towards the light. Something good awaits.

NB: All the artworks photographed for this article were made by the artist Ibe Ananaba for his ongoing exhibition Towards The Light at The Wheatbaker Hotel, Ikoyi, Lagos. The exhibition was curated by Sandra Mbanefo Obiago.

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