Nigerian Spirit (E)


“I have come to understand that everything around me is made up of colours. I know now that you can’t do without art. Art is life and life is art. It has driven me to a greater level, making my dreams come true step by step.”
Oladimeji Alabi, 21

Many exhibitions of contemporary African art are organised and put together by Western curators. The majority of their selection for this is often made from the work of artists living outside Africa. For ideological reasons – the discourse on authenticity deserves an impulse – but also for practical reasons – it is cheaper. In principle, there is nothing wrong with this. This point of departure has delivered various interesting and valuable presentations. However, the question remains whether this way of working provides a representative view of contemporary African art. Have Western influences suppressed the African traditions? Is a Western context fatal to an African historical consciousness? Have original identities gone adrift? Has the Western market been stamped on the work? While these questions may be difficult to answer, it is still right that they be asked.
‘The Unbreakable Nigerian Spirit’ shows work by ten Nigerian artists who live and work in their motherland. It has been organized by the African Artists’ Foundation which is based in Lagos. According to its website the purpose of this foundation is “the promotion of African art and artists and the promotion of public health issues and awareness”. It has held a sort of competition for this exhibition, for which, in principle, every Nigerian was eligible to enter. A jury chose the final, ten best entrants. Each of these was allowed to show five works. This approach explains why ‘The Unbreakable Nigerian Spirit’ shows many works that are a mixture of contemporary themes, styles and forms and Nigerian traditions. An exciting combination.

What Chinua Achebe is to Nigerian literature is what Tola Wewe (1959) is to the visual arts of his country. Both are respected, have enjoyed international recognition and serve as an example to others. Both, too, go back to the traditional African narrative culture. Wewe reverts his figures to elementary, colourful forms and makes them the main characters in the stories that he remembers from his childhood. Trusted values play a significant role in these oral narratives – in ‘The Family’ from 2004, for example. Just as Achebe mirrors the Igbo culture, all kinds of symbols from the Yoruba culture can be found in the paintings of Wewe. It would not surprise me if Gbolahan Ayoola had been influenced by Wewe. He also places his elementary and colourful figures next to each other on the canvas without concerning himself about any factors such as perspective or the setting in time and space. However the main characters in his stories are more abstractly depicted and surround themselves with fewer of the symbols that are so important to Tola Wewe. This abstraction tilts his paintings towards a more universal, but at the same time sometimes a more mysterious level. With Yomi Momoh the figures are likewise reduced to simple forms. It is striking, however, that many of his forms are round and that they primarily belong to women. He says himself that the female figure represents the ultimate beauty. His pictures are, in fact, a collection of areas of vivid colour, that at one point adopt the form of people and then again the form of houses, rivers or other elements from the (rural) surroundings. This lucid visual language wonderfully suits the murals that Momoh regularly makes. Both inside and outside.
Oladimeji Alabi (1987) is the youngest participant. He has had no professional training, but has learned his art through practical experience. He chiefly concentrates on painting portraits and in this aims to give expression to the feelings of his models. He gives a personal touch to the genre through unusually formal additions. Segun Aiyesan (1971) also chooses an expressive style to represent his human figures. He pays particular attention to the body, rather than the head. The postures provide insight into the personality. He places symbols on these thickly painted bodies that look very much like a language that I am not familiar with. Sometimes he literally brings his themes up to the present by sticking pieces of newspaper (= language) on the linen. He thereby gives an emotionally charged engagement to works that at first sight ‘only’ appear to paraphrase the history of art. The paintings of Emmanuel Dudu (1974) are about people in motion. Realistically depicted scenes and yet they are taking place against a background of coloured areas, which are engaged in a subtle game with each other. Colours and shapes are placed opposite to and next to each other in such a way that they give depth to the action in the foreground and appear to underline the playful nature of this. This principle is reinforced by his sometimes constructing works from different panels. Traditional African motifs can be also discerned in the brushstrokes.
Gerald Chukwuma (1973) is the only one in the exhibition making sculptural work. His starting points for these are oblong wooden panels. He defines a shape to the ends of these and then places them next to each other. He then applies colour to this. A lot of colours. Extremely colourful colours. Sometimes human forms or linguistic symbols figure on this striking foundation. On a number of works he has fixed hundreds of little pieces of beer and soft drink cans. As if this is his way of linking together rich tradition and modern times.
‘The Unbreakable Nigerian Spirit’ has three artists working in the medium of photography. Because of this medium, which is not very well suited to traditional application, the exhibition is taken to a level that is immediately recognizable, even for us.
With his photos, Adolphus Opara (1981) is in keeping with a now respectable documentary tradition. His pictures of lively, colourful markets could have been made for a newspaper or magazine. He nevertheless succeeds in striking a personal note in these. He does not take his photographs from the obvious viewpoints, thus placing the emphasis on objects or actions that would otherwise be relegated to the details. While Opara restricts himself to having a keen eye for recording his surroundings, Emeka Ogboh (artificially) adds a layer to his photos. Literally, by layering images on top of each other. Figuratively, by using this double layer to criticise social conditions. The display of power, in particular, appears to concern him. He has chosen the medium of photography, he says, because this allows him to bring art and technology closer to each other. The photographic works of Emeke Obanor, finally, seamlessly fit in with those of great predecessors such as Paul Strand, Edward Weston and Lee Friedlander. In his playfulness with space, with light and shadow, with black and white and colour he succeeds in giving an extraordinary aspect to the nature of his country. Many of his photographs are tranquil. If people do appear, then they are absorbed into their surroundings. Sometimes as shadows. In a number of photographs he draws attention to contact between people. This then creates the suggestion of the opening lines of a story.

Nigeria is an enormous country with a turbulent history. It has about 140 million inhabitants, is composed of more than 250 ethic groups that together speak more than 500 languages. Since 1999 Nigeria has had a democratic constitution based on the American model, which does not mean to say that the mutual differences of opinion have been left in the past. Economic growth in the country is strong, which certainly does not mean that everyone is profiting to an equal degree. There are still enough things wrong.
‘The Unbreakable Nigerian Spirit’ is, as the title says, an exhibition that expresses a remarkable optimism. I am not entirely sure where this stems from. The changed political system and social conditions will likely be part of the cause. However, the works selected indicate the possibility of a different cause. It seems that the optimism is nurtured on the one hand by a long and rich tradition and on the other hand knows itself to be supported by a eye open to present-day developments.
Nigerian art is of today, without ignoring the past.

G23, Amsterdam, May 2008.