A solo exhibition at The Wheatbaker in Ikoyi, Lagos, heralds Ada Udechukwu’s homecoming to the local art scene, where she began her creative journey. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Since Ada Udechukwu dropped off the contemporary Nigerian art scene’s radar decades ago, her name has continued to lurk somewhere in the inner recesses of the industry’s memory. Could this be partly because her husband Obiora – with whom she tied the nuptials in 1982 – remains one of the Nsukka Art School’s pioneering leading lights? Straddling two worlds, in any case, had been thrust on her by the deft weaving of fate from as far back as she could recall. For long before her relocating with her family to the US in late 1997, she recalls first moving with her American mother and Nigerian father as well as her three other siblings to the US in 1967 – at the onset of the Nigerian Civil War – only to return to the country in 1971. Besides, her biracial identity compels her to view her environment through a prism of one living on the fringes. “I often feel I’m travelling between two worlds, more like straddling them, not fully in one or the other,” she discloses. “It is a recurrent thing, the interface or connection between the interior world and the exterior world.”
Now, the artist who turns 61 on July 10 reappears in the talent-glutted Nigerian art scene with a solo exhibition, titled Particles in Motion. This exhibition – curated by SMO Contemporary Art and featuring her 36 recent drawings and 10 poems – has been on at The Wheatbaker in Ikoyi, Lagos since Saturday, May 1 and will be on until Saturday, July 31. Seen as a kind of homecoming for the Bennington College, Bennington, Vermont (USA) MFA holder in creative writing and literature, the exhibition – supported by The Wheatbaker and Louis Guntrum Wines – revisits her links to her cultural roots. It dredges up the fond memories of her growing-up years in Enugu, her tertiary education and early matrimonial years in Nsukka as well as her finally settling down in Los Angeles, USA.
Perhaps, it’s the apparent spontaneity of Udechukwu’s minimalist and abstract expressions that confers on them that mystique of remoteness. “I have never been someone that works from a sketch,” she says. “For my ink and wash drawings I typically start with the wash, I lay it as I’m moved to and then start the linework. For me, it’s about narrative and exploration. With inward-outward I, II, III, IV, it was that first line and I just built on it. The use of line and space and the dialogue between positive and negative space that’s inherent in the Uli aesthetic has influenced me as a visual artist. As I look at some of my recent drawings from 2020 where you see the filling of those spaces with delicate lines, I am reminded of the akika patterns that are used in traditional Uli wall paintings as subtle background texturing. It gives voice to something there, almost intangible.”
Somehow, her native Igbo background leaches into the lean, compact renditions of her drawings and in the lyrical puzzles of her poems. Viewers are consequently sucked into the vortex of a dense world of thought-forms swarming with rippling lines and segmented forms.
Still on her creative process, Udechukwu alludes to her encounters with things, situations and people, which leave behind images that linger in her for a long time. They, in other words, deposit the particles that are eventually processed into her visual and lyrical expressions. “I hold onto them and the way in which they affect me, hoping for the moment to do them justice. When I first got to Los Angeles, I was struck by the number of homeless people I saw in isolated places, sitting at bus stops, and outside their encampments along the roadside. My ‘encounters’ were while I was driving, or passing by them on a shared sidewalk out on a walk, or when one would come up to ask for money. And at that moment, it was, ‘I see myself in you.’ I kept asking how I could illuminate what it was I felt when I said that to myself. For me, it’s humanity. A thin line separates us all from one life or the other. I’ve had several such encounters and one that particularly stuck with me was the sight of a small group of African-American men sitting on a bench close to a bus stop with a Caucasian woman in between them. You could tell there was a discussion going on, the woman was in some distress, one of the men had his arm around her, all of them were comforting her. It’s a rough life and yet in the midst of it there is community.”
Consider the works showing in her exhibition, produced between the years 2018 and 2020, the results of her musings while in constant motion, during which she probes into her inner world as well as her physically visible environment. As both an artist and an accomplished writer, whose short story was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2007, she draws from the reservoir of her personal experiences. During the early stages of the COVID-19 lockdown, for instance, she felt corralled into a situation that forced her to look inwards, questioning her old habits in the process.
On her two forms of artistic expression – poetry and drawing – she designates them as standalone entities even when both rely on images. “The thing is you’re creating images with words in one, with line, texture, paint in the other. What unites the two in terms of the way in which I approach the creative process is how to create an image and allow it to speak.”
Udechukwu, whose first degree at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka was in English, first attained the limelight in the local arts scene through her textile creations, pen and ink drawings and watercolour paintings as well as her writing in the early 1980s. This was what the Princeton University (USA) Professor of African and African Diaspora Art Chika Okeke-Agulu was alluding to when he wrote about “the epochal artistic efflorescence that emerged at the University of Nigeria during the late 20th century”.