In an ongoing solo exhibition in a Lagos-based art space, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka-based Ozioma Onuzulike breathes new life into time-worn themes with the deft manipulation of his trademark mediums. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Trust Ozioma Onuzulike to leave behind a trail of nuggets at each of his career’s many eureka moments, which – more often than not – tend to leave his devotees in awe. And, as one of these moments, his 2018 solo exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Yaba, Lagos, which was complemented by the artist’s poetry collection, fits the bill. It was indeed first at that exhibition, which was the 10th among his solos, that he drew uncanny parallels between yam tubers and motionless bodies encased in body bags. He further explains: “When sorted and tied together (like in a typical African yam barn), they remind me not only of how African slaves were in the past crammed in slave ships like mere commodities but also how they are today tightly packed in trucks and boats hazarding the desert and the sea with the hope of going to ‘grow’ better in a more conducive environment. Many have been lost in transit.”
This above assertion – premised on his metaphorical allusion to Africa’s youth population as its yam seedlings – was a nod to the fact that yam seedlings used to be seen among his Igbo kinsmen as pointers to every family’s hopes for sustenance and wealth. Hence, that exhibition’s title Seed Yams of Our Land.
The University of Nigeria, Nsukka’s professor of ceramics and African art and design history further extends this thought in a body of works he calls the “yam project”, which with two other body of works forms a conceptual tripod for his ongoing exhibition at the Ikoyi, Lagos-based art space, kó. The two others are the “ceramic palm kernel shell beads project” and the “honeycomb project”.
Talking about the exhibition, titled The Way We Are, it is his 11th solo and the third of kó’s three-part exhibition series, featuring three leading lights of the New Nsukka School.
The New Nsukka School? This is a loose term for artists, who trained – and possibly also taught – at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka’s Fine and Applied Arts Department and are renowned for their adherence to the experimental process of producing art.
On the exhibition series, kó seeks to lift a veil on what the southeastern Nigeria-based tertiary institution stands for in the art scape through the prism of three of its lecturers: Ngozi Omeje-Ezema, Eva Obodo and Ozioma Onuzulike.
Hence, while the first solo exhibition featured the ceramics lecturer Omeje-Ezema between Thursday, January 28 and Thursday, February 11, the second featured the senior lecturer in sculpture Obodo from Thursday, February 25 to Thursday, March 11. Not surprisingly, the current exhibition, featuring Onuzulike, which opened on Thursday, March 25, will be concluded by Thursday, April 8.
Complementing the series, meanwhile, is a three-volume catalogue, which features texts and critical analysis by a senior lecturer in painting and drawing at the university Dr George Odoh.
Curiously, almost two decades have flitted by since Onuzulike indelibly engraved his name in the industry’s consciousness. This was when – in the good company of nine other young starry-eyed University of Nigeria, Nsukka artists – he came peddling alternative aesthetic canons in a commercially-driven Lagos art scene. Besides Onuzulike, the other artists featured at the group exhibition, titled New Energies were: Joseph Eze, Chika Aneke, Chiamaka Ezeani, Chikaogwu Kanu, Martin Iorliam, Chidi Nnadi, Erasmus Onyishi, Uchechukwu Onyishi and Nnenna Okore. Held concurrently at two Southwest Ikoyi-based galleries (Mydrim Gallery and Nimbus Art Centre) from May 16 to 26, 2001, the exhibition concerned itself less with the artworks’ commercial viability and rather focused on their conceptual values.
Two decades on, Onuzulike remains as riveted to conceptual art as ever. At the risk of sounding anachronistic, he reprises the time-worn jeremiads about the harsh living conditions of his fellow Africans, which he attributes to the political and socio-economic turmoil in the continent.
But it helps that he has taken the art of breathing new life into ceramics to more sublime levels. This is as the laborious and meticulous efforts the 49-year-old puts behind the production of each of his works continues to earn him the plaudits of his keen followers.
This production process, he elaborates in what he calls his Notes on Recent Works. “Much of my works are political,” he writes. “I often rely on the conceptual qualities and metaphorical attributes of my medium (primarily clay) and work processes (including crushing, pounding, cutting, wedging, slamming, pinching, kneading, scotching, firing and much more) to address socio-political and economic issues germane to my immediate environment (Nigeria and Africa). I am often inspired by the social histories of the African continent and how such histories impact on the current realities around me (especially in the context of the human condition in my home country Nigeria in which I live and work).”
Nonetheless, Onuzulike still does a great job distancing his works from those, who would rather stick to their conservative notions about art. This is especially because, with these artworks, which are in an aesthetic class of their own, new life only seems possible in museums and public institutions.
Meanwhile, the exhibition’s 26 offerings are visual puzzles that compel the viewer to gather his wits together while engaging them. They are indeed visual puzzles, not only because of their cryptic messages but also because of their composition. Take a work like “August Visit I”, for instance. The viewer first needs to get over his fascination for the composition of the 26 kg, 3050-piece ceramic palm kernel shell bead amour before attempting to wrap his head about its hidden meanings. Talking about amour, the artist uses the concept as his “own symbol of backwardness in the light of today’s war defence mechanisms”.
As for his allusion to palm kernel, it evokes “the lopsided trade/power relations with the Western world”. Hear the artist: “I see the palm kernel shell (the remnants of the palm oil/kernel production) as very historically charged. In their natural form, they look like beads – again, a trade token (popularly called Slave Beads) that carry a lot of historical baggage. I have made millions of palm kernel shells in terracotta, turning many of them into glass beads in a very laborious studio process. With them, I have woven mixed media ceramic structures that resemble Africa’s prestige cloths (such as the Nigerian Akwete and Aso Oke) or imported ones (such as the lace fabric) that are also highly regarded in Africa as markers of social status… In this way, I seek to call attention to the enormous burdens that Africa’s reckless politicians, and the elite in general, have to bear in their quest for ostentatious lifestyles (represented by the accumulation of the beads) that add nothing meaningful to the growth of their nations.”
Beneath the aesthetic tangle of works like “Africa, Our Africa”, which he classifies under the honeycomb project, lurks the artist’s terse reminder “that Africa’s natural resources have been at the base of its woes.” In their breath-taking suppleness, they attest to the artist’s long manipulation of a medium that only a few of his colleagues would venture to explore. Perhaps, this is what distinguishes him from the pack in a talent-glutted contemporary Nigerian art scene.
Still, on the honeycomb project, which is his most current studio project, it was “conceived during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and dedicated to all frontline workers risking their lives for the rest of us.”
Back to Onuzulike’s career’s eureka moments, they have launched him up the ladder-rungs of fame. This is in addition to positioning him for a forthcoming exhibition at the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, the University of Cambridge in the UK. For this, he particularly has the [Re:] Entanglements Research Project led by Professor Paul Basu to thank. An alumnus of the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine, USA, the Enugu State-born artist is also a fellow of the Civitella Ranieri Centre, Umbertide, Perugia, Italy, where he once participated in a residency programme under the UNESCO-ASCHBERG Bursary for Artists.