Having clawed his way into the limelight through his peculiar figurative expressions, Bob-Nosa Uwagboe currently engages an international audience in Barcelona, Spain with his latest solo exhibition. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Even as the echoes of the last year’s #EndSARS protests recede from recent memory, the spectral forms that instigated them still float ominously about. Indeed, it is only a matter of time before they again impel their ever-willing homogeneous human tools – wherever they may be found – to the crudest perpetration of their contents. Speaking of protests, it is no secret that Bob-Nosa Uwagboe – as a self-proclaimed “protest artist” – feasts on such narratives. And this is one reason why his choice of the title, Police Brutality, for his recently-opened solo exhibition at the OOA Gallery in Barcelona, Spain should not really surprise the local art scene’s cognoscenti. Given the dreadlocks-sporting artist’s penchant for churning out hideous ghoulish forms (indeed, the visual equivalent of anti-establishment rants), it was inevitable that the theme would, sooner or later, come under his spotlight. Besides, aren’t the international news media replete with grim reminders of police brutality?
About the ghoulish forms, they are not just the expressions of his non-conformist disposition, but could also be likened to smudges on humanity’s conscience. As depictions of his anti-establishment taunts, they unintentionally offer glimpses into mankind’s immediate ethereal environment.
Hideous, though their contents may be, the exhibition’s mostly acrylic and spray paint on textured canvas paintings seethe with messages that are hard to gloss over. While, for instance, the 2020 work “Boy in Detention” depicts the untold sufferings and cold brutality that detainees in police custody are often subjected to, “Abuse of Human Right” (produced in 2021) is a protest against the bestial conduct of the police anti-riot squad. Yet, it is obvious – as the artist rightly expresses in the 2020 painting “Gross Misconduct” and in a 2017 acrylic on textured canvas work “Chained in Immorality”– that the so-called law-enforcers are hardly above board in their conduct. And these are the very ones, who often hide behind the protection of their offices, to perpetrate even worse crimes on criminals!
Peddling eye-pleasing works have, in any case, never been the Edo State-born artist’s stock-in-trade. That was already evident even from when he held his debut solo exhibition, Homme Libre (French for “Free Man”) at the African Artists’ Foundation’s former premises in Ikoyi, Lagos in 2011. Thus, leaving no one in doubt about his proclivity for iconoclasm, he had gone on to recycle the nightmare-inducing horrors in such memorable shows as Obituary at the Signature Beyond Art Gallery, Lagos in 2018, Protest Art at the OOA Gallery in Barcelona, Spain in 2019 and Transit at the National Modern and Contemporary Art Museum in Gdansk, Poland in 2020.
Still on Uwagboe’s unflattering images on canvas, they are the dredged-up poignant reminders of the depraved nature of man’s inner life. Through them, manifestations of mankind’s base propensities and inner realities, which fills the viewer with repugnance, float to the surface. Under such circumstances, which the artist seems to echo in the acrylic on canvas works “Backwardness” (2019) and “Uniform Man (2021), it would be difficult – indeed, impossible – to expect any semblance of fairness from the extant systems of justice.
Doubts about the 2004 Auchi Polytechnic graduate’s resolve to prick his society’s conscience with his visual jeremiads could easily be dispelled by his confessed love for reggae music, which he once called his core source of inspiration as well as for the music of the late maverick Afro-beat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Meanwhile, this is a society, whose concept of morality constantly spirals downwards with the emergence of each new generation!
Talking about the ongoing exhibition, which opened on Wednesday, September 15 and ends on Thursday, October 14, it re-establishes Uwagboe’s relevance as a credible African voice in an increasingly identity-blurring globalised art scene. In the exhibition’s catalogue, Małgorzata Paszylka-Glaza – the curator of the National Modern and Contemporary Art Museum in Gdansk, Poland, which hosted the artist during the period of the government-imposed COVID-19 lockdowns last year – writes that the “strength of Bob-Nosa Uwagboe’s protest lies in his consistency and wise humility, and his faith in the power of art.”
Perhaps, this explains the 47-year-old’s admirable tenacity and resilience even when his works cannot be counted among the most sought-after among the local art aficionados. Paszylka-Glaza also sees “an extremely talented painter” in the artist and draws parallels between him and the late Nigerian reggae star Majek Fashek, whose song “Police Brutality” influenced the exhibition’s title. In both Fashek and Uwagboe, she sees revolutionary souls, who constantly railed against violence and injustice, albeit through different mediums. Months – perhaps, years – of close interaction with the artist stands her in good stead to discern his true nature beneath the “primitive and brutal form of expression”. Indeed, she avers that the artist is both “sensitive and compassionate”.
Yet, despite Paszylka-Glaza’s reference to Uwagboe’s “faith in the power of art”, it is hard not to see the artist’s grotesque expressions as complicit in further nourishing such tyrannical dispositions. This complicity is premised on the time-honoured Socratic dictum, which rather sees the secret of change in focusing all one’s energy on building the new than on fighting the old. Hence, it can be inferred from a natural law, which decrees the attraction of similar species, that the artist’s fixation on such crude forms would only reinforce their dark and noxious power-centres in the earth’s finer material environment.
Of course, it is understandable that this artist asserts his inimitable uniqueness through his peculiar figurative expressions. Besides, he has paid his dues through his consistency and defying all odds in a recession-threatened industry.