In his recent solo exhibition, the multi-talented Nigeria’s leading pop artist, Diseye Tantua, directs his audience’s gaze to hitherto-ignored nuggets of life at street level, without resorting to incendiary rants. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Of course, there is so much that is engaging about the solo exhibition. But the real success of Diseye Tantua’s Highway Preachers rather swirls around the ambience of its two official opening days—Saturday, April 9 and Sunday, April 10—and his public persona. As for the host gallery, the Victoria Island-based Alexis Gallery, which nestles somewhere along the not-so-busy Akin Olugbade Street, it outdid itself in the bid to live up to a gaggle of Lagos-based aficionados’ expectations.
Talking about the latter, whose arrival came in spurts, their presence that Saturday imbued the venue’s ambience with so much warmth and animation. But then again, this can partly be attributed to the Port Harcourt-based artist’s charisma. Indeed, not many of his Lagos-based colleagues would have swapped attending his two exhibition openings for other competing events.
Meanwhile, the exhibition’s salient theme seems subsumed in the overwhelming Babel of impressions that assail a viewer from the deftly conceived mixed-media works. This is because the theme – albeit already succinctly expressed in the exhibition catalogue – is curiously forced to compete with tangential works, which have a curatorial whim to thank for their inclusion.
This explains how two paintings, which clearly do not display those one-liner nuggets or quips, which were inspired by Tantua’s recollections of the transit buses of his childhood years in Ghana and Nigeria, inveigled their way into the exhibition. While extolling what she called the “brilliance of Diseye Tantua’s works,” which she credits to “their presentation of complex societal issues in a style that allows their audience to engage within their capacity,” the curator, Ugonna Ibe, mentions the introduction of ancillary images such as aeroplanes, women, children, and “V.I.P.s”.
The work “V.I.P.”, for instance, is by its own right a graphic narrative of a typical day in the life of the downtrodden. Not only are these afflicted ones compelled to commute in huffing and puffing rickety yellow Bedford trucks—one of which proclaims on its side panel in Pidgin English: “Lagos na waa, I swear”—they are constantly edged off the road by the siren-blaring convoys of public officials, if not outright forced to give way by their armed security details. Adding to this bedlam is the apparent succour-mongering religious bodies with their credulous faithful. But only a relatively privileged handful can afford to soar above the chaos in air ambulances and aeroplanes.
This is where Tantua sets himself apart from the expanding number of pop and protest artists who have made a career out of their anti-establishment rants. Rather, the Ignatius Ajulu University graduate, who simply introduces himself as D-ARTIST, skirts around firebrand activism and delivers his street-level narratives dispassionately. With a Sphinx-like sangfroid, he dissects the inconsistencies in society and presents them in forms that seem more appealing to the pampered elite, who always gorge themselves on more than they need.
Tantua’s hilarious take on life among the masses amuses the viewer, rather than incites him to the use of firearms, in acrylic on canvas works like “No Money, No Honey,” as well as the diptych works “No Monkey Business,” and “No Paddy 4 Jungle.” There is even a hint of glamourisation of this condition, which keeps the energy of Lagos city life at a fever-pitch tempo. Apparently, virtually every resident of the Megapolis could be qualified as “rich in waiting.” Perhaps, this scenario is best captured in the diptych paintings “I Have a Dream” (done in acrylic on canvas), “No Time to Dream Small” (oil on canvas), and “If Wishes Were Air Planes” (oil on canvas).
But then, the works “My Prayer for You,” a 2014 acrylic on canvas painting, and “Music Makers” I and II a 2022 oil painting, rendered on large canvas, tend to get in the way of this train of thoughts during the viewer’s cursory tour of the exhibition space. The former, split into six anime-like portraits of children in different prayerful poses, seethes with a delightful mix of subdued and vibrant colours. As for the latter, which happens to be the only monochrome offering, it depicts Yoruba talking drummers in their full traditional regalia, apparently soundlessly serenading the guests at the exhibition. As an aside, the actual audible entertainment on the exhibition’s opening day – which might as well have been a divertimento – was provided by a lone pianist sitting at a grand piano positioned somewhere in the middle of the exhibition hall.
Back to the original train of thought, an oil on canvas painting, which was produced in 2020 and titled “No Business, No Wife,” picks up from where it stopped. A crescent-like formation of old Bedford trucks seems to wend its way through a backdrop of an impasto of hardly compatible colours. Curiously, the dominant colours—red, pink, and orange—convey the impression of flashpoints at its centre and top left edge. Emblazoned on each of the Bedford trucks are messages like “Cunning Man Die, Cunning Man Bury Am,” “No Business, No Wife,” “Home Sweet Home,” “Mind Your Business,” “Live and Let Live,” “No Dulling” and “Make Way.”
Thumbs up to the artist for directing the audience’s attention to values in the often-overlooked, commonplace things in their environment. Perhaps, to many a distressed person, heeding the admonitions of those cleverly-contrived phrases may be the path leading to that longed-for happiness.