Emma Prempeh, a London-based British artist with Ghanaian and Vincentian heritage, whose work delves into the concept of distant memories, holds her first Lagos solo exhibition at Tiwani Gallery’s Lagos operation base in Victoria Island. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes
A wistful proclivity for transcendence—which inevitably transmutes into a mindful scouring into the realm of the intangible—wafts through Emma Prempeh’s canvases. And come to think of it, isn’t there something forcefully evocative about the paintings of this 26-year-old British artist of Ghanaian and Vincentian heritage that rebuffs superficiality? Indeed, before these large-sized paintings—shown in her ongoing debut solo exhibition, which opened on Saturday, September 10 at Tiwani Gallery’s Lagos operation base in Victoria Island—the viewer needs to have his wits about him.
Of course, it also helps that she lets in her Lagos audience beforehand on her creative whims with the following words: “My reflections are about how we exist within spaces of (in)tangible realities that are present and simultaneously experienced as metaphysical: spiritual, supernatural, or transcendental.”
As a child, she further disclosed, she was afflicted with a fragile health condition, which in turn led her to look elsewhere, beyond her bodily discomforts, for some sort of meaning. “It became more apparent when I had my first heart surgery,” she narrates. “Whilst dealing with a few hiccups from the healthcare system in the UK, I had delayed knowledge of being under general anaesthesia. It made me question reality. Do we know when we are gone and then what becomes the meaning of life?”
Thus, spirituality came to mean, to her, the search for answers to these questions and her curiosity about the human experience. “Thinking about it in this way does present it as my coping mechanism. I try to respect all the ways people seek answers. I don’t refuse to pray or bow my head in respect of my loved one’s religious practices. I think spirituality is an important part of our human experience. At this stage of my life, agnosticism dominates my world.”
In her paintings—featured in the exhibition, titled You Were, You Are, And You Always Will Be, which ends on Saturday, October 22—she eloquently expresses this inclination to explore the more subtle emanations of the gross-materially visible or tangible experiences. Prempeh, a painter for whom, according to informed sources, the appropriation of cinematographic techniques is a stock in trade, once stated her preference for the idea of using paint in ways that extend beyond the canvas. Could that be why she combines iron powder, print, and imitation gold leaf as well as, sometimes, the use of projection with oil and acrylic in her works?
By the way, the 2020 Alumno/Space bursary winner and 2019 Goldsmith University graduate arrived in Lagos early in August for a residence programme funded by Tiwani Contemporary’s Fellowship Platinum Partner donor package. A statement recently credited to her suggests that she hoped to leverage the programme as an opportunity to further deepen her practice while working in an unfamiliar environment.
And since her Lagos experience has so far been “wonderful”, elements of this experience inevitably seep into—consciously or sub-consciously—some of her paintings. Initially encouraged to visit the city by her close friends with Nigerian roots, she now feels as if she hasn’t been able to see everything. “So, I am hoping to return with them,” she enthuses. “Everyone is so warm, and I feel at home. A month is truly not enough to witness the soul of anywhere in the world, but I hope you are able to witness aspects of my experience in my new body of work.”
Back to her practice, she seems to have deftly patented a technique that is firmly rooted in layering and appropriation. First, there is her starting point, which employs the tonal qualities of blackness not only as a framework for her paintings but also as a cinematic foundation for conjuring and projecting memories. These resurrected recollections of people, events, and places from the past serve to highlight awareness of ancestral time and relationships, selfhood, and evolution. Then there is the use of Schlag metal—a brass alloy of copper and zinc that looks like gold leaf—in certain portions of her large-scale works. This, she explains, functions as a depiction of time, allowing her to physically show changes in her methods over a shorter period than the natural deterioration of oil on canvas would. Hence, her allusion to these materials used in her paintings as “fragile” has to do with their temporal essence, since fragility goes hand in hand with temporality.
But then, it is not just about her technique, for a lot swirls around the word perception—the artist’s precisely in this case. Take the paintings “And So On” and “Go Liming”, for instance. They are, she clarifies, both based on her perception of family, not necessarily her direct experience with the figures and the objects in the paintings. “They are people and things I am familiar with. However, that gives me a sense of home or comfort within the patterns and decorations.”
As for the carpet installation before the painting “And So On”, it evokes a feeling she had as an eight-year-old visiting her grandma. “[I was] in awe at all the old furniture and her particular taste, one that I’ve realised is very indicative of the style in which many migrants to the UK from Caribbean islands adopted within their interior spaces to bring a sense of home with them. The bottles that my mum still cherishes today, she constantly reminds me that they are crystal glasses and older than me. So, I should proceed with caution when handling them. I wanted to embody my past, present, and future through my continued exploration of family, and the act of painting these scenes, as well as finally creating an installation for people to witness and possibly find aspects that they might be familiar with.”
Moreover, the immersive capacity of these works serves to draw to the viewer’s attention a little-noted or frequently glossed-over fact. And that is that he has started to take an active role in the circumstances being portrayed. For instance, he impresses his own personal note in the figurative depictions in the paintings in accordance with his nature, thus lifting the veil on the potential for multifaceted experiences of particular occurrences. That should explain why the oil, acrylic, iron powder, print, and imitation gold leaf on canvas painting, titled “Go Liming”—which depicts a scene that probably dated back to about half a century ago or slightly less—resonates differently with the viewer, to whom it reminds so much about Nigeria of the 70s even when the artist is alluding to a period in the 90s.
Talking about “Go Liming,” the title derives from a Caribbean slang term (especially Jamaican, Trinidadian, and Tobagonian) that suggests the sharing of a fun time with friends while sharing food and drinks amid conversation and laughter. In fact, this extremely dynamic painting of middle-aged revellers somehow infects the viewer with its throbbing joie de vivre despite sporting a patina of grainy mistiness that is frequently associated with old photographs.
Other paintings also possess this contagious quality, which sucks the viewer into evolving vignettes of memories. Impressions of these past vignettes—mediated through the sensory organs—take on a life of their own, free of the constraints of their rigid, fixed forms. It soon becomes evident that such static representations can never fully capture mobile events.
On the whole, Prempeh’s paintings, despite being rendered mainly in sombre earthy tones, take the viewer through a gamut of poignant emotional states. Static images of spectral forms, some of which verge on the subliminal, seem to project their presence beyond the confines of the large-sized canvases.
Meanwhile, the exhibition’s very soul reverberates like a theme song in the other works, even when it appears to be sometimes subsumed by lurking meta-narratives.