In a nod to these desperate times, the Abuja-based artist Sor Sen urges the viewer to scour beneath his linear stokes and evocative colours and discern the hidden meaning behind man’s existential conditions. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes
Could waking up daily to a “quite erratic” routine be an artist’s antidote to these depressing times? Perhaps, Sor Sen would know. As for a typical day for the 35-year-old, it could start with his cooking his breakfast. It could also find him just sitting still and listening to music. Or, he would simply pick up a book and read. But that is if the allure of the outdoors sent him in the quest for some human-interest story that could breathe life into his works. Whatever. These daily activities would always end up pointing towards one direction: art. Speaking of which the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria MFA holder in painting could spend hours in his studio groping for inspiration or hoping for what he calls “accidental discharges”.
Meanwhile, the veneer of the normalcy of life in Abuja drapes over a tangle of existential uncertainties. For the artist, for whom the human experience has been the theme song of his studio practice, these uncertainties should be the grist of his creative mills. A big close-up view of what he calls his “existential dilemma” would leave the dispassionate observer in a whirl.
In a statement intended for an upcoming solo exhibition, which opens in Lagos on Saturday, June 12, the artist muses: “Why am I here? What is my role here? How can I survive the turbulent nature of life? On a deeper level, I do not know the answers, but the search is worth it. Most times, I get consoled by the fact that I’m not alone in this quest for a meaningful life. The confusion and triumphs feel very much like the nexus of humanity. This sense of shared humanity is the source of value and meaning in the world.”
About this exhibition, which he titled Dreams, Disruptions and Actualities, he says it is “an extension of [his] practice hinged on the ambiguities of the human experience.” Could these ambiguities be lurking beneath the patented, familiar apparently scratched surface of his paintings? Obviously. The viewer, contemplating the works scheduled for the exhibition, discerns the artist’s clear-sighted attempt at the deconstruction of the puzzles of the present-day gloominess. He also senses a restless thought-process seething beneath the apparent inertness of the static forms. For him, this opens the doors to further conjectures and lends wings to his fantasies, as he contemplates the series the artist titles “Defying the Odds”, “Coping Mechanism”, “Unspoken Complicity” and “Intense Energies”.
A painting, titled “Fickle Times”, and depicting a surgical mask-sporting female figure, for instance, seems imbued with so much tension and, perhaps, even motion. The female figure’s eyes turned skywards and her two arms held out in supplication are eloquent testimonies of piety enforced by her unfavourable circumstances. Indeed, this oil and acrylic on canvas work produced in 2020 is an obvious allusion to the state of hopelessness and helplessness many were plunged into at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, on the artist’s efforts at animating his static forms, the viewer discerns a male figure’s struggle to disentangle himself from a mesh of confusion in the 2021 oil and acrylic on canvas diptych paintings, “Defying the Odds”. Similarly, in “Defying the Odds II”, a female figure struggles for a clear vision of the chaos of these times.
In a certain sense, Sen transforms the vagaries of the COVID era into his creative assets, which eventually become his coping mechanism. Yet, not even these can stifle the questions bordering on his whence and whither or even the real purpose of his existence. Like the figures in his painting, the Benue State-born artist grapples with what constitutes his real essence. Hence, he writes: “The works in this exhibition are an attempt to explore my experience with life as regards eventful phases of the self in relation to the larger society. In some instances, I delved into my dream world, to alter reality in order to communicate my emotions on how I have encountered living from the vantage point of helplessness to hope and joy.”
Sen’s invitation to the viewer to scour for some meaning beneath the intricacies of his linear strokes and evocative colours is at the same time a clarion call to the latter to lift his gaze beyond his existential conditions and recognise whither his paths lead. “It is my hope that these works will engage your thoughts on these bits of life and maybe find yourselves in this act of mutuality,” he says.
Meanwhile, attempts at deciphering the artist’s stylistic leanings or influences end up becoming an exercise in futility. So obvious is the artist’s devotion to his creative identity and authenticity that he only seems to pay scant attention to conventional rules. With the edge of the blade of his palette knife, he sometimes scratches the surface of the canvas. But “majorly,” he adds, “the colours are lifted with the knife from the palette and laid on canvas in a combination of careful and carefree strokes.”
Even more nebulous and fluid are his sources of inspiration. From the simple, easy-to-identify forms of the early years of his career, his forms gradually ebb into the less discernible. This, he attributes to the dictates of the kind of issues he chooses to engage.
From doodling with crayons and learning to draw from magazines in his childhood years, he had risen above peer pressure to make the difficult career choice of becoming an artist. Being partial to the use of colours, through which he evokes emotions, he ended up inclining to the painting medium.
Sen, who also dabbles in photography, has paid his dues in the art scene. Besides holding a couple of solo exhibitions and participating in several group shows both within and outside Nigeria, he had won laurels at the annual Life in My City Art Festival in Enugu and events organised by the National Gallery of Art, the embassies of Spain and Egypt as well as the African Arts Resource Centre in Lagos. He also got special recognition from the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library in Abeokuta.