With his latest body of works, featuring at an ongoing exhibition in Lagos, Ibe Ananaba takes the viewers’ gaze beyond the gloominess of the present times as he offers hopes for a brighter future. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
If ever a situation qualified as custom-made for introspection, it would be the government-imposed lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This was even when nothing forewarned anyone about its imminence. For Lagos-based artist, Ibeabuchi Ananaba, for whom there was always one reason or another to be found outdoors, adapting to this new normal was quite challenging. He could simply have been running errands for his family or visiting his main studio space in a duplex building somewhere in the neighbourhood, among other things. “This was my first time staying indoors for two to three days at a stretch,” reminisces the 44-year-old father of two. “Now, you’re thinking of how to get those things sorted out without leaving your home.”
Having moved his art materials from his main studio space to his one-room studio at home, he had to devise ways to engage his restive eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. Talking about his children, they never wanted to be left out whenever they saw him at work. “They wanted to make art too, and we got to the point where we were [struggling] over materials. My daughter and son would wake up and tell me: ‘I need acrylics, I need glue’, ‘Daddy, look at what I’ve created, do you like it?’. In the middle of when you’re thinking about something else, they’d want to get your assurance on the SpongeBob, Squidward, Mr Krabs or Pearl Krabs they painted.”
This scenario, the 1999 Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu painting graduate explains, was “a huge blessing” because it offered him a glimpse into the sanguine world of his children. It was also a time that he got the inspiration for the works in a new series he called All Will Be Well.
Then, there were the social media platforms, which offered outlets through which he could feel the pulse of his audience.“To keep myself busy, I started sketching and at times I’d post a drawing to see how people reacted, and their reactions would feed what I created next. It’s like non-verbal communication.”
But beneath the dark clouds, which looms over a harassed humanity, the artist scours for a glimmer of light. His efforts ended up crystallising into the works that make up his new solo exhibition, titled Towards the Light.
The exhibition, which is being organised by the SMO Gallery, is supported by The Wheatbaker and Louis Guntrum.
About the exhibition, which is currently holding at The Wheatbaker Hotel in the upmarket Ikoyi neighbourhood of Lagos, he writes in his Artist’s Statement: “It is a personal search for the glimpse of the anticipated sunny side of life and holding on to faith, with the hope that all will be well regardless of the heavy tides… we collectively swim against.”
The body of works, through which he strains to light up the gloomy horizon with his message of optimism, offers a visual repast of paintings deftly rendered mainly in acrylics, albeit sometimes complemented with charcoal or permanent markers. First, there is the 95 x 44 inches monochromatic charcoal and acrylics on archival paper painting, titled “Joy Comes in the Morning”, whose blur of moving figures hint at an optimistic end.
Another painting, “Amidst the Noise 2” (a 50 x 88 inches, acrylic and permanent marker on canvas painting) depicts a sartorially-elegant man reclining in an armchair with a drink on a stool beside him, who seems at peace with himself despite the chaos around him. The painting’s yellow-themed doodly-motif-laden backdrop captures the artist’s vision of the fabric of the larger society as well as “the cacophony of deafening uproar within our ecosystem”.
“Conversation with the Future”, a 52 x 88 inches, acrylic on canvas painting, is a visual reenactment of the experience of being stuck at home with his immediate family members. This experience, which he describes as “incredibly humbling” deepened his daily understanding of the concept of parenthood and/or fatherhood. “The painting articulates my attempt to beam some light in my daughter’s mind that we will get through all this and come out stronger,” the artist further explains. “It is a heart-to-heart message of hope, as I like to view life from an optimistic angle. The animated progression of the poses ultimately leads to the assurance that by strongly holding on to faith, WE SHALL OVERCOME!”
“End of Tunnel”, a 51 x 88-inch painting, done in acrylic on canvas, furthers this message of optimism with its figures with outstretched arms. It is the artist’s visual allusion to the future when humanity would emerge victorious over the current depressing circumstances. Ditto “Towards the Light”, a series from which the exhibition derives its title.
Not even the exhibition’s strident message of hope can restrain a rare moment of sobriety – captured in the 30 x 30-inch acrylic on canvas work, titled “Evergreen Memories” – from asserting itself. “This special piece, devoid of any human element pays huge homage to those who are no more here with us for one reason or the other,” Ananaba explains. “It’s more like a celebration with fond memories of amazing souls in our hearts.”
The sombre tone of the work is somewhat reechoed in “No More Empty Promises”, which (as a part of a series) is a 44 x 50-inch ballpoint pen offering on archival paper. In the painting, a young lady seems intent on blocking her ears to the sounds of the politicians’ lofty promises.
Still, none of these extinguishes the hopes the Belgian-born and southeastern Nigerian city of Aba-raised artist nourishes for the future, which he believes to be bright. “I believe art, whether painting, sculpture, or film, holds the power to rewrite our story as a people,” he told an interviewer in his exhibition catalogue. “I think the future is bright, it all depends on the individual looking inward, like Nas sings, and finding their weapon, their asset, their strength and applying it to changing the narrative. Because at the end of the day we’re all making history. Posterity will either frown or smile at you.”
Talking about art, it found Ananaba quite early during his childhood years in Belgium. He recalled as a three- or four-year-old first understudying his elder brother Ugo, who used to draw comic characters in his school books, before discovering his own voice and expressing himself independently.
He continued to develop his drawing skills after his family moved back to Nigeria and settled in Aba.
Years later, he would join his elder brother at the Institute of Management Technology (IMT), Enugu to study fine and applied arts. He chose to remain at the polytechnic even after he was later offered admission into the prestigious University of Nigeria, Nsukka. “I was loving my time at IMT so I stayed there,” he says. “I had many people I looked up to at IMT like Okechukwu Iwundu, Henry Morkah, Chamberlin Ukenedo, Chima Etu, and the late Damian Onyekuru. I’d say 90% of what I learnt in school was from these guys. I understudied their creative process and asked many questions.”
Flash-forward to his industrial attachment at Dolphin Studios in the Lagos mainland neighbourhood of Surulere, which he describes as “another turning point in my creative process”. It was here that he met the likes of the late Majek Fashek and the South African-born Yvonne Chaka Chaka, among other creative industry’s leading lights. His industrial training years and his subsequent forays into the vibrant Lagos culture scene crossed his paths with those of such icons as Uche James-Iroha, Kelechi Amadi-Obi, Sam Ovraiti and Abiodun Olaku, among others.
A quick cut to many years later. Ananaba resigned as the art director of a leading Lagos-based advertising firm after 15 years and devoted himself to a full-time studio practice. Since then, he had participated in several solo and group exhibitions not only in Nigeria, but also in South Africa, the United States, the UK, Israel, and Canada. He also won the first prize at the Art Vancouver in 2019’s Art Masters Contest.
His works adorn both private and public collections within and outside Nigeria, including that of the National Assembly Complex in Abuja. Prominent among his commissioned works are Follow the Journey, a large mural project at the Seven-Up Bottling Company headquarters in Lagos, where he painted a stunning visual timeline of the company’s journey in Nigeria, from inception in 1960 till date and a 2016 collaborative project with the Canadian High Commission in Abuja, in which he led the African Child Advocacy Wall Mural Campaign.
He has not only regularly taught diverse topics at workshops and seminars but also volunteers as the chief art consultant and coordinator of studio programmes for the Girl Child Art Foundation, a non-governmental organisation committed to using art as an advocacy tool for adolescent girls.
So far, his art has been understudied, referenced by university scholars and featured in several international publications as well as listed in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries Collection.