In an ongoing solo exhibition in an Abuja-based gallery, the leading female ballpoint pen artist Jacqueline Suowari extends her exploration of the subtleties of the human body language while examining the conflict between the public persona and the masked inner self. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Preening herself before a mirror, a respectably dressed youngish lady contemplates her reflection. Now, what could she possibly have in common with her reflected scantily-clad alter ego? It is obvious: she is being tugged at from one end by an aspect of her life, which she would rather not expose to public view. It is this aspect of her life that the artist Jacqueline Suowari labels the “inside life” in an apparent nod to the slang popularised by the Nigerian musician Naira Marley in his song “Soapy”. As for the mixed-media painting, produced like others with ballpoint pen, ink, acrylic, gold leaf and cloth on archival paper, she titles it “Red Room Dialogue”. And it helps that there is an accompanying poem guiding the viewer’s musings as he contemplates the painting.
Perhaps, there are also parallels – albeit tangential– to be drawn between the painting’s title and the Swedish novelist August Strindberg’s 1879 novel The Red Room, which the critic Edvard Brandes said: “makes the reader want to join the fight against hypocrisy and reaction.”
Indeed, isn’t Suowari’s solo exhibition, which is titled Now I Wear Myself…, all about interrogating “selfhood”? More specifically, the exhibition – which opened at the Retro Africa Gallery in Asokoro, Abuja on Friday, June 25 and ends on Tuesday, August 31 – is all about a tug of war playing out between the public persona and the hard-to-repress “inside life”. But then, it is hard to tell where the line between hypocrisy and the striving for the aspirational self should be drawn.
Who, for instance, would see a woman of good breeding in the apparent seductress – almost set for an outing – in another mixed-media painting, titled “Red Bottoms for the Culture”? Her immodest dressing, which leaves little to the imagination, not only proclaims her as being shamelessly enslaved to fashion but also as superficial. Yet, the viewer discerns behind her the trappings of cultural consciousness and intellectual depth.
Or, what about the lady in the painting “Inside Life”, who is apparently engaged in a staring contest with her less flamboyant and bejewelled other self? This is a painting, in which the artist assures the viewer that she is “exploring the layers of multiple personalities in an individual, the seen and unseen, the communicated and the relegated.” Her allusion to “multiple personalities” – perhaps, a euphemism for sham existence – is the rallying point of the exhibition’s 12 paintings, a video installation (titled “Of Lines and Layers”), a sculptural installation (titled “Body of Truth”) and a performance. “When last did you stop to think of your multiple personalities, and welcome them to the table?” she asks. “This is your person and it’s your choice which of them you show the world. We all have an inside life. Let he who is without sin be the first to cast a stone.”
In any case, most, who habitually arrogate to themselves the right to pass judgement even over things they do not understand, wouldn’t hesitate to gleefully cast the first stone. They are, of course, not oblivious to the aphorism that the cowl does not make the monk. But then, their blinkered worldview doesn’t recognise other traits through which monks can be identified.
Suowari also references the recent mass revolt in Nigeria’s major cities against police brutality and extra-judicial killings, tagged #EndSARS. The SARS – an acronym for the Special Anti-Robbery Squad – operatives have been known to base most of their arrests on stereotyping. Hence, the protesting young Nigerians remonstrated against being harassed for such apparently trivial things as having tattoos or sporting dreadlocks. Suowari decries these excesses of the law-enforcement officers, who profile people for their “bright colours, tattoos, piercings, braided hair, fully grown beards or beautifully worn dreadlocks”. But she fails to delineate the limits of the expression of individual freedoms.
Sadly, nothing much better could have been expected in a scenario, where perceptions have been narrowed due to man’s voluntary yielding to base vibrations. Because the inner disposition or inclination towards the ignoble beclouds the vision of a human being, he cannot possibly act in a right or responsible way. With his descent from his pedestal as an intuitive being to the level of a “soulless” automaton, he is predisposed to judging by the externals. Thus, dogma – be it of the social, cultural or religious kind – has become an ersatz version of a suppressed intuitive life.
Then, the artist challenges the patronising liberalist assumption that women, who are required by their faith to don hijabs, are miserable. In the accompanying poem to the painting, titled “Now or No-wear”, she asks: “…How can you tell that a person is covered/ Is it because they cover only what you can imagine/ Like a fruit covering it seeds/ How can you tell a need or the lack of it/ For creeds and deeds past/How can you separate now from nowhere.”
A quick flashback to the University of Port Harcourt fine art and design graduate’s last-known solo exhibition held at the Adrienne Art Center for Performing Arts in Miami, USA. That exhibition, titled Jacqueline Suowari: Body Language, which held from November 29, 2019, to February 9, 2020, saw the artist reading between the lines of human expressions. More precisely, she is inspired by the subliminal, rather than the obvious, human expressions. In a society, where virtually everyone dons a mask as though in a fancy dress ball, she scours beneath the surface to access these expressions.
“As a people, we constantly struggle with self, the idea of who we really are, the masking of personality, the fear of judgement and vulnerability,” she argues. “In a bid to find comfort outside ourselves, we MASK. We mask emotions, expressions, actions and reactions. We embrace what is not and mask what is. Layers and layers of be-ing, buried under a mask with the intention to stay acceptable and approachable. We enjoy the benefits of masking, of being seen and yet unseen, settling for the illusion of acceptance.”
While investigating the stereotypes, she reexamines the concept of “what should be” against the backdrop of “what is”. As she puts it in a statement, published in her exhibition catalogue, “I am challenging the narrative of self as a singular entity and embracing the duality of the expressions and manifestations of self. Thereby, I am creating an alternate reality of be-ing and of culture, one that is ignored but reflects what really is prevalent while stretching the notion of perception and acceptance.”
But, how does one “wear oneself” in a globalised world, where the lines between the cultural differences are blurring daily? Suowari appropriates ancient cultural symbols (Nsibidi inscriptions, Nok, Benin, Ife masks and sculptures) and contemporary local sartorial elements (Dutch wax and lace fabrics to reconstitute) to reconstitute what she calls “new imagistic forms of self-identification.”
Urging her audience to embrace the many facets themselves “as one would a badge of honour”, the award-winning artist, who has participated in several group exhibitions both in Nigeria and the US, roots for an unbridled expression of one’s freedom.
Yet, it has been established that the removal of external constraints and deterrents to the free exercise of the will does not necessarily make a society free.