Two Abuja-based artists, Obi Nwaegbe and Chinedu Onuigbo relive their experiences during the coronavirus pandemic-induced lockdown in an exhibition that opens in the federal capital city on December 3, Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Even with its troubles, Obi Nwaegbe believes the year 2020 deserves a memorable ending. Indeed, something undeniably befuddling about the year evokes the biblical end-time prophecies. For just as it was stirring to life, a bemused society – already lurching from one calamity to another – cringed before the disruptions caused by a full-blown novel coronavirus, called COVID-19. Yet, even these disruptions in the country’s social, political and economic activities became the grist for the creative mill of a joint exhibition, titled Crossroads.
In Chinedu Onuigbo, Nwaegbe later found a ready and willing collaborator for the exhibition project, which – albeit not directly alluding to cases of the pandemic itself – dredges up issues swirling around their experiences during the government-imposed lockdown and safety protocols.
Both artists first met in 2015, when Nwaegbe first moved to Abuja from Lagos. Onuigbo was holding an exhibition at the upmarket Transcorp Hilton hotel and Nwaegbe, who went to see this show, was captivated by the intensity of the colours of the works on display. “His themes and styles were quite varied,” Nwaegbe recalls, alluding to that encounter. “Even though I didn’t see that diversity as a hallmark of thematic focus, there was a uniformity in the professional delivery piece by piece and of any theme of style he chose to work on.”
Nwaegbe ended up spending hours chatting up the artist with a view to understanding him and his work better. It soon struck him that the many visitors at the venue were enthralled enough by the works to pay well-above-average prices for them. “That confirmed my suspicions that he was already in a good place in the art business. He had all the demeanour of a successful artist and took his appearance very seriously so that, without his works around him, he easily fitted into the elite circles in Abuja.”
Nwaegbe was soon mulling the prospects of leveraging Onuigbo’s panache in the art circles for future collaborations. And before long, the duo soon discovered the qualities they had in common. Both were raised in university communities: Onuigbo in Zaria and Nwaegbe in Nsukka. Both grew up as the children of lecturers.
Like Nwaegbe, Onuigbo holds a BA degree in fine arts, but from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. The 46-year-old – known in the Abuja art circles as The Artfadar – preens himself on the fact that he had held 19 solo exhibitions and participated in over 30 group exhibitions, which included the New York Art Expo. A prolific artist, whose versatility expresses itself in his mastery of various mediums and depictions of various subjects, the influences of traditional African art, graffiti and cartoons are evident in his works.
Both artists continued to meet more frequently after that 2015 encounter. “We would usually meet up at exhibitions, mostly his or mine,” Nwaegbe narrates. At some point during one of their many meetings, Onuigbo privately confessed retreating from much of the artistic activity in Abuja to focus on his personal and professional advancement. “I think I have grown past the way they have been running things around here,” Nwaegbe quotes him as saying on one occasion. After over 20 years of consistent studio practice, which has seen his works adorning numerous private and corporate collections both within and outside Nigeria, Onuigbo thought he had enough reasons to slow down. “Surprisingly, these days, I don’t paint every day,” he says. “I do more of thinking. I don’t have a strict routine. My art practices have always been as the spirit leads and according to my mood.”
About 10 years ago, holding two solo shows at the Transcorp Hilton Abuja within the space of one year used to be de rigueur. “The exhibitions tended to be more commercial and the artworks were based mainly on street scenes, wildlife, landscapes and paintings of Nigerian festivals. But about two years ago, my paintings started to drift towards Neo-expressionism.”
Meanwhile, for Nwaegbe, art has been more like a lifelong adventure. As a child, he would play around with objects, making hand-propelled vehicles with cardboard papers. “My bedroom walls were decorated with paper doodles and paintings,” he reminisces. “My creative instincts accompanied me to my classrooms, where sometimes I would be engrossed in sketching exercises while lessons were going on. This has been usually my response to the boredom that I felt during some of the lessons.”
Usually, the 41-year-old’s day starts before 6 a.m. He returns home before 8 a.m. after dropping off his wife at work. Work starts for him after breakfast and keeping up-to-date with local and international news. “As a home resident artist, I have both my studio and office at home, each serving as production and promotion units, respectively. Also, my resident status means that the routine was hardly altered by the pandemic lockdown since the home was where it all happened.”
Similarly, Onuigbo spends more time indoors because of his home studio. “So, the pandemic and lockdown did not really affect my practice,” he says. “These days, some of us socialise more on social media. It’s an easier way of socialising and it is corona-free.”
On his social life as an artist, Nwaegbe says: “It is two-way traffic, really. I have come to understand that as an individual grows, there must be the consciousness towards building productive bridges and breaking down unproductive ones. That is not to suggest or hint at social climbing of any sort, but about finding like-minds across class divides with whom one share certain values and shades of understanding. The first step is to define one’s goals and focus, and then the second is to manage one’s time in a way that it is spent more with those who align with them. My own personal journey in this regard has me keeping smaller circles as I grow older to devote the maximum time I require for my work.”
Yet, life as a full-time studio artist in Abuja has its pressures and setbacks. Onuigbo ascribes this to lack of awareness and poor art appreciation in the capital city. “Lagos is by far a better environment for the visual arts,” says the artist, who draws his inspiration from the innocence, sincerity and freedom of children.
Back to Crossroads, it was a fallout of Nwaegbe’s personal musings. Early this year, he had discovered, in Onuigbo’s works, a renewed thematic focus that seemed to have narrowed down to specific concerns bordering on Nigeria’s socio-political issues. “This was a new shift in his work, which before now was essentially about technical proficiency in landscapes and figurative renderings and often without central themes. This was deliberate and painstaking and, according to him, was his new design to pander to the whims of the gallery-going audience.”
Meanwhile, preparations for the joint exhibition, which opens on Thursday, December 3 at the Dolapo Obat Gallery in Habiba Plaza, along Osun Crescent in the upscale Maitama district, continued to rev up. While Onuigbo’s offerings for the exhibition re-enact the social upheavals and protests that happened during the year, Nwaegbe concerns himself with the more subtle responses of the period.
On until Saturday, December 12, the exhibition will be open to the public daily from 12 pm to 7 pm.