All eyes are on the young emerging Nigerian artist, Michael Igwe, who is featured as the only artist in Rele Gallery-powered first-ever Nigerian presence in Art Basel. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
That has to be a human figure in the painting. At the moment, it doesn’t appear to matter if it’s male or female. It is virtually crouching in a foetal posture, clutching a white pillow firmly as if for dear life. Even when this figure is depicted as suspended vertically in a muddy-brown blank backdrop, the viewer can’t help but imagine it prostrate. This could be because the artist, Michael Igwe, has, in any case, summed it all up when he titled this 2021 acrylic on canvas work, “Sleeping Anguished Boy by the Corner.”
If the title seems a little too straightforward, it is more of a hint that the artist’s mind is bursting at the seams with ideas than a nod to the zeitgeist’s penchant for verbosity. Much like the spectral figures in his painting, the ideas appear to have been distilled from the murky memories of his recent past. These almost-abstract figures with blanked-out details could be viewed as smudges of the artist’s internal perceptions of previous impressions. “My projects are assembled from these fluctuating thoughts which present both human’s struggle with strength and insecurities simultaneously, using traditional media and alternative materials such as papers text, image transfer, icons as well as splatters and scratches that further beam [the] light on my character’s condition,” the 2018 University of Benin graduate of fine arts disclosed in his artist statement.
Thus, “Sleeping Anguished Boy by the Corner,” along with the artist’s other four paintings – “Like Water for Chocolate”, “Graphic”, “I Have Become Him” and “Twenty-Seven Years Strong” – comprise the Rele Gallery’s offerings at Art Basel OVR: 2021, which is titled Beyond Extremes and alludes, albeit tangentially, to the artist’s personal experience. In a recent WhatsApp video session, he validated his interviewer’s assumptions that his paintings reflected components of his real-life experiences.
More specifically, Between Extremes examines the human body, not only as a necessary medium or vessel for earthly experience but also as a vehicle of expression in the artist’s personal meditations on what it means to be constrained in a transient inhospitable space. According to the artist, this is also a space in which the only constant is uncertainty.
He felt uneasy about having to patiently endure the anguish of waiting in this space, where he was literally boxed into a corner. In any case, he ended up in this place as a result of a previous decision to which, at that point in time, he was still subject. “Waiting is the most difficult thing to do,” he admitted during the video chat, while stressing that it implies not knowing what to expect next.
As the exhibition title hints, it is all about the desolate feeling of being trapped between two options, unable to move backwards or forwards. And the paintings, even when they are products of external influences, are also eloquent expressions of the artist’s thought process.
So, does he consider himself a victim of some sort? No, not quite. Faced with the consequences of his previous decisions, which triggered creation’s inexorable reciprocal actions, he resigned himself to a dull acceptance of it all. Somehow, he senses that these final effects of his decisions must not be seen as unjust. He was, he narrated, orphaned at the age of 12 and he found himself early in life entangled in paths that led to experiences that matured him inwardly. Hence, he tends to see the more positive aspect of growing up without his parents. This influenced his outlook on life, a circumstance he likens to praying for oneself because no one else will. As a result, one matures swiftly and acquires such athletic attributes as endurance and inner stability. About his upbringing, he said, “It’s always very abstract when I talk about it, but the works themselves bear the imprints of those years.”
Apparently, the neighbourhood in Port Harcourt where he grew up was not the kind of place where a child with true childlike qualities would have wanted to spend a long time. The Akwa Ibom State native recalled, “You always seemed to be chasing something, or the realities of this environment seemed to be chasing you. It made movement consistent and fluid, slippery, unsure, and uncertain at times.”
Even if it wasn’t the kind of neighbourhood where anyone would want to raise their children, it didn’t qualify as a slum or fit into a particular type of neighbourhood. “There was just something about it and the people who were discovered there that I couldn’t put my finger on. It’s almost as if the ne’er-do-wells chose to live there. As a kid, I didn’t like the fact that all you saw were drunks. The school and the church were the only places that were different.”
As a result, his works are likely to be influenced by his experiences over the aforementioned years. Even when the paintings aren’t about him, they tend to embody something with which the viewer may identify. And style? He didn’t choose it. It so to speak thrust itself upon him. His wordless musings on “very specific individuals, places, personal events, and memories” resolve into shapes that embody and express their core meanings.
“While I use a variety of materials and processes in each project, my approach is consistent,” he writes further in his artist statement. “Although there may not always be material similarities between the different projects, they are linked by recurring formal concerns and through the subject matter. The subject matter of each body of work determines the material and forms of the work and research. By merging these multilayered narratives, the artist makes paintings that reflect the people he encounters and the general public, yet they are essentially self-portraits.”
Meanwhile, the artist, who was designated one of the five rising artists to watch in Art Basel OVR: 2021 by Emily Mcdermott, a Berlin-based writer and editor, has come a long way since he first showed an interest in art as a child. Later, one Emeka Ifediora, who taught as part of his National Youth Service Corps programme in his secondary school, steered towards choosing art as a course of study. Not long after graduation, a Rele Gallery-organised boot camp in Ado-Ekiti for the Young Contemporaries exhibition initiated him into the secrets he was never taught in art school.
Now based in Lagos, the 28-year-old is a full-time studio artist working constantly on projects and exhibitions.