Ablade Glover’s coming exhibition in Lagos, for the first time in nearly two decades, offers, along with his recently launched book, useful glimpses into the past experiences that formed the backdrop of his paintings. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Another Ablade Glover exhibition in Lagos, coming on the heels of the commercial capital city’s vibrant art season this year and almost two decades after a preceding one at Terra Kulture in Victoria Island should elicit the interest of local art aficionados. Isn’t the octogenarian Ghanaian-born artist, after all, one of the few undisputed African living greats of the contemporary art scene?
Speaking about the exhibition, which opens on Saturday, December 4 with a book presentation at the Hour Glass Gallery in Victoria Island, its platitudinous title, The Passage of Time (derived from one of the featured paintings), hints at a nod to the artist’s creative odyssey, spanning over a decade and a half, the details of which have been faithfully preserved in the records of Time.
As succinct, lean distillations of Glover’s creative mindset, the artworks featured in this exhibition should be seen as the milestones of his studio practice, which highlight not just the aforementioned period but also his seven decades of work. Among them are a wide range of paintings, none of which seem to have lost their allure for his devotees. Even when these paintings appear to be stuck in jaded themes and styles, they nonetheless seethe with fresh insights and never seem to outstay their welcome or relevance.
The exhibition’s accompanying book, titled Crowds and Queens: The Art of Ablade Glover, written by Dozie Igweze, meanwhile, should serve as its valuable complement since it reenacts scenes from the artist’s past, which provides a better understanding of his creative tendencies. Indeed, it offers useful backdrops to the artist’s futile attempt to depict the animated beehive activities of African market scenes as well as the restiveness of his environment in rigid, stationary forms, albeit in effervescent colours. “[Glover’s] market paintings embraced the vitality of the African market – they were bold, energetic and fiery,” Igweze explains in the book. “His strokes evoked the rowdiness and haphazardness of these markets. He expressed the crush of people, the stalls, the movement, the sense of an endless back and forth of traders and patrons.”
These paintings, which evoke patterned textile designs, often offer the viewer an overall perspective of market scenes from above rather than detailed aspects of them. “His market paintings brought symmetry, order and rhythm to these somewhat chaotic markets without diminishing their vitality,” Igweze adds.
Of course, there is a history behind Glover’s seeming preoccupation with markets and market women. His background as a market woman’s son has a lot to do with it since he also grew up in one. Thus, in a manner of speaking, the paintings could be viewed as his autobiographical perspective on the adversities and tenacity of these exceptional amazons, who made a great impression on him as a boy. This also explains his adulation and romanticisation of these women as “queens” in a manner that evokes the philosophy of the Negritude Movement in the 2015 oil on canvas painting he titled “Flamboyance”.
In his profiles of these women of legendary fortitude and resilience, the artist waxes poetic in his aesthetically captivating, lush impasto paintings, which evoke motion and fluidity. Perhaps it was the tenacity and diligence of these women that motivated him to maintain a strict routine that sees him getting up every morning at around 6 am to work on his paintings from his days as an art lecturer at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, often by its acronym KNUST. Little wonder he stands out like a monolith in a contemporary African landscape that swarms with younger talents. On account of his renown in serious art circles around the world as one of the most influential African artists of the last century, his paintings are often sought after by collectors.
Then there is his series featuring people, which he was said to have stumbled upon during an arduous attempt he was making one day to conjure a market scene. The artist, so to speak, had set out on a path, the end of which he did not know. Through his perspiration in a bid to reenact his aesthetically engaging tableaus, the inspiration to rise above the depiction of stalls came to him. This was how he came about the 2018 patterned paintings like “Lorry Station”, which, like the market scenes, seem to blur into sameness while evoking the diversities of human identities and ideas.
There are also forest scenes, which are the vestigial reminiscences of his time as a lecturer at KNUST in Kumasi. This nemophilist disposition, to which he owes his rapturous moments around trees in appreciation of nature’s gift, led to his initial detailed depiction of forests. This would quickly blur into a stylised representation that emphasises impressions and eschews detailing. A notable example of this is his 2009 oil on canvas painting “Forest,” which gives the sense of speeding through a forest.
Ultimately, Glover’s early education that saw him hopscotching across three continents, his teacher training years at KNUST between 1957 and 1958, as well as his studies in textile design at the Central School of Arts and Design, London, between 1959 and 1962, must have left their imprints on his paintings. So also did his experiences at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK (where he studied art education), his Master’s degree studies at Kent State University, and his doctorate at Ohio State University, USA.
This is one compelling reason why this landmark exhibition, which ends on Monday, December 19, should, along with the book, be valued as a privileged peek into the background of this hugely successful Ghanaian artist, who eventually set up the Artist’s Alliance art gallery in Accra in 1998. Glover had founded the gallery about four years after leaving KNUST’s art department, which he joined in 1974.