Getting set for his first solo exhibition in Lagos since 2015, Germany-based Chidi Kwubiri consolidates his renown in the local art scene. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes
A canny self-vision – backed up, of course, with steadfast diligence – seemed to be all that was needed. Hence, to get the best of two worlds, Nigerian-born, and Germany-based, Chidi Kwubiri remains committed to the local exhibition circuit. Back in the early 90s, the 55-year-old, responding to an inner urge to broaden his horizon, had left the comfort zone of his native Umuahia, the capital city of the southeastern Nigerian state of Abia, and ended up settling down in Germany. Despite this life-changing move, he nonetheless keeps in touch with his Nigerian roots. Thus, he was not only drawn by the sights and sounds – and the kindred sensory experiences – of his hometown and the bustling Lagos city life, which he likened to nourishment for his soul, but he also relishes the stability and reliable infrastructures of his adopted German environment. Somehow, the placidity of the latter manages to seep into his canvases spread out on the floor of his studio in Pulheim near Cologne.
Fast-forward to the present. The 2002 Duesseldorf Art Academy Master of Fine Art in painting holder is swamped with work as he prepares for Footprints – an exhibition of his paintings which officially opens on Saturday, October 30 and ends on Wednesday, November 10 at the Nike Art Gallery in Lekki. This is while he is simultaneously getting set for three other international exhibitions: Art X Lagos, a group exhibition in memory of his late professor A. R. Penck at the Gallery Lachenmann in Frankfurt (Germany) and another at the Kyung Hee University Museum in Seoul, South Korea, which are all opening about the same time.
A big close-up on Footprints, which is being curated by Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye and supported by Mouton Cadet. The solo exhibition – the artist’s first in Lagos since his 2015 show, titled Points of View, with Arthouse-the space – seems, in a manner of speaking, autobiographical. The artist himself affirms that the artworks – literally and metaphorically – tell stories from his life. While they allude to stories about people, who have left their footprints in his life, the act of sharing these stories could be likened to leaving footprints in the lives of others to impact their perceptions and worldview.
By extension, Footprints retraces Kwubiri’s steps in the international exhibition platforms and art encounters. He has besides his many exhibitions in Germany and Nigeria been part of shows in the US, South Africa, Morocco, Montenegro, Italy, Russia, The Netherlands, Belgium, France and several other places.
But, besides tracking his artistic trajectory so far, the exhibition – buoyed by his favourite themes, bordering on such elements of human interaction as respect, kindness, compassion, diversity and unity, cohesion, hope, contemplation and reflection as well as by nature and his Christian faith – is, above all, a re-affirmation his artistic credo.
While at work in his studio WALZWERK (along Rommerskirchener Str in Pulheim, Kwubiri often finds himself drawing parallels between his unwavering belief in the Almighty and the traditions of his African roots. In both, he discovers differences and similarities, which continue to fascinate him. Of course, global events sometimes obtrude into his consciousness. “The elements that shine through, again and again, are the meaning and the rhythms of the music of my homeland and my more contemporary playlists, which always fill my studio space when I am painting and are, so to speak, brought into the canvas together with the paint,” he adds.
Meanwhile, an aesthetically fascinating feature of his paintings remains their mottled finish, a technique which critics often mistake for pointillism. On the canvases, mannequin-like figures with befuddling resemblance to each other seem to materialise out of a haze of muted, soothing colours, which at the same time constitute their backdrop.
While he acknowledges that there are indeed elements of dotting in these paintings, Kwubiri says they are rather fallouts of a “dripping” technique that gives the impression that they were dotted.
Despite the close resemblance with pointillism, Kwubiri adds that the “dots are not that well-thought-out composition of conceptually and consciously set ‘points’, which are characteristic for the actual pointillism.”
“I choose this dripping style to achieve mainly two purposes: first I want to free my motifs from a concrete background and lift them into a more open ‘universal’ context in a seamless and dimensionless ‘universe’ of drips and dots which create an apparently limitless environment…”
No doubt, appropriating this technique as his artistic vernacular has its other uses besides aesthetics. Indeed, the spectral figures in the paintings seem conceived to teleport the viewer beyond the inanities of his dense material environment. For man’s millennia-long self-chaining activities to the limited perception of his physical brain has unleashed disastrous consequences.
If painting – especially with acrylic on canvas – remains Kwubiri’s favoured medium of expression, it is because it seems most suited to his temperament. Still, there are moments when his creative whims turn his sights towards such materials as his working clothes, used brushes and dried-out colour palettes, which could be repurposed for future projects.
Then, there is his studio floor, which has remained a silent witness to the process that has seen all his artworks take form. “It symbolises proverbially my footprints, which have arisen as a result of my turning round after round around my flat-lying canvas to apply layer after layer of colours through the process of dripping to give the actual motif the optical and textual depth in which I want to allocate my message,” he says. “The patterns of drips and squares still visible on the studio floor are actually the ‘footprints’ of all artworks that have been created on it.”
After years of dues-paying and eventual acceptance in the German art circles, Kwubiri’s has also gained large followership in the Nigerian art scene. This explains the frequent sale of his works for respectable hammer prices at the Arthouse auctions, which have unarguably been rated as Nigeria’s most prestigious.
Meanwhile, following the lead of the high demand for his works, the artist continues to explore new markets in other African countries, the US, the UK, India and the Middle East.