THE STATE OF THE NATION IN COLOURFUL VIGNETTES

In a retrospective solo exhibition in Lagos, which he calls his “current autobiography and [his] heartbeat in a troubled land,” Jerry Buhari dredges up nebulous images from the recesses of his memories as he rails against a dysfunctional systemOkechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

Surely, there has to be some consistency in these paintings’ apparent chaotic medley of forms, which, on account of their muted harmony and deft workmanship, could easily have passed for prints. Sometimes, squiggly patterns of brushstrokes resolve themselves into visually more coherent impressions that evoke human figures. Then there’s also the breathtaking detailing of those mosaics of little scenes, whose visual stories seem to urge deeper inspection.

With his cursory glance at the displayed paintings thus quickly concluded, the viewer begins to mull over their subliminal import. As a result, the exhibition’s title, Landscapes of the Soul, becomes a pivot around which this contemplation revolves, a reliable backdrop motif for his musings.

The artist’s works displayed in one of the exhibition spaces

As it turned out, the gallery was swarming with a mishmash of casual enthusiasts and serious aficionados during its private preview opening of Jerry Buhari’s solo exhibition on Sunday, September 18, making quiet contemplation of the works difficult. Even so, the  art space, located somewhere along Cameron Road in the leafy, posh Lagos neighbourhood of Ikoyi, remains an ideal space for the engagement of these works. Besides, the exhibition, whose public opening was on Tuesday, September 20, should have, before its conclusion on Tuesday, October 11, ample opportunities for such private interactions with the paintings.

A quick rewind to three years ago, just before his 60th birthday. The Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria lecturer, responding to an inner prompting, returned to figurative painting after years, if not decades, of peregrinations in the conceptual wonderland. And speaking of these peregrinations, they have recently morphed into interpolations that leach into his most current works.

During this phase of transition, which was marked by creative restlessness, he found himself drawn to biblical stories as portals for exploring the meaning and purpose of life. For him, it has, since 1990, been about how man relates to his environment and, by extension, the planet Earth. And this is how it came to pass that his very first step in this direction was a very realistic landscape painting, titled “Homo Sapiens Were Here,” in which he depicted a forest being ravaged by human activities.

Another section of the exhibition hall

On the heels of this came other landscape paintings, which as conceptual works soon became expressed in 3-Ds as installations. He even “collaborated” with termites by handing over logs of wood to them and retrieving them afterwards after they had worked on them.

So, back to the current solo exhibition — the artist’s first since his 2017 outing in Abuja. Is it any wonder that it seems to seethe with all the hallmarks of a retrospective? From his renewed standpoint on the same old issues, he reiterates the same decades-long jeremiads against Nigeria’s political gaffes in an exhibition that is split into four thematic and aesthetically pleasing tributaries.  

That explains why the newer works, especially those produced between 2020 and 2022, seem to be extrapolations of the issues dredged up in the earlier works produced in the 90s and early 2000s. In any case, these broad categories of the exhibition—namely, Landscapes of the Soul, Earth Works, Mixed Media series, and Black & White series—play the comparable role of Gaussian optics’ cardinal points.

Indeed, Buhari, in his conversation with the art critic and writer Sabo Kpade, published in the exhibition catalogue, describes the series that he calls Earth Works as “symbolic” of his “age and pilgrimage on earth.”

That recurring good-time feel of the memories of his growing up years in the rustic Kaduna State community, Akwaya, is incarnated on paper, expressed in mediums such as sand, clay, coffee, and charcoal in forms that suggest their blurring into the mists of time. Much, for instance, is left to the viewer’s conjectures in the sand and coffee on the 2022 paper painting “Farmer’s Daughter” as well as the 2021 clay, coloured pencil, and charcoal on paper works “Refugee Family and Their Dog” and “Refugee Mother Prepares a Meal”. Of course, the same can be said for the majority, if not all, of the works in the exhibition. 

In reenacting these memories, Buhari curiously appears to flit through several colour schemes. But this is just a way to express his prevailing mood, which provides the hocus-pocus backdrop necessary for a mystical experience of the exhibition—a fact which is again echoed by the exhibition’s title, Landscapes of the Soul. On the other hand, there is this disconcerting veiled allusion to the desultoriness of modern existence, in which the vast majority of people are entangled and which manifests itself in their racing through their earthly lives, leaving no time for introspection.

Jerry Buhari

“Life today is about how much, not how well,” the artist further tells Kpade in the exhibition catalogue’s interview. “But the grid format is also my personal visual motif that engages issues such as division, complexity, order/disorder, opaqueness and the way we Africans subject many issues to voodoo.”

Meanwhile, the range of hues evident in works like “Absorbing Kansascape: 292 Miniature Landscapes,” “182 Landscapes of a Country,” “132 Landscapes of Hope,” “Anthills of Nsukka,” “Framer’s World,” and “Landscapes of the Soul,” among others, are condensed, grid-like summaries of the artist’s Freudian yearning for a “Paradise Lost,” which in this case is an organised, orderly environment. Hence, it is in a bid to offer or seek distraction from the depressing realities of present-day Nigeria that he creates and compresses as many miniature worlds as possible into a small space and thus invites the viewer on an adventure through imaginary inner landscapes. He had indeed raised similar issues in the aforementioned 2019 interview, saying: “There are many things, so many things, that I experience in our country that I have refused to accept or understand. In order to stay sane, I create a world on my canvas or in my installations that I use as survival strategies.”

Moving on to the Mixed Media series, the artist revels in an experimental mode, hopping from one mood to the next while obliquely hinting at the fragility of man and his dense material abode through smudges of colour that can pass for silhouettes. But, with the Black & White series, he takes a direct shot at Nigerian elected public officials’ brazen abuse of power, using black and white to bare his feelings shorn of all pretence and subtleties.

Ultimately, despite its slight ideological interpolations, Buhari’s solo exhibition doubles as his “current autobiography and [his] heartbeat in a troubled land,” as his artist’s statement affirms. The award-winning artist, who has held and participated in several solo and group exhibitions, is currently serving as an advisor for the auction house, Arthouse Contemporary Limited. He has also worked as a guest lecturer and visiting professor for three US-based colleges and two Nigeria-based universities.

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