A THREE-COURSE VISUAL FEAST AND ITS VARIED FLAVOURS

Featuring a not-so-well-known artist at the same salon exhibition with two more established painters turns out to be a deft curatorial balancing act after all. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes

EXHIBITION

Chances are that these somewhat Picasso-esque depictions of lowlifes might have resonated with quite a few of the visitors to the salon exhibition. And – come to think of it – isn’t there something about these grotesque forms that is starkly reminiscent of the expressions of man’s true inner life? For in the subtler material realms, every expression of the inner man immediately is embodied and expressed in a form that is identical with its essential meaning. Hence, not even the dapper looks of the men in the paintings, nor the gorgeous raiment of some of the women, seem enough to conceal who they truly are. 

It is also possible that an open-minded collector among the visitors – whose arrival to the Ikoyi, Lagos-based residence came in spurts – might have thought privately to himself: “What a great artist, he is!” That, of course, would depend on how much his sensibilities tolerated stylised figurative forms or the artist’s rather eccentric aesthetic canons.

Talking about this artist, he is called Kingsley Obasi. A 40-year-old Yaba College of Technology graduate, he was until recently an art teacher at Caleb International School, which is located in a low-density Lagos mainland neighbourhood. As for his paintings, which have not yet asserted themselves well enough in the art public’s consciousness, they are largely being promoted by the Signature Art Gallery in the more commercialised part of the upmarket Ikoyi neighbourhood. 

But more interesting – and, perhaps, remarkable – is his inclusion in the three-man salon show, which also featured well-established artists like Muraina Oyelami and Alex Nwokolo and was held from Saturday, November 13 to Sunday, November 14. “We needed to exhibit ‘masters’ only. We considered three-generational ‘masters’, having looked at their precedence,” explains Emmanuel Odokwu the curator of the exhibition, which was sponsored by Arian Capital Management Limited. 

High Street, oil on textured canvas, by Alex Nwokolo

Odokwu’s allusion to precedence seems to have a lot more to do with the artist’s diligence and less to do with his renown in the talent-glutted Lagos art scene. For aren’t there after all among artists of his generation quite a handful, whose fame had extended beyond the country’s borders? Of course, there could also have been logic-defying curatorial whims, which might have influenced the choice of the exhibiting trio. 

First to confront a visitor at the ground floor foyer of the triplex are the works of Alex Nwokolo, some of which are vaguely reminiscent of the works of the great octogenarian Ghanaian master Ablade Glover. With an ascent up the U-shaped staircase, more works emerge, jostling for attention and offering themselves to contemplation.

Standing out among these, a 72 x 72-inch tetraptych mixed-media painting, titled “Red Beirut”, calls out to the viewer from its position on the wall. If this work, which was produced in 2020, seems incongruous with the rest of the artist’s offerings, it is because its spherical representation, set against a red backdrop, seems more like the 2-D equivalent of the metal sculptor Olu Amoda’s now-patented sculpture series. 

Nwokolo, a 58-year-old Auchi Polytechnic graduate, is better known for fuzzy depictions of aerial impressions evident in such mixed media works as “Humanity” I and II, and “Holding Cell Series” as well as oil on textured canvas paintings like “Palmview Estate”, “Isale-Eko Greys” II and “High Street”. But then, in this exhibition, these are complemented with other oil on textured canvas offerings like “Alaye”, “Bayode”, Masquerades (Egungun), “Celestial Visitors”, the “Tuareg” series and the “Gelede Masquerade” series.

The Delta State native, who has so far held 11 solo exhibitions and 60 group exhibitions at galleries in Nigeria, the UK, France, Holland, South Africa and the US, has also featured in respectable auctions both within and outside Nigeria. 

Moving on into the first-floor living room, which is split into three unequal compartments, Obasi’s paintings hold court here. Among them are two acrylic-on-canvas works – one untitled and the other, titled “Room 4” – whose themes would have made even the 19th Century French novelist Émile Zola blush with embarrassment. And talking about Zola, parallels can be drawn between his apparent fixation on obscenities and Obasi’s unvarnished – sometimes unflattering – depictions of decadent underlife hidden beneath the façade of respectability.

Through the eyes and the countenance of his subjects, the artist claims, all the hidden intrinsic qualities of the human spirit could be discerned. Yet, there is nothing about his depiction of the eyes – albeit in their grossly exaggerated proportions – that corroborates his assertion. Perhaps, he should have restricted his allusion to the faces, which indeed proclaim mankind’s inherent ugliness and inconsistent natures from the rooftops.

Unforgettable is the acrylic and charcoal on canvas painting, titled “Friends with Benefits” II, the memory of which trail the viewer as he ascends another staircase past the artist’s series of acrylic-on-paper works, titled “Portraits” I – VI. 

Ibeji, oil on paper, by Muraina Oyelami …detail

Muraina Oyelami’s paintings, which are often spin-offs of his interaction with his environment, adorn the last floor. As one of the first-generation Osogbo Art School artists, he was mentored by the late German-born writer Ulli Beier and his wife English-born wife Georgina. His paintings, which are delightfully childlike in their expressions, hark back to his years at this experimental workshop cobbled together by the European couple in Osogbo.  

There were also his antecedents as a founding member of the late Duro Ladipo Theatre Company as both an actor and a musician. These stood him in good stead to straddle both the worlds of the performing and the visual arts. 

First, he was still with the theatre company when it performed at the Berlin Festival of Art (Berliner Festwochen) in 1964 and featured at the first Commonwealth Arts Festival in the UK in 1965. Then, in 1973, he was an artist in residence and a fellow of The National Black Theatre in Harlem, New York, US. He also did a technical theatre course at the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in Ile-Ife, where he also taught traditional music from 1975 and 1987. It was about midway into this period, in 1981/82 precisely, that he had a brief stint as a guest professor at the University of Bayreuth’s Iwalewa-Haus in Germany during the winter semester.

Indeed, saving Oyelami’s works for last at this salon exhibition deserves to be labelled a curatorial deft stroke. To the viewer, the dreamlike ambience of the landscape paintings “Housing Unit” II (oil on board) and “Labule” (oil on paper) as well as the oversimplified expressions like “Ashake” (oil on board), “Ibeji” (oil on paper), “Liade” (oil on paper) and “Abeke” offer a welcome reprieve from the previous insalubrious visual fare.

Thumbs up nonetheless to the organisers of the two-day salon exhibition, which has familiarised the featured artists more with a growing art audience.     

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