WITH A GAMUT OF EMOTIONS, A TRIO RETURNS TO THE LIMELIGHT

As a much-needed fillip to the careers of three leading Lagos-based artists, a recent exhibition on the upscale Banana Island also lifts the veil on what aficionados should be expecting from them. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

For dredging up the memories of the not-so-distant glory years of its featured artists, Embodiment deserves a special mention in the local exhibition circuit’s annals. Indeed, not even the fact that Abraham Uyovbiesere, Chinze Ojobo, and Ogbemi Heymann appear to have recently faded from the limelight of the local art scene deprives them of their well-deserved seats of honour among its leading names. And that is one reason why these artists’ careers could be seen as getting a new breath of life through this invitation-only exhibition, which officially opened on Sunday, July 24, at a location in Lagos’ upper crust, Banana Island.

It is indeed in a nod to its title that the curator, Udemma Chukwuma, succinctly describes the 40 works on display—which eloquently attest to the artists’ pedigree—as “embodiments” of the trio’s memories, emotions, styles, and media. In her introductory remarks in the exhibition catalogue, Udemma further affirms that “the quality of works on display shows years of experience, mastery of colours and composition.”

Amidst the babel of visual expressions, which trails the viewer through the four floors of the townhouse, Chinze Ojobo’s works stand out for their eclectic impersonality and creative restiveness. As a testament to her years as a former devotee of such renowned high priests of the Nsukka Art School’s credo as El Anatsui and Obiora Udechukwu, among others, her predilection for experimentation glows through her diverse offerings.

Celebrate, 71 x 71 inches, Acrylic on fabrics, 2019 by Chinze Ojobo

 There is no doubt about the fact that the award-winning international artist, who graduated in fine and applied arts from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1985 and subsequently studied interior designing in Los Angeles, California, the USA as well as art curating and art business at Sotheby’s, London, has grown both in stature and experience since her last major outing at the National Museum in Onikan, Lagos back in 2016. 

Her relentless efforts at self-invention, which can be gleaned from the glaring diversity of her modes of expression, are the disconcerting first impressions that assail the viewer. For instance, in one of the acrylic-on-carved wood works, titled “Bull’s Eye”, an easily discernible shadowy muscular figure poised with a bow and arrow looms out from a dense mass of Uli motif-inspired whorls set in an earth-coloured backdrop of what she calls “Ute-Osisi” (wooden mat). But her expressions are more ambiguous, given the fact that they are abstract, in another acrylic on carved woodwork titled “Rise Above.”

Then, there are the pen and ink, abstract paintings—the “Life’s Choices” and “Your Voice Matters” series, as well as “Graceful”—which, in a world of their own, compel the viewer to linger as long as possible before them. Without a doubt, some of her works’ globalist leanings are clear testaments to her forays into the international art scene, which have seen her appear in several shows not only in Nigeria but also in the US and Europe, as well as in famous auctions in the UK. She was, for instance, invited as an international guest artist by the Signal Hill County, Long Beach, California, the US for an exhibition in 2001, where she showcased her patented highly-textured Uli-designed artworks, and the following year to Los Angeles for an exhibition titled 40 x 40, which featured women celebrities celebrating their 40th birthdays.

Ojobo, whose works are in the collections of Robert Kiyosaki (author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad), the American singer and songwriter Ron Kenoly, the Nigerian-born Oxford University professor Chris Imafidon, the American pastor Edward Bishop Charles Blake Sr, the Guyanese-American actress CCH Pounder (of Law and Order fame), and the Nigerian businessman Leo Stan Eke, among others, is currently the president of the Female Artists Association of Nigeria (FEAAN).

As for Delta State-born Uyovbisere, whose 59th birthday was on Monday, July 18, the exhibition formally ends his three-year self-enforced withdrawal from the local art community’s limelight. The 1984 Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria graduate, who also holds a 1996 University of Benin Master of Fine Arts degree in painting, was, during those three years, mourning the demise of his wife. Hence, he dedicated one of the paintings, titled “Echo,” to her memory.

In this work, “Echo,” a slightly distant silhouetted profile of a woman lurks somewhere in the hotchpotch of a chiaroscuro-like backdrop reminiscent of turbulence, while a more apparent, realistic image of a woman’s face facing in the opposite direction looms larger in the foreground. There is however something about the colour scheme of this painting that, despite its elegiac tenor, echoes with the familiar theme song of the practice of the award-winning artist. 

Shadow People I, 48 x 48 Inches, Oil on Canvas, 2021 by Abraham Uyovbisere

Consider his rather ethereal images of the feminine sex, which frequently appear torn between Impressionism and Realism. It gives the impression of a kind of adoration that is evocative of the Negritude philosophy. This is a feature that gleams through the oil on canvas paintings like “Expression” I and II, “In the Garden” I and II, “Shadow People” I and II, and even the unseemly depiction of the lady in “Nude.”

Beneath the penumbra of serenity in the aforementioned paintings seethes the artist’s gamut of other unexpressed emotions, which in turn are, so to speak, embodied in the subjects of these paintings. But so many things are concealed under the lush impasto of “Lady in Blue” and, to a lesser extent, “Ebutemetta at Sunrise” and “We Pray.” As for the charcoal series on “Nap Time” paper, the viewer’s attention is rather focused on the artist’s skill in drawing.

Uyovbisere, whose works adorn both private and public collections both within and outside Nigeria (which include The Presidency), has so far held only three solo exhibitions. This is despite his participation in several group exhibitions on the local and international scene.

The third artist, Heymann, who like Ojobo and Uyovbisere, is reasserting his status as leading artist with this exhibition, continues his almost legendary Swiftian satirical jab at human depravity with his anthropomorphic depictions of apes. For the 55-year-old, who, before studying art at Auchi Polytechnic in Edo State, already had a diploma in mass communication, the ape metaphor – which he acknowledges was partly influenced by his close interaction with the late Ben Osaghae – is only a tool to vent his frustrations caused by socio-political issues. In the exhibition, this is evident in virtually all his works done in acrylic on canvas, except for a few like “Burden” and “Reflection.”

In the paintings “Committee Chairman,” “Enticement,” “Red Eyes,” “High Table,” “Friends and Cronies,” “Oga,” and “Possession” I and II, his frustrations—and, perhaps, anger—at the depraved humanity, who, in his opinion, have fallen below the level of animals, are easily discernible. Through this world swarming with metaphors, which mirror contemporary realities, he hopes to awaken the viewer to his plight. 

The exhibition, which closes on Saturday, August 6, merely lifts the veil on what aficionados should be expecting from these artists.

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