I visited two current exhibitions on a rainy day in Lagos in September. Selense by Ibe Ananaba at Rele Art Gallery and Mental Space by Duke Asidere at the Wheatbaker Hotel. I was glad to have visited Rele on the first day it was open after the private view, to avoid the crowd and take in the exhibition for what it was, distinct from the inevitable societal arrogances of the pseudo party. I like the solace and serenity of a near empty gallery to take in the concept in my own time. The most significant thing about Selense however, is that the concept was almost too simple. It includes themes that we have been seeing from many artists in Nigeria at the moment. – from female portraits with grooves made by the use of a palette knife and pastel colours reminiscent of Rom, to paintings with newspaper scraps blended into the colours. The exhibition is not original. I say this also because the concept of owambe dress, women, fashion, or “a pretty aesthetic picture” is not unfamiliar to the canon - these themes can be found in the work of Wallace Ejoh and other contemporary Nigerian artists. This is not surprising, as these things are prominent in Nigerian culture. However I do believe that the most important thing about any exhibition is that it should further the canon. In the art world, for both art lovers and those not so familiar, we are looking to see something shocking, or at the very least evolutionary to the field.
Selense is an exhibition celebrating the extravagance of Nigerian dress. The word Selense literally means to show off or to “shakara”. Ananaba says that “the aim is to show how people consume fashion around Nigeria from what I observe around me.” Women in gele can be seen as well as men in suits. A nice touch to the curation of the exhibition is the fact that the paintings were thematically arranged. Titles such as “the sartorial series” or “the head series” gave the appearance that thought had gone into the display and that the artists works were following a trend. However the titles of the groups of paintings were as unmatched and uninspired as the rest of the collection. The themes were not profound, but clichéd and superficial.
The idea of fashion and art going together is not unfounded by any means, but it simply meant that this particular exhibition gave the impression of simple dress sketches or illustrations that any garment designer might request from an artist. The fact that the artworks were not realistic in their rendition left caricatured cartoon-like images of women in homogenous poses: one foot in front of the other, as if in motion, with hand on hip. There was no anatomical complexity in the paintings. In our postmodern age we have the artistic license to veer away from painting things exactly as they are in real life which is what Ananaba has done, however although he does not paint hyper realistically, his artwork is not so unrealistic that we can call it innovative. At the very least, in a rendition we can wish to see the body form in more profound and interesting figurations
The clothing that Ananaba draws are not innovative enough to be sartorial, or bespoke enough to warrant a sketch for a designer to bring to life. However, it can be said that the paintings are technically well done and the artistry is proficient, however they are not inspired enough to bring the viewer to awe. If it was Ananaba’s aim to depict the extravagance and flamboyance of Nigerian fashion and culture, I believe he could have done more in his rendering to bring across the grandiosity of the way that Nigerians dress.
Ironically, moving from a proper gallery space to a hotel, where you may not ordinarily expect to find Mental Space, I was pleasantly surprised that the exhibition seemed to work with the constant traffic of people moving about in the exhibition areas. It seemed to add a performative and complementary characteristic to the exhibition. The paintings are bold and striking with enough depth to make you sit back and wonder, “what is the artist trying to say here?”. The exhibition brings you enough information to see into the mind of the artist. You can either look from afar and come to your own conclusions about the artist's commentary on the state of Nigeria and its governance, or you can come up close and see the direct words of Asidere speaking what he sees in his decided strokes. Although some of his artworks are abstract, once you begin to contemplate about the meanings they become apparent. There is a deeper dimension to the paintings. As Duke Asidere said when I spoke to him, “We have to intellectualise art consistently. It is not just about being able to draw and paint”. This is an interesting standpoint about art, but on the contrary sometimes it is just there to please and entertain without question. This is the main debate that we come to when we think about the two exhibitions in question: is art meant to be art for art's sake or are we supposed to gain a deeper understanding from it?
The artwork named “One Man, One Generator”, which consists of a canvas concealed by black paint, which signifies the darkness of Nigeria’s current emotional state, is reminiscent of Malevich’s black square. It is so abstract and minimal that it brings to mind sadness. The concept reminds us of the “zero point of painting” that Malevich brought us to in the early twentieth century. In Asidere’s painting, lack of electricity is the direct interpretation, but the lack of governance leading us to our current state of depression presents a double entendre of meaning: depression in the economy as well as the melancholy of the people.
Asidere depicts his human figures in intriguing ways that are almost childlike, but simultaneously complex. The figures have a way of being able to render emotion and thought, through a depiction which shows that they are aware of their mental space. The figures are either anatomical and scientific, or modelesque like mannequins. This is interesting because, unlike the figures in Selense, we see beauty in non-conventional renderings of the body.
Mental Space has a lot to offer to the canon because of the deeper meanings that can be read into the paintings. The themes are not superficial, and this is crucial in order to bring art away from mere aesthetics into social critique and commentary. This sort of art can be analysed visually and can garner further interpretation through examination. That being said, both Mental Space and Selense are beautifully rendered. There does not always have to be an overarching meaning for an exhibition. What one can take away from a painting, whether it is simply aesthetically pleasing, or it alters their perspective on a particular topic, is the most vital thing about a piece of art. Any work that fulfils what the artist set out to do is successful in some way. And I am glad to say that this is the case in both of the exhibitions.