The Megacity and the Noncity
If Obinna Makata’s collages could be prematurely and stereotypically classified as “African” art, with their geographically specific patterns, colors and elongated figures so common in what Western art institutions not so long ago termed “Primitive” art, they are unabashedly conscious of their designation as such. Makata’s collages ambivalently force such signification to the forefront of the discourse of contemporary art in Africa and use the preconceptions of “African” art as a driving conceptual framework. Makata describes his collages as “broken pieces of African culture”, a response to the omnipresence of foreign influence that continues to threaten traditional value systems and artistic processes that are unique to the Continent. For Makata, his work is not about a specifically “Nigerian” experience or a personal experience as such. It is about referencing “Africanicity” as a visual metaphor. Such a process is fundamentally different than the commercial enterprises of “Airport Art”, work that has been defined to cater to international tourists in search of souvenirs and that gives the false aura of authenticity of a time passed. In the spirit of Senghor’s concept of “Negritude”, which embraced an African aesthetic as a combative tool to the perceived superiority of the West, or the “Zaria Rebels” attack on the academic artistic style propagated by colonialist art institutions, Makata’s implicit references to traditional African art are used as a protective defense of a dying culture.
In Makata’s mixed media collages, diverse visual elements such as ink drawing and cut fabric are used to form a combination of ambiguous bodies and intricately designed patterns. To describe the forms as “human” might not be the most precise metaphor, as the figures are rarely gendered and have disproportionate limbs and misshaped heads. The figures more closely resemble stick figure drawing or a child’s doodling, where there is a lack of technical expertise or a displayed mastery of painterly skill. This is not, of course, the result of a lack of artistic talent but rather a deliberate choice in how the conceptual message is articulated and negotiated by the viewer. Incorporated onto the figure’s bodies and composition are pieces of torn fabric and detailed pen drawing, where the somber tones of the ink contrast with the bright and colorful patterns of the textile designs. It is clear at first glance that Makata’s collages have an embedded tension in the contrasting tonalities and motifs, one that is in flux, combative, and unresolved. Makata’s collages reflect a clash of traditional artistic practices and contemporary influences, of the figurative and the abstract, and of the lighthearted and the threatening.
Obinna Makata’s collages are not unique to his practice. Makata was trained in sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, an arts program that is synonymous with an emphasis on a conceptual approach to art, one that prioritises ideas over techniques. Yet, before his artistic training at university, Makata was already well versed in the processes of art production. After being discovered at the age of eleven by a local artist, Makata worked as a studio assistant for a woodcarver and learned the skills of his trade. Makata describes this experience as in many ways a “lost childhood”, and this process of doodling is perhaps subconsciously reflected in his work. In fact, it was not until university that Makata first picked up painting. Becoming an artist was something that was deeply embedded into his childhood and life experience. This is not to fall into the trap of depicting the African artist as somehow more in touch with his emotions than artists of other cultures, a neocolonialist perspective that stifles the importance of art production made in Africa in a global context. Instead, Makata’s experience growing up as an artist was one that focused on a technical approach to art, and it is this background that contrasts so deeply with his choice of such an informal approach to his collages.
Makata’s collages, produced in the last year, came about as a new approach to his artistic production. Makata explains that, after a difficult time financially, he found himself working with what was readily available and inexpensive to produce, including ink pens and scraps of fabric that were left in the dustbin of his neighbor who was a local tailor. Yet, despite the haphazard way that Makata initially approached African textiles as a medium, it has become the core of the work and a vehicle of which the message is carried. Makata states: “The use of the fabric depicts “Africanness” but in different contexts. Sometimes it can symbolize pride, sometime mere aesthetic, sometime lost culture, as you can see in the body of figures without fabric.” If fact, while such fabric designs immediately carry significations of Africa, they come from a history of cultural appropriation that highlights the positive trade and exchange between Africa and Europe. While each individual work alludes to a different narrative association and artistic approach, they share a commonality in their sense of confusion and ambiguity of a distinctly African identity. Obinna Makata’s artistic approach confronts the viewer to question their definition of contemporary African art, and, in the process, forces an understanding of art made on the Continent out of a solely assimilative paradigm and one that could proudly and distinctly be defined as “African”. At the same time, Makata contributes to a discourse that traverses cultures and speaks to a dialogue that is inherently global.