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When Lines Become Form

WRITTEN BY: Joseph Gergel

Mixed MediaNigeria

In Uche Uzorka’s most recent works on paper, which include ink and charcoal drawings, sombre tones of black, grey, and red dominate the colour spectrum, boldly protruding from the white and barren remainder of the blank picture plane. At first glance, these works are best described as abstract drawings, with amorphous shapes and splashes of colour flowing together in an ambiguous and seemingly haphazard rhythm. Yet, at closer inspection, meticulous attention has been made to create a myriad of overlapping patterns, bodies, and signs, tightly congested together to form a dense combination of complex design. If at one sense Uzorka’s drawings seem to come across as arbitrarily doodled, there is also a strict and rigorous attention to detail that creates its structure and congeals its fluid power. In short, what makes Uche Uzorka’s drawings unique is their place between the figurative and the abstract. Rather than exist as binary oppositions, Uzorka frames the abstract in the figurative, and vice versa. By blending such traditionally opposing strategies, Uzorka is able to take the most simple form of artistic expression, what could be on sudden judgment compared to childhood doodling, and elevate it to the level of harmonic contemplation.

If the term “harmonic contemplation” inevitably conjures the elevated psychological egotism of high modernist painting, most notably Clement Greenberg’s dogma of medium specificity and a pursuit of the “true” or “pure” nature of the canvas, it is partly in this sense that his new body of work marks a different perspective than his more generalised practice. 1 Uche Uzorka most notably works with strategies of cutting and pasting and large-scale collage, using refuse, signs, posters, and scraps of urban decay. 

Referencing found imagery from product labels and advertisements, his most iconic works signal a critique of consumer culture, or at the very least, the individual (namely the viewer) as a product of commodification, identified by what they buy, use, and the advertisements that hail to them. His works on paper suggest an exploration more akin to daydreaming, about the inner workings of his thought process rather than about a specific conceptual message that prescribes the overall project. Uzorka explains: “When I make art, sometimes the process is so powerful that I cannot say that when I start with this, it would end like that. I like the fact that in between the beginning and the end, there is always an intriguing story that could change. For example, when I start with A, it could be B, C, or D. I like the discovery more than when you say “I know”, when you say “I am looking for”, that is more interesting to me. What you know is known, so perhaps go from that to another level and start something else.” 2 In his seeming combination of scribbles or mark-making, there is an emphasis on the processes of creation and exploration.

! Rather than starting out with the goal of creating “Art” with a capital “A”, Uzorka’s drawings develop through their duration by relative chance. Rather than pinpointing a referent specifically “out there” in the world, as his other work makes explicit through its references to urban street culture in Nigeria, his drawings seem to contain their meaning within themselves and in the questionable narratives they leave. Yet, more akin to the intended ambiguity of a Rorschach test, a psychological examination where subjects’ perceptions of inkblots are recorded and analyzed by institutional interpretation, Uzorka’s drawings depend on how the viewer interprets the combinations of lines and shapes, and ultimately which parts of the picture plane the viewer makes connections with.

Using strategies that Uzorka refers to as “contrast and dominance”, it is an exercise in how lines become form, ultimately stopping at the decisive moment that they do.

Uzorka’s elusive titles reflect his interest in exploring more overtly abstract philosophical positions, using descriptive analogies such as “galaxy”, “moon”, “orgasm”, “rhythm”, “shadow”, “journey”, and “multitude”, the kinds of universal references that suggest an infinity or beyond. Compare that to his specific reference to recharge cards in Elation (2012), for example, a mixed media collage that deconstructs the smiling face of a model of a Nigerian mobile networking conglomerate, to the point where her smile becomes not only redundant but also patronising to the client who is forced to buy 100 Naira charge cards (and thus not able to afford a standard monthly plan). That being said, it is not to suggest that Uzorka has transgressed from a socio-political critique of society to solely one of inner contemplation. It is rather another element of his practice, and one that can also be traced directly back to his interest in what he calls the “organic” processes of urban street culture. In describing his thought-process in drawing, Uzorka states: “One line is like a cell, it could say so many things if it continued moving. So imagine if that line was a human being and then he was going from one spot to another, and meaning that he was not alone in that space, he was interacting with other human beings who were also moving as well. At some point you wonder what is that pivotal thing, that pushes them all to move and connect, disconnect and reconnect, recycle ideas and just create this whole mass of things or lines.” 

It is in the connection that Uzorka makes between the lines of his pen and its relationship to the social fabric of daily life that his work takes on new meaning, in the symbiotic relationship between the figurative and the abstract, between congestion and emptiness, and the grey lines in between.

 

1 As an advocate for modernist abstraction, Clement Greenberg’s arts criticism in the mid-20th century called for what he saw as an “advanced” form of artistic expression through an artist’s focus on the qualities inherent to their medium. Such a critical stance suggested that art should be divorced from direct social critique and the world “outside” of the canvas, rather commenting on the discourse of art and its own production.

2 Uche Uzorka. Personal interview with the artist. August 2012. 3 Uche Uzorka. Personal interview with the artist. August 2012.