Friday 4 January 2013

After touring the West, Tantua’s 'Afro pop art' poised to enliven 2013

By Tajudeen Sowole
Painter, Diseye Tantua may not be among the common names on the attractive Lagos art turf, but the Port Harcourt-based pop art artist appears to have found a place and an identity from where he recently launched his art beyond the shores of Nigeria.

And having just added a U.S. exhibition trip to the rising profile of his art, Tantua heads into 2013 with a mission to give pop art a competitive edge in Nigeria. Early last year, he took his brand of art to Paris, France.

After making a strong impact in the 1950s through 1960s, perhaps as postmodern kind of impressionism, pop art however, has been less popular among new generation of artists across the world. Closest to what could have been a recent boost to the genre was a digitally produced 2008 portraiture for Barack Obama campaign poster known as Hope by a relatively known artist Shepard Fairey. It was later troubled by copyright issues between the artist and Associated Press (AP). 
Headline News, one of the works by Diseye Tantua

Indeed, pop art, which has made artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Blek le Rat and James Rosenquist all time masters, has been sparsely seen on the African art landscape. Perhaps, one of the major shows of pop art in Lagos came in 2009 when Tantua formally launched his identity with a solo art exhibition titled Look and Laugh at Signature Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos. For him, pop art has African identity, so he christened his own Afro-pop art, a slight distinction from the old forms and technique made popular to strengthen impressionism in the 1950s.

Several years before his debut solo in Lagos, Tantua had been sneaking in from Port Harcourt to promote his art in Lagos.
Three years down the line, Tantua’s art has joined the list of connoisseurs’ favourites, particularly at art auctions in Lagos. Now better prepared for the future with a foreign manager, Gerard Hermet, director of Galerie Teodora, Paris, Tantua enthused a few days ago after his return: “In 2013, I look forward to incorporating a few techniques that I learnt in my Afro pop arta sort of repackaging but still the same message”.

Early last year, he set out on his foreign tour with a show titled Paris - Lagos -The Art Of Diseye Tantua at Galerie Teodora, Paris. Last November, he continued with what he described as the “phase-two of my Afro pop art titled Beautiful House U.S. in North Carolina”.

Apart from the portraiture characteristics of his work – a commonality among pop art across the world – revisiting a mode of transportation peculiar to some African urban cities of old strengthens Tantua’s Afro flavour. Among such works, which he said were shown during the tour is a piece titled Headlight News. Viewed via soft copy, the linear depiction, which adds resplendence to the old passenger lorries (known as Bolakeja in Nigeria and Tro-tro in Ghana) shows how the drivers or owners of the vehicles communicate, philosophically, on social issues through the inscriptions on the body of the lorries.

He recalled that inscriptions such as Poor Man Dey Suffer, Monkey Dey Work, Live and Let Live, No Time To Die, Monkey Get Grade and Show Get Size derived from street slogans were written on Bolekaja and Tro-tro of the period when he was growing up in Nigeria and Ghana. So, his art, he said, reflects the environment, “My art is mostly about my experience growing up and my environment; it carries with it a message which most times though 'hilarious' still takes the message through”.

Having explored the Nigerian and Ghanaian art scenes, Tantua who has his roots in both countries stated how “embracing a new audience gives me a general idea of how my work is perceived when I get a wider audience”. His recent foreign experience seems like the ladder he has been waiting for to spread his art to the West. He hoped to return for a tour in the U.K. and U.S. He noted that “visiting 10 cities in a month was an exciting experience; I found a new art form”.

One of the central themes of Tantau, which perhaps radiates the pan-African aura in his works is Fela as subject. It should be recalled that at one of the Lagos ArtHouse auctions in 2010, Tantua truly made his presence felt on the Nigerian art scene when his work titled Different Different Fever (acrylic on canvas, 60 x 18.75 in., 2009) made a surprise sale of N1.7 million from a N420, 000 asking price.

The work, a tribute to late Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, brought a fresh breath into the Fela themes widely expressed by Nigerian artists. Tantua said the Fela theme continued during his Paris and North Carolina shows, particularly in portraitures with the legend’s saxophone identity.

With the excitement of new audiences come the intellectual gains, Tantua said, noting that “Travel is education on it's own. It's more than seeing of sights. It is a change that goes on, deep and permanent in the ideas of an artist”.

Part of the education, he disclosed, was a “conscious effort to understand the culture and beliefs of people in every country I visited.”
Showing works in a culture different from his, he argued, made no difference as "Art cuts across time, space and culture." Colour, he stressed, is “just enough,” to break the barriers.

He noted, “Each exhibition outside my home country brings me back to reviewing my work and this invariably affects my technique and approach for the better. I get excited in my studio after a trip and it is most times evident in my work. It's like staying back to correct the little details of one’s work”.
Visitors viewing Diseye Tantua’s works during his exhibition Beautiful House USA, in North Carolina… recently.
According to a curatorial note from the director of Beautiful House, the venue from which the theme was coined, Mrs. Khiki Eke Spiff, Tantua’s art is “a pleasing one” that “complements our modern and contemporary interior designs, which we make specially for people with great taste and style”.

For the artist, part of his experience, which perhaps would impact on his art, is the influence of photography on the larger society. He recommended that “photography class should be a requirement in all educational programmes. Reason: it makes you see the world rather than just look at it.” 

And what Tantua has been missing in the works of the old pop art artists, he must have seen during his trip to U.S. in a just concluded show Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years. He stated, “In all the cities I visited, I found New York the most exciting. At the New Gallery, Metropolitan Museum for Art, I was lucky to view an ongoing exhibition of works by Andy Warhol and other pop artists”.
  Tantua graduated in Fine and Applied Arts from the Rivers State College of Education, Port Harcourt, majoring in painting.

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