Saturday 20 April 2013

Open Studio…Reclaiming the glory of African fabrics

Victoria Udondian presenting her works to a Lagos audience during Open Studio

  Modernity and colonization may have conspired to stunt the growth of African fabric culture, internationally, reclaiming the lost glory of over five-centuries-old weaving fabrics is however imminent, courtesy of Victoria Udondian’s experimentation in ancient textiles via installations.

  Udondian’s research experience, which spanned four years across Africa and Europe, distilled in recreation of the fabrics and exhibiting the works in the U.K, Italy and South Africa, was shared, few days ago, in Lagos, with artists and art enthusiasts at an event she tagged 'Victoria Udondian Open Studio', at Ajao Estate, Isolo, Lagos.

Like using one stone to kill two birds, the gathering availed participants an opportunity to discuss challenges of documenting Africa’s forgotten textiles, in addition to undertaking critical assessment of Nigerian art landscape. Of recent, critics of Nigerian art space have been echoing the country’s reluctance to accommodate other forms of art outside the traditional practice.

One of Victoria Udondian's new works

For Udondian, who came to Lagos in 2007 — few years after graduating in Fine Arts from University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State — it was an instant escape into the highly competitive traditional art settings of a city waiting to wear the toga of Africa’s art hub. Made more impenetrable by ‘outsiders’, the Lagos art scene, which was boosted by sudden rise in commercial value, through auctions, however could not offer her any space to grow and nourish her skill. Going into more conceptual and non-traditional art, Udondian retraced her step to first love; fashion designing. “After graduating in Fine Art, I thought of researching into clothing and textile”, she told her audience during the Open Studio.

Soon, Udondian discovered the depth of fashion and textile intellectualism via criticall art contents. With residencies in Europe and Africa, the artist found a wider expression. In works depicting native woven fabric, Nsibidi of eastern Nigeria; to Aso Ikele 1948, inspired by an alleged excavation carried out in a part of Yorubaland, of a native woven material taken to Europe almost 70 years ago;  Ukara Ekpe’ Cloth series, from the Niger Delta; Amafu Fabric – 1878, possibly from native Zulu of  South Africa; and Kenyan Kikoy, Udondian showed her audience the vast world of African fabrics covering ages.

And in the contemporary context, some of the works included what she described as “handmade paper repurpose fabric” in such a piece titled Black Lace, a recycled polythene bags, rope 2010 145cm x 335cm. However, Udondian is worried that the changing “languages of what Africans wear as fabrics, over the ages, have consequences on the perception of one’s identity”.

From a conceptual and contemporary art perspective, Udondian has contributed to documenting history of African fabrics. For example, through her passion for the subject, the artist was commissioned by Whitworth Art Gallery, The University of Manchester to produce Aso Ikale  out of used clothes taken from UK and printed fabric as well as burlap from Nigeria. The work was one of the highlights of a group exhibition, We Face Forward at Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, last year.

Out of 145 young African artists who applied for Venice, Italy-based residency Art Enclosures 2011, Udondian and a South African, Tamilyn Young, according to the organisers, were the only two beneficiaries. From Udondian’s work presented under the themes, Second Hand Museum and Venetian Portraits 2011, some of the works she re-presented on slide during the Lagos gathering included Nigerian female attire (buba/ iro) and male version (buba/sokoto).

Victoria Udondian

Quite interesting, from the Venetian tradition are models of both Italian and African origins as reflected in such works as Portrait of Margherita Minguzzi, a inkjet print on d-bond 100x165 cm 2011; Portrait of Antony Knight, produced in inkjet print on d-bond, 100x165 cm 2011; and Portrait of Jacinthe Clotilde Kondje, also of  inkjet print on d-bond, 100x165 cm 2011.

Last year, Udondian took the second-hand clothing theme to South Africa where she noted of a completely lost or never-existed tradition of native fabric. “If any existed, there was no traces of history of traditional fabric weaving in South Africa”, she stated.


However, from interacting with the natives in Johannesburg, she “created Amafu Fabric – 1878” an installation, of mixed textiles, paper, fabric paint, thread. Her research in South Africa was facilitated courtesy of Bag Factory Artists Studios’ project Visiting Artists Programme, which included a Garman artist, Mark Thomann, South Africans Kate Tarratt Cross, Jarett Erasmus and a Briton, Fiona Flynn. Their works were exhibited in a group show titled Secret Art Service (SAS).

Beyond lamenting over the depletion in Africa’s native tradition of woven textile and the mass importation of used clothing from Europe, an artist’s responsibility should go further to “confront policy makers”, a painter, Bunmi Lasaki argued during Open Studio. Policy making, Udondian responded is not, and should not be the headache of an artist.

Indeed, Udondian’s project is more of documentary, particularly reminding the people of lost tradition, and not exactly any attempt to reverse technology. However, confining her gospel of re-fabricating history to just installations or conceptual art form, without including the traditional painting on canvas may reduce the message’s mileage in a Nigerian art scene that’s so reluctant, perhaps justifiably arrogant, not to give space to radical contemporary rendition. “Fabric, in its real content, most explains my thoughts”, Udondian argued. The content justifies the materials, she stressed.

Contents of contemporary practice is determined by the environment in which an artist works, another section of the audience argued.  However, artist and art teacher, Dr Ademola Azeez of College of Education, Technical, Akoka, Lagos, drew attention of the gathering to the issue of preservation. He noted that works so significant to history such as Udondian’s “should be in permanent collections of government to energise social participation.” He however asked: “But how do you preserve some of the works in a situation where government is not collecting?”

For one of Nigerian artists who are currently lifting the contemporary scale, designer and sculptor, Raqib Bashorun, the local art landscape may not be ready for change. He noted that “what you (Udondian and other artists alike) and I are doing may not be exactly what the country needs now”. Radical contemporary art, he explained, “appears to be ahead of time in Nigeria. In the interim, survival of the artist is a priority,” he cautioned.

Performance artist, Jelili Atiku disagreed. He stressed that the “survival syndrome has set us backward” and it’s time for artists to fight back by being more conceptual in their outputs.

As Udondian hoped for a solo art exhibition in Nigeria before the end of the year, the Lagos art landscape may have to concede to the changing reality: currently, Olu Amoda’s metal of aggressive expression titled Cequel IIa is on display for five weeks at Art Twenty One, a new space in Lagos, less than a month after Bashorun’s incendiary expression in woods was shown at Terra Kulture.

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