Saturday 19 October 2013

With Asiko, Kelani goes archival, strengthens the contemporary art landscape

By Tajudeen Sowole
When the young artist, Abbas Kelani, last year, changed his art from figure representational to a more conceptual content, depicting semi-abstract subjects with machines as central focus, it was like a new fragile identity. But one year after, Kelani has taken a step further, bringing into the local Avant garde portraits of people and events that have shaped history as well as the pre-digital printing process.

Last year, Kelani had shown a body of work titled Man and Machine, at Omenka Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos in which he brought his experience of the printing machine to recreate images from the press hall, where machine and brain meet. For the continuation, the artist opens a new body of work titled Asiko (Period), from October 26 to December 21, 2013 at Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Yaba, Lagos.
Memoir, from the Calendar Series of Abbas Kelani’s art exhibition Asiko
Ahead of the exhibition, Kelani takes selected guests through some of the works at his Magboro, Ogun State studio. With a technique of aging the canvas, he brings archival value into the emerging Nigerian contemporary art space, reminding art lovers the glorious days of documentation through calendars. For Asiko, the works are in three segments: Family Portraits, Calendar Series and Family Album. Born into a family of printing artists, Kelani, in some of the works rewinds time, bringing to fore how communities used yearly calendar to, perhaps, subconsciously documents people and events.

Among the works in the Family Portraits are old letter press and printing machines, from which he recollects the memory of his father and mother’s-joint business. He laments that the death of his father in 1991, which led to the sales of the machines, cuts short his young, curious, enthusiasm for the machines. But re-enacting the story on canvas, he says, "gives me a relief".

 From the Family Album Series, a mixed media of aged canvas and a 44 years-old group picture of people in aso-ebi titled Irole (Evening) tells the story of a resilient culture of fashion and identity. Bordered by thin orange line in the top middle of the aged canvas, the black and white group picture is digitised, depicting time and period of the event as 4:68 and 13:7:68. Among the series are others such as Oru (Midnight) and Ale (Night), in which the artist explains the flamboyant life of his father and colleagues. “They were successful and enjoyed the boon of the printing industry of the period”. The Nigeria’s independence from British rule in 1960, he notes, brought quite a lot of opportunity for people in the printing industry, “who did a lot of job for governments and private organisations”. 
Kelani Abbas

Of a broader archival value, however, are two portraits of a king, which give an educative insight into one of Nigeria’s oldest monarchy, the Alake of Egbaland, Abeoukuta in the current Ogun State. In the artist’s Calendar Series, he takes his viewers back to over a century ago via a reproduced picture  of Alake, Oba Ladebo Ademola, dated May 1904, London. Of note in the regalia of the seventh Alake is the danshiki  (short robe)and stylized gobi (cap) designed for the royal, all sewn in the popular damask fabric, including his foot wears. Another reproduced picture of the same Oba, also taken in London, but in 1945 stresses the power of images in the archival context.

  For the two pictures, the artist inscribes a background of monarchy history of Abeokuta as well as other dates of landmark. Among the list are  ‘First Bashorun of Egbaland, Apati 1845 – 1849; Second Bashorun, Somoye, March 1st, 1851 - August 8, 1868;    19. Expulsion of Madam Tinubu from Lagos, 1857; 1859 - Iwe Irohin published in bilingual; 1862 - First Yoruba Bible published; First Olowu of Owu, Pawu, 1855-1867. Ijaiye war, 1860-1862; Second Dahomian invasion, March 1863; Earthquake shock in Abeokuta, July 10, 1863.

Bringing the archival pictures onto the canvas, Kelani discloses that it involves “re-taking the old photographs using a EOS T4 rebel canon camera to increase its resolution to a desired pixel”. Then comes the collage-like, which enlarges the “print to a desired size after which I pasted the enlarged image on a canvas with glue”.

 Strengthening the contemporary contents of Asiko, his mother, who encouraged him to step into his father’s shoes and saw him through art school, is not forgotten: Kelani has a performance segment dedicated to her. The performance, he explains, will include “old typewriter as my mother leads the performance”.

Oba Gbadebo

Within a short period, Kelani’s art has taken a 360 degree turn; from modernism or traditional rendition of figures and natural sceneries to ‘contemporary’, conceptual contents. Just when he was being tipped among the future master of Nigeria’s modernism, Kelani made a u-turn so soon without allowing his young strokes on canvas to get  the masters’ identity. Why such a sudden change?  A workshop organised by CCA, few years ago, “opened my eyes”, he recalls.”Since then I dropped painting figures or realism”.

And having set out on a new journey in his art, the mentor, CCA seems to have assured him that  ‘you will not walk alone’. Jude Anogwih says Àsìkò is curated by the director of CCA, Bisi Silva and organised by Anogwih for the centre.

Anogwih explains that the exhibition is in line with  CCA ‘s “objectives and commitment in the promotion of Avant garde art and artistic practice.”

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