Saturday 28 December 2013

In Lagos, 'Afro Art Beat' rebrands Ghariokwu, opens new space

By Tajudeen Sowole
THOUGH rarely exhibited, Lemi Ghariokwu is the first artist of a new art space that is currently attempting to redefine artist-art gallery relationship, using his new form Afro Art Beat as a pedestal.

Shortly before the new art space, Red Door Gallery’s opening of Ghariokwu’s solo show titled, Po-Lemi-Cs, which continues till January 15, 2014 - the aura of freshness radiates and welcomes. This afternoon, Ghariokwu’s designer, portraitist and satirist identity, boosted by his new Afro Art Beat, emboss from the white walls of Red Doors, adding a creative flavor to the serenity of the host community in Bishop Oluwole, Victoria Island, Lagos.

  With his exploit abroad in the early years of the last decade, and his pop art style that highlights icons as well as a well-established satirist identity, Ghariokwu’s art has a distinct form from the crowd of paint on canvas Lagos artists. After emerging as the star of a 34 international contemporary artists group exhibition, Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, at Museum of Contemporary Art, New York in 2003 and adding a successful solo tour of the US a year later, Ghariokwu’s art, surprisingly, remained quiet on the mainstream Nigerian art space. 

Lemi Ghariokwu’s Afro Art Beat rendition of Nelson Mandela
And his return, almost four years after as one of the three artists who had solo, each in the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos’ DEMOCRAZY, 3 Solo Exhibitions and a Publication, seemed to have done little in reconnecting the artist’s status with the huge international presence he achieved in 2003.

  Buried in the quietness of Ghariokwu’s art, however, is a strong trajectory, which knowledgeable art connoisseurs and enthusiasts appreciate.  For example, art historians would not ignore Ghariokwu’s U.S and the U.K tour from the sudden post-Fela interest by the west, which arguably, spurred the production of a musical, Fela! on Broadway. The musical has given Africa a major presence in one of the world’s most prestigious entertainment outlets, the Broadway. In fact, the producer of the Fela on Broadway musical, Steve Hendel writes the Foreword of Po-Lemi-Cs’ catalogue.

  Hendel writes, “no one personifies the visual arts behind Fela’s music as Ghariokwu.”  The artist, he argues, “has become a Living Legend” having documented the late Afro beat musician for over two decades of the entire musical career of the late musician.
 For the artist’s current exhibition, Po-Lemi-Cs, the Bola Asiru-led Red Door Gallery has invested in a ticking African-Andy Warhol that could explode onto the world art market soon.  On the ground floor of the gallery, the artist continues his portraitures of iconic Africans as Late South African leader Nelson Mandela and controversial Biafran warlord, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu join the artist’s mentor, Fela.

  Expressed in pop art-like, the portraits, which could come under a style otherwise known as afro pop art, strengthens Ghariokwu’s re-branding. Within the contemporaneity of his expression, he now coins his art “Afro Art Beat”.  He notes that art can no longer afford to be silent, and his new coining sets the template for contributive artistic content in contemporary African art. “Nigerian visual art is too quiet. We can’t confine art to ‘art for art’s sake’ or decorative value,” he warns. “So, for me, it’s no longer Afro pop art, but Afro art beat.”

  And having imbibed the culture of protest art from his work relationship with Fela, his Po Lemic-Cs, a coin from the word that connotes contention and argument, is the exhibition an extension of radical expression?  Not exactly, he explains. “I am using polemic in a positive way, to promote freedom of expression.”

 As a subject in contextual art, Fela is inexhaustible, so suggests a collage of old newspaper cuttings and drawings titled, Felarama, a landscape size piece mounted at the entrance of the gallery.

The piece brings back the memories of Fela’s troubled years with the Nigerian military regimes as well as the musician’s attempt at politics as symbolised by YAP., Ghariokwu says, the work represents “the drama in Fela’s life.” 

At this period in of Nigeria’s volatile nationhood, when the people are sharply divided along ethnic lines, the conspicuity of Ojukwu’s portrait at the gallery’s entrance, strikes a chord.
 Whoever argues that the Biafran warlord symbolises ethnic divisionism would change such thought seeing Ghariokwu’s work of the Ikemba.
The artist digs into archive and gets a quote of Ojukwu: ‘It’s only those who have not been involved in a war that will always push war as the first solution to any problem.The artist digs into archive and gets a quote of Ojukwu: ‘It’s only those who have not been involved in a war that will always push war as the first solution to any problem.’ 

Fela Kuti, from the new art form of Lemi Ghariokwu’s Afro Art Beat.
And for those who are currently threatening fire and brimstone if result of 2015 presidential election does not favour their geopolitical zone, Ojukwu warns: ‘War does not solve, it cowers, but the problem remains.’
  But as an art piece, the Ojukwu portrait may have Ghariokwu’s depiction of the Ikemba in grey cap questioned by Igbo traditionalists who could demand the artist’s explanation of not using red cap. 
  From the sacrificial life of Mandela comes the artist’s view of the true worth of leadership in a quote from the late South African leader. ‘When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace.’ Apparently a pre-Robben Island face, the Ghariokwu’s portrait of Madiba suggests that even in the heat of the struggle against apartheid regime, the South African icon was hopeful of triumph.

  The satirist in Gharokwu roves over other works such as the retrospectives of late Fela’s album covers and some recent pieces that covertly highlight the political direction of Nigeria towards the controversial National Confab and 2015 general elections.

In the Nigerian art environment where new masters of Ghariokwu’s generation require constant exposure to challenge the dominance of the old masters, the approach has to be more aggressive. The artist who had a solo Art’s Own Kind at Didi Museum few months ago recalls that “Fela used to have, sometimes, up to four albums released in one year”. He therefore likes to apply similar approach to his art exhibition profile.

The director of Red Door Gallery, Asiru explains that the new facility is focusing on artists with “have great potential, but who are less exposed to the public.”

More importantly, Red Door, Asiru discloses, is not just providing spaces for artists, but also fully partnering artists in the process of career building  such as representing them across the board, in Nigeria and abroad. “Red Door has 12 artists already that we are representing, both here and abroad.” The Gallery’s South Africa branch, he adds, “is in progress with our partner over there.”

Lemi Ghariokwu
He hopes that the gallery’s partnership with Nigerian artists will bring about the needed working environment for artists to concentrate on their studio and leave marketing and promotion to professionals who know the business of art. This much, Asiru assures, is already in place with opportunities “such as residency and studio space for artists within the gallery complex.”

 Ghariokwu’s international status include several corporate brandings, one of which was his commission work for a branded concert Jump n’ Funk sponsored by sport kit giant Puma.

He has also been awarded the prestigious honour of the membership of Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.
High profile collectors of the artist include U.S.-based Judith Roschild Foundation and MoMA.

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