Sunday 6 April 2014

In Ghariokwu’s African Icon Series, Mandela shines

By Tajudeen Sowole

"Our art needs to promote African heroes," he told his guest during a chat inside his studio, in Palmgrove, Lagos. He just completed a piece on former South African President, Nelson Mandela. It's a collage portrait, with newspaper cuttings of Mandela-related reproduced texts and images, creating a three dimensional illusion.

Titled Moral Capital, the work is rendered in black and white of large size into one portraiture, summarising a man whose life was one of the most eventful in the 20th century. Ghariokwu’s technique of a softened background and bolder foreground of collages sandwiches a profile angle shot of Mandela, perhaps, showcases the legend in a rare portraiture composite.

Ghariokwu noted that the legends of African descents that he chooses to highlight in his art have one thing in common. "They challenge the system and establishments of their time." He therefore asked? "Why can't artists of today use art in similar way?" He cited Fela as an example by arguing that his music was not just a representation of the environment he lived in then. "His music critiqued and challenged the system." But not so the visual artists, "art is too isolated," he stressed.

In his last three shows, which came in quick successions, some of the icons featured included Malcom X, Marley, Fela, Obama, Achebe, and Simone at the artist’s Art’s Own Kind show, organized by Ugoma Adegoke-led The Life House and Bloom Gallery at Didi Museum, last year; Ojukwu, Fela and Mandela in the Red Door Gallery’s debut of Ghariokwu’s Po-Lemi-Cs; and the same gallery’s London version titled Po-Lemi-Cs 2.0, under The Art Energy Series of Zircon Marine, which was held last month.

Quite unusual to see Ghariokwu’s exhibitions in such a back-to-back outing; he was hardly the gallery or public kind of artist. In fact Lemi did not have his first art exhibition until about 25 years into his career. The debut show tiled Welkom 2 Lay-ghus and curated by Paschal Lettelier was held at Mason de France, Ikoyi, Lagos in November 2001. Between 2003 and now, some of his exhibitions included Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, at Museum of Contemporary Art, New York in 2003; DEMOCRAZY, 3 Solo Exhibitions and a Publication at Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos; and "Documentation is crucial," he explained, noting that icons are created not just by the activities of the celebrated individual, also through adequate documentations of their works. "This is what I have learnt from my work experience with Fela."

He recalled that Fela, consciously, had nearly every aspect of his works, including his personal life documented, to an extent that he employed a photographer, Femi Osunla, permanently." 
 Indeed, given the volume of photographs of Fela - on and off the stage – currently in circulation, Ghariokwu argued that the Afrobeat legend was more photographed, than even some western artistes of his generation.

 Ghariokwu's art, which has navigated through a sea of materials, over four decades, keeping his new concept of African Icons in tomorrow's memory comes with challenge. The regular paint on canvas or ink on paper work, as resilient as they have proven over the ages, seems unattractive to the artist, in the traditional usage of such medium. In the last few years, Ghariokwu has been applying a hybridised of arylic with Vinyl. But managing vinyl, particularly, for art such as the icon series that could end up as museum pieces "is complex." Alternative and resilient medium, he disclosed, is "aluminum composite panel." 

With Ghariokwu’s African Icon series, which is taking the patterns of his Fela themes, another Andy Warhol is, perhaps, in the making. Like the American legendary artist whose works include nearly all the known celebrities across music, movies and politics, Ghariokwu is using his canvas to document great personalities of African decents.   

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