Saturday 21 June 2014

In Homeland Memories, .Offoedu-Okeke unearths African symbols, icons

By Tajudeen Sowole
When painter Onyema Offoedu-Okeke takes his architecture background into a search for the components of forgotten ancient African civilisation, his canvas appears to rescue the glory of modernism from the grip of contemporaneity

The artist, in his current exhibition titled Memories of Homeland, which opens on Monday,  June 23 to August 30, Temple Muse, Victoria Island, Lagos, actually projects his thoughts on modernism as against the current tide of contemporary expression.

And quite significant, Offoedu Okeke's technique of drizzling the canvas, of which he has earned a peculiar signature appears missing in the new body of work. For Memories of Homeland, signs and motifs populate faces and abstractive expression in the artist's new form that has little traces of his drizzling technique. While every artist has the creative license to move or change the look of his canvas at will, Offoedu Okeke's current form denies followers of his trajectory, particularly historians, to sequentially chain his periods together.

But he insists that Homeland Memories is made up of all his styles such as “Headload, Tapestroid, Cranioglyph, Drizzles, and Rectilinear Panellation."

Four panel piece, Timely Knock on Wood by Onyema Offodu-Okeke
And having asserted his knowledge of the local art scene with a compendium Artists of Nigeria, published last year, his ability to drag followers of his work in a zigzag direction may just be overlooked. "With this exhibition I am trying to encapsulate my styles," he explains to a select guests during a preview.

However, in the theme of unearthing the glory of African icons and symbols, the artist's articulation of he subject on canvas is almost faultless. Backed with his science and art of architecture, Offodu-Okeke challenges historians,  archaeologists and anthropologists.

Specifically, one of the works, an abstraction populated by synbols and titled the League of Plenipotentiary highlights the imbalance in how the icons of the world have been presented across generations. Africa, he notes, have been shortchanged. Heroes and other materials of African descents that pre-dates European civilisation are either missing or mildly represented. What exactly went wrong with the facts available through sources such as archaeology? "Those who documented icons of the pasts deliberately diminished African icons to elevate theirs."

The artist's argument may not just be far from the truth. For example, quite a lot of facts must have been lost to distortion by archaeologists about objects of African origin. German archaeologist of the British-colonial era, Leo Frobenius, who was renowned in African findings, comes to mind in this context: while many Africans revere his archaeological exploits, many academics still argue that he was a looter who also distorted facts.

As passionate as Offoedu-Okeke is about highlighting the lost creative assets of Africa, he is not exactly keen in being identified based on his race or period of work. It's common really for artist of African descents to de-emphasise their origin, rejecting the term ‘African artist.’ "I see myself as a modernist; not trapped to my time," he declares.

Some of the other works include Veterans Wearing Garlands of Experience, Timely Knock on Wood, Memories of Histories and Otanjele, among the 22 pieces.

And he may just be adding his own visual vocabulary to the art lexicon with word such as Tapestroid, what sounds like a family of tapestry. It's inspired by the artist's architecture-training. He explains that it's like “a number of spinning cones arranged in grid-formation." And the results, he stresses "is a geometric theatre of spinning cones dissolving into optically altering forms, shapes and colours."  Offoedu-Okeke had his debut solo exhibition Spring Forever, at Russian Cultural Centre, Ikoyi, Lagos. In 1997. He continued in 2000 with Idioms of Butterfly Kisses, Mydrim Art Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos; 2009 Boudoir Terra-Cotta, Didi Museum, Victoria Island, Lago; 2009, May-Day: Bless the Head that Bears the Crown, Didi Museum, Victoria Island, Lagos; 2010, Libation: Entreating the Divine, Quintessence Art Gallery, Falomo Shopping Centre, Ikoyi, Lagos; and 2010, Headload: Utility/Materiality, arc Gallery, Tottenham, London, UK.

Offoedu-Okeke was born in Aba and received his architecture degree from the University of Nigeria, Enugu. He started working as a full time studio artist in 1992 and spent over ten years researching  and writing a book on modern and contemporary artists of Nigeria, which is one of the most complete compendiums of Nigerian art to date.

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