Sunday 8 March 2015

For art activist, Ezenwa Maja-Pearce 'Female artists are not super women'

By Taudeen Sowole
Between the periods of completing formal training and professional career, the number of female artists that are visible in practice drops rapidly. Most often, the visual arts profession's loss of young female artists is the gains of other non-creative sectors of the economy and domestic or family considerations.
Juliet Ezenwa-Maja Pearce

Apart from the academia that accommodates the challenges of female artists, the mainstream practice seems to be hostile, so suggests the insignificant numerical strength of the softer gender among studio professionals. Exposing the dismally low number is the Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA), which has only two women in its 50 members. In fact, GFA just recorded its second female member, Juliet Ezenwa Maja-Pearce when new inductees were formally presented at an elaborate ceremony, in Lagos last year. Ezenwa Maja-Pearce became the second female member after Ndidi Dike, a foundation member of the seven-year-old guild.  Being a group of artists that pride itself in 'full-time studio practice', the GFA may just be the appropriate window through which to get out of the labyrinth challenges of women visual artists.

Ezenwa Maja-Pearce's peculiar figural of thin ladies in stylised renditions as well as quite a number of her mixed media and relief assemblage are far from a prolific identity, and perhaps contrasts the artist's cerebral professionalism in activism. From sharing her studio experience via regular art workshops to lending a voice in ensuring that professionalism takes a firm root at the moribund Art Galleries Association of Nigeria (AGAN), Ezenwa Maja-Pearce has proven her worth as an artist whose goal goes beyond personal gains.

Tracking her art and activism leads me to a scheduled visit to her studio at a former middle class axis of Surulere, central Lagos mainland metropolis. Known as 'New Lagos', of the late 1960s/1970s, Surulere has lost its serenity, but the remnants in axis such as off Ogunlana Drive and Falolu Street offer Ezenwa Maja-Pearce a studio space within her family house at Abiona Close. The once cherished New Lagos, interestingly is now just a stroll away from Ojuelegba, one of Lagos' notorious central bus parks. And that quite a number of intellectual works in visual and literary contents - including author, Adewale Maja-Pearce's - have been churned out from the same house is amazingly contrasting to the rowdy aura radiating from neighbour, Ojuelegba. In fact, the visit of Ezenwa Maja-Pearce's guest on this mild sunny midday coincides with that of her husband's hosting of a media crew from AFP  

As a woman with family to take care of and a passion for activism, the creative contents of her art must be the aspect to place on the sacrifice slab, isn't it? "No.". The artist's creative contents, she argues "feeds on the truth." The workshops and other aspects of activism as well as the family challenge "help bring out the best; if my life is about falsehood, it will reflect in the art that I produce."

However, the creative industry and indeed other professions, she agrees, cannot always have women full of energy, except the society wants super women. "The society always want an artist and yet a perfect family woman. No, the artist is not a super woman that the society expects her to be."

Contemporary practice, particularly in Nigeria keeps challenging artists to broaden their scope, even beyond the canvas. For Ezenwa Maja-Pearce, a literary support is an extension of the canvas, so suggests her new work, a publication titled Issues in Contemporary Nigerian Art. "The print copy will be out before the end of this year 2015," Ezenwa Maja-Pearce enthuses as she displays the proof-copy on the table during a chat with her guest. "But it's already online on"

Indeed, the last one and half decade of Nigerian art appears to have generated more issues than several decades in the past put together. The "tone" of the issues in her debut book, she explains "is determined by the contributors." Apart from the issues raised or not, the work also provides an opportunity for artists to show that despite the mental state of mind that is understandably studio-caged, artists can also write and appropriate their work. "Creating a platform like this book, give us room to write and generate contents."

Ezenwa Maja-Pearce notes that creating aesthetic contents is not enough in facing the challenge of artists and expanding the scope of art appreciation, in contemporary practice. "Art lovers are getting more sophisticated and highly intellectual," she argues, warning that, for example, "Fulani Milk's Maid figural may look attractive, but abstract expression demand more explanation." But indeed, the strength of intellectuality of visual contents, according to another school of thoughts, is in the imagery and do not need volume of writing. "This is part of the issues," she says.

One of Juliet Ezenwa Maja- Pearce’s works.

Being published by New Gong, Issues in Contemporary Nigerian Art is expected to give birth to another broad window that will be created to continue the debates on several issues raised in the book. "After the publication, we hope to have an event that will give more artists to make input into the issues and generate contents for the art.

On the ground floor of the studio/residence building is Yemaja Gallery, a member of AGAN. Ezenwa Maja-Pearce is disappointed with the state of affairs in the embattled art galleries professional group. But quite ironic that her name was prominent among the front runners of AGAN, at least during the last two to three years.

When AGAN was formed in 2008, so much sanity and professionalism was expected to be built into the relationship between artists and the art galleries. With a dead silence on the affairs of AGAN, currently, what is the hope of artists, particularly the young professionals who rely so much on the art galleries? "AGAN will survive," Ezenwa Maja-Pearce, a member of the association's event organising committee assures. She discloses that "as it stands now, one member has seized AGAN's registration documents."

AGAN is not exactly a pleasant story given the fact that its membership includes artists who were expected to represent the over all interest of the visual arts professionals. "We had hoped that artists" participation in the marketing of their work will work better than relyting on art dealers and galleries who make all the money," Ezenwa Maja-Pearce explains the importance of artists in AGAN. "We do not want opportunists to ruin our future." She laments that a country like Nigeria has no single regular yearly or biannual art event. Again, artists cannot solely blame others for Nigeria's inability to have a regular art event. For example, te now rested yearly Art Expo Nigeria, which was last held in 2012 had AGAN and National Gallery of Art (NGA) as partners. Ezenwa Maja-Pearce disagrees. The Art Expo, she argues, "should be fully managed by artists."

In search of the ideal platform of artists where her interest is best protected, the GFA, she recalls had always been on her radar. In fact, it happened that she missed being a foundation member. She and some few artists, she discloses, had plans to make the Lagos chapter of Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) a full-time studio artists group. "The conflict of interests between the artists who work full time and those in the academics stopped us from changing Lagos SNA for the better." She however hopes that with GFA, more professional groups will spring up.

Being one of the two female members of GFA, Ezenwa Maja-Pearce seems to have confirmed her passion for belonging to groups where things are properly done, irrespective of the composition of membership. For most women professionals, the challenge of managing family and career could be overwhelming, thereby giving room for 'accept things as they come' attitude. Ezenwa Maja-Pearce is a member of Female Artists Association of Nigeria.        

Perhaps not satisfied just expressing herself via the art platforms, contributing to the larger society through politics is worth a trial. She is a member of KOWA Party, a new political group, which has female presidential candidate, Remi Somaiya. Given the socio-economic situation confronting Nigerians, is the family challenge not handful enough for Ezenwa Maja-Pearce? Why delving into so much trouble waters? "I am incapable of just watching and allow few to mislead the people; I always refuse to bend." She notes that a society that "punishes people for showing initiative cannot get things right."

In her little ways, she has been sharing her thoughts about a just society via several art workshops. “In fact, I do more of art workshops these days." The inspiration for using art workshop as a tool for development, she recalls, "came from my regular participation at the Harmattan Workshop in Agbar Otor, Delta State."  

Few of Ezenwa Maja-Pearce-facilitated art workshops include Creative Workshop for Young People, 2012;                                                              Opus Dei Centre, Adisa Bashua street
Surulere, Lagos; and Visual Art competition for secondary schools in Borgu Emirate Council, Niger State. 2013


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