Sunday 31 May 2015

A Strip of art appreciation's 'missing link'

By Tajudeen Sowole

Confinement of art appreciation within the elitist and conservative old space has been the 'strength' of art, despite efforts of different cultures to break the exclusivity. For example, Nigeria has not been short of several efforts at promoting art appreciation at the grassroots, which include competitive levels of value.

However, in the three art exhibitions at a newly opened Rele Gallery, Onikan, Lagos, there seem to be emerging a fresh approach in melting the conservative rock of art appreciation;  conscious efforts of the themes beam searchlight on a what could be the missing link. Currently showing till June 7, 2015 is Strip, the third of the three exhibitions since Rele opened in February this year.  

A Photography piece titled Emotions in Motions by Reza Bonna.

Specifically, Strip, a group art exhibition of seven artists - three painters and four photographers - may get critics more curious to expand the contents of appropriating art in keeping pace with contemporaneity.

Rele opened with My Street Economics on  March 8 - 22 and added Lagos Hustle & Hope on  March 28, which ran for 3 weeks. Inside the modest Rele space, works of painters Ayoola Gbolahan, Ibeabuchi Anababa and Isaac Emokpae as well as photographers Kelechi Amadi-Obi, Reza Bonna, Toyosi Faridah Kekere Ekun and Luqor Oluwamuyiwa Adeyemi are very daring, on female body exposures, this quiet morning, particularly, when the visitor has no one to share the viewing with. Few minutes later, the whole idea about new space, designed to open the art appreciation environment is better explained.  "We are bringing in themes that could open up the art space," says Adenrele Sonariwo, founder of Rele.  "I know that the market for art is broad, and in Nigeria, we are just scratching the surface." Sonariwo whose experience of Nigerian art is roughly six years old, after her studies in the U.S., is though short, but her view about inadequate explorting of the art market is faultless. However, her Rele space appears to have set out at a period of ascendancy in market value for African art, suggesting that she has to define a path rarely walked. For a young lady full of creative enterprise, Strip and the two previous shows are every inch speaking to young generation of art enthusiasts.  

Like some lone art pieces or body of work that dwell on nudity, Strip also attempts to draw a line between creative nude content and eroticism. Irrespective of one's level of tolerance for flesh exposure  on the canvas, the artists of Strip challenge perception by stressing the art contents at the gathering.  Don't mind the 'installation of a stark nude drawing with red bra dropped on the improvised-canvas room divider; I think the real art contents are on the walls at Rele.

Entering Rele through the main door is a graceful 'welcome' from a drawing titled Queen of the Night, on stained plexiglass, by Emokpae. For either of several reasons or all combined, the painting harasses attention: a stained glass technique with near sculptural texture, infectious drawing skills or composite incendiary style, are some of the attractions available to red-tag Queen of the Night.

It takes a follower of Gbolahan's blue lady themes to appreciate the eye-poping and graphic display of female nudity in the two paintings he is showing at Strip. In the last few years, the artist has been making spiritual statement in what he calls "Blue Woman". At Rele, his works titled What Do You Want of Me and Blue Star, supposedly, continue the spiritual encounter he had in a dream in 2007. But for Strip, the artist has additional explanation for her blue women on canvas. "I don't paint nudity, I paint confidence in her own skin."

Ananaba's mastery of lighting in painting suggests a cover from where the artist's skill exudes modest nude figures in watercolour paintings. Sometimes, the lighting brings uncommon masculine muscle onto the female body as suggest in  one of the four paintings, Morning Stretch. "My creative direction is largely driven by both exploration and exploitation of the human figure to deliver messages that, one way or the other, challenges one's thought or warms the other person's heart," Ananaba says in the catalogue of the exhibition.

 A painting titled Untainted by Ibe Ananaba.        
For reasons best known to the curators, Wana Udobang and Ayodeji Rotinwa, the photography works are separated from the paintings, suggesting division or a two-exhibitions event in one show. If the near separation via covert line takes anything away from the commonality shared by the artists, works of Reza Bonna, in digital techniques attempt to blur such line. In fact, the painterly technique in the works from the digital process links the photography 'section' and the paintings divide of the gathering. Works like Emotions in Motions as well as Humans Support System instill some sort of team spirit system via body and soul connection. Quite monochromatic, the works, among others at the gathering also faintly draw the line between art and nudity. Arguing that the human body "is the ultimate and purest fusion of art," Bonna stresses how art, naturally, "provoke thought, invoke emotions and revoke barriers."

Quite unlike Amadi-Obi, eight works in one exhibition without a single digital effect or any of the techniques his photography is known for. In the simplicity of the eight pieces - inside a room not shared by any of the exhibiting artists at Rele - comes the infectious locations chosen for the shoots as well as the capture of lighting on the flesh of the subjects. For example, Harmony, a high key lighting gives impression of a sculptural image. 

So it seems every artist at the show has to defend the obvious nudity theme of the gathering. Clothes, Amadi-Obi argues, are bordered by period, places and culture. But for striped body, "movements/poses are universally understood; you are speaking to humanity at once."

Inside the three walls room at Rele, covert nude styles by Kekere-Ekun and high key contrast light works by Adeyemi bring two kind of textures into Strip. While Kekere-Ekun adds more value to modeling photography beyond frontal and crude nudity, making silhouette more creative, Adeyemi's style confronts his subject head-on "Nudity is honest and humbling," she states, adding that it goes "back to the basics, connecting with one's true self as we ought to in our quiet moments."

For Adeyemi, the grainy texture of the lighting is perhaps what stands his works out, particularly as explained in Georgia, as the penetration of the lighting goes skin deep. 

For populating the walls of a new gallery with raw nudity, the curators have explanations too: "The body is the first thing we encounter, even before the human being." The curatorial statement goes back into centuries, noting how human body "has been a source of fantasy, obsession, liberation, struggle, oppression, voyeurism, politics, shame, commoditisation and of course a reference point to reality."

           A photography portrait titled Spirited Away by Toyosi Faridah Kekere-Ekun

Indeed, the renaissance and modern periods of classics in nude paintings and sculptures would not escape the articulation of the curators. "Artists have long preoccupied themselves with documenting this endless source of expression, a reflection of an enduring time where we as a people are equally obsessed." In fact they argue that celebrating the art of nude form, over the ages, some "discoveries," have been made that "ascertained self-worth." Such feats, the curators lament, have been confined "as personal journeys, to be spoken of in hushed tones."

Perhaps it take fresh names like Udobang and Rotinwa - in the art appropriation scene of Lagos - to bring the hushed tones alive into daring images."We showcase a collection of nudes in varying degrees by painters and photographers and we seek to amplify the body of conversation."  

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