By Tajudeen Sowole
Beyond the metal foil, beads, painting and pencil media that forms the content body of works by Joe Amenechi, there is a mix of traditional art texture with other periods, which seems to breathe fresh aura into the Lagos art exhibition circuit. Most artists across generations now sidestep what the west has stigmatised as ‘naïve’ or traditional art rendition, for obvious reason of fusing into modernism and contemporary periods.
For Amenechi's Pieces of Me, his fourth art exhibition at newly opened Rele Gallery, Onikan, Lagos - currently showing till July 2015 - it's time to revisit traditional art with a blend of ‘natural synthesis’ and flavour of modernism. Amenechi is clearly not a new name in the Nigerian art space, but his signature appears to have been missing on the art scene for some time now.
In environment that is conservatively in favour of modernism, a rejuvenation of good old traditional art form brews fresh breath, as Amenechi's works in bead, metal foil and bronze radiate an aura of museum mystic. For example, a intensive bead sculpture on wood titled ‘Faces On A Totem’ as well as a metal foil version prepares viewer's mind for, perhaps, a show with energy full of periods and genres in visual arts parlance. Moving round the totem pieces and wishing they were kinetic, a wall hanging, ‘Garden of Eden’, takes over one's attention. In beads, the biblical piece confirms the depth of skill in Amenechi's bead setting technique, despite the graphically nude images of the human elements that threaten to weaken the concept.
As the totem pieces faintly expose the traditional art attachment of the artist, a series, ‘Faces and Strangers I’ and II, in metal foil and bronze, draws a thin line between Amaenechi's stylised faces or figures and the naivety associated with traditional form. Perhaps, the form of the masks is the artist's deliberate attempt to generate dialogue between the work and a viewer, and by extension throw critics off balance.
In fact, a bronze portrait ‘Untitled’ sandwiched between the totems and the set of ‘Faces and Strangers’ masks spread on the floor of the gallery as well as the metal foil series make Amenechi's eclectic features louder as one steps into the painting, pencil and lithographic sections of Pieces of Me. Paintings on canvas such as the portrait of three ‘Atilogwu Dancers,’ that are not actually dancing; common young male indulgence depicted in ‘Peeping Boy’, moment of truth for students at ‘Examination Headaches’; and portraits of Igbo chief, ‘Titled Men’ bring out the modernist in Amenechi.
However, in ‘Warrior Heroes’, a Nok image depiction in painting and ‘Yoruba Women’, there roves the artist's brushings over natural synthesis and traditional or tribal forms. These set of works, perhaps, expose the real depth of incendiary skills in Amenechi's art. For example, highly stylised, ‘Yoruba Women’ - a figural of four ladies - comes bold in excavating the complete dress-sense of women from southwest Nigeria. A three-piece ‘Buba’ (blouse), ‘Iro’ (wrapper) and ‘Ikpele’ (shawl) with gele complete the resilience of a fashion that has transcended its Yorubaland birthplace. Also, Amenechi's representational and compositional strength are not hidden in ‘Titled Men’.
And the contrast goes deeper, widening the difference among Amenechi's three set of Pieces of Me, so suggest the pencil and lithography works at the extreme end room. Some of the works, mostly of portraits and events and done in monochrome could pass for a semi-classic of the post-renaissance period.
As if the artist needs any further explanation on what the show is all about. "Pieces of Me encompasses all of my various artistic expressions in whatever medium I use," he explains in a text provided by Rele. "It is not one story line per se, but a combination of all of me."
Confirming his long absence on the exhibition space of Lagos, he adds that the recent works in Pieces are to remind his followers about the strong depth of Amenechi signature. "What I want this exhibition to do is to make people aware of the recent works I’ve done; reawaken an awareness and appreciation for my works." He hopes that his "collectors, old and new, can be in touch with me and what I have to show." Indeed, the consequence of his long absence is not lost coming into this exhibition. "When people don’t hear that you have an exhibition, they probably think that you’re not making art anymore, " he concedes, but hopes that the show will refresh people's memory about his art.
For Rele, Amenechi's long absence and the eclectic characteristics of his works fall into the gallery's concept of showing something fresh. "Amenechi has many faces in him, which make his art align with our vision of showing new things," Aderenle Sonariwo, director at Rele states.
Born in Lagos, but a native of Ila, in the old Mid-western Nigeria (now part of Delta State), Amenechi must have started his sojourn gradually and subconsciously too when he was a student of one of the founders of ‘natural synthesis’ form of art, Bruce Onobrakpeya at St Gregory’s College, Obalende, Lagos. Amenechi would later proceed to Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, where in majored in Painting under the tutelage of masters like Yusuf Grillo and Kolade Oshinowo.
However, the foundation of his art tutelage would not leave him; in 1985, he had his National Youth Service Corps at Onobrakpeya’s studio and also worked there for two years, coming out with the mastery of metal foil and plastocast – two main focus of his mentor and master printmaker, Onobrakpeya. “Experimental printing techniques, prints drawn from engravings on epoxy built on zinc plates, printing in paper by intaglio methods, aluminum foil used to draw out the image from an engraved epoxy plate and painted metal foil embosses on low relief designs,” Amenechi explains in a conversation with the gallery.
Beads work titled The Royal Family by Joe menechi
In a curatorial note, Rele states that the artist also experiments with watercolor, oil, emulsion paints, sand, and beads. The gallery discloses that Pieces of Me, is an exhibition of works spanning over a period of years that encompasses several of his artistic expressions, in their various media and with their varying themes. On the thoughts of Amenechi, Rele explains: “Amenechi takes in his environment and addresses everyday issues in his works. His most recent drawings bring to light the activities of Nigeria’s political climate in the wake of her just concluded elections with works like ‘Endless Poll Queue’ and ‘Jubilant Party Supporters’.
Four art exhibitions in about six months of its short existence, is a commendable begging for Sonariwo-led Rele Gallery. For every exhibition, from My Street Economics on March 8 – 22; Lagos Hustle & Hope, March 28, which ran for 3 weeks; and Strip, held for over a month; and the current, Amenechi’s Pieces of Me, there has been a high depth of curatorial content. The last exhibition, Strip featured 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.
“Rele has been on the mission in different capacities via art salons, installations since 2010, all of which crystallized into the formation of a gallery in February 2015,” the gallery’s mission statement reads in parts. “Rele, the space is an unprecedented, unconventional, contemporary art space that marries two symbiotic purposes: to offer first-rate art for public consumption and nurture the creators of the art, bringing the world to their work, exposing a larger, global audience to African contemporary art.”