Sunday 6 September 2015

With Portraits, Sarkis Is Back To The Island

By Tajudeen Sowole

Lebanese artist born in London M.H. Sarkis grew up in Lagos Island, southwest of Nigeria. But her eagerness to express herself about the environment outside confinement of the elitist or aristocrat upbringing seems to have materialised in her artistic ebullience over a decade after.

A painting I Beg, Make U No Cry by MH Sarkis
Currently based in the U.K., Sarkis returned to Lagos a few weeks ago, armed with a solo art exhibition titled Back to the Island, which opened a few days ago, will show till September 14, 2015 at Quintessence Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos. Despite having her base in London after leaving Nigeria over five years ago to study art, Sarkis could not shake off her formative years in Lagos, as 'Eko-nostalgia' peppers her works.

Perhaps, her experience growing up in Lagos Island - one of Nigeria's oldest spots of multiculturalism - has influenced the portraiture choice of artistic focus. However, the portraits, largely of unknown persons, representing the memory of young Sarkis growing up in Lagos and mature sense of articulation, also inspire her works that represent people from other parts of the world. Some of the works viewed ahead of the exhibition indicate the texture of Sarkis' view of diverse human races.

From Lagos to Juba, in South Sudan, as well as Middle East, Sarkis makes her canvas a convergence for faces of the world.

"Life and the art that I have seen here in Lagos, particularly, in my formative years, have inspired me a lot," she told select guests at Quintessence Gallery. "I like the Ife head sculptures and a lot of carvings, crafts that I grew up with going to stores and galleries."

Her choice of painting, using acrylic, she explains, provides alternative ways of expressing some of the crafts and sculptures that energised the creative instincts in her. In one of the works, ‘Health Check,’ an impression of a nude female, Sarkis’ palette strokes, wrapped around the figure, create a depth of touch that enhances the capture to come alive from the flat surface of painting.

Nudity, for most artists, is a 'faster' way to get the attention of admirers. But for Sarkis, ‘Health Check’ has nothing to do with sensuousness; rather, "it’s about encouraging women to do regular check of their body."

 Even within the scope of portraiture, Sarkis still finds quite a lot of space to add abstraction, so suggests ‘I Beg, Make U No Cry,’ a theme that confirms the artist's familiarity with the Lagos social circle. She recalled, "growing up here, I thought there was a gap between the rest of the community and me." So, by painting themes such as these, she allows the real liberalism in her to exhale.

Outside the focus on Lagos, some of her themes include ‘Jarawa Women,’ from Plateau State, North Central, Nigeria; ‘Ngin,’ a traditional South Sudan culture and tribute to ‘Senegalese Soldiers,’ among the foreign forces killed during colonisation of Lebanon.

  Having drawn so much from the local scene in Lagos, she has quite a memory of some of the artists whose work added to her list of inspirations. One of such was the late renowned Osogbo artist, Twins Seven Seven. "While our themes are somewhat different, I felt attracted to Twins Seven Seven's relief work in wood; I wondered how I could translate a relief-type image through the versatility of paint."

Sarkis’ bio states: she is a painter born in the U.K. to Lebanese parents, and was less than a year old when she moved to Lagos and later moved to London for her undergraduate studies, where she now lives and works. Her painterly practice is primarily concerned with contemporary portraiture that is tinged with this tri-cultural upbringing, and the resulting feelings of restlessness that continue to this day.

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