|A mixed media by Juliet Ezenwa Maja-Pearce
Yesterday, Juliet Ezenwa Maja-Pearce's solo art exhibition titled 'Beyond 2018' opened at the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos, showing for six days.
An artist with close to three decades of studio practice, Ezenwa Maja-Pearce is among few active female artists in Nigeria whose works have taken a deserved spot in the country's contemporary art space. In fact, her last major solo show was held at Nike Gallery in 2012 and enhanced early this year with another one at Transcorp Hilton, Abuja, which had small collections in display.
“Over 20 paintings and works in diverse media including oil, acrylic and found objects of sorts, features in Beyond 2018, all bearing the signature of remarkable adroitness as they attest to the anguish, yearnings and aspirations of the artist", the curator of the exhibition, Mr Luciano Uzuegbu stated.
The artist explains her thoughts on the show:
"In fixing my Beyond 2018, I decided to hide in the future that I see in Nigeria, my society, as there is not much inspiration from current events in the country.
“I woke up one day and found that just listening to the radio depresses me. To keep at what I’m doing, I decided it was safer to look past the present situation, and see a bright future; a better society and time. And so I focused my mind there; that was how my creativity returned.”
Excerpts from press statement on the exhibition;
Thematically, her works engage socio-cultural issues mostly relating to ‘women rights’, ‘marriage’ and 'togetherness.’ Amongst her prominent statements challenging some of the subjugations of the female gender are paintings of (Eastern Nigerian) Igbo maiden masquerades reminiscent of Ben Enwowu’s renderings of same.
Of the masks, she contends: “I wanted to produce something retro; taking from the past and presenting it in a modern and new format. I wanted to produce something uniquely different. Of course, I studied African masks, and with regard to the ogolo or maiden Igbo masks, you cannot study it without encountering and drawing references from the master, Ben Enwonwu. In fact, you would not be faulty to say that mine is a replica of Enwonwu’s masquerades; that would be a compliment for me as a younger artist,” she remarks, while also drawing attention to the fact that she hails from a part of Delta that is Igbo and where the maiden masquerades also exist.
“However, many of my masks I have adjusted to be able to tell my story about them, for instance, assigning horns, a symbol of strength, to maiden masquerades as opposed to the chauvinistic traditional association.” This, she hopes, will radically persuade the men folk to accept that women are potential leaders, while spurring women to take up the challenge of aspiring beyond the second-fiddle position.
Also in her vibrant, colourful portraits of young girls with neat, braided hair, Juliet calls attention to the African girl-child whose rights should include a good education and so much more.
Uzuegbu notes: “It will be appropriate to observe that Juliet has participated in several UN-sponsored projects advocating the girl-child and women rights, and has become one of the strongest voices from the visual art in that campaign.”
The above figurative of (adolescent) females includes deep, muddy African colour that pays homage to Juliet’s childhood memory when she assisted her grandmother, a traditional wall decorator, in embellishing walls with Uli mud paint, an art form institutionalized by the Nsukka Art School.
In the Togetherness and Marriage series, we see traces of the unique detailing and technique synonymous with Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya’s work, one of Juliet’s influences. Here, she has used mostly off-white and less vibrant colours, and incorporated several materials to illustrate as well as provide depth and texture on the canvas. Sometimes, there are depictions of humans in ‘unbroken circles holding hands amidst busy, chaotic situations,’ as the artist advocates peace and unity. Other times, the visuals are collapsed into abstract geometric shapes with labyrinthine motifs that suggest diverse influences, one of which the artist identifies as Abdoulaye Konate, a Malian artist.
Two relatively large pieces of predominantly black and gold colours explore the concept of marriage in Africa. Titled Happy Family, they depict the father, mother and children right in the centre, surrounded by masks representing the elders in an extended family arrangement. “…it highlights the peace of an African family and how they enjoy the benefits of extended family system; so that marriage is not an isolated case of man, wife and children living alone from other relatives,” observes Juliet.
Born in Benin, Ezenwa Maja-Pearce obtained her BA in Visual Arts from Bendel State University (now Delta State University), Abraka. She is also known to have once worked as an apprentice and artist-assistant to Sam Ovraiti, a more established artist, understudying his use of brilliant colours synonymous with the Auchi School. She had her first solo exhibition in 1993, and since then has had several shows, including partnering with NGOs. Her passion for a better society drew her close to Project Alert and Echoes of Women in Africa, both of which sought to deal with domestic violence and youth development.
Initially known for her sober watercolour paintings of landscapes and women, Juliet participated in Tom Lynch’s Water Colour Rescue Workshop, and her landscape painting, Straying Goats, is published in his book, Great Watercolour Rescues. Her works have also featured in Jess Castellote’s Contemporary Nigerian Art in Nigerian Private Collections; other works have been used as book illustrations, notably Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays and A Mask Dancing, both by Adewale Maja-Pearce. She recently compiled the book, Issues in Contemporary Nigerian Art, 2000-2010.
Since 2007, she has been a regular participant at the annual Harmattan Workshop run by the Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation, and subsequently became a facilitator in the print-making section in 2012.
Juliet Ezenwa is a member of the Guild of Professional Fine Artists, the Society of Nigerian Artists, the Female Artists Association of Nigeria, Business and Professional Women International, and the Art Gallery Owners’ Association of Nigeria (organisers of Art-Expo Nigeria).
Her works have featured in several prestigious auctions in Nigeria and abroad, such as Art Auction (Modern & Contemporary) by Art House Contemporary Lagos, Transcending Boundaries, African art exhibition, London, organized by Aabru Art, and Africa Now: Contemporary Africa Art, Bonhams Auction, UK, to name a few.