|'Gentleman's Rose' (oil and acrylic on canvas, 51 X 41 inch, dated 2021), by Samuel Vittu.|
By Joseph Omoh Ndukwu
EVERY person is a half-open door leading to a room for everyone, writes Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer in his poem “The Half-Finished Heaven”. Inside all of us are rooms, rooms so vast they can hold everyone. And we possess doors that open into these rooms. An exhibition is an outward expression of the rooms within the artist, a room of all she intends to show us. A Room with All Our Things, a group exhibition by five artists—Toju Clarke, Abisola Gbadamosi, Tolulope Daramola, Paul Ayihawu, and Samuel Vittu—brings us into a room of this sort, one filled with deeply affecting things.
Joy, masculinity, insanity, and human intensity are deftly portrayed in Toju Clarke’s sgraffito paintings. Each of his subjects is presented with an immutable presence. Whether smiling or screaming or gazing out, the images are full, asserting a non-negotiable claim on the space. In Watchers (2021), three boys are shown from head to bust with contemplative faces. Each boy looks out. The boy in the centre fixes us with a sombre, harrowing gaze; the one to the right appears to be looking at something far off, and the one to the left at something closer at hand. Their gazes fill the canvas and imbue it with energy like a force field. In all of Clarke’s paintings in the exhibition, this energy is present, but more inescapably in Bipolar (2021). The agony of mind and the turbulence on the faces of the subjects leave us a little disturbed. This tension and discomfort hold us in this state of mind which many of us are, to varying degrees, sometimes caught in.
There is a similar energy in Abisola Gbadamosi’s paintings, although rendered and discharged much differently. One thinks again, though, of force fields. The lines and whorls feel like charmed circles, like charged paths. In We Are One (2021), a woman’s head (with one eye without an iris) stands prominent in a cloud of purple, mauve, brown and pink. The woman emerges out of the colours, bold and enchanting, exuding an irresistible aura. In Can You Hear Me (2021) and Can You Feel Me (2021), there are only the clouds of colours and nothing else—two works of pure abstraction. Abstract works are not empty, but they are not completely filled out either; they are filled instead in ways that leave room for the viewer to enter, for them to layer in their own perceptions. We are invited to participate in Gbadamosi’s paintings.
Portraiture has always been fascinating to painters for a number of reasons—as a measure of skill, as an exercise in mastering realistic portrayal, as a means of self-examination and reflection, and— perhaps most importantly—as a way to step into and accurately render on the face and through the body diverse emotional states. Tolulope Daramola paints portraits of ordinary people with deeply affecting moods. Gentle Reminder (2021) shows a person (whom I think is a woman) in a faded orange baseball cap painted against a green background. Her head is tilted slightly to the left and her eyes are sad. She is brooding and has a look of disillusionment on her face. On her cap is the phrase: NO FORGET. What are not to forget? Why are her eyes so sad? In Her Own Crown (2021) portrays a sombre woman in partial profile; Her arms are held around her body in contemplative silence. She is brooding as well; there is sorrow in the painting, but also tenderness. Daramola’s portraits are contemplative. There is about them a solitude that borders on sorrow. They are inward-looking, even when they peep out at us, as the subject in Fred Now Free (2021) seems to be doing, from behind a gate with a hanging padlock. This inwardness, this solitude and graveness indicate the sensibility of the artist, but they also do more: they reflect back to us—when all has been stripped bare—a veritable texture of our lives.
Paul Ayihawu's paintings share the same quality of inwardness. They echo the still depths of emotions. When we look at them, we feel something so soulful it commands silence. In Day Dreaming (2021), a boy leans against the shoulder of a woman, and she rests her face against his head—they look like brother and sister. The boy is barefoot, the woman is wearing simple slippers. They are wearing simple clothes, the woman in bright lemon, the boy in striped purple. Their posture is tired and sad and they have around their heads a cap and scarf respectively which stretch over their eyes, perhaps as a way to keep from seeing anymore what is painful, or perhaps as a way to better see and inhabit a world of dreams. What are their dreams? Why are their skins covered in scales—or armoured plates? Are they a mark of everything that has happened to them? If so, the marks do not so much scar them as make them distinct, even beautiful. Our trials may not necessarily mar us; they make us who we are; they make us beautiful. They too are part of our things.
Samuel Vittu, however, brings a lighter touch to the canvas. The animal-face subjects of his paintings float in an atmosphere of soft colours. This Side of Heaven (2021) shows a figure with a chimp’s face wearing a red shirt with a large sunflower at the centre of the chest. On his head is a pink baseball cap on which is embossed the word: EPIC. In his left hand, he is holding a pink flower, and his right is in his pocket. He looks at the camera with a smile, his eyes big and bright, clouds floating about his head. The cat-face figure in A Gentle Man’s Rose (2021) is wearing a plush brown coat, is carrying on his left arm a white Louis Vuitton bag out of which sticks a large pink rose, and has his right poised easily by his side, all in classic gentleman style. The bright soft colours of Vittu’s accentuate the comfort, ease, and confidence of the lives of the subjects in his paintings. Their faces evince hopefulness and joy, an attitude of gentle aspiration towards which we feel ourselves warm.
In A Room with All Our Things, we stand in an atmosphere of emotions we recognize, amid a host of things we warm towards like familiar faces. Yet we are kept well aware that no two faces are the same, no two experiences, no two rooms. All are different, each room with its own dynamic and aspect. But different as they are, we recognize our bodies—our different bodies—in them. They are like a room of mirrors in which we recognize ourselves reflected back to us. In the colours of others, we see shades of the colours of ourselves; we know we have experienced similar sorrows and shared common joys. Our difference does not blunt this consolation and unifying power of our shared humanity. This is why we seek the company of others, why we put ourselves in rooms with them: for the recognition and mutual affirmation, for the consolation of knowing that there are others with us, others like us.
When we stand together in a room with them, provided there is no outright hostility, we feel a sense of this interconnectedness, even if only that of occupying the same space and standing next to one another in the proximity that a room affords. It can seem almost elusive, but with enough patience—with just the right amount of stillness—we would come, quite gradually, to the realization that we are sharing this moment of our lives with each other, that these sights and mutual presences are jointly owned, an atmosphere in which we affirm each other. In such a room, we feel a little less alone. Filled with works of great intimacy, privacy, grief, agency, aspiration, and ease, A Room with All Our Things offers such a room. In it, we are presented with what we—in our more private moments—are as people.
-Joseph Omoh Ndukwu, who is a writer and editor, based in Lagos, Nigeria, wrote this for A Room with All Our Things, a group art exhibition, currently showing till December 26, 2021, at Art Pantheon, 12D Bosun Adekoya Street, Oniru, Lagos.