|Anthony Azekwoh with two of his sculptures from the exhibition There Is A Country.|
BEFORE 2020, Nigerians had a common date in every October 1, Independence Day anniversary to reflect on the country's nationhood challenges. But since three years ago, October 20, 2020 seemed to be a sacrosanct date in the calendar of some Nigerians as artist, Anthony Azekwoh's protest art got its inspiration from the controversial part of the 10th month.
Azekwoh's adventure, in search of justice and fairness came as his solo art exhibition titled There Is a Country, shown at Yenwa Gallery, Muri-Okunola Street, Victoria Island, Lagos. Curated by Ugonna Ibe, There Is a Country captured quite a number of mixed bag of Nigeria's history, including parts of the country's civil war narratives. The artist revisited the past, highlighted subsisting complexity of Nigeria and syncopated the cry of the voiceless in an exhibition that nearly created competing contents between art and politics. However, the art contents won the contest, in which Azekwoh's dexterity of expression in boldness asserted his energy of patriotism.
About seven hours after President Bola Ahmed Tinubu delivered his October 1 Independence Day Anniversary speech, art lovers started trickling into the 3-floor space of Yenwa Gallery to feel the thoughts of Azekwoh's There Is A Country'. About three weeks after, specifically, October 20, some Nigerians marked the 3rd anniversary of the controversial Lekki Toll Gate shootings which marred the #EndSars protests of the same month, in 2020. As an exhibition that created a tribute to the Lekki Toll Gate crisis, There Is A Country' was a frontal challenge to leadership, within the context of protest art. Azekwoh's thoughts also highlighted Nigeria's recurring challenges and complex future.
On this afternoon of the private viewing, the guests that populated Yenwa Gallery reflected the changing textures of art appreciation scene of Lagos, as well as the emotive side of the exhibiting artist's chosen themes. The private viewing was largely populated by art enthusiasts under the 40s age groups, as the opening asserted the fact that the demography of Lagos art scene is on transit from one generation to another. Azekwoh's brushstrokes of sweeping through the past, invoking emotion of subsisting youth energies, seemed to have found an enthusiastic audience as the guests viewed works on display.
On the second floor of the gallery, the artist was more combative with art of explosive contents that may keep the flame of Nigeria's patriotism flaring. Such works included 'Flag', with a mildly red-stained beneath the canvas of green white green; '...And Proud', depicting a fiercely looking lady's face planted on macho body, against white stripes on green; and 'Nowhere', bold torso exposure of a woman, narrating lack of safety to protect women against sexual violence. These and other artworks on display captured the artist's thoughts about perennial development deficit of a country, despite being endowed with huge resources. "Azekwoh's work serves as an artistic proclamation, grappling with the new realities and unyielding hope of a young generation of Nigerians," parts of Ibe's curatorial note stated.
If anyone was still in doubt of the Nigerian youth energies' connection with the country's rich creative past, Azekwoh's 'There Is A Country' provided a window to the reality. His works on display included a shift from protest art contents into tribute for one of Nigeria's greatest modernists, Yusuf Grillo. In the piece titled Dibia, Azekwoh appropriated Grillo's blue hues, generating poetic strokes of modern and contemporary generational connection in one piece of painting. The artist disclosed how he and the curator often had "conversations that artists have with their predecessors," which he argued, are not exactly common in Nigeria. "It felt right then to make this painting after the late, great Yusuf Grillo." Stylised and textured in the form of Grillo's signature of blue hues, the title of the painting also created curiosity. Who is Dibia? "This is Dibia, the man who saw everything from the beginning of time to the end, and cried," Azekwoh explained.
The more one's attention struggled to concentrate on art, the further the political contents of the exhibition kept weighing on the scale of appreciation during the opening. Azekwoh's There Is A Country, like other creative works of Nigeria's post-independence – inspired by activism – punctured indifference. Those fences that liberals used as defence, according to There Is A Country, have collapsed. Artists too should 'Sorosoke', perhaps across different political viewpoints, was the message from most of the artworks on display.
-Tajudeen Sowole is a Lagos-based writer on The Arts.