The colours of the ‘paintings’ in Uzoma Anyanwu’s recent exhibition in Abuja could easily be mistaken for the conventional mediums of oil colours or acrylic. The artist has chosen to explore the rich colours of Ankara fabrics to express himself, and this has given him a unique voice in the Nigerian art space.
Ankara is a colourful cotton material that is commonly worn in the west Africa subregion as well as other parts of Africa, where it has been adopted and used as traditional apparels. But its history is as local as it is global. Initially made in the Netherlands, borrowing from the batik prints technique of Indonesia, Ankara (also known as African prints or Dutch wax) production has spread to England and some countries in Africa and most recently to China. After its first production, it was in the coast of West Africa that the Dutch makers of the textile product found market for it and it has become assimilated by the various cultures of Africa and beyond as both traditional and contemporary fashion material. It is this overlapping international (hi)story of the Ankara fabric that Anyanwu explores in his work and it is part of what continues to draw attention to his work.
UZOMA ANYANWU, Beyond Imagination (Mixed Media)
On his discovery of the colourful fabrics as a medium, Uzoma says, “My story with Ankara fabrics started from my childhood. My mother is a seamstress, also my elder sister and some of my cousins are in the tailoring business. I was often excited by the rich palette of colours and motifs that the Ankara cut-out pieces presented.” But Anyanwu’s love for what would become his dedicated artistic medium ended in its admiration as he did not have any serious purpose for them as a young boy.
After he enrolled to study art at the University of Port Harcourt, his path would cross with two important Nigerian contemporary artists. “As an undergraduate, one ofour lecturers, Ike Francis exposed us to the nonconventional media of painting in contrast to the traditional media prevalent in most art schools. He showed us his works which were fashioned from detritus.” Anyanwu started out, experimenting with colourful papers. “Coming to Lagos for my Industrial attachment in the studio of George Edozie, I gained immensely from his experience in working with fabrics and skill became sharpened.” But one incident defined Anyanwu’s choice of medium. “Returning homeon one occasion, I saw a heap of assorted colourful cut-out fabrics, this encounter re-established my childhood memories of the medium and stirred in me, the realization of its potential as an artistic medium.” Anyanwu adds that with this, he knew he had found his bearing and identity-from where he could express himself and explore further as an artist.
Apart from the several group exhibitions he has participated in, Beyond Imagination is Anyanwu’s second solo exhibition and in all his shows, his creative use of the Ankara fabric and other repurposed mediums have earned him critical acclaim. In his Beyond Imagination art show, as in his previous exhibitions, Anyanwu’s paintings are mostly of human faces. There are usually portraits of both known and imaginary people. These faces, the artist says, are representative of universal human faces and not necessarily of Africans as most of his work depict. On his fascination for faces, Anyanwu says, “the human face is like a canvas that carries messages of joy, frustration, courage, beauty, suffering and more. It is these wide-ranging emotional values of the face that I explore in my work.”
The body of work in the exhibition is divided into collage and woven pieces. Some of them include Beyond Imagination, Yellow Scarf Sisters, Boss Lady, The Rebirth, Ije Uwa and 1620 passports. As a photographer Anyanwu builds on the images of his models, this can be seen in the Yellow Scarf Sisters, and Beyond Imagination. The work titled The Rebirth is woven with pieces from denim trousers and cotton shirts. It is a composition showing the white silhouette of the artist’s childhood image superimposed on the black shadow portrait of his adult image. It is a statement on how the memories of childhood, sweet or bitter, live forever inside us.
UZOMA ANYANWU, The Rebirth (Mixed media)
The work Ije Uwa (The Journey), a mixed media piece, is among the series of works the artist describes as his interventions or channel of engaging on current issues and societal discourses. Part of this work is woven with the imported pieces of second-hand denim fabrics cut out in the process of amending them. This, the artist says, “is my take on how we keep depending on cheap foreign articles, aids and supports that we can even do without. The artist sees this in the light of how Africa has always been gazed at as a dumping ground.
Beyond Imagination, a solo Art Exhibition held between 30th Jan- 8th February 2019 at Bouygues Club House, Bouygues Estate, Life Camp, Alex Ekwueme Way, Plot 5093 Jabi, Abuja, Nigeria.
Agwu Enekwachi (MFA) is an art teacher, culture writer based in Abuja.
This article was originally published in NewTelegraph Newspaper.