Me too, Mixed Media on canvas 60cm x 90cm, 2019
The face as a window into the stirrings of the human mind and the happenings in the outside world is the central idea of “Perceptions,” Helen Nzete’s first solo exhibition. Agwu Enekwachi writes from Abuja where the show held recently.
Walking through the exhibition space, one comes face to face with the quirky images created from the artist’s perceptions. The thirty paintings and mixed media pieces, that make up the body of work for this show also activated varied perceptions and responses from the audience, who cohabit the same space the artist got her inspiration. As one moves from one of Nzete’s expressive portraits to another, he observes how the artist ponders on, and confronts at the same time, the questions and dilemmas of selfhood and the inherent dynamics of society as fractals and as an entity in a flux.
The stories behind Nzete’s work are woven around identity, the duality of things and the quest to seek deeper meanings. She paints portraits of men, women, the rich and the poor, the happy, the despondent and the hapless. However, some of her images defy categorization because of the universality of the messages they convey. Thus, the faces of the characters in her paintings are as varied as the issues they express. Across her work, the multitude of issues that are spurned by the day to day existential realities of her society, are conveyed. The artist’s strategy lies in first, capturing her impressions in physical forms, before inviting the audience to complete the process by rereading them and coming up with their own perceptions.
Nzete’s work seeks to investigate the unseen aspect of life’s dualities such as the familiar and the unknown, the heard and the unheard, by searching for the missing link, as observed in the triptych “Third Side of the Coin I, II, III.” While it is conventional to speak about the two sides of a coin, the artist takes us to another realm where she deduces a “third side of the coin.” Similarly, she takes on the concept of counterbalance in her work, “Ma I (+-)” and “Ma I (-+)” by highlighting the importance of complementarity of the other side, through design antithesis. Also, in the work titled Me too, one of the central pieces of her show, Nzete, again redirects our gaze from the focus to the periphery. She says, “It is about the sexual abuse of women. You know, the Me-too movement is about older and younger ones,” but much attention is not being paid to the equally rampant cases of children abused by close family members or adults to whom they have been entrusted into their care.” The artist says that her work, speaks about the conspiracy of silence that surrounds such acts when they happen. Other titles in the show include, “Rebel I (Left Wing),” “Rebel I (Right Wing)” “The Return” “Generations I, II, III,” and “Amebo.”
Nzete was originally trained as a sculptor at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, but in this career-defining solo exhibition, she has turned more to painting and mixed-media to realize her ideas. “Since my days in art school, I have always desired to create works that have multiple intersections between aspects of art like drawing, Painting and sculpture on the same space,” says the artist. While the basic medium for the body of work in this show is oil colour, Starting from its controlled use, as seen in the monochromatic effects in the majority of her work, which is somewhat a betrayal of Nzete’s predilection for sculpture, a number of her work such as “Generations I, II, III,” “Me-too” and “Death of Culture,” actually have sculptured forms embedded in them. Some of the mixed media used in some of her work are allegorical. In another triptych titled “Third side of the coin I, II, and III,” she uses actual coins’ which were once legal tenders in Nigeria, to make commentaries on the illusion of wealth as a source of happiness. In the pieces “Unusual,” “Alter Ego,” and “Identity II,” Nzete taps into the rich colours of Ankara fabrics-a material with a global history but which has been adopted locally as identity apparel of many cultures in Nigeria and Africa in general. In the piece “Identity III,” the artist, using a shattered mirror creates a human face that is without features. But the work comes alive as you look into it. The percipient’s image is broken according to the reflections of the mirror pieces. The multiple projections remind us about the numerous identities that the media project to us, which have caused people’s identities to become altered and divided like the mirror and its reflections.
As the show “Perceptions” winds up, Nzete’s work has led us to encounter fresh layers of meaning, while communicating in a universal language that strikes a chord in our common humanity. To do this, in these contemporary times, the artist reached back to old Africa where the head was considered the most important part of the body. “In our culture, the head is the king that sits atop the body. It bears the human face which expresses our thoughts, even without words. I see the human face as a storehouse of expressions which enables me to say what I want to say,” says Nzete.
The Exhibition was held between 1st May-8th May 2019 at Bouygues Construction Club House, Jabi Life Camp, Abuja.
Agwu Enekwachi (MFA) is an Abuja based artist and culture writer.