Unveiling New Nigeria by Durotimi Babatunde. Acrylic on Canvas
At a juried four-man art exhibition titled Instinct and Expression, organized by the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), Abuja Chapter, works created around the overlapping notions of instinct and expression were shown. Held between July 3 to 7, 2019, at Green-Grub Art Gallery, Maitama, the show was in keeping to the society’s tradition of annual exhibitions as a vital part of its objectives and existence as a body. Founded in 1963 (with Abuja chapter established in 1992), SNA has often held group exhibitions where between 30 and 100 member-artists are featured as the need may arise. Instinct and Expression is a departure from such society’s large-group exhibition tradition.
The current exhibition format which favours a lesser number of artists showing at shorter intervals, is against the society’s standard annual shows, requiring from 50 to 100 member-artists, was initiated by Abuja SNA’s current leadership. Four artists namely Cliff Agba, Chike Emembo, Babatunde Durotimi, Oloninyemi Kolapo were selected. While SNA’s larger exhibitions are often more inclusive and accommodating of the varied styles of its members, a smaller show like this allows for theme-focused exhibitions. It is on this note that the theme of this exhibition seeks to explore the concept of instinct which supposes that artists retained deeply ingrained ideas of creativity imprinted in their genetic and cultural memory, while also acknowledging expression as the result of artists’ active exchange with their environments.
Many artists have been attracted to the exploration of unconventional theories about instinct in art production. An example of this is Matisse’s teacher, Gustave Moreau, who forbade his students from direct copying while stressing the necessity for artists to reach inside themselves for the source of their creativity. The expected outcome is originality which may appear either as a deeply individual consciousness unique to the artist or as a collective one, drawn unconsciously from the shared historical experience of his ‘tribe.’
Expression overlaps both instincts and learned behaviour. Learned behaviour is discovered through observation and learning or trial and error. The expression is not limited but astir and in these contemporary times, has become increasingly reborn and resurgent. As Artists we have the deep inborn individual consciousness to create works of art, and so does the outside influence inspire and motivate us. However, the expression takes place whether by instinct or learned behaviour. Both often compliment or nourish each other while expression overlaps the two. If the artist’s creative endeavour is wholly by instinct, it means he must depend on his impulses to paint or sculpt. But one must acknowledge that the artist does not exist in a vacuum as he is influenced by factors around him. Factors such as artistic traditions, media, conventions, pedagogy, the existential realities of his society, acting in various combinations evolve into outcomes that we perceive as the expressions of artists. The concepts of instinct and expression should not be seen as extreme positions on a scale.
Looking at the works by the exhibiting artists, one may argue that Olorunyemi Kolapo, is the closest to qualify as an artist who works by his instincts because he was self-taught. His art practice only started after he graduated from the university where he studied Physics. But on a journey of self-rediscovery, he started practising art, relying on his “instincts” to guide him. But Kolapo’s artistic journey is not totally driven by instincts as one may assume since he is known to have passed through workshops, apprenticeship programmes and art residencies to hone his skill over the years.
So, Kolapo is equally inspired by his environment as we see in his artistic works. Giving insight into the origin of his signature women-with-elongated-necks series, he says “I got inspired by Fela’s song titled “Lady,” which speaks of the psychologically ever-young, confident and aggressive woman. Through these forms, I try to show the desire of most women to look young and beautiful. You may have noticed that even at 50 or more years, women are still conscious of beauty and the attention it gives them.” Kolapo explains that he applies physics concepts in relating to his artistic ideas. For example, he uses the term thermal expansivity in Physics, which states that when you heat a body and apply force, expansion takes place, to explain the pressure that the neck undergoes when metal rings are piled on it to get it elongated in some cultures.
Kolapo’s work is mainly portraiture and through it, he tells a lot of stories. “For me, it is not about representation, but a medium to enable me to communicate certain messages, so I distort my images in a way that speak my inner truth while taking cognizance of the people and issues around me,” he says.
Chike Emembo is one of the few artists wholly dedicated to art inspired by the bible which he renders in both detailed realism and symbolism, all couched in his Christian message. But in his recent body of work, Emembo distils his forms by painting more of symbolic lines and colours instead of apparent images. A consistent symbol in Emembo’s work is the headphone-which the artist uses as a metaphor for hearing and listening. According to him, “Each time I use it to suggest the importance of listening to God’s word, my wife would ask rhetorically, “have they not heard?” But the artist believes that the message should continue to be spread. Emembo’s recent abstract approach to his genre of painting is like the development of a vernacular from a language that he has been speaking for many years.
He says “it started two years ago when I decided to push the boundaries of my style. I had realized that I needed to innovate to tell my stories in a freer mode that is outside but not too far away from the boundaries of my usual style of representation, which some regard as illustrative. My recent style is like communicating differently with my usual message.” Emembo says that although his new genre is a part of his faith comes by hearing series, it affords him a wider audience because his messages have become open to more interpretation.
Cliff Agba’s work examines the concept of time on humans and how we are affected by it as we play around it. According to the artist, “in this part of the world, we often talk about wasting time, while in actual sense it is not time that wastes but human beings and opportunities. According to Agba, “we would say, There is no time! We have no time, yet people often find time to eat, gossip and play. So Agba’s work speaks to time and urgency, by pointing us to our collective obliviousness of the idea of time, not only as a tool for periodization but also as a measure of ourselves as human beings.
Durotimi Babatunde’s work is full of colour play. He first breaks down the layers of his colours on his canvasses and reconnects them again as a process for creating his pictures. The idea of breaking and connecting as a concept, explains the artist, “is a metaphor with which I deal with the socio-political conditions which often leave its citizens on the boundary between fracture and harmony.
In Babatunde’s work titled “Unveiling a New Nigeria,” he shows interest in the new Nigeria of his dream against the nation’s perceived identity in a seeming time capsule. In the old Nigeria, the artist portrays afflictions such as unrest, tribalism and nepotism, extrajudicial killings, and general insecurities in the land. The painting depicts Nigerians pulling down the old order to reveal the promised future that Nigerians expect- a peaceful society that respects and values everyone equally, without discrimination in access to the resources of the land.
Written by Agwu Enekwachi, an Abuja based artist and curator.