Ngozi Schommers pictured with some of her works. Image Credit: The Artist.
BY AGWU ENEKWACHI
As we come to the end of 2019 Lagos art season (October to December), one of the artists whose work headlined the season is Ngozi Schommers. Apart from her performance at Art X Lagos, Schommers also had a two weeks showcase of her recent body of work. Agwu Enekwachi visited the exhibition titled “The Way We Mask,” at the National Museum Onikan Lagos, to understand the various handles she used in the conceptual engagement of hairstyling as a repository of personal experiences and creativity.
The Nigerian-born artist has in the last few years built an artistic career that is consistent with a modernist experimentalist approach. A German by marriage, Schommers operates studios in Bremen, Germany; Lagos, Nigeria and Takoradi, Ghana. In this exhibition curated by Wura-Natasha Ogunji, the artist reveals layers of memory, culture and identity, mixed with a wider historical, cross-cultural and contemporary loop inherent in her social realities. What is the relationship between hairstyling and mask as the title of the exhibition suggests? Both could be used as devices to change or alter one’s identity just as much as they can be used to reveal and project the wearer’s identity. The hairstyle could also be used to send messages.
Working in the avant-garde style, Schommers deliberately avoids the trappings of classification common in contemporary art practice- a situation whereby artworks are often forced into certain preconceived boxes such as feminism and colonialism and others. Instead, she is more interested in the fluid representations of her ideas. In the case of “The Way We Mask,” she chooses a floating approach to express her ideas about hair and its surrounding tangles. One of the interesting allusions, as the artist talked about her work at the exhibition is the changes that occur under the watchful patience of time, for example, Igbo males were once preoccupied with elaborate and creative coiffure similar to the women in the pre-colonial period. Over time, says Schommers, “hairstyles and peoples’ attitude’ to it have become either altered or completely disappeared due to changes in the society.” Such shifts which come about due to major cultural shifts such as migration, new forms of education, religious revivalism, as well as new or imported objects of trade and lifestyle, have wrought new hairstyles.
In following her hair trajectory narrative, Schommers says she made a journey back to where it all started for her: “I went back to look for Mama Anayo my stylist while growing up in Enugu. I had reasoned that she might be retired or late. On getting to the Under-the- story-building hair sheds at Abakpa Market, I discovered there were now mainly young hairdressers. They beckoned on me to patronize them. They told me they were ‘old hands’ who would satisfy my style demands. I was like; you can’t be the experienced hands when you are barely older than me. I told them that I was looking for my girlhood hairstylist. They asked me to check the opposite sheds, where some old hands were. So, all of a sudden, the definition of old hands changed. On getting there, I was told that Mama Anayo has retired and no longer with them.”
The fading away of Mama Anayo from the hair scene is similar to the manner that the art of hair making has remained poorly documented in Nigeria. Some beautiful styles come and go undocumented. This has led to some missing links in coiffure as a creative art form. Except for its documentation in family photo archives, postage stamps and a few comprehensive works (like a book of photographs documenting rich Nigerian hairstyles by Nigerian photographer J.D Ojeikere), I have not seen an aesthetic and conceptual exploration of hair making as an engaging art form similar to what Ngozi Schommers has done in “The Way We Mask.”
While some artists pay little or no attention to the importance of imbuing their artworks with layers of history and symbolism, Schommers likes to deepen the conversations around her subject matters by applying multiple and intersecting ideas and devices. The arrangement of the unframed artworks on the white walls and the three-dimensional works suspended from the ceiling of the exhibition space is captivating as it creates an illusion of suspended bodies in space, in a manner that evokes freedom and expression. The space and arrangement of the works of art abet visitors to seamlessly navigate the narratives expressed by the artist.
Schommers’ work comprises of detached human forms such as heads with arms detached from the torso, Portraits, hands working the hair or its ruffle, back of a woman wearing braids and similar incomplete human figures. The artist’s use of such forms as a visual device reinforces the idea of suspension in the exhibition. Among the works, two installations seem to overshadow the displays in terms of mass and spectacle. One is titled Mmanwu (Masquerade), which comprises of 47 miniature watercolour studies of various gorgeous hairstyles from the past. The images were created from “precolonial Igbo hairstyles through the archival images of Agbogho Mmuo (Maiden Spirit Mask) using internet resources and the book, ‘Among the Ibos of Nigeria’ by George Thomas Basden.” Other sources that inspired Schommers’ work include photographs from the archives of family and friends. While the second installation is made up of pieces of three-dimensional head forms wearing hairstyles made with colourful threads.
One of the forms titled “Head Under” captures the colourful flow of hair braids. It is also a commentary on the abstract colours that have become part of hair making culture in contemporary Nigerian society. Schommers “Self Portrait” is the artist’s tribute to self. She depicts herself attending to her hair- a ritual that most people, especially women go through. In what appears as the only male figure among her works, which she placed beside her self-portrait, the artist makes allusion to the hair narrative of her childhood while growing up with her brother.The boy figure represented by the artist’s brother, among other female imageries is perhaps a statement on the marginal place of males, in hair making as an art form or lifestyle. Just like she is experimental in her approach to work, Schommers combines various mediums such as watercolour, perforated paper, threads and dummies to achieve her creative ends. For centuries, the art of making hair or not, have assumed various creative and symbolic dimensions, that it has developed into a form of art. It has been written about, photographed, just as it has inspired art production like in the case of Schommers. Working under the prism of contemporary art, she deepens and extrapolates the various strands of her work making them pass through the mazes of intersecting history.
The Way We Mask like any inward-looking art is a journey forward to the past, as Ogunji wrote in her curatorial statement, “We began with a photograph of stylish women in wigs. How could they know that their image would have a place in this future, that their simple pose would inspire the markings and makings of a daughter yet-to-be-born? It is this return and remembrance that so eloquently frames the work before us now, and the work we do as artists in the world.” The art of hair making is so familiar, but taking it to an artistic realm as seen in this exhibition has enabled viewers to perceive its artistic essence in a way that it assumes the bearing of a higher artistic value. The exhibition has brought the artistic essences of hair making into a space where people engaged with it outside of the real humans who wear them. Coiffure is an art form may be less than some may agree with, but Schommers’ work confirms its veracity while advancing it as a creative idiom that is both personal and universal.
Agwu Enekwachi is an Abuja based artist and curator. He has written several reviews on the happenings in the Nigerian art scene. He holds an MFA in Sculpture and is currently a Postgraduate student in Art History at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.