Voices and visions from the East

Royalty, wood, 2018 by Odo Melford


This exhibition is the second of its kind to be organised by the National Gallery of Art (NGA) at its Enugu station. As its name implies, it comprises works of artists of diverse qualification and background living and working in the east. With over one hundred art pieces in assorted media, the exhibition is a composite statement on the quality of art produced in the east, with many art departments in almost all the higher institutions scattered across the region. It also draws attention to the place and role of the National Gallery in Enugu and Nigeria, with the harsh social conditions that define our present. The exhibition’s significance lies in its professional and social relevance. In their social commitment, most of the works demonstrate that in times like this, art’s salve becomes most useful and pertinent both as survival tonic and antidote against the ugly rhythms of a writhing land.

In this regard, we must appreciate the inner essences of most of the works, such as Philip Obiukwu’s Fulani Boy and Survival, as well as Chijoke Emmanuel’s Ite Ego. Beyond their simplistic outlook, they are reflections of some of our glorified jungles more commonly known as cities, where the only goal is survival and yet, where only the fittest may survive in the hopeless rat-race that goes on forever. To this extent, works like Samson Stephen’s Daily Living and Family Support, Richard Elekwa’s Letter from Benue, and Francis Ejiofor’s Iru Afia take us on a solemn tour beyond their outer forms to the inner corridors of essence where metaphor and meaning comingle. At this hermeneutical level, they become emblems of the cyclical hope and impediments of our time.

From another perspective, the exhibition is an obvious eye-opener, a pointer to the richness of our art traditions that are yet untapped for the benefit our economy and, indeed, and alternative, creative economy.

Talking about creative industries/economy, the sculptural furniture by Melford Odo, stands out boldly as a vivid example of art that advances entrepreneurial goals, while also solving practical problems beyond the frontiers of aesthetics. Like a few other works in the collection, Odo’s work aligns itself with some mundane needs and thus reiterate that art is not always an elitist or esoteric pastime.

Beyond such functional pieces, many others embody diverse thematic visions. Indeed, the exhibition is a compelling convocation of ideas, as artists grapple with perennial issues of the day in their works. In other words, apart from affirming the artists’ professional ability, the works betray their capability to respond to the vagaries of their environment, as the works represent possible data on which the realities of our society could be confronted.

For instance, the works of Bona Ezeudu and Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi reflect issues of heritage and modernisation. While Ezeudu’s exploration of the maiden mask in Agbogho Mmoo and Ikenga strike chords of nostalgia and melancholia about threatened and vanishing traditions, Ikwuemesi’s So Long a Letter takes us back to the chambers of memory and confronts us with neglected graphic data, namely, the uli ideogram, which can still find a place in contemporary design ideas, including painting, sculpture, architecture, visual communication, among others.

Along with some other works such as Philip Obiukwu’s Dancers and Chidi Ewa’s Garri Processors, these works are some of those few which broker the important conversation between generations. They enjoin us to return to history and pick up the pieces as they may be useful in coming to terms with the present as the important crossroads between the past and the future. Other works that celebrate aspects of our culture include Dennis Ani’s Spirit of the Drum, Moses Ibanga’s Four Market Days, Ukie Ogbonnaya’s Ada, as they present culture as a quotidian need, and not as luxury or vestiges of pristine times.

As if in agreement with Chinua Achebe, the artists generally affirm the futility of art for art’s sake as a “deodorised piece of dog shit”. After all, as the old proverb says, can a person whose house is on fire afford the luxury of rat chase? Thus the works represent and re-enact life and society to us, with the central place of the artist fully reflected. Not only does the exhibition provide food for thought in its social and professional significance; it encourages artists in these parts to rise above the challenges of the moment and re-engage their vocation with re-kindled optimism.

Excerpts from a paper of same title by Prof. Ikwuemesi of the Department of Fine & Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka in the brochure, “Eastern Convocation of Contemporary Expressions”- Second National Gallery of Art International Art Fair, Enugu

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