Nigerian contemporary figural realism

Idit Toledano

The last two decades have witnessed the arrival of contemporary African art into the global arena, a course that necessitates a rethinking of Western perspectives on “high” culture produced by the “Other” from the Global South. For a long time the Western hegemonic gaze tended to refrain from acknowledging the plurality of African cultures, their diverse artistic expressions and the fact that African artists are in constant negotiation with not only Western techniques and styles but also with their own past, previously relegated to the margins of that same arena. 

As a result, African modern and contemporary art is often still conceptualized in terms of the Eurocentric art-historical discourse and therefore considered as inhabiting provincialities of Western various artistic milestones and references. However, more and more art scholars realize, as demonstrated by the Nigerian artists in this exhibition, that the subjective experiences and the particularities of each artist and their deep connection with local artistic traditions and stylistic sophistication produce a multilayered cultural-artistic landscape. 

Today, art is one of the fastest growing sectors in Nigeria’s economy thanks to government aid, banking investments and an emerging circle of local art consumers with its unique dispositions. The roots of this flourishing artistic ambience lays in the country’s rich traditions, consequently reconstructing Nigerian art history is required, not so much in order to understand the art of yesterday as to appreciate how it shapes the less familiar landscape of contemporary art.

The most famous and appreciated artistic genre from what is today Nigeria is associated with the Kingdom of Benin, from the late 12th century up to today. In addition, some of the earliest examples of sophisticated sculpture in Africa south of the Sahara come from the Nok culture (900-300 BCE), mainly clay and terracotta life-size figure sculptures. Moreover, an incredible body of artwork in stone, terracotta, copper, and brass was made in the Yoruba city of Ife from the latter part of the first millennium CE to the 15th century, unique in Africa for the degree of naturalism it portrays. 

 Understanding the genealogy of contemporary Nigerian art also requires consideration of the legacy of the colonial condition and the politics of colonial education, especially when discussing trends of hyperrealism manifested in this group exhibition. The British colonial administration encouraged the establishment of art academies as part of empire’s civilizing zeal, but only insofar as it aimed at giving Africans basic technical training rather than profound cultural literacy. Courses in humanities and social science were a risk of generating critical thinkers among the colonized subjects; thus jeopardizing the colonial project. 

For the same reason, colonial educators who taught in the newly established art academies in Nigeria, avoided sharing with their students current ideas of the avant-garde prevailing in the West. This approach too, was driven by the racial perception of the African’s cultural inferiority and inability to meaningfully appreciate or master the sophisticated fine art traditions and practices of Europe. Consequently, in the 1960s, during the decade of independence, when teaching was conveyed to local people, postcolonial modernist art was shaped by an attempt to demonstrate African artistic ability, defiant of colonialist snobbery and its racism, thus breaking with the artistic traditions of their ancestors. 

Insisting on the mastery of (Western) techniques; figural realism and illusionistic landscape painting, was nourished by the belief in right of  Africans  to determine their relationship with the art of their past and to assert their freedom to establish and negotiate the terms of their engagement with Western art. Moreover, the engagement with hyper-realistic techniques never shifted Nigerian artists from portraying their personal, social and political concerns. 

Ayo Filade’s striking figurative series ‘Ise Owo Mi’ (Work of my hands), for example, focuses mainly on  hands, not merely as the key feature of the body in producing things, but mainly in their ability to express his concerns with conflicts, separation and rupture, and the rising tensions individuals have to face in contemporary times. Oscar Ukonu, likewise, entitles his work afrorealism explaining that both his techniques and iconography try to provoke thought and engagement in his viewers. In his work Give Us This Day Our Daily Breath Ukonu explores black identity referring to Black Lives Matter events in the U.S. With his remarkable drawing techniques Ukonu depicts the actual process of breath as an attempt to highlight the fear young African-American men experience in the African diaspora. Fatola Israel proclaims that truth and reality are the foundational principles that guide his creative process. By replicating reality to its finest details he delivers the essence of the stories he deals with in his paintings. These stories are always from his immediate environment with which he intends to provoke emotions in his viewer in order to encourage thoughts and actions. 

Anthony Ugbo uses his hyperrealism to voice the evils of this world. He drives his subjects mainly from his personal archive of life experience, hoping the stories behind them will be heard. In Painful Pleasure Ugbo tells us an agonizing story of a young girl, victim to her father’s sexual harassment by using hyperrealism to depict her penetrating gaze that does not let go of the viewer. In a similar manner, Olatundun Bimbo, asks us to be in full awareness to our society and surroundings. With an artistic style he calls alphabetism in which he uses meaningful words and sentences related to the depicted topic, he preaches for unity, peace, faith, freedom and more. His choice of red and blue is conscious as well; it has roots in Yoruba culture where blue has a positive meaning and reflects heavenly and peaceful associations, while red symbolizes aggression and danger. 

The tendency of figural realism is evident in art academies all over Africa and subsequently has become commonplace taste, also matching the requirements of the local art market. Nigerian contemporary figural realism should be seen, therefore, not necessarily as a rejection of modernity and contemporaneity. Rather, it articulates a shift to geographically and stylistically off-center artistic production, and the rejection of monolithic international trends of artistic expression. Accepting this detour challenges our conventional understanding of contemporaneity, crystallizing the essence of contemporary art: a constant refusal to unitary of practice and discourses, a rebellion against monoculturalism.