From the country’s recurring nationhood challenge, every citizen has so much to highlight. The artist Ibe Ananaba does too. But with contrasting dazzle of beauty and glamour on canvas.
Though, fine art, as a medium for activism or radical narrative, most times, gets the message caged or lost in aesthetics, for Ananaba, an artist whose work emits beauty, the task of making a statement with painting on canvas without losing his signature, is like bringing the beauty and the beast together for dinner.
After being flooded daily with Nigeria’s troubles via the mass media as well as through some conceptual art expressions, you’ll think visiting Ananaba’s Long Drawn Shadows at Art Twenty One, Eko Hotel and Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos will provide an escape from disturbing news.
Not so, as works on the walls – floor too – send messages that nobody can pretend over.
Specifically, in Long Drawn Shadows, Ananaba picks fuel scarcity across Nigeria as a pedestal on which he releases his anger. He pours his venom on the general retrogression that has coloured the country’s narrative landscape. It is the central focus of his show.
A set of watercolour paintings, in small pieces, leads the viewer into the main space. It is like an appetiser. Next on the right is a line up of rubber containers often used for fuel storage in this apart of the world. One thought will come across to the viewer: What exactly are these lined-up yellow rubber containers all about? Are they painting or just creative excesses?
As installation, the rubber containers, known in local parlance as ‘Jerry cans’, serve the purpose of drawing attention or complementing(?) the beautiful paintings on the walls.
Populated by youths, the canvases revisit those moments when cities across Nigeria groaned under the yoke of fuel scarcity.
However, artists, like most Nigerians, are not too different from the country’s policy makers and leaders who are reactive rather than proactive. They always get stimulants for concept and contents from tragic events rather than pre-empting negative things when the signs appear.
“I usually feel like the most affected person whenever the fuel crisis happens,” Ananaba interrupts his visitor’s thought. He recalls having to “close down practically” each time there is fuel scarcity in search of fuel. This agony of the artist is expressed in works such as, ‘Waiting for Infinity’, ‘Give Us This Day Our Daily Fuel’, ‘Forced Crown and ‘Cabals In Everyone’.
From one set of painting to another, the stories replicate, people, mostly youths, in distress, searching for fuel.
And the artist’s wizardry in control of colours and hues that capture scenes of notorious yellow dominance resonates loud enough. In fact, yellow is the star colour that leads Long Drawn Shadows of recurring agony in the tragic narrative of Nigeria’s fuel crisis. Interestingly, the Nigerian paradox of beauty in the midst of ugliness is best captured in Ananaba’s creative use of colours that diffuse the ugly narratives.
In reality, the texture of visual expressions on socio-economic and political issues should not be left in the exclusive space of ‘junk’ objects as art. With his rendition of splendour on canvas, Ananaba challenges artists’ general mentality of ‘the uglier, the stronger the message’ in visual activism.
Ananaba, an artist in his mid-career, is not new to the Nigerian question. “This show is my response to our system that has never worked right from the period I was a kid,” he said.
The artist is undoubtedly one of the contemporary artists whose pallets are figural in identity. He takes his figures straight into your view, most times, in full size. And even when the figures are in halves, his rendition creates life-size effect, sometimes, with illusion of stepping out of the canvas.
More contextual are Ananaba’s subjects that radiate youthful aura, particularly, appropriating fashion and style in any topic.
Are these contents deliberate?
“I don’t know if they are deliberate… but I subconsciously accumulate some things all the time that eventually form part of me,” he said.
Indeed, traces of Ananaba’s evolving style of glamour ‘razzmatazz’ on canvas was noticed when he showed at Rele Gallery last year. As that exhibition crept into the discussion, he confirmed, “after my last show at Rele, I found myself in mental state of fashion.” He must have thought of expanding it so soon. “But here, I bring it to the socio-cultural issue we face regularly in Nigeria.”
Yes, the themes reflect the artist’s traumatic experience of a Nigerian, who grew up at the wrong period of the country’s history. Such works include, ‘Faded Memory’, set of monochrome figural paintings about reminiscence; series of nudes in both monochrome and colour titled
‘These Houses Are Not For Sales’, about child trafficking and prostitution, and a kind of respite titled, ‘Strength From Within’ in drawings on paper.
As much as Art Twenty One is still one of the most ideal spaces – almost purpose-built for creative contents – illumination control, sometimes poses, curatorial challenge.
For example, works mounted close to the windows were over lit from the natural light, thereby paralyzing the effect of the spot lighting.