BETWEEN EPOCHS, CULTURES AND PEOPLES

BETWEEN EPOCHS, CULTURES AND PEOPLES

Born in 1960 in Ibadan Nigeria, Abe is a practicing architect and self taught painter, currently living in London and Salvador Bahia. After a trip to Brazil, many years ago, he fell under the spell of the magical popular arts particularly of Bahia and Pernambuco. This ignited a passion that led him to the discovery of the Voodoo arts of Haiti and the Painters of the Sacred Heart. Abe’s paintings explore colour and imaginative pictorial statements. These qualities are rooted in the traditions of expressive figurative paintings that can be found in the streets of cities like Lagos, Salvador, and Port-au-Prince adorning the sides of lorries, the walls of temples, beer parlours, love motels or advertising the services of barbers, vulcanisers, healers and other specialists.

You started off your career as an architect but took to painting after a trip to Brazil in 2007. What experience in particular inspired your new direction? 

It wasn’t a single specific incident that started me painting; it was more of an accumulation of experiences over a number of years. Of particular importance was a 3,000 kilometre drive from Recife in the north east of Brazil to São Paulo in the south of the country, over a period of two weeks with my wife and two young daughters. We marvelled at the changing landscape, enjoyed good food, experienced a degree of jeopardy and the kindness of strangers, but perhaps the most significant thing was the discovery of the orisha, which I had lost touch with since I was a boy growing up in Nigeria. It was a pleasant surprise to find them flourishing in all aspects of Brazilian life, but stronger and even more phenomenal, having formed syncretic alliances with Catholic saints in an elegant act of celestial co-operation. By the end of the journey, I had experienced a recalibration and realised that if the gods could change so could I, and this feeling found expression in painting.

Your work draws from various influences including ancient Greek and Yoruba mythology, to create a charged dialogue between epochs, cultures and peoples. How has living in London for several years also impacted on your work?

London is a special case being one of the two truly international cities in the world, and providing unique access to all cultures. Myths in all cultures serve as a tool to decode experience and they often point at the universal concerns that we all share as humans. I have chosen to live and work away from the land of my birth. This distance has cast me into a permanent state of exquisite longing and given me the privilege of being an intermediary between worlds. It is a perfect state of affairs for an artist.

You describe yourself as a “folk artist”. How well does this definition apply to your work?

I like the term folk artist for its generosity and inclusivity in embracing a wide range of possibilities and practices, as well as its implicit connections with traditions of popular culture. Categorisation of all artistic practice clearly has practical use with regard to art history, curation and marketing but it can also be very limiting, imposing constraints on the perception of an artist’s work.

In 2015, you received a nomination at the BP Portrait Awards for your work titled, The Adoration of Frida. Please tell us the inspiration behind it.  

Adoration of Frida, acrylic on board, 154 x 124 cm x2

Adoration of Frida, acrylic on board, 154 x 124 cm x2

In 2013, my work The Adoration of Frida was exhibited at the BP Portrait Awards. The painting is a debt of gratitude to an extraordinary artist whose life and work remain a source of inspiration. She was an alchemist, able to transform the base material of life into the pure gold of expression, making the deeply personal universal and synthesising traditional Mexican art forms into a powerful contemporary vocabulary. She was a force a nature, a true daughter of Oya.

How does your work titled, The Repentance of Area Boy relate to Nigeria?

Area Boy is the rather charming but pejorative term to describe a particular kind of young man who makes a living on the street with activities ranging from the purely opportunistic ‘cheeky chap rascal’ to dangerous thugs. In my opinion, these young men express something essential about the cities in which they exist. We make our area boys just like we make our politicians. They are not separate from us; they are an integral part of the societies that create them. In this regard, we are all area boys. Repentance is an act of hope and faith in the future. My painting, The Repentance of Area Boy is about agency for all of us to change.

Raising by Professor Peller 2016, acrylic on plywood

Raising by Professor Peller, 2016, acrylic on plywood

Could the reason for your choice of plywood as a ground, over more conventional supports like canvas or paper, be due to your professional background as an architect, or is there another reason?

Board painting predates canvas paintings by a few hundred years and to my mind does not carry the same exclusive cultural baggage as canvas. It is true that through my architectural practice, I gained a healthy respect for the possibilities of plywood but the fact is that I find canvas too needy as it requires a degree of coaxing and stretching necessary to perform. Plywood on the other hand, demonstrates a toughness that I find appealing. It turns up and challenges you to do your worst or your best. Plywood would beat canvas in a fight.

How permanent are your panels and what informs your style and working techniques?

With regard to performance, the stability and strength of plywood combined with the cohesion of modern acrylic paints, is a marriage made in heaven. All things being equal, they will live happily ever after. I think all artists are storytellers and the only real differences are the stories we choose to tell and the means with which we choose to tell them. I am a realist because realism can be quite magical. I do not paint from nature but try to explore the reality beyond the visible world. What interests me is to use the human form to explore a range of ideas and phenomena around our common humanity.

What is next for you in the near future?

Looking to the future, I am very excited about my collaboration with Ed Cross of Ed Cross Fine Art, who will be showing my work along with the fabulous South African artist Richard Smith at the London Art Fair in January 2017, as well as working on the possibility of an exciting project in New York next year, which will be announced soon. First, however, and most exciting is Christmas and New Year in Salvador, Brazil where I will be with loved ones in a place that means a lot to us as a family.

 

Images: Edcrossfineart.com


Oliver Enwonwu is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Omenka magazine, Director, Omenka Gallery and Chief Executive, Revilo. He holds a first degree in Biochemistry, advanced diploma in Exploration Geophysics (distinction), Post Graduate Diplomas in Applied Geophysics and Visual Art (distinction) and a Masters in Art History, all from the University of Lagos. He is the founder, Executive Director, and trustee of The Ben Enwonwu Foundation. He also sits on the board of several organizations including the National Gallery of Art, Nigeria and the Reproduction Rights Society of Nigeria. Enwonwu is also president of both the Society of Nigerian Artists and the Alliance of Nigerian Art Galleries.

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