Alex Idoko Peter on Pyrography and Liberating Africa from her Past
January 11, 2021
“I have a strong burden to create art that speaks, a craving that pushes me to depict untold hardship and pains, as well as mayhem and chaos happening around the world while lending a voice to the voiceless. These people are not literally voiceless, they simply lack the power to ‘speak’ in the public domain, and so I take it up as a duty to speak for them. In my work, I revisit ignored historical narratives, engaging mostly with themes like redemption, transformation, and the socio-political.”
These few words by Alex Idoko Peter best describes his art and engagement with pyrography, a medium that lends itself easily to fragility, uncertainty, vulnerability, change and loss—elements that describe not only the socio-political landscape in Nigeria but also echo strongly in the artist’s work and thrust.
Arguably, Peter emerged on the art scene in 2016 when he participated in Insanity at Omenka Gallery, which brought together several emerging hyperrealists in Nigeria. When asked how impactful the exhibition was on his career, how well the movement has done since then, and its progression in the next 5-10 years, he responds that the exhibition was an eye-opener, allowing him to also network and relate with the wider art world including galleries at home and abroad, as well as key players in the art market. He admitted that he has learned to create stronger and more meaningful work that draws from history and contemporary events.
Alex Peter forecasts that in the immediate future, hyperrealism would gain even more recognition in Nigeria and change the art world. Today, he is one of the few pyrography artists in the country that has captured public attention. He estimates that only a handful of artists have adopted the technique in Nigeria but sees many more doing so in time.
“This technique requires zeal and concentration, hence it is rare for artists to engage in it. I’m aware of 3 people at the moment who approach their work in this manner. However, I see many more soon as it is a unique and outstanding technique, owing to the high level of skill in its execution.”
Pyrography as an artistic mode of expression demands not only great technical ability but long hours. Peter carefully explains his technique, tools, process and the time taken to complete a reasonably sized work.
“My kind of art and technique is called pyrography. The term ‘pyrography’ basically means writing or drawing with fire. Many people refer to it as “wood burning,” because it is done on wood. However, as a hyperrealist artist, my approach is more complex and involves drawing forms on wood with fire, a razor blade, sandpaper and sometimes charcoal.
Every stage of my process is quite tasking—from how I first sketch on the wood, which I burn completely black by using a blowtorch. At this time, one can barely see what I sketched. I allow the wood to absorb the burns for days before I start etching and drawing with a razor blade and sandpaper. This process can be likened to creating highlights and different values. At a point, I use the blowtorch to burn some areas darker. The time I take to complete a work varies, depending on the complexity. It usually takes 3 weeks to a month to create a life-size piece but detailed ones require more time because the method is challenging. However, with patience and consistency, I am able to overcome challenges.”
Following a cursory look at his recent body of works, four stand out; Dissension, Lost in Yesterday, Visible Thought and Addiction.
Dissension talks about strong disagreements, contention or discords that have lingered from generation to generation. “The solutions lie in the keys above the woman’s head. Indeed, the answers abound around us but her mouth is sealed as a metaphor for the suppression of our word.”
Idoko describes Visible Thoughts as a figurative statement that conveys a message without words. “It unveils a striking balance of the mind and our abilities, irrespective of colour and gender.”
The figures have their eyes closed, signifying their deep thoughts. They communicate but can’t be heard as made visible by the light bulb—which Peter adopts as a symbol of balance, peace, greatness, agreement and oneness.
He defines Addiction in this context as “a bad habit or practice that damages, jeopardises and consequently shortens one’s life but when ceased causes trauma; it is a pathological relationship to mood-altering experience that has life-damaging consequences.” The artist lists some common examples in our society as the addiction to corruption by successive governments, the bourgeoisie and even the ordinary public.
In Lost in Yesterday, Peter attempts to assess what he calls the “African situation”—“free from oppression but caged by self”—by interrogating the past and present. “It’s been decades since the emancipation from slavery and the independence of several African countries but the questions still remain: Is Africa free from her shackles or self-enslaved? Has she gained the strength and courage to walk into tomorrow or lost herself in yesterday? Using burnt wood, a razor blade and sandpaper, I capture Africa in a confused state and self-inflicted pain—reasons why all attention is drawn to the past. This portrait compels viewers to understand that every unpleasant encounter in Africa cannot be tied alone to the ills of slavery or colonisation, because in truth, the bruises on her hands are not inflicted by anyone but the rope (pain, hatred, corruption, greed and fear), which the continent has decided to hold on to… LOST IN YESTERDAY.”
According to Alex Idoko Peter, at present, many art schools and departments in universities in Nigeria are not even aware of pyrography. This assertion informs his immediate and long-term plans to stage many exhibitions at home and abroad that will launch him onto the global art space. He hopes to draw so much attention from these that his technique will be introduced into the art curriculum in higher institutions.
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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