Emmanuel Unaji: Perception and Reality

Emmanuel Unaji: Perception and Reality

Emmanuel Unaji is a Nigerian multimedia artist based in London. Combining painting, drawing, collage, and fashion design, Unaji’s style is often described as rebellious and bold. Inspired by the fashion industry, he frequently uses fragments of magazine photographs to which he adds painted, drawn, or sculpted elements. Blurring the boundaries between fine art and fashion design, he combines mixed media works with other practices to create wearable art in addition to traditional paintings and portraits. In this recent interview with Omenka, he discusses the representation of pop culture in his art and his forthcoming exhibition.

 You are participating in the exhibition The Next Wave: The Power of Authenticity and Self-Validation by the House of African Art (HAART). Kindly tell us more about the works you’ll show.

I’m excited to be a part of such an unapologetically honest exhibition. I’ll be showing a combination of framed mixed media works and wearable art pieces. The works I’m showing are part of an ongoing series of works that dissect representation/information and attempt to make sense of this fast-paced world.

Perception and reality feature prominently as concepts in your work. What informs this?

The rate at which social media is informing/misinforming people’s opinions is a cause for concern. It warps one’s perception of life, which ultimately affects one’s reality. The ability to cipher through mass media is an underrated skill.

What inspires your creative process?

I’m gravely moved by the miscommunications from mass media. My mixed media style is an exploration of the information and images we are bombarded with on a daily basis. Imagine a photograph as a lie and the drawn/painted element as a search for inner truth. Inspiration is drawn from the zeitgeist, the pulse of a forever-evolving time. As an artist, I’m compelled to find meaning in a world with a fleeting attention span.

Your work strongly interfaces with pop culture reference and icons. What do you think has been the impact of pop culture on contemporary art?

I think pop culture is the eye candy of society; counter-culture is the true, gritty face of contemporary art. The torn faces in my work are trying to encourage people to look beyond the surface. Pop culture is often the championing or exploitation of something “cool.” Dig deeper, and we’ll always find that “cool” movement in its rawest form, protesting and expressing itself. The use of pop culture references and icons in my work is an attempt to communicate and dissect the reality of that person’s life in a way that we as a society can learn from. It’s easy to get caught up in the glamour of pop culture, but what does it change?

Emmanuel Unaji, Adam and Eve, 2018, mixed media on paper, 60×80 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and HAART

What impact, if any, does your Nigerian heritage have on your oeuvre?

A massive impact. Despite being born in London, my siblings and I have been raised to know home is where the heart is. My mum being honoured with a chieftaincy title in Otukpo-Icho, Benue State, was surreal. To see the tradition and culture of Idoma people was greatness. They named her “Ogigo Omebe Kainoye,” meaning “a positive image maker for young women”—a role model.

It’s a symbolic name to us because, as her children, our artwork is an investigation of positive and negative imagery in the media.

People are talking more about Fela now, but we grew up with my mum blaring his music! That true rebellious spirit is in our nature without a doubt.

Being Idoma has also inspired the red and black colouring for some of our clothing pieces. When the time is right, we will exhibit in Nigeria in the near future—we must stand well.

A single tear, often in the form of a noose, appears frequently in your work. What significance does it have

Glad you noticed! It represents people being psychologically lynched! I fear the pursuit for fame and glamour is more important than education. Education and opportunity are the foundation and fundamental elements for any effective community. Ignorance leaves people hanging blissfully. The tear is to mourn the ignorance that holds back the progression of a people or a generation.

Your work can be described as a collage of realistic photographs and caricaturist drawing with satirical undertones. How do you select subjects for these portraits? Does their status convey additional meaning?

I like that description! (laughs) Selecting subjects is arguably the most important part, and I often try to research and learn as much as possible regarding them. The subject choices are always made in relation to a particular issue in society that I’m trying to address in conjunction with the recognisable nature of celebrity.

It’s not so much about their status, but more about the symbolic process of dissecting their persona. I’m trying to show that the core essence of every human is the same, regardless of if they’re famous, rich, poor, black, white, and so on—we are all one.

The torn collage pieces are part of the Ojoma series named after my mother—“Ojoma” means “God Knows.”

Emmanuel Unaji, Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee, 2018, mixed media on paper. 60 x 91cm. Image courtesy of the artist and HAART


adeoluwa oluwajoba is an artist, art writer and a curator-in-training interested in the modes of exhibition-making and its role in fostering critical discourse in the society. he is particularly interested in the critical engagement of art and examining the dynamic ways in which art mirrors and engages the society. As a visual artist, his broad oeuvre explores themes of self-identity, blackness, masculinity and human spaces. oluwajoba holds a B.A in Fine and Applied Arts from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife with a major in Painting.

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