EXODUS BY NYEMIKE ONWUKA
Nyemike Onwuka was born in 1972 in Lagos, Nigeria and specialized in painting at the Federal Polytechnic Auchi, graduating in 2002. He later studied character animation at the Witwatersrand University Johannesburg, South Africa in 2007, and has been practicing as a studio artist since then. He explores the dynamism of eye pencils, liquid latex and oil bars in creating works with extraordinary aesthetic components and depth. In November 2016, he had a solo exhibition of drawings, paintings, mixed media and installations themed Exodus at the Signature Art Gallery, Lagos where he introduced the use of stencils in depicting patterns, words and symbols to tackle the social decadency affecting women and children around the world today. The solo exhibition comprised of over 26 paintings, representative of the evolution over the years of his experimental and uniquely distinct style, which he began with his ‘Elegant Urban Decay’ series of paintings. The exhibition will tour the United States in 2017. His works have featured at the Bonhams Africa Now auction sales from 2010 till date and are regular features at Arthouse Contemporary, Sogal and TKMG auction houses. Recently, his works also featured at the Conan auction, Lyons, France. He has participated in several group and solo exhibitions in Nigeria, Europe, the United States, Asia and the Middle East, where his works can be found in private and public collections.
Why the theme Exodus?
To satisfy the need to depict the ordeal of victims and survivors of 21st century slavery who sadly, are mostly women and children, and to create empathy and awareness in an artistic way with my media of choice. I am also on a journey as I am constantly evolving, as an artist because subliminal stagnation though tempting, is not an option. This is not to say that my style is not recognisable but for this body of works, I have opted for a more colourful approach to painting through the combined use of latex and the figurative representation of the subjects. Alphabets, numbers, shapes and colours are key elements of our daily experiences as humans because we write our names and dates, as well as describe life’s situations and events with them. These have been incorporated to strengthen my message, which I hope to pass across—in sensitizing the public and empathizing with the victims. I have tried to treat child abuse, sex slavery, and unemployment in a way that is not disturbing.
Hidden Brands: Light at the Exit 60 x 60 inches latex,oil,oil bar, stencil on canvas, 2016.
What inspired these works?
An artist is supposed to be observant and serve as a visual commentator, so I keep looking out wherever I go. Two years ago while in the United States, I went after work to a particular bar to have drinks with friends. I noticed one of the female bartenders had a tattoo. I am usually drawn towards people with tattoos and always curious to find out their meaning and how long they have had them. I have always met people willing to share information but after several attempts trying, this lady remained reticent about hers. She was quite pleasant and decent so she stood out at work. After I had visited for a while, I decided to ask her again. I guess by this time, she had managed to carry out her own study about this curious man and finally told me she is of a mixed race and came to the United States in search of greener pastures. Unknowingly in her search for love, she fell into the hands of a man who was a member of a prostitution ring. Once they were able to win the confidence of unsuspecting girls, they have them tattooed, which was akin to branding cows. With this ‘brand’ you will always be found except you are able to escape or manage to surgically remove the tattoo, which is an expensive project. After I heard this story, I decided to start intensive research. I discovered more cases of child abuse like underage children forcibly used as workers in garment factories or sold as sex slaves, sadly by some family members and opportunists. It is these stories and the fact that these poor souls are being moved around the world through deception that inspired Exodus. I need to lend my artistic and human voice to the global problem in the way I can. I portrayed this woman’s story with one of the works Hidden Brands.
How did you interpret this in the works in a Nigerian context?
I was away and when I heard that particular story but trafficking in women and child abuse is rampant in Nigeria and so I am in touch with our realities. It is modern day slavery. At times when one looks around, there are uneducated children who seem to have been ‘cradle snatched’, working as domestic helps in several homes. They manage them and take care of the children in the house when they themselves are still very young. Several times, they are given leftovers to eat, made to sleep in inhuman conditions, their ‘mistresses’ assuming they don’t have a better life where they are coming from. One of the works Oath Keepers talks about young women forced to take oaths not to deviate from the ‘work’ they have been ‘sent’ to carry out in Europe and the United States. Unfortunately, they must send funds home to train their younger siblings but of course, not speak out. The woman here becomes a commodity and property that must yield returns for their ‘owners’. I used the 4-piece monochrome Speak Not, See Not, Hear Not, to illustrate the form of secrecy rampant in this trade where the victims are threatened if they speak out. I hope its sheds more light on the global talks about child security. The perpetrators have lost their conscience and I hope many of them are caught and punished severely for their evil acts.
How are these works going to reduce these evils?
I am contributing my quota in the way I know best and hope other people will see and act as well. Some national and international human and child rights agencies have shown interest in touring the exhibition. Part of the proceeds of the show will go to some non-governmental organizations helping to alleviate the suffering of the victims and re-integrate them into society.
Watchful Eyes 72 x 48 inches latex,oil, oil bar, stencil on canvas 2016
Some of the titles like Unbroken, Light at the Exit, The Awakening and Watchful Eyes and carry optimistic messages. Are you planning to get some of the victims to view them and be encouraged?
I have several plans in the pipeline to get these victims to see the works, as they are about them.
You call the style employed for these works, neo-cubism. Please explain what you mean by this?
I used fragmentation and geometric forms like those used by Cubism exponents like Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.
You had an installation piece like a cage, Gridlock with women and children’s personal effects hanging in them and footprints leading to different directions. Please tell us more about this work.
Some children are disenfranchised and endangered like the Chibok girls whose crime was going to school. Their rights are being infringed upon. Some women and children who were also caged managed to break free from the shackles and grief of slavery. The footprints led to the other art works in the exhibition as they are all connected and tell a story.
What is next for Exodus?
An exhibition in the United States.
Image credits: Nyemike Onwuka
January 15, 2021
January 14, 2021