Patrick Akpojotor: If Walls Could Speak
In writing about the goals of Cubist collage, Pablo Picasso notes, “Not only did we try to displace reality; reality was no longer in the object. . . . [In] the papier collé . . . [w]e didn’t any longer want to fool the eye; we wanted to fool the mind. . . . If a piece of newspaper can be a bottle, that gives us something to think about in connection with both newspapers and bottles, too.” This sentiment is replicated in a series of works shown recently by contemporary Nigerian artist Patrick Akpojotor in a solo exhibition organised and curated by SMO Contemporary at the lobby of The Wheatbaker Hotel. Titled If Walls Could Speak, it opened to the public on September 22, 2019, featuring 38 recent works in painting, drawing and sculptural media, a testament to the artist’s multidisciplinary practice. The exhibition seemed to also say, ‘If a piece of architecture can be human, that gives us something to think about in connection with both architecture and human beings’.
As the first recipient of the Art X Prize in 2016 and gaining steady recognition since then, it is intriguing that the exhibition is Akpojotor’s first solo presentation since he became a full-time studio artist in 2017. Although most of the works are dated 2019, it is obvious from a closer engagement with the artist’s career that the exhibition is the result of a lifelong engagement and experimentation with the multi-layered and irreducible complexity of architectonic forms as well as the dynamic relationship between the human body and the built society. Presenting work that is at once graceful and complex, surreal and personal, Akpojotor brings to mind the concerns of 20th-century constructivist proponents, who at heart proposed an entirely new approach to making objects, one which sought to abolish the traditional artistic concern with composition, and replace it with ‘construction.’ He notes, ‘How objects are placed does not matter in my art, what matters is that the objects are represented’.
Arranged in no discernible order, Akpojotor’s works, on the one hand, present architectonic forms with anthropomorphic qualities and on the other, present human characters and personalities as architectural forms. A kind of ontological study that explores the intrinsic nature, intertwined relationship and social interaction between built communities, and those who live in them. Hanging on opposite walls at the entrance to the exhibition are two striking paintings, part of the series ‘Embodied Images’, which presents architectural forms with human features. One of the paintings Adadevoh’s Courtyard, 2019, depicts a surreal, abstracted space with doorways and staircases. An intricate composition of angular three-dimensional forms occupies the centre of the picture. The image is remotely familiar with its suggested human features. A pair of lips, an eye and a nose can be faintly observed. A staircase descends to a doorway at the lower-left register of the image while another ascends into this contorted form that is strikingly abstract, yet disturbingly human. Done in tones of blue and purple, there is a subdued regality to the painting, a regality that accompanies monuments and memorials. A similarly constructed painting hangs on the opposite wall with staircases that lead in and out of the work, and an anthropomorphic form complete with pouty lips, eyes that look like doorways, and hair in the form of angular structures that run down the head. This painting bears a similar title to the first The House that Stella Adadevoh Built, 2019. Predominantly in tones of green and purple, the same dignified melancholiness is present here. Who are these figures who at a first glance bear resemblance to the female form, and why do they evoke this feeling of melancholy? Where do the staircases lead? What lies behind the enigmatic doorways? As the viewer looks from one painting to the next, these questions arise. According to the artist, the works pay homage of the heroic acts of Dr Stella Adadevoh who is credited with helping to curb the spread of the Ebola virus in Nigeria, saving the lives of many but losing hers to the virus in the process. The paintings, therefore, serve as an act of mourning and a monument to the memory of a Nigerian hero. It explores the performative act of naming buildings and streets after prominent people in the society, in an attempt at immortality. In a culture with a history of institutional and systematic forgetting and erasure of the woman in society, Patrick Akpojotor has added to the sustained immortality of a national hero. If these walls could speak, they’ll speak of Stella Adadevoh.
In his ‘Self Portraits I’ series, the artist invents intricate, biomorphic structures in what could be described as futurist architecture. These buildings are a collage of sorts, an admixture of past, present and future spaces. In titling them ‘Self Portraits’, the artist explores the existence of buildings as parallel to the existence of humans. A sum of past, present and future experiences and the ways in which the memory of space informs human experience and vice versa. The audience is introduced to a nostalgic memory and a future imagined. These spaces live, die and evolve with us. A recurring motif in Akpojotor’s work is his use of stairs and doorways often leading to places beyond the reach of the viewer. Why are we denied access to these spaces? An invitation by the artist to contemplate the uncertainty of existence, perhaps. Akpojotor introduces us to a world where nothing is as it seems and anything is possible. In contrast to his ‘Self Portraits I’ series, his ‘Self Portraits II’ series deals with an interiority not present in the former. We are invited into intimate spaces filled with narrow corridors, staircases that lead to dead ends and impossible angles. These intimate spaces are less composed in relation to the carefully assembled façade of the buildings in ‘Self Portraits I’. Nothing is as it seems. This too is true for humans. These walls speak about us.
Patrick Akpojotor’s work in charcoal further explores his fascination with the relationship between human personalities and the notion of the constructed space. The works produced in his ‘Indigene’ series–in contrast to earlier works depicting buildings as anthropomorphic forms –show the human form as architectural structures. Employing primarily, a cubist approach to form, the shapes in his drawings seem to oscillate, pushing forward and dropping back in space. Shading carves space into flat planes in some places while giving others a three-dimensionality generally found in sculptural work. His fascination with sculpture and construction is most visible here. His drawings not to capture the exactness of form but the essence of his subjects, which invites a close and patient engagement. In Street King, 2019, the fearsome, confident borderline brutish characteristic normally associated with such characters comes across before we even try to explore who this character is. Akpojotor’s tendency to explore and push the limits of light and shade lends a striking quality to his charcoal drawings. It is at once primal and refined.
Also present in the exhibition are sculptural works in wood and copper tube, although they seem to serve as mere accessories in the context of the show. While they are an indication of the artist’s multidisciplinary practice, they didn’t particularly add anything to the reading of the exhibition, most especially the sculptures made with copper tubes Power Lines I-III, 2018-2019. They stick out like a sore thumb in an otherwise cohesive presentation, telling us nothing about the premise of the exhibition and more about the artist’s dexterity with various materials.
If Walls Could Speak is an impressive solo debut for Patrick Akpojotor, although the cramped space it was shown in, did a disservice to his works, many of which were stylistically impressive and inventive and contained a monumentality which might not easily come across to the viewer in between weaving through tables and chairs in the hotel lobby. However, if we would listen, these walls speak of the importance of remembering and the influence of the built environment in shaping our experiences and identities in the world.
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