Review: John Madu, Identity Tones

Review: John Madu, Identity Tones

John Madu’s Identity Tones is an exploration of metaphors and symbolism seeking answers to questions on the impact of globalisation on the African identity. It indeed raises questions surrounding the implications of culture consumption (especially popular culture) through the Internet and social media.

Identity Tones is a tale of hybrid bodies and faces, of half-eaten apples, cameras and books. It’s a story of liminal spaces and the bodies which populate them.

The exhibition, in collaboration with Artyrama (an online contemporary art gallery focused on the sale of high-quality, unique and often extraordinary contemporary works), is the artist’s third solo exhibition, resulting from 8 years of practice.

On the corridor, leading away from the entrance into the exhibition space, the viewer is confronted with bold, audacious (borderline arrogant) portraits executed predominantly in tones of blue from the artist’s ‘Peculiar People’ series. According to the artist:

“Those faces talk about how identity is internalised, the faces are strong and determined –they know what they are doing – identity for them is internalised, and because they know who they are, they can relate better with the world at large”

John Madu, Peculiar People XII, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 91 x76cm

The main exhibition space features about 17 paintings, with dark figures contrasted against bright backgrounds, making for a strong visual impression. The loose vivid strokes are expressionistic in nature and are quite jarring to the senses. Of particular interest is a work titled Balancing Fine China, which has the figure of a young dark-skinned girl in a white dress holding up a mask to her face. In front of the girl is a book, an apple and a China teacup and saucer, all balanced precariously on top of each other. The work is an allusion to the consumption of different cultures by modern African society. Balancing Fine China decries the growing influence of foreign culture and its gradual eroding of the African identity.

John Madu, Balancing Fine China, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 76cm

In a smaller room off the main exhibition space is a series of interesting paintings (in a calmer realistic style) of figures, with some bearing cameras in place of heads and faces. The works refer to the rise of social media in the 21st century, imbuing it with ubiquitous qualities, seemingly independent of individual human actions.

John Madu, Mad Man’s Commentary, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 122cm

Identity Tones is direct in its ‘Africaness’ with black bodies, motifs and symbolism, like books by African authors, lanterns and textile prints (which ironically originated from the Dutch, but is widely used in Africa and accepted as African). In this exhibition, John Madu has managed to call attention to the effect of mindless culture consumption and misuse of social media without coming off as preachy or condescending. The exhibition opens up important discussions on the African society and leaves the viewer with not only a visually pleasing aesthetic experience but also a series of questions interrogating identity, intrinsic self-worth and information in the digital age.


Adeoluwa Oluwajoba is an artist, critic and art writer. He holds a B.A in Fine and Applied Arts from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, and is currently the Programme Officer at The Ben Enwonwu Foundation

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