Williams Chechet: A Heightened State of Becoming

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Fast-rising Williams Chechet’s career began shortly after graduating from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He is a familiar figure on the local exhibition circuit and has participated in several prestigious international fairs. In 2018, he was shortlisted for the Art X Lagos Art Prize. His recent solo exhibition Hyperflux at Retro Africa in Abuja was easily one of the most exciting and successful exhibitions last year. Here’s a brief review to get us on course for 2021!

Three things come to mind when contemplating the title ‘Hyperflux’. First, it is an apt description of the artist’s rapidly evolving practice—his creative process largely spontaneous and involving the isolation of photographs on a coloured and flattened plane.

Second, his constant oscillation from the past to the present through a depiction of traditional leaders and personages, as well as an appropriation of indigenous aesthetics and iconography mostly from northern Nigeria—pivotal to the shaping of the country’s political history.

Third, and perhaps the most obvious is the apparent contradiction in his adoption of digital collage—a medium that lends itself easily to the contemporary—to interrogate historical subject matter.

The etymology of the word ‘flux’ reveals its Latin origins; fluxus means “flow” and fluere is “to flow”. Today, several definitions of the word flux exist across several disciplines. In the study of physics, it refers to the rate of flow of a fluid, radiant energy, or particles across a given area. It is this description that provides a deeper understanding of Chechet’s current output as it connotes a continuous flow of energy or constant state of becoming, a condition palpably felt in several facets of the artist’s work.

This brief two-pronged essay serves firstly to examine Chechet’s recent experiments and his location within historical accounts of modernist art. To achieve this objective, points of convergence and rupture are highlighted in his flirtation with Pop Art, a movement that emerged in the United Kingdom and the United States during the mid-to-late 1950s. Secondly, with this initial examination, the essay provokes further research into Chechet’s personal visual vocabulary.

Williams Chechet’s debt to major figures of the movement like Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) and Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) is evident, especially in work of the latter. The similarities also lie in his adoption/interpretation of Ben-Day dots—a printing and photo-engraving technique dating from 1879—named after illustrator and printer Benjamin Day Jr., as well as geometric shapes and bold flat colour. Fine examples of this application are visible in works like Better Days, The Passage and Paradise Express—all completed in 2020.

Chechet however, diverges from Lichtenstein and his other predecessors in purpose, perception and implication as exemplified in his non-appropriation of imagery derived from popular and mass culture including advertising and mundane mass-produced cultural objects that nod to consumerism. A rejection of hard-edged figures and thick black outlines is as notable as his refrainment from embellishing with paint. Additionally, Chechet neither appropriates comic strips as a sequential motif nor incorporates onomatopoeic lettering to imbue further meaning. This latter characteristic of Lichtenstein’s work in  appropriating drawings belonging to other artists cast him in direct confrontation to the leading critics of the day who attacked him for lacking in originality and saw him as the endorsement of “a patronising view of comics by the art mainstream.” They also berated him for not “crediting, paying royalties to, or seeking premium from the original artists or copyright holders.”

Iheanyi Onwuegbucha, curator of Centre for Contemporary Art Lagos also observes from Chechet’s work that today “The proliferation of image manipulation software, including photo filters, which are now available in smartphones, has removed the barriers of the darkroom processes and strenuous cutting and pasting of images developed by American and British pop artists in the 1950s.”

The collection of 28 works for ‘Hyperflux’ are stunning; mostly portraits of personages with “features that form a single entity, creating a visual distortion while simultaneously keeping the illusion of coherence in the observed image, one that strongly resonates a sense of character and identity.” Placed in the foreground, the subjects are rendered in greys, black and white, ostensibly to accentuate their historical and cultural significance. The drama is heightened with their juxtapositioning against a framework of vibrant colours and shapes that nod to Cubism and Abstract Expressionism.

Amongst the display are 3 lightboxes and 4 video installations. They betray Chechet’s increasing bent towards a multi-disciplinary practice that best expresses his ambitions. Dolly Kola-Balogun, founder and creative director of Retro Africa explains that the accompanying video installations on retro style TVs, his LED cloud installed in the upper gallery and the neon sign walkway and stairwell, all give a deeper insight into his mind and perception of his surroundings, how he views the world. She reveals that she is enthralled by Chechet’s ability to take the traditional and re-imagine our world in technicolour. In these works, we are reminded of his technical proficiency that distinguishes his art as exceptional. This quality is hinged on a sublime ability to convey motion through the optical illusions created by closely and widely spaced dots, parallel and cross-hatched lines, a variety of textures, as well as the displacement of several facial planes. These fleeting or transitory effects are at once representative of a “hyperflux” or flow of energy, and a metaphor for Chechet’s personal journey—having been born in Kano, raised in Kaduna and now living and working in Lagos. According to the artist, “The exhibition ‘Hyperflux’ is mainly inspired by self-identification. I feel as we grow as human beings in time we tend to change, add and modify our lives in order to gain social acceptance in society. Hence the distorted faces that still look as one.”

To gain even further insight into his work, we must like him, embark on a journey across different historical periods and geographical regions to re-imagine new possibilities as we ponder in our state of becoming, our larger purpose.

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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