Friday, 12 April 2013

For his majesty, Onitsha artists return with Orakwue


By Tajudeen Sowole
It took the tenth year coronation of HRM, Obi of Onitsha, Nnemeka Achebe, to regroup some artists who, though pledge allegiance to Onitsha, but last seen on the art exhibition turf a decade ago.


KNOWN in the Nigerian art circle as Onitsha Artists, the group is currently exhibiting paintings and sculptures under the title Orakwue {Let the Whole World Talk) at Alexis Galleries, (formerly Homestores), Victoria Island, Lagos. The show, featuring works of nine members and eight guest artists, is organized specifically as a tribute for the monarch, who is regarded as one of Africa’s consistent art collectors.
It was initially bid to hold in October, last year as part of the Obi’s 10th anniversary, before it was shifted to this period.

It is on record that the group, which consists of artists of Onitsha origin, at home and overseas, had its first major art exhibition Olokoto at the now rested Pendulum Gallery, Lekki, Lagos under the late art patron and gallery owner, Peter Areh in 2003. The current outing of the Onitsha Artists, Orakwue, appears to have facilitated the regrouping. They have promised a regular show thereafter.

Some of the exhibiting artists in the on-going display, who are members of the group include Afam Okwudili, George Nwadiogbu, Ato Arinze, Chinwe Uwatse, Osaji Dubem,  Gaby Emengo, Frank Anamah, Onyeoma Mbanefo and George Edozie. They are joined by guest artists from Nigeria, Republic of Benin and Ghana such as Abiodun Olaku, Alex Nwokolo, Tola Wewe,  Gbenga Ofor, Duke Asidere, Agorsor Kofi, Fidelis Odogwu and Domonique Zinkpe.

George Edozie’s Obiamaka and Onyeoma.
A member of the Onitsha Artists, Nwadiogbu had, during a preview session, stated that artists across West Africa region are indebted to Achebe. He described the royal father as a good art patron, who has a lot of respect for artists, hence the theme of the gathering ‘let the people speak for me’. The exhibiting artists, he emphasised, “are, through the exhibition speaking for the Obi” as part of the monarch’s 10th year anniversary on the throne of his ancestors.

The gratitude or solidarity exhibition is also an opportunity for some of the artists who are either unknown in Lagos or have been quiet in the art circle for a while. In works by familiar names such as Uwatse, Nwadiogbu, Arinze and Edozie, it’s either teasers of new things to come or reflection of the past.

For instance, Uwatse’s Windows of Souls (Acrylic on Canvas 2012) suggests a shift from her conservative rendition of colour. The work depicts a depth of cubic images with high red, yellow and purple, creating a depth that swims into the ‘windows’. For Edozie, it’s about experimentation of a new technique, though still trying to maintain a thin line between his past figural image and a likely new look of his work, as reflected in a two-lady piece Obiamaka and Onyeoma. If elongated figures, as the biggest Onitsha artist, late Ben Enwonwu stressed in his Negritude series should be taken by historians as one of the characteristics of artists from that part of the country, Nwadiogbu’s Dance for Peace offers a reason.
 In ceramist, Arinze’s Happy Family, a depiction of cheerful moods, which Nigerians can hardly afford currently, comes in what could be both a functional and decorative sculpture of vase or pot-like.

For a big show like Orakwue showing in a relatively new gallery raised the question of adequate visibility commensurate with the theme and essence of the gathering.  

Two years of Alexis Galleries’ presence on the growing Lagos art scene may be short, but it’s strong enough to have any big show, the coordinator of the exhibition, Edozie argued. “With six highly successful shows within the two years of the gallery’s existence, we thought Alexis has the crowd strong enough to host this show”. And with a major support from big corporate group, Diamond Bank, courtesy of the Head, Corporate Communication, Ayona Trimnell Aguele and others such as Veuve Clicquot, arra, Chocolate Royal, Cool fm, Nigeria Info and Wazobia “the gallery is excited to host the show”, the proprietress of Alexis Galleries, Patty Chidiac enthused. She noted that the “diversity of Nigerian art is an attraction that makes the gallery keeps searching for rare exhibitions like Orakwue”. She however cautioned that “I am not a kind critic; not ready to have many shows, but few quality ones.”
 Indeed, Alexis Galleries’ claim of a successful entry into the Lagos art scene should be a source of encouragement for artists, particularly the young ones who are being fenced out of the mainstream art market due to rising cost of art exhibitions across some well known and choice gallery spaces in Lagos and Victoria Island axis. Chidiac argued that it’s important to give artists more options to express themselves and allow the art market to, naturally, determine its direction. According to her, one of the aims of Alexis “is to stabilize the art market.”
A sculpture, Happy Family by Ato Arinze

From its first show, Alexis (then Homestores) actually demonstrated its focus: a young, up-and-coming Nyemike’s solo outing opened the gate for young and established artists.
And that Orakwue is coming a decade after Olokoto, perhaps suggests that the Onitsha Artists are a group of one show in 10 years artists. “Not at all”, Edozie insisted. “This will continue, we hope to take the show beyond Nigeria”. Orakwue, Nwadiogbu informed, was designed to take off in Onitsha, then move to Abuja and Lagos”.

Quite recluse from the mainstream art market are an army of artists old and young outside Lagos, and Onitsha is one of such places. How is Onitsha Artists reaching out to such less privileged artists? “We do reach out; after the Olokoto show in 2003, part of the proceeds was given to the creative community in Onitsha. We hope to do the same after Orakwue.”  

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