By Tajudeen Sowole
In over two decades of studio practice, Alex Nwokolo, who marked his 50th birthday quietly, yesterday, has been strengthening the essence of art, just as his new period blurs the lines between traditional and contemporary practice.
A full time studio artist of over 22 years, Nwokolo has, in the past few years, set out to stay in the middle of the divides between traditional and ‘contemporary’ renditions, crossing from one periods to another and distilling what could turn out as futuristic, perhaps timeless contents.
In the last six to seven years, Nigerian artists have been sharply divided over art contents, making observers, particularly critics take another look at the rising penchant for contemporary art – against the strong and well-rooted traditional expression. Quite interesting, Nwokolo is of the generation of Nigerian artists who grew through the traditional art era, and still making a strong impact. And that his last art exhibition, Authenticity of Thoughts, held at Terra Kulture, last year was a shift from the traditional paintings he was known for, to a more radical renditions of two dimensional sculptures in mixed media of soft metals, woods and acrylic, stresses the increasing consciousness of artists in general not to remain in the ‘business as usual’ terrain.
About two years before Authenticity of Thoughts, Nwokolo’s canvas started oozing with big close up of unidentified faces he called Oju (Face). In 2011, he came out bold to exhibit Oju as series, in a show simply tagged Untitled, at Omenka Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos. It was two textures of Oju: a soft, smoother surface newspaper waste collage and oil impasto. He had explained the acceptability of Oju, noting that it transcends the home art market. One of the series, Fragmented Hope, recorded the most appreciated bidding during the Philips de Pury and Company Art auction of African works in the U.S three years ago.
And that Nwoklo’\s Authenticity of Thoughts was held at a time of much anxiety over contents, he has lent a voice to his generation of artists in the traditional divide that sticking to the regular painting on canvas is a matter of choice and not lack of idea. It’s been a common argument by proponents of ‘contemporary’ contents that artists who are glued to painting on canvas ‘lack strong concepts’. But the truth is that art appreciation in Nigeria is unapologetically leans heavily on the traditional side.
And stepping into a new period of his art, perhaps, to establish his skills as a bridge between the traditional and contemporary divides, it could be of interest to look back, at 50, and recall other significant periods of his over 22 years-old career. “It’s a difficult task for me to say this and that are the most significant periods of my career”, Nwokolo said few days ahead of his 50th birthday. “Remembering such periods should be the business of those who documents art and artists. Artists are like scientists, we just work and leave historians to determine which periods was what”.
And what about the next side of being 50? It’s a blank one for now, he said. “But as my art keep evolving, new ideas come; for now I take things as they come, no scripting”.
Having shared bird’s eye view painting styles with master Ablade Glover for quite a while, Nwokolo now brings similar rendition into sculptural techniques, using soft metals and other materials. When he showed Authenticity of Thoughts last year, he explained that the “desire for change and the need to have global perspective in my art instigated a stimulus for this current direction in the evolution of my work”. The new experiment on materials, he added “offered me yet another opening to contribute to an existing international calligraphy, which is a pictorial language – not necessarily figurative – of symbols and media derived from everyday socio-cultural signs and symbolism, where elements are assembled and dissected onto a surface resulting in a hybrid between painting and sculpture”.
The new look of his art offered an opportunity to contribute to the search for Nigeria’s leadership question. This much he highlighted in a piece titled Subsidy Unrest. In flattened metal sheet and spray painting, the work depicts a sea of protesters at the Gani Fawehinmi Park, Ojota, Lagos, revisiting the anger against the fuel subsidy removal of January 2012, which nearly gave Nigerians the much-awaited revolution.
In a kind of relief, the sculptural touch is indeed an extension of his thickened canvas in the traditional painting. “Revisiting some of my previous works, you will recall that I have always been interested in creating 3-Dimensional form on a 2-D surface”.
Between 1978 and 1980, Nwokolo started cutting his interest in art as a member of National Museum Art Club, in Onikan Lagos. He later had formal trainings, getting National Diploma in General Arts (Distinction) 1986 – 1988; Higher National Diploma in Painting (Distinction) 1989 – 1991; and Master of Fine Arts (MFA) 1998 – 2000.
Some of his past exhibitions include Velvety Dreams, at Mydrim Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos 2001; A History of Contemporary Art in Nigeria, MUSON, Lagos 2001; Highlights, Mydrim Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos 2002; Exhibition of Recent Works, Colours in African, Abuja 2002; Group Exhibition, ELF Petroleum Co. Port Harcourt, Rivers State 2003; and Marks of Restlessness (solo) Beity Interiors National Museum.