Ngozi Omeje: Connecting Deep at Centre for Contemporary Art Lagos
Centre for Contemporary Art Lagos (CCA Lagos) is a non-governmental engagement space known for its distinctively experimental approach towards art curating and visual art presentation in Nigeria. With a series of events commemorating the space’s ten-year anniversary, CCA recently presented Connecting Deep by artist Ngozi Omeje. Bisi Silva, one of Africa’s most exciting contemporary curators, has teamed up with Iheanyi Onwuegbucha to actualize Omeje’s intuits – an excerpt of her ever-rich artistic dwelling – and create an art book library with the largest collection in Africa.
Any individual with knowledge of the African and Nigerian art space may think of the Uli style of African iconography when the name Nsukka Art School is uttered. Seasoned art historian Perrin Lathrop describes Uli as an Igbo female body and wall-painting tradition from southeastern Nigeria based on sinuous abstract forms derived from nature (unlike the Nsibidi iconographic style which comes with a slight deficiency in flow). Uche Okeke of the Zaria Rebels – a group of artists who sought to decolonize the methodologies of Nigerian art in the mid-20th century – rendered visual languages inspired by Uli symbols, a drawing technique he inherited from his mother, a prominent Uli draughtswoman. Okeke taught at the school in Nsukka, a linkable factor to the emergence of the style in the school.
Years later, it seems inappropriate to attach Uli exclusively to this art school. A large chunk of the school’s offspring have taken a turn towards experimentation merged with the study and use of non-traditional materials. Among this new generation are spearhead artists Nnenna Okore, Olumide Onadipe, Olanrewaju Tejuoso, Bright Ugochukwu Eke, May Okafor, Ndidi Dike, Dil Humphery Umezulike and the lady of the moment: Ngozi Omeje. Ngozi graduated from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 2005 with a Bachelor of Arts in Fine and Applied Arts, majoring in Ceramics. Her current body of work encapsulates ceramics and installation. She leverages clay balls, clay rings, strings, metal suspenders and pieces of rubber footwear – vulgarized in Nigeria as bathroom slippers – to serve as compositional parts alongside the current playing narrative.
At first glance, Omeje’s work in the exhibition triggers the thought of Bright Ugochukwu Eke’s acid rain installation (created for the 2006 Dakar Biennale of Contemporary African Art in Senegal); Omeje’s work uses the same mode of suspension but surfaces with different material and formational outcomes. Using terracotta as the dominant element, Omeje fills the space with elephant forms. The clay pieces come in a variety of hues: the well-known orange, as well as some others with different values of burn patches due to kiln firing. The forms consist of clay flats and balls; the flats were held in the middle while wet to create a slight depth on the other side, with four perforations. With the aid of two of the openings on the flats, both shapes are strung in a way that places the balls on the surfaces of the flats. Each string carries a particular number, which is dependent on where it is to be hung. The filled strings come in different length, hung constructively from the metal suspender to create an elephant form.
In order to further engage with the space, people and work, I sought to know the narrative behind the mind-boggling installation. This ushered me into a personal experience of the artist: she uses the installation to dish out a segment of her ongoing body of renditions, a constant of humanity that is often times paid no heed to: the delicacy of life. With this theme, Omeje uses the installation to treat the pain of losing her father. The artist explores the assembly of elephants as a metaphor for a family bond. The composition embodies eight elephants. The elephant symbolizes strength and power alongside gentility. In the midst of the herd is a smaller animal, which can be interpreted as the youngest in the fold. One of the cluster occupies a specific, or rather respected, space for what it signifies which is double faced: the respect accorded to the head of the family, as well as his exit from the lives of his loved ones.
In our local sphere, the yardsticks employed to define “true art” can be highly inhibiting, and so fertilizes stagnancy in certain areas including the thought processes of artists, which is relative to acceptability. Ngozi moved traditional ceramics from the acceptable norm of minimal pieces to ceramic installation, and has maintained an ascending sequence in her exploration over the span of her practise. At a time when all we’d seen were conventional flats and arts in the round, Ngozi availed the opportunity for the Lagos art community to taste something highly distinct.
Ngozi Omeje: Connecting Deep was on view at Centre for Contemporary Art Lagos, Nigeria August – November 9, 2018. Photos: Adeoluwa Oluwajoba