Nigerian visual arts in new Ambivalence

Posted: May 4, 2012 in arts/culture

This no doubt is turning out to be one hectic year for in the calendar of visual art practitioners in Nigeria. With barely four months gone, it’s becoming hard, of sorts, to keep up with the unusual volume of traffic to arts galleries for exhibition openings in different parts of the country, with busiest being Lagos and Abuja.

This new attitudinal shift towards the visual arts genre is not necessarily on the strength of actual purchases of artworks by the public and patrons alike but rather for the sheer enthusiasm that now greets practically every exhibition opening of late.

It is even all the more remarkable when considered against the backdrop of the fact that up until now, the trend had been quite the exact the opposite, whereby the performing and literary genres of art had a beehive of activities to the envy of visual artists who suffered not just dearth of popular appeal but also government disinterest over their welfare.

As noted by observers, the silver lining which seemed to have appeared in the clouds of visual arts in Nigeria with the Nigeria @ 50 exhibitions organized by the Presidential Committee for Nigeria’s Independence anniversary celebrations has remained there nearly two years after.

That exhibition had gathered 20 most prominent artists in the country at the Shehu Musa Yar’Aua Centre in Abuja to signpost what has become the beginning of the upward assent for the various practitioners of the genre which previously carried an elitist tag around.

However, in the plethora of exhibitions steadily opening around the around the country on a weekly basis, one appears to stand out; the first solo exhibition at the returning Nimbus Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos, titled; Ambivalence; an endotelic exhibition of sculptures, paintings and installations by renowned artist, Emmah Mbanefo.

Remarkably, both artist and the gallery are on a rebound, of sorts, which not only further paints that stroke of uniqueness to the exhibition, but also serves up a freshness which even saw the media briefing preceding the actual exhibition opening witness a rather unusually large attendance more than even some exhibition openings.

Ironically, nobody apparently took the gallery serious when it had announced the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Nnaemeka Achebe (Agbogidi) as guest and the joke was further on the doubters when on the exhibition’s opening, Friday, April 20, the traditional monarch graced the occasion in person top declare it open.

The Emmah Mbanefo also succeeded in breaking the hitherto assumed elitist myth that the public had labelled the genre with in terms of the mass appeal that his exhibition had generated from preparation to actual opening  and going by the crowd that had thronged the event’s opening.

That added to the fact of the relatively well priced artworks which were as low as less than N100, 000 for some, which many considered cheap for an artist in the class of Mbanefo.

For a school of opinion within the visual arts sector, owning an Mbanefo piece is the closest to owning a Ben Enwonwu work, as  it is also generally believed that collectors who missed out on works by the iconic Enwonwu grabbed Mbanefo pieces with both hands. And a cursory inspection of the Mbanefo’s works at the Nimbus Gallery confirmed this position, which on its part was also seeking to use the Mbanefo solo exhibition to re-establish its once prominent place as the centre of art activities following nearly six years of absence.

Explaining the theme of the exhibition, Mbanefo, noted that: “Ambivalence is premised on the understanding that in all things there is a foundation, one which is predetermined and beyond control. However, that singular foundation is challenged, pushed and pulled as we fight to define ourselves. Ambivalence is the search for the good, the spirit of humanity. In exploring ambivalence, the work explores, and sifts through humanity, interrogating emotions – strong feelings.

“The collection of which is simply ambivalent, made up of both the positive and the negative. Yet, when one looks deeply enough therein lies a foundation of goodness, in the individual spirit and in humanity as a whole, goodness that is defined by humanity’s balance, association  and place in accordance with the laws of nature. It is the quest to see this goodness, to bring out this goodness in day-to-day life that the works of ‘Ambivalence’ explore.”

Remarking, Mr. Chike Nwagbogu, the Creative Director of Nimbus Gallery, said the exhibition remains the much sought after opportunity for art patrons to assuage their cravings; given the creativity and versatility of the artist.

“As social entrepreneurs committed to using art as a vehicle for fostering societal change, we at Nimbus are proud to collaborate with Emmah Mbanefo in presenting Ambivalence,” Nwagbogu said, adding: “Nimbus Art Gallery is proud to host the first solo exhibition of this sublimely talented artist. Indeed some art patrons have made bold to state that Mbanefo falls into the mould of artists often described as ‘Artist’s Artist’”.

Continuing, Nwagbogu also noted that “Mbanefo’s inspiration and driving force is the continuous pursuit of artistic originality and perfection with the fervent belief that through his work, this spirit of excellence can be set loose on the greater Nigerian and African psyche for true freedom of expression to reign.”

Emmah Mbanefo was born 1960 in Jos, Plateau State. He studied Fine Arts at the Federal Polytechnic, Auchi, majoring in sculpture and textiles. Over the years, Mbanefo has developed a reputation for producing bold and imaginative works. During this period, he has had close working contact with such masters as Ben Enwonwu, Ben Osawe, Okpu Eze and Bruce Onobrakpeya.

Mbanefo’s works take pride of place in public spaces and in private collections within and outside Nigeria.

Mbanefo’s career has traversed a number of decades. During this period, he has had close working contact with such masters as Ben Enwonwu, Ben Osawe, Okpu Eze and Bruce Onobrakpeya. His works take pride of place in public spaces and in private collections.

His inspiration and driving force is the continuous pursuit of artistic originality and perfection with the fervent belief that through his work, this spirit of excellence can be set loose on the greater Nigerian and African psyche for true freedom of expression to reign.

Mbanefo is a disciple of the Endotelic branch of arts; a field where the artist explores his own individuality without recourse to any rules. According to Ben Enwonwu, the positive end of Endotelic art seeks “the objectification of the artist’s beliefs, his feelings, meanings or significances, and volition”.

Heavily influenced by the pioneer African modernist, Ben Enwonwu, who incidentally, along with Mbanefo hails from Onitsha, the rich cultural heritage of Onitsha is very evident in their works. It is a heritage that has also produced quite a number of artists including Oseloka Osadebe, and Okechukwu Odita, who were members of the Zaria rebels, the group that revolutionised Nigerian arts.

In 1980, Mbanefo began his professional training as an apprentice to an Onitsha based carver, Mr. Michael Orji of the Orajis carvers, while two years later in 1982, he enrolled at the Federal Polytechnic, Auchi, now Edo State, where in, 1985, he obtained the National Certificate in Education (Sculpture) textile option) and a Certificate of Excellence.

Bruce Onobrakpeya, the internationally renowned printmaker, painter and sculptor, in a testimonial of Mbanefo, hailed his mastery in depicting the rich cultural heritage of the Igbo race in his unique works.

“Exhibitions and the catalogues that document them are building blocks for moulding the personality of the artist,” he said. “They also constitute important materials for writing the history of a people. Being called upon, therefore, to introduce Emmah Ifeanyi Mbanefo’s solo art exhibition, ‘Ambivalence’, I have a feeling of witnessing, as well as contributing, to the writing of our art history. I feel deeply honoured by the invitation.

“In Mbanefo’s works I see the leitmotif of the mask and the masquerade, which in the Igbo cosmos, particularly the Onitsha Igbo, are the manifestations of the spirit of the world. The departed ancestors return to the world as masquerades during festivals to interact with the living ones. This is the theme perfected by the pioneer artist and foremost Nigerian sculptor and painter, Ben Enwonwu, in his Ogolo series.”

Emmah Mbanefo was born 1960 in Jos, Plateau State. He studied Fine Arts at the Federal Polytechnic, Auchi, majoring in sculpture and textiles. Over the years, Mbanefo has developed a reputation for producing bold and imaginative works. During this period, he has had close working contact with such masters as Ben Enwonwu, Ben Osawe, Okpu Eze and Bruce Onobrakpeya.

The solo exhibition Ambivalence, scheduled to run till this Sunday, May 6, is a historic first for Emmah Mbanefo, whose works in over three decades of practice enjoy prominence in public and private collections.

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