Having Traveled Far is the next in a series of exhibitions organized by Omenka Gallery this year, to showcase some of the big names in contemporary African art, who though living and working outside the continent, remain true to their roots in their work. This initiative is supported further by the Omenka’s increased participation in international art fairs around the world.
Only recently, Call and Response, an exhibition of black-and white photography by iconic South African photographer Cedric Nunn opened to rave reviews at the gallery. This was followed in October by Networks and Voids: Modern Interpretations of Nigerian Hairstyles and Headdresses, which featured drawings, photography and prints by the celebrated photographer ‘Okhai Ojeikere and a leading contemporary American artist based in Johannesburg, Gary Stephens.
Having Traveled Far thus builds upon these successes and aims to stimulate the Lagos exhibition circuit, while encouraging cross-fertilization of ideas between African artists who define their practices on the continent and those in diaspora.
This exhibition, held in collaboration with German-based gallery, Artco, features 5 well-known contemporary African artists all of whom are based in Germany; Kwesi Owusu-Ankomah (b. 1956), Godfried Donkor (b. 1964), Manuela Sambo (b. 1964), EL Loko (b. 1950), and Ransome Stanley (b. 1953); who bears the singular distinction of being born in the diaspora.
Among the five artists selected for this show, only Godfried Donkor focuses entirely on mixed-media collages. Here, his collages combine symbols of the 18th century slave trade with images of Trinidadian girls placed on a background fashioned from the pages of newspapers like the Financial Times – a metaphor for the commercialization of people, a theme that runs through his oeuvre. His work, Gaming Room at Devonshire House is a subtle variation of slave trade. Here, the male figure is seen to be sparring with a white man. This particular activity can be traced to the plantation owners who often exploited the able bodied slaves in entertainment.
His well-known series of work, People of Utopia, the figures are depicted as saints and are seen arising ‘carnival like’ from cross-sections of old sailing ships, cleverly employed by the artists to symbolize the transporting of slaves from West Africa to the New World.
Ransome Stanley does not stray far from his peer in reflecting on colonial clichés of exoticism and images of Africa rooted in Western concepts of rusticness and innocence. He creates planar pictorial spaces whose stark narrative painting style he then disrupts by contrasting it with something two-dimensional.
In describing his work, Stanley asserts:
In my paintings there is no reason to recount a linear plot; rather I utilize the design experience to create complex spaces. I move across the border between two worlds playing with different forms of conscious perception. The media for me is an archive, from which I select and create through the staging of various image planes and revaluations of thinking contexts. I am concerned with discontinuity of space and time.
Manuela Sambo is well-known for her depictions of nude female portraits and figures. Her work, Nadine and Rosa Lilie employ stylistic elements of the body painting traditions from her home country, Angola. Sambo’s recent work adopts this strategy as well as integrates the European elements dating back to the medieval ages. Here, the bodies of her figures are decorated with ornamental pieces taken from historical paintings and successfully balanced with the shapes of eyes and mouths painted to bear semblance to Africans.
Similarly, Onwusu Ankomah’s figures are naked, bold, and powerful but differ from Sambo’s figures by a covering of complex symbols in a manner that renders them almost invisible. Ankomah is influenced by the philosophy of his Akan-speaking people of Ghana, reflected in his frequent use of the adinkra symbols each representing a particular proverb in his Microcron series in the show.
Another artist that successfully employs the use of symbols is EL Loko who strives to develop a unique language through the use of his own personal pictorial alphabet. Each alphabet embraces ornamental colour blends, figurations, primaeval symbols and cryptic signs to constitute a homogenous whole. EL Loko’s Cosmic Alphabet 47 is a result of an intensive preoccupation with the traditions of his native Togo and with the worlds of his own intellect, including the spiritual world of European Christianity.