A series of figures – rendered in a blazing colour palette of red, orange and yellow – emerge from or descend into textured, abstract backgrounds. These are the personal memories of the London-based, Nigerian artist Ken Nwadiogbu – portraits of ephemeral moments that have burnt themselves into his mind and continue to shape his perspective of the world around him. Fragments of reality, Nwadiogbu’s first solo exhibition at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, reflects on the artist’s experiences of adjusting to life in London, of building a sense of community and longing for home. The exhibition is curated by Dolly Kola-Balogun in collaboration with Retro Africa.
Nwadiogbu arrived in London in 2022, after making the decision to further pursue his artistic studies at the Royal College of Art. It is a decision that has greatly influenced not just his approach to making art, but also his wider sense of self and the ways in which he relates to and understands the world. This latest body of work is drawn from photographs Nwadiogbu has taken in the UK, of his friends, family and other members of the Black immigrant community. Rather than simply recreating the photographic image, however, Nwadiogbu zooms in on specific details, highlighting the vivid emotional residue that endures after a moment has passed.
He begins by pouring paint on to the canvas, responding to the movement of colour, his psychological state and the rhythm of the music that he plays in the studio, before painting the figure and fragments of contextual information – a metal fence, an escalator, the edge of a mattress – on top of this textured surface in heightened detail. The result is a series of haunting scenes that sit somewhere between reality and dream. The fervent palette of these latest works adds to this effect, simultaneously illuminating specific details and casting the image into a transitional space, which to Nwadiogbu represents the spiritual realm, the side of the world that we don’t fully understand and can’t represent in images or words. The warm hues further draw on this idea as well as the aesthetics of thermographic cameras that record heat energy. When a moment has passed, memories become energy, so that even when the visual experience fades, the feeling of it remains and becomes embedded into who we are, says Nwadiogbu.
Significantly, many of the figures in this latest series are anonymous, with their backs turned to the viewer or their face obscured, as in Blank Pages, by an open book. We encounter them in largely intimate, domestic settings and yet, they remain distant and unknowable. This, in part, reflects Nwadiogbu’s own experiences of anonymity when he first arrived in London, but it also offers the viewer the freedom to shape the image according to their own understanding of the world. Other paintings feature figures gazing directly at the viewer, their eyes highlighted by dark, cut out circles that appear like spectacles or portals into their soul. As Nwadiogbu explains: It’s like when you make eye contact with someone on the bus or on a train – in that moment, there’s instant life: they become an individual with their own backstory and emotions that you can empathise with and relate to.
In a sense, this is what Nwadiogbu’s work is all about: finding and initiating vivid moments of connection that break down social, cultural and political boundaries. His paintings speak specifically to the everyday experience of Black immigrants in the UK, but they also remind us of shared humanity.