Bisi Silva: The New Face of Contemporary Nigerian Painting

Bisi Silva writing in Next Magazine:

The ‘new' face of Contemporary Nigerian Painting

In 2000, British curator, Eddie Chambers, was a guest speaker in Lagos at a programme on contemporary visual art and culture organised under the auspices of IVAC which has now metamorphosed into the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos.

Chambers also had the opportunity to visit local galleries and interact with some artists. While he found the level of activity within the art sector considerably dynamic, he was nonetheless dismayed by the stasis of artistic output, considering it ‘apolitical’ and ‘ahistorical’, existing largely in a contextual and temporal vacuum.

In the same vein, Princeton University-based academic, artist and curator Chika Okeke-Agulu, on a curatorial and research visit to Nigeria about 3 years ago, remarked that contemporary art in Nigeria seemed more in tune with late 19th century art trends than it did with cutting edge 21st century forms.

These damning criticisms have, unfortunately, been echoed by visiting curators and art critics. However, the situation has been steadily and visibly changing over the last ten years, especially among a handful of extremely active, established, and mid-career artists; and a growing number of emerging artists.

In a world that has become increasingly interconnected, Nigerian artists, like their counterparts around the world, are taking full advantage of information and communication channels such as the internet, email and mobile technology as well increased mobility.

Engaging subject matters and experimental modes of artistic articulation are gradually becoming de rigeur as artists partake in activities ranging from solo and group exhibitions to biennials, art fairs and art festivals on the continent and around the world.

Pushing the boundaries

Within this context, the current exhibition of new work in mixed media and the painterly installations by acclaimed Lagos-based artist, Kainebi Osahenye, at the CCA (full disclosure; the writer is a director of the centre, which has a programming policy of presenting experimental artistic practices), highlights huge strides within the local circle.

No longer satisfied or challenged by the focus on two dimensional, traditional painting, this current incarnation with Trash-ing builds on the continuous process of experimentation which has pushed the boundaries of Osahenye’s painting.

Trash-ing signals a new departure from his well-known large-scale neo-expressionist paintings towards the incorporation of more conceptual concerns through a format that increasingly borrows from an installation orientated process.

Losing none of his gestural signature strokes, nor the luminosity of his colours or the edginess of his subject matter, he highlights some of the issues that have pervaded his work for nearly twenty years of artistic production.

In the recent works, existential, political, religious and everyday themes which habitually manifest with a degree of playfulness are presented less implicitly in favour of a suggestiveness, which attests to the state of maturity he has attained in his career.

Appropriation as a tool

Osahenye moves seamlessly from the metaphysical to the physical, from the unreal to the real, foregrounding issues for which he is well-known and expanding on others such as globalisation, consumerism, man’s inhumanity and the environment, forming the nodal focus of this new body of work.

In so doing, the exhibition’s title succeeds in playing on the multiple connotations of the word ‘trash’ to signify destruction, abuse, rejection and waste. It also serves as an explicit reminder on the one hand, of man’s disregard for man and on the other, his neglect of the environment.

Using appropriation as a tool, Osahenye’s most ambitious work to date is the ceiling to wall installation titled ‘Casualty’ (2009).

On sighting the burnt cans near a garbage dump of a hotel in Auchi, Osahenye states that he ‘was instantly confronted with thoughts of war, cruelty, melancholy, pain, displacement, anguish and deformity and I started conceiving ways to instal this large scale work to express the force and the power that I felt.’

Empty containers of bottled water, Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Star beer, Malta Guinness, Heineken, Power Horse and other global brands of carbonated drinks representing the ‘detritus of urban existence’ are cut, coloured, sliced, squashed, squeezed, burnt - resulting in a large scale poetic installation.

Osahenye employs this materiality to comment on the predatory nature of globalisation and the hegemony of consumerist behaviour at the expense of and to the detriment of the environment. The result becomes a beautiful yet scathing attack on the culture of Trash-ing.

Not just a fad

The symbol of the cruciform is never far away in his works and the juxtaposition of Crossing with Emissaries results in an arresting dialogic. Crossing is made out of several square slabs in which empty oil paint tubes have been flattened and pasted and in some cases painted over and arranged in the form of a cross.

On the other hand, Emissaries takes the form of three large sized mixed media triptych paintings referencing the symbol of the holy trinity.

Osahenye’s recent works are less about the ‘trendy’ fad in recycling, currently being used to contextualise the work of some contemporary artists from Africa using found objects, than in acknowledging the limitation of the traditional mode of painting whilst simultaneously recognising the abilities and the possibilities of pushing boundaries without losing the essence of the painterly.

The death of painting?

This new direction throws up and provides an apt time to ask, could these works signal the death of painting in Nigeria? Or more appropriately, could it signal the beginning of the ‘new’ face of contemporary Nigerian painting?

The time worn cliché ‘Painting is dead, Long live painting’ finds resonance and pertinence within our locality where little or no in-depth discourse around painting - overwhelmingly the medium of choice - is discussed.

The death of painting has been much heralded as in the 19th century with the advent of photography, and in the late 20th century with the bombardment of new technology driven media in which photography, video and net art were the culprits/enemies.

However, like many older painters such as American John Currin, German Gerhard Richter, and his British contemporaries Jenny Saville, Glenn Brown or Chris Ofili, Kainebi’s work highlights the elasticity and the durability of this quintessential medium.

If this is not the ‘new’ face of painting, it certainly does indicate that the ‘old’ face is no longer acceptable. Trash-ing presages a transition that is sorely needed within the local contemporary art scene to rupture the interminable stasis and the conservative hegemony that could finally trigger the actual death of painting within the country.

Bisi Silva, an independent curator and writer, is the artistic director of the CCA.


  1. You know, some spirits live, and their impacts are never felt.But some leave remarkable landmarks in our sands of time. I love your work. You are great!!!!

  2. @ tunadebowale: promptly forwarded to Bisi Silva, because it must have been her you're meaning! cheers anyway.


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