Mufu Oniface and Bisi Silva on Kainaebi Osahenye's Trash-ing, Creativity, Curating, Writing about Art and More
From October 12 to November 10, CCA, the Centre for Contemporay Art, Lagos hosted Kainaebi Osahenye’s exhibition titled Trash-ing. A few days after the opening Mufu Onifade wrote in The Guardian newspaper a not very positive review. Bisi Silva took a few weeks and finally commented on Mufu’s views. I copy below both articles in case you missed them. I think they are worth reading.
By Mufu Onifade, The Guardian, September 29, 2009
CREATIVITY is an expensive enterprise. It is invaluable and priceless. It glorifies its producers and executors. It also elevates its patrons and collectors. But not so with certain products of modern times: modernism has embraced all sorts of trash-able materials so much that the potency of art and creativity has been thoroughly wrestled. It is one of the banes of today’s artist who seems caught between the creed of aesthetics and mundane off-handed triviality. The road to real creativity is often hard and rough.
These and more are some of the posers raised by the art community after the opening ceremony of Osahenye Kainebi’s installation/exhibition titled Trash-ing and held at Bisi Silva’s Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos.
The show came with a flurry of murmuring which even took the shine away from the show. Kainebi, a seasoned painter who works and lives in Lagos and still maintains a studio in Auchi, has been on the art scene for close to eighteen years, especially with his first solo exhibition titled Tears in Our Time held in 1991 at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Victoria Island, Lagos. He has since been very consistent with one solo exhibition after the other, without even ignoring continual appearances in group exhibitions. He is highly commended for using his creativity to contribute to aesthetic legacies that Nigeria can be proud of. Like every experimental artist, Kainebi grew through thick and thin of creativity and has now probably exhausted his purview.
At the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos where the opening ceremony of Trash-ing took place on Saturday, September 12, 2009, he transformed the cozy art centre into a depository of trash. More like a dust-bin, all objects (a collection of plastic bottles deliberately sliced into halves and some decorated in various tones of colour) were not arranged, but dumped to make a statement of trash. There were also dumped tubes of used pigments. The artist himself did not mince words in accentuating his thoughts and how he arrived at the dumping ground. He has run out of creative ideas, having painted all that was there to paint. He has exhausted his creativity in the purview of aesthetics and so, had to resort to something more degrading: the trash. In his explanation, the show was a kind of protest, a resonance of existing political and economic decay in Nigeria. In other words, he has used his art to chronicle the decay that Nigeria now parades among the comity of nations. Perhaps one should also add that Nigeria is stinking, although the stench was missing from the show.
If Kainebi and his promoter, Bisi Silva had thought their show was registered in the positive side of the viewers, they were mistaken. First and foremost, most people who came to see the show paid more attention to their inter-personal interactions rather than all objects of the show itself. Armed with plastic cups of assorted drinks and accompanying small chops, they hobnobbed, discussed in whispers and giggled aloud ireminiscent of a typical cocktail party. A few known artists in attendance would only turn the venue into an arena of convergence for like minds. They were all so subsumed by their subjects of conversation rather than being consumed by the objects of exhibition. They turned their backs on the works and faced their business of discussion as if everything depended on it. It is understandable. Nigeria is not used to these tenets of modern art, which, to a large extent, debases aesthetics and can be best described as an abuse of creativity.
Like the story of Ali Baba and the angel in the Oxford English book of yester years, the show attracted psychopathic comments as many were forced to disregard their innocence. Ali Baba told a gathering of grown-ups that there was an angel in a dark room. Anyone who sighted the angel was a good man. Whoever failed to see him was a bad one. Of course, everyone who entered the room claimed to have seen the angel. In truth, there was no angel at all, and that was an attestation to the gullibility of man. As for Kainebi’s Trash-ing, those who attended the show with smiles and positive comments were the one who understood and appreciated modern art. Those who think otherwise were backward and should go back to update themselves with happenings in the art of Europe. But this is Nigeria. A country that has produced classical artists who went through the training and had to battle with the seriousness embedded in formal art training and the primitivity of workshop or informal training. According to Oreoluwa Adedeji, a curator and consultant at the International Fine Art, Eagan, Minnesota, United States, “In the age of contemporary (modern) art, it seems as though the ideas of creating abstract and non-objective concepts, have given many artists an excuse to create works that are beautiful, but appear effortless and easily replicable. There is an anecdote about the ambivalence towards creativity and skill in contemporary art”.
Adedeji also told a story of relegation that has become the lot of modern art. Her words: “It is said that there was once an exclusive art auction in New York or London with many paintings auctioned to the highest bidders for hundreds of thousands of dollars. A time came for the last painting to be auctioned off. It was a colourful and simple abstract that mesmerized the ‘highly cultured’ audience. The painting was auctioned off for 1.2 million dollars. In the end, it was revealed that a monkey was the painter!”
That is the level of debasement to which world art has been dragged, but Nigeria, in spite of these modern trends, still maintains a respectable spot in the aspect of art and creativity. That probably accounts for the reason some Nigerian art collectors are more informed and knowledgeable than many artists. Those artists who are aware of these facts are also conscious of the quality of works they turn out.
Kainebi’s show was a combination of installation and exhibition. First, the works exhibited were quite unlike the Kainebi that we all knew. His illustrative prowess gave way to “non-objective concepts”, to borrow from the words of Adedeji. Although those colours applied to the sliced plastics are attractive due to their primary essence. They are applied raw and they stripped the objects of in-depth, analytical chromic infusion. As for the installation, it would be wrong for anyone to think that this aspect of art is alien to this part of the universe. In 1999, an installation workshop organized by the Goethe-Institut (German Cultural Centre), Lagos titled Swimming Calabashes was hosted by the Centre. Initiated by Emeka Udemba, a Nigerian artist based in Germany, the workshop attracted about 20 artists including Kunle Filani, Mike Omoighe, Toyin Alade, Deji Dania, Chuka Nnabuife, Mukaila Ayoade and others. At the workshop, Udemba made a mistake of referring to the workshop as the first in Nigeria. He was instantly corrected by participating artists.
In fact, Kunle Filani who migrated between the workshop and his work schedules at the Federal College of Education, Akoka, Lagos took the gathering of artists through a historical path to traditional African Art. In his argument, traditional Africa could boast of installation as part of its artistic and cultural history. Such objects that were used for ritual purposes could be found in shrines (like modern day galleries), crossroads (modern day outdoor erection) and many more. They served beyond aesthetic purposes and maintained a high level of spirituality for all partakers.
In summary, any form of art, whether in classical or modern term, must serve one of two functions: aesthetic or utilitarian. Any art that fails in any of these functions must be re-assessed. In the same vein, if installation is considered for any reason at all, the message must be graphically clear.
By Bisi Silva, The Guardian, October 20, 2009
ONE is compelled to react to Mufu Onifade’s article published in The Guardian of September 29, 2009 under the title In Modern Times, Creativity goes Trash-ing, considering the publicity that the show had generated.
In spite of Onifade’s comment, it is instructive to state that Trash-ing, a solo exhibition of mixed media work and painterly installations by acclaimed artist, Kainebi Osahenye had also highlighted some of the failings of Onifade’s arts writing.
However, it is believed that this rejoinder will further stimulate an informed discussion about painting specifically, exhibition presentation and ultimately the state of contemporary visual art practice in Nigeria.
While Onifade’s opinions of the exhibition are acceptable and valid within his own subjectivity, the irritating aspect of any review is when writers use art historical vocabulary with a total disregard for, or any minimal attempt at, contextualisation.
Onifade’s text is replete with confusions and sweeping generalisations. Besides, there is a plethora of inaccuracies. He talks about modernism without the briefest definition of what or which modernism he is referring to. Is he talking about European modernism? Is it early modernism of the mid 19th century that saw the rise of the avant – garde, when Eduoard Manet, with his painting, Le dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863), began to challenge the realistic representation of life in their work? Or is it the modernism that began with Picasso and the infamous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) with its abstraction of the human figure and reference to African sculptural traditions? Or is it the modernism that saw the birth of the deconstruction of the art object with Marcel Duchamp’s readymade urinal, Fountain (1917)? Not only was Duchamp’s piece one of the most radical works of art of the early 20th century, it also changed the ways in which art was perceived and discussed as the precursor to conceptual art, and contemporary art.
Is Onifade conflating the ‘Modern’ with the ‘Contemporary’? And if so, to what end?
We can also consider Modernism on the homeground. Unlike what the canonisation of Euro-American modernism would want us to believe – that those outside of these ‘privileged’ geographical areas exist outside of history, out of time – the reverse is true. Africa and especially Nigeria was experiencing its own modernism.
A year before Picasso completed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a pivotal work of 20th century European modernism ironically inspired by the African classical art, which he came across at the Trocadero Museum in Paris (now Le Musee de Quai Branly), Aina Onabolu completed a painting in oil of Lagos socialite, Mrs. Spencer Savage (1906). This, to date, remains the first oil painting apportioned not only to a Nigerian, but also to an African. In the late 40s and 50s, Nigeria’s own quintessential modern artist, Ben Enwonwu, moved away from the realistic portraiture eschewed by Onabolu towards combining African aesthetics and subject matter with European materials, a trend subsequently adopted and taken further in the 60s and 70s by the Zaria rebels such as Yusuf Grillo, Uche Okeke and Bruce Onobrakpeya. The stunning beauty of Enwonwu’s sculptural works, Anyanwu (1955) and Shango (1964) reflects this development.
These are a few examples of experimental, avant-garde practices, which continue today through the work of contemporary artists such as Osahenye and set the background to the rest of this text highlighting the writer’s ‘exhausted purview’.
It is also pertinent to clarify the programming policy of the hosting organisation. Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos has a curatorial and critical imperative that goes beyond hanging ‘things’ on a wall and putting red dots beside them. It aims at encouraging, supporting and providing a platform for the critical engagement with the changing dynamics of artistic practices outside an educational system that is relevant to 21st century realities. A system in which dead white men, of which Michaelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci sit unchallenged on the thrones, are repeatedly hailed – in Africa by Africans – as the hallmark by which all art must be judged. Unlike the ’stench’ which is said to be missing from the exhibition, I say that the real ’stench’ that exists is the stifling, putrid regurgitation of the same staid anachronistic paintings and sculptures that are churned out by the army of artisans in the name of art.
However, there are few areas in which the writer and I concur, especially as regards the extent of experimentation that has pushed Osahenye’s work to the forefront of contemporary artistic practice in Nigeria. That with each professional exhibition, his critical acknowledgement of the history of painting is manifest as well as the way his use of material has evolved, attests to his ability to leave behind his colleagues who take refuge in ‘churning out’ a repetitive signature style. His recent outing was a continuation of his experimentation with, and the use of, a myriad of objects and materials ranging from hair, paper, found objects and other ephemera to his current use of paper mache, bottles, cans, and oil paint tubes. What is interesting is that the more he changes, the more he stays the same, and the deeper his idea of painting becomes; yet the reviewer could not see that let alone engage with it. These were some of the characteristics that informed the curatorial decision to work on this project. It is rare for artists to create work that can be read on many levels – formal, aesthetic or contextual – revealing layers of stories, visuality and materiality. Oshayene’s Casualities 2009 installation is a case in point.
As I have written recently and I quote copiously: “Using appropriation as a tool, Osahenye’s most ambitious work to date is the ceiling to floor installation. 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 install this large scale work to express the force and the power that I felt. Empty containers of bottled water, of 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 has resulted 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. In so doing, the result becomes a poetic tableau but also a scathing attack on the culture of Trash-ing.”
Apart from objecting to being called a ‘promoter’, a term more in keeping with a boxing event a la Don King, as a ‘real’ (many so called ‘curators’ abound) professional curator – one of the few with formal postgraduate training and qualification and local and international practice – I do take issue with his description of the presentation. Onifade’s statement reads: ‘like a dust-bin all objects (a collection of plastic bottles deliberately sliced into halves and some decorated in various tones of colour) were not arranged, but dumped to make a statement of trash.’
The 101 rule of curatorial practice is presentation. The way in which exhibitions are installed forms the cornerstone of any curatorial undertaking. However, with no visible curatorial antecedents in the complexity of installing such an exhibition, I am drawn to conclude that such intricacies are above his ‘experiential’ radar.
The presentation of the exhibition was a carefully thought-out and planned undertaking, which resulted in several conversations, studio and gallery visits between myself, the artist and the co-ordinator of the exhibition, Jude Anogwih, over a prolonged period. The placing of the works was not gratuitous but calculated and subsequently immaculately implemented. Casualities in all its deceptive manifestation as the most ‘unarranged’ work is actually the most meticulously arranged with the artist refusing to abrogate that responsibility to anyone else. He alone knows the way in which the work has to be placed for it to be meaningful. To say that the trash was dumped is not only a figment of the writer’s imagination, but demonstrates a lack of imagination.
This is not an Art History nor an Art writing lesson as neither are within my capacity. However, it is an indication that writing without appropriate references, or doing basic research, leads to misinformation. Trash-ing happens to be one of the few contextualised shows currently taking place that veers from the (p)sycophantic babble exhibition catalogues are so known for in this locality. Sylvester Ogbechie, professor of Art History at University of California, Santa Barbara wrote an insightful essay that tracks and contextualises the development and evolution of the artist’s work not only in regards to local and international artistic references and practices, but also through his use of materials and his subject matter. Philosopher/Art Critic Frank Ugiomoh of University of Port Harcourt also did a critique of the themes and issues in Osahenye’s work. Onifade’s review highlights an inability or unwillingness to engage with the work – references to the actual works are scant and derogatory, neither informing nor highlighting a coherent argument. That he was unable to rise to the discursive and aesthetic challenges that Osahenye’s work proffers and the context within which it has been developed and presented, reflects less on the artist but is an indictment of the level and the quality of the text.
Osahenye’s current exhibition also presents a different way to explore painting. Is there anything written somewhere that says that painting must be oil, acrylic, watercolour or pastel? That it must be figurative and literal? That what you see is what you get, leaving little or nothing to the viewer’s imagination. Such rule sank with the Titanic over a century ago. It is obvious that Onifade barely grasps with the idea or the history of the ‘dematerialisation’ of the art object. It is important to note that attempts by powerful critics such as American Clement Greenberg to prescribe the boundaries of art engendered a revolt by artists. And the resolve thereafter was that the emphasis should be on the idea behind the object, not on the object. Critics of visual art exhibitions like Onifade should take note.
Indeed, Osahenye’s work is a complex exhibition that needs to be read on many levels. That an art work or an exhibition allows such multiple readings is rare and real criticism should be about information, about thinking and about creating a platform for learning and debate.
Obviously, for me this is primarily background reading about artistic discourses in Nigeria. Though, of course, Lagos is not Kano, is not Maiduguri, is not Zaria. I’ve never seen the exhibition (I’m still in London after all), I’m not sufficiently familiar with artistic discourses beyond my areas of fieldwork (even there I doubt my year of fieldwork gave me more than a glimpse, though I’m not supposed to tell my examiners). So I better leave that uncommented. Will I? Well, one quick positioning maybe. A more general note. A matter of taste and preferences: I strongly prefer conceptual arts, i.e. art that aims to touch me, to question, to get me thinking … Here, aesthetics are of secondary importance. I’ve seen many beautiful art works but I can hardly recall them. Others, not pleasing at all, I have spent hours looking at, I have struggled with them, I have cried in front of. They are burnt into my visual memory. So, yes, I do take great issues with Onifade’s assertion that art should either be aesthetically pleasing or utilitarian. But, let’s leave it there.
Arright, almost forgot that, in all fairness here a bit of background on Onifade: Here is an article on him in Next’s studio visit series. If you scroll down, there are three of his paintings on Kiaca Gallery under future exhibitions. And, here, a few of his thoughts about Araism, the artistic philosophy he has adopted. (I might add a paragraph on this from a book I’ve read a few years ago and can’t even recall the author spontaneously. But only if I find the book in the library here, my own copy is in Germany.)
And, Bisi Silva (in case you’re not familiar with her from previous entries) - well, of course, check out her blog first.