Digital opening : Saturday 27 March, 6 pm CMT
Black figures with striking motifs painted white onto their skin appear against burning blue skies and stylised settings. These people are the deities and characters from Igbo mythology, vividly reimagined by Nigerian artist Kelechi Nwaneri. The history of the Igbo people of South Eastern Nigeria dates back to the 9th century, but their indigenous way of life is rapidly fading in the face of dominating Western cultural narratives. The artist’s first solo exhibition entitled Myths at Kristin Hjellegjerde gallery’s Berlin space presents a new body of mixed-media artworks which are not only visually arresting, but also serve as important artistic documentation of a culture at risk of being erased from public consciousness.
Nwaneri uses motifs drawn mainly from three indigenous languages - Adinkra from Ghana, Uli and Nsbidi from Southern Nigeria - to decorate the skin of his figures, often selecting precise symbols to express the individual’s personality or else to contribute to the work’s wider narrative. Whilst these motifs are derived from specific, ancient writing systems, much of the imagery is recognisable, and can be interpreted on a basic level. This careful balance between cultural specificity and universality is central to Nwaneri’s visual language and the artistic aims of this particular exhibition, which, according to the artist, is ‘about educating, not just viewing.’ ‘The introduction of western culture through colonialism has resulted in a hybrid culture; a blend of the old and new, and a huge dilution of the indigenous way of life despite the depth and richness of the Igbo culture,’ he explains. Each of the narratives and characters depicted in the works have been carefully researched, but Nwaneri also wanted the voices of Igbo people to be present in the exhibition and so he travelled to rural communities to conduct interviews which are screened in an accompanying video.
However, the works themselves are distinctly compelling, employing a mixture of paint, charcoal and pencil to create rich, vivid detail in an almost graphic style that flattens the image, and references religious illustrations and the ancient art of visual documentation. The compositions are inspired by source imagery or the artist’s own imagination, and typically contain surreal elements that help to elevate the scenes into the realm of myth and dreams. One painting for example depicts Ala - the Igbo goddess of earth, morality, fertility, and creativity - half draped in colourful patterned fabric with an orange halo encircling her head and her hand reaching out to the child-like figure behind her. The halo denotes her connection to the spiritual world, whilst the tiled flooring and neat hedgerow suggests a more domestic setting. Although this scene is not immediately situated in the context of Western religions, the snake lying at Ala’s feet is reminiscent of the Biblical story of creation, and serves to familiarise the Igbo people’s religious mythology as well as imbue the work with narrative intrigue.
Throughout the exhibition, these visual points of familiarity act as gateways into the Igbo people’s way of life, encouraging viewers to not only identify, but also engage more deeply with the narratives. At the same time, Nwaneri’s fervid colour palette captivates and directs the gaze, conveying an atmospheric sense of the local climate and landscapes. Each painting possesses a distinct aliveness, which combines powerfully in the exhibition to capture the rich diversity of a culture, its heritage and stories.