Private View: Friday 29th October, 6:30 - 9pm
The body of a reclining woman lies stretched out like an undulating landscape in front of a crowd of bodies partially submerged in sea-like substance. This mysterious, textural painting entitled Fiyin at Rest is part of a new series of haunting artworks by Nengi Omuku who paints onto panels of a traditional Nigerian fabric known as Sanyan, lending each piece a distinct physicality. For her latest solo exhibition Chorus, at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery Berlin, the artist continues her explorations of collective identity and notions of belonging with a new focus on spectatorship, ritual and spirituality.
Omuku’s practice has long fluctuated between figuration and abstraction, and this latest body of work evokes a greater sense of fluidity and dynamism that serves to create an almost dream-like atmosphere. The painting Still Life, for example, depicts a faceless woman holding a pot containing a heart-shaped plant and resting her arms on a green, sloping surface with a terrazzo inspired pattern. Behind her, pink swirling clouds float in a pale blue sky. The soft colour palette evokes a sense of serenity and space, reflecting the idea of being lost in thought as the figure gazes at the plant. “Even though it’s not me, I think of this work as a self-portrait,” says Omuku. “It’s an artist thinking about painting a still life, which isn't very common among black artists as we’re normally more concerned with the politics of the body.” The still life genre is also associated with a certain privilege in the sense that the artist has the time and space to be still. Significantly, Omuku’s figure remains detached from the actual act of painting and the world around her is in flux; she appears to be longing for, but not quite able to access a state of calm and contemplation. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that this work depicts a singular body rather than a crowd, perhaps gesturing towards the idea of art providing access to space and individual agency.
Elsewhere, groups of bodies recur as a haunting, spectral presence, often blending into the background or merging into one another. “These people keep resurfacing in my work and they reminded me of the chorus in Greek theatre, who would traditionally observe and sometimes, comment on the action,” explains Omuku. Her figures, however, are silent spectators with their faces deliberately obscured to avoid singularity and express our shared physicality: the body of the collective. In one of the most arresting works, entitled Wave, a large crowd of people directly face the viewer, and while we cannot see their eyes, we feel the presence of their gaze and with it, the eerie sensation of being watched. This particular composition was inspired by the artist’s experience of attending a wedding and witnessing the strange performative ceremony of the photo-call in which different groups of people are asked to stand behind the couple to have their portraits taken. As her first formal gathering after a period of lockdown, Omuku recalls the odd feeling of disconnection from the scene. The large scale of the work and the strong sense of physicality that’s evoked by both the figures themselves and the materiality of the Sanyan fabric recreates a similarly unsettling experience for the viewer.
The work entitled Baptism also explores the impact of the gaze, but here, two groups of people surround a female figure lying on the ground. While the scene is initially disconcerting as we wonder at the inaction of the crowd and the woman’s still body, their relaxed body language and the expansive, undulating surface of the ground suggests a different kind of gathering. “I imagine the ground as a body of water,” explains Omuku. “The crowd, to me, are a homogeneous body observing the process of change, of falling and being renewed.” This is an idea that’s also touched upon in Star gazers, a painting which depicts a group of people gazing at a mysterious, explosive pink form. The shape was inspired by a beautiful cluster of old bamboos that the artist saw on a trip in Nigeria, but Omuku has deliberately abstracted the original image to create the presence of a fiery, energetic and perhaps even spiritual force while the dramatic, tumultuous sky once again signals a period of change.
In this way, Omuku creates a captivating tension between movement and stillness, connection and distance, and while there is still a palpable sense of unease that expresses the complexities and politics of the gaze, these new works gesture towards notions of transition and healing through gestural brushstrokes, warm colours and dynamic, abstract forms.