Friday, April 14, 2006

damola awoyokun on muri adejimi's exhibition

In this piece, Freedom and Subversion in the Post-Surrealist Works of Muri Adejimi, Damola Awoyokun assesses the artist's exhibition, ending today at the French Cultural Centre in Lagos.
Introspection: Inside, Looking Out, is an exhibition of 19 works of Nigeria's best Post-surrealist painter, Muri Adejimi in Maison De France, Ikoyi, Lagos (French Cultural Centre) from 31 March to April 14. It is powered by Glo. Like its grandparent, the Dada Movement, and parent, Surrealism, that quickly developed a reputation for content and formal revolt, sweet transgressions and authority-weakening provocation, Post-Surrealism continues this tradition here in Nigeria. Two works, Maiden Voyage and Baptism attest to this.
In Maiden Voyage (2001, oil on canvas) a wet condom-like, skin-clinging, see-through charitably introduces us to the central maiden's spellbinding hips that prefigures the element of surrealist transparency apparent in the head of a gorilla and lion far off on the rocks. This central lady on whom the viewer's focus proceeds and may voluntarily rest is just emerging from a swim with lips slightly parted perhaps gasping for breath. She squats on a rocky bank with thighs splayed like Halle Berry in the Catwoman movie, backing the viewer. Beside her to the left are two other maidens. In front, in the shallow river and to the rocky hills on the other side of the river are other maidens proud of their bodies so naked save for waist, hand, arm, calf, ankle or cross-torso beads. They are full of freedom. They are not enclosed. Their thighs are not joined together they are splayed. If their arms are not spread out towards the skies, they are extended towards themselves cutting poses that they chose for the convivial atmosphere.
The maidens jam-packed with movement seem to be unaware of any gaze at all even from themselves, from social taboos or unnecessary religious restrictions. They are so free and so happy as the painting tells us the two go together. Even the maiden that looks religious causally sits 'backing' the viewer, her thighs widespread, the neck of her pear-shaped hips playing host to the most exquisite beads in the painting. Her hijab is transparent, billowy and unwet. The maidens are profuse and exist far off diminishing to elf-like sizes on the rocky hills even to outside of the painting staking their claim on as much ground as possible.
The dramatic intensity and sensual electricity of the maidens almost belie an awe-inspiring talent of Adejimi expressed in the photographic replication of a basin lying among a glass container, calabashes, a comb, a bra, reckless jewelleries and more beads and pearls. Some of these sparkle as a result of an obscure sun which as well powers the glow strong on the central maiden's buttocks and on the back of her right calf.
Baptism (1983, oil on Barber board) also has images of an obscure sun(s) but with a glowing firmament, flying and standing white birds, a section of a river but only a stunning lady: the Black Mona Lisa (BML). If Muri Adejimi's Baptism is a subversion of the biblical baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan, so be it. The history of arts and science, the forward-march of progress and development is a sequence of subversions of received knowledge and perspectives. Though BML's hair is secured from public view by a sky-blue head tie, she too is fully naked save for the pearls and neck beads, cross-torso beads and ear beads.
From the elbows of her left hand, to her left waist to the base of right breast then to her right shoulder, there is an axial merger with an isolated rock chassis banking the river. Her cross-torso beads even encircle this rock as if it is an extension of her body. One is tempted to think that the BML is a sculpture like a sphinx released from the rocks by sculpting away everything that does not look like an alluring lady but the painter acts not like natural dreams or fantasies central to surrealism careless always with details. BML's skin and colour, her chubby cheeks, red lips, her thick eye lashes shaped as the two wings of a bird raised in flight, her well-informed breasts, firm and supple, up to the colour and the texture of the tip of her nipples are so real to dismantle the view that she emerged from the stone beneath.
Adejimi's forthright realism insists on fidelity to facts, his lines are crisply clear and elegant, his precise manner exudes a certain coolness that contrasts with the erotic emphasis of the subject matter. Surrealism is opposed to destructive urges but Adejimi goes further and glorifies procreative urges.
BML is more than a mannequin modelling pearls and beads. She is more than a figure with which Muri Adejimi illustrates he has taken the unsparing depiction of black breasts to the next level. She has personality, and her physical presence and grace are undeniable. Her poise and her sense of self-esteem partake in the ample space she dominates on the Barber board. Hers is a towering neck that supports a radiant face whose lips smile softly and her eyes fixed sideways on something to the northeast outside the painting without her head leading the way. The folds of her head tie are aloof and severe forming a disciplined pattern that is an outward _expression of her inner moderation, self-restrain and natural confidence. Warm and friendly, yes; but she is not down-to-earth, she is up on a rock and she is not accessible easily since unlike the central figure in Maiden Voyage, a river separates her from the viewer which perhaps explains why what is teasing her smile and to what she is looking up is very elusive. More than the face, her breasts that hold more glow are coloured like the sunny evanescent clouds behind her. It may be an invitation, perhaps, by Adejimi to where our attention should be most abundant, keeping fresh the painting's ability to haunt. It may also be like Salvador Dali's putrefaction philosophy represented as ants, that with time, like the clouds, this beauty, this lusciousness too, shall pass.
Muri displays a more thoughtful colour composition by which free associations could be vividly stimulated so that the eye moves with pleasure from the lemon green of the water ripples to a coarse surface of the rocks with a combination of gloomy red, dirty brown, Ibadan brown, reddish brown, to the variously coloured beads, and then to the sky- the theatre of possibilities, with its yellow stretch, golden clouds, blue patches and flying birds.
But Muri's chiaroscuro is debatable here except he is suggesting there are many suns creating the unfeasible shades. Like Authority (1995, oil on canvas) another painting in this exhibition, the lady stands in the way of the sun but rays still come out behind her making the skies brilliant in the style of Gustave Doree. If the sun is so low behind her it is not geometrically possible to have the reflection of just her head in water. So there has to be sun B behind her but above sun A. This may perhaps explain why her head and the irregular rock chassis have their reflections on themselves in the ripples. But these two suns cannot be responsible for the light cast on BML's forehead, cheeks and breasts. So there has to be sun C above her in front, which is to be assumed is not there because the lady looks up freely without squinting. However the painting may not be of an instantaneous time (t) because there is only one Holy Ghost and here there are many white birds hovering around which actually could have been one bird but seen, depicted over several times (t1, t2, t3…) in several motions. Similarly it must have been the case with the sun, it may be one sun but that its several movements in the sky cast several confusing shadows and glow.
Baptism, Maiden Voyage like all the paintings collected in this exhibition are a judgement on behalf of a Eurocentric conception of a beautiful woman since all the women are slim and/or have long flowing hair, and have breasts that are more of sex utensils rather than mothering comrades. Nonetheless the works are an epitome of Muri Adejimi's meticulous draughtsmanship and photo-realistic details, with responsive colour command and associations heightened by optical puzzles. Therein are tones of freedom in subversion and tones of subversion in freedom, which this exhibition proposes must be status quo in all of Nigeria.
  • Damola Awoyokun is the Managing Editor of Fawi Publications. He can be contacted at:


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