Gathering by Nengi Omuku – Art Exhibition in London
A group of people sit with their backs to the viewer while in the distance a crowd of spectral figures form a wall of bodies that blends into the beige background. This haunting, textural painting, The Sit Down by Nengi Omuku, depicts a non-violent protest, which was originally inspired by three separate instances of injustice in the artist’s home country of Nigeria, but the work gains new significance in the light of the tragic events currently unfolding in Lagos as peaceful protesters continue to be met with brutality. Omuku’s latest body of work marks a shift in the artist’s focus from the individual to the collective body and communal existence. Painted onto panels of a traditional Nigerian fabric known as Sanyan, the artworks negotiate the complexities of identity and belonging in relation to gender, race and cultural heritage. The artist’s solo show entitled Gathering at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery’s London Bridge space brings together a collection of highly atmospheric and emotive scenes filled with urgency and longing.
The majority of Omuku’s latest artworks were inspired by local events in Lagos and the corresponding imagery circulated by the press. The powerful imagery of The Sit Down, for example, came in response to scenes of mass unemployment that ensued following the government ban on motorcycles and tricycles (the local form of public transport); the devastating collapse of a school building near the artist’s studio that buried young children and for which no-one was held accountable; and the billions of Naira (Nigerian currency) that were allegedly dispensed by the government during the pandemic, but which never made it to the people who needed it most. However, the charged, traumatic and affecting scenes that comprise this body of work appear now as the uncanny foreshadowings of the current protests against a corrupt branch of the Nigerian police force known as SARS, which was established in 1992 to combat armed robbery but instead became the perpetrator of widespread illegal activities. Most recently, the group captured and killed a Nigerian civilian leading to a series of high-profile peaceful protests in the central commercial district of Lagos. On Tuesday 20th October, a member of the government instructed the electricity at a major protest site to be turned off and announced a state wide curfew, but many of the protesters remained in solidarity to their cause. News footage shows these people sitting peacefully, waving the Nigerian flag and singing the national anthem. The Nigerian military were called in and opened fire at the site, injuring and killing civilians.
The exhibition’s title piece Gathering echoes the scenes of real people carrying and mourning the bodies of those that they have lost whilst also drawing our attention to the multiple connotations of the word itself, the different ways in which we come together as well as the potential power and danger. Though a few portraits are included in the exhibition, the majority of the artworks specifically depict the act of ‘gathering’ or coming together as a collective, but nevertheless, a strong sense of absence pervades. Indeed, many of the paintings were created in lockdown, a period in which the artist was largely cut off from human interaction. As with all of her compositions, she built her scenes from a digital collage of her source imagery, specifically looking for photographs of groups of people in Nigeria and exploring new ways of coming together during the pandemic. Though the idea of a collective is suggestive of unity, strength and belonging, Omuku’s moody skies and faceless figures also imbue the works with a sense of fragility and transience. In one of the most striking paintings entitled Technicolour Protest, for example, a man stands at the forefront, his arm raised and fist clenched in a moment of desperation, paint pouring from his limbs, whilst once again, the crowd stands passively watching the action unfold. This tension between movement and stillness, sound and silence, unity and disparity creates an extraordinary atmosphere of unease that permeates this whole body of work.
Adding another layer of physicality to the artworks, Omuku paints on a Nigerian fabric known as Sanyan. Traditionally, Sanyan was made from wild silk, obtained from the cocoons of moths and spun into a thick, rough fibre before being woven together to make fabric for traditional attire. Sanyan was typically worn by wealthy individuals in precolonial western Nigeria, and often owners would sign the fabric as its ownership was a symbol of prestige. Although production of this silk cloth has fallen into decline, the fabric is still woven in certain circles using industrial cotton as a substitute. Omuku sources her material from vintage markets in an attempt to reclaim the historical significance of the cloth as well as a lost sense of pride in craftsmanship. To create her canvases, she stitches several strips together, resulting in a unique, textured surface dotted with tiny holes and imbued with a strong sense of place that relates specifically to cultural heritage and identity, which are key themes in her practice. The painting entitled Remorse, Stolen Knickers, for example, reflects on a Nigerian tradition in which the older women in a community would protest naked on the streets at times of extreme chaos or disaster. In the foreground of the artwork the two men are drawn from a real life newspaper photograph of police detaining men who had stolen women’s underwear, but the artist has deliberately replaced the police presence with women who are peacefully seeking their own justice by using the powerful symbolism of their bodies.
This also links to Omuku’s perception of the body ‘as a site or an event centre’ that is constantly changing in response to individual and collective experiences. ‘I’ve always thought about different ways to talk about the body as multilayered as opposed to the singularity of what you see. I think about how you paint a mental space in response to what is happening within and around the body,’ explained the artist. As a result, Omuku deliberately obscures the faces of her figures to avoid singularity, instead seeking to create a sense of relatability that appeals to our shared physicality and more specifically in these most recent works, to the body of the collective. In earlier paintings, the artist employed colour as a way of further abstracting her figurative forms, suggesting a more fluid and fluctuating relationship between the body, emotion and space. Whilst this sense of fluidity remains visible in the swirling movement of the brush strokes across her figures’ limbs, these latest works move away from neutralised emotional spaces to politicised bodies and scenes that are culturally and socially specific. The new, darker tones of her figures and backgrounds first developed in response to the natural, rich brown colour of Sanyan, were also influenced by the photographs of Lagos which showed black bodies in her local environment. However, the works also resonate on a global level, bringing issues of race and brutality more explicitly to the forefront.
Gathering is at once a powerful expression of the troubling present moment and a poignant longing for a time when we will gather not in sadness or distress, but in happiness and celebration; a time when we are able to communicate not through violence, but peacefully, through our innate, shared humanity.