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Wednesday, 18 July 2018 20:32 Francis Odupute and Bernedeth Idalu Columns
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On Saturday, 12th of May, 2018, five 400-level female students of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts (Painting Section), University of Benin (UNIBEN), Benin City, Edo State of Nigeria, took their male counterparts by storm with a strategic and audacious art exhibition tagged “THERE SHE IS”, which held in Benin City. Every one of these female painting students had something particular to say to the whole world through their creative ‘artivism’ in hues. Hear them out:

Ofulue Nkem Precious is team leader of this audacious 5-woman team of green horns in contemporary African visual arts who made strong statements on the gender agenda through colourful pictorial storytelling. She spoke to journalists during a press preview of the exhibition at Fontini Cristi Art Gallery in Benin City, Nigeria, venue of the enthusing exhibition: “It’s very needful to hold exhibitions. In line with this, we decided to come together to speak in one voice what we face in the society, to speak through and for the girl child what we see in the society and the challenges. Seeing my colleagues’ interest and their willingness to also be part of this - to work towards speaking the unspoken - we came together and we decided it will be a good way to kick off into the art world through the exhibition, first and foremost portraying the female gender. That’s how we got here.”


On what informed the theme of the exhibition: “THERE SHE IS”, Ofulue Nkem Precious (Team Leader) said, “The “SHE” is actually the caption, the main focus of that statement. “THERE SHE IS” generally talks about the female gender –there she is in our society, her place - talking about her pains, her beauty, her desires, her yearnings, emotions and everything concerning the girl child or female- seeing where she’s been placed today and where she ought to be, how the society views her or where they have placed her- negative and positive, that’s what we are talking about and that’s why we chose to go with the theme “THERE SHE IS”.

One of Precious’ exhibited works was titled “APART”, and the team leader cum budding female master painter passionately explained her painting thus: “I did a work I called APART…it’s about a girl child , with a part of her face in colours and the other part in black and white. And the part with the black and white has a tear drop and sad while the other part is colourful and smiling. This can go as far as saying that a girl child in our society today; there are things we face, even if the society tries to neglect it and we’re not talking about it so much; but she has desires- she wants to be loved, she wants to be cared for. There are some parts in Nigeria you go they don’t allow the girl child to go to school. Even if they do very few of them; they’ll say what’s the need, when in the end you just become another man’s property? Why waste money, why waste…? Oya go to the farm!, forgetting that the girl child needs to be treated with so much care and attention.

“Although we know in the society the girl child is not the only one that faces this kind of issue but we chose to portray the girl child because she is the more delicate one and the one who feels this more as the weaker vessel”.

For Okorodudu Faith, her main inspiration for the group exhibition was the “SHE” word. She believes that “…for me, what really inspired me was the “SHE” word, the female Gender itself because to me, I feel like a feminist, so anything about women and the girl child, I like to come out for it, to stand up for it. So, even the theme “THERE SHE IS” is talking about the female –the woman; the girl child: there she is in the society; there she is in her marriage; there she is in the family… She’s actually doing a lot of things in the society which, to some extent, they’re not really appreciated for, are not really recognized for.

So, my own point of view for this exhibition –what really motivated and inspired me is the fact that my painting is sending a lot of messages about the girl child, the woman, the female gender; it’s talking about their good times and bad times, times of pains, times of suffering and times of enjoyment… like one of my painting I titled “Tails in my Eyes”, it’s a woman, she’s actually on this… “Igele”, she’s preparing for a marriage, she’s preparing for a ceremony but when you look into her eyes, she’s not happy; …because your eye’s like a window to your heart. It tells a lot about you, even when you feel you’re happy someone can just look into your eyes and just say, “…something is wrong with this person”.

“So, looking at the picture itself it’s telling a lot about her, she’s going through lots of things that she’s just hiding under that facade that she’s getting married. She just wants to go and come back; she’s getting married, after going for the marriage she’ll still come back, take care of her home, take care of herself, take care of her kids…so, she’s going through a lot; and aside that she’s going through some personal stuffs as well. She’s not the only person suffering from this o! Men are also victims - the male gender, they’re also victims. But 90% research has proven that the women are going through a lot in terms of equalization in the society, in terms of holding offices and the rest; we’re not being given this opportunity to explore because they just have this attitude of neglecting us, putting us aside as females.

But as an individual person, Faith wasn’t ever going to let anyone underrate her, and she was very blunt about it: “No! ... I’m using my painting to campaign against any wrong view of womanhood, I’m using it to campaign, talking about feminism, fighting for the woman’s rights in all areas, like part of what I listed…” Faith said she planned to become a professional studio art after graduating from the university, reiterating that “ I plan on learning more because I believe I’m still in a learning stage, I’m still open to corrections and the rest, so after school I believe I’ll practice and get more skills, acquire more ideas and paintings and explore… I want my paintings to touch souls, not just for the painting aspects, that is who I am; so I express myself with my colours and I let my paintings speak because they say you can detect the artist’s emotions from his painting.

Chukwu Onyinye Praise said, “what inspires me to work is, there’s this inner passion, first of all, to just paint to express myself, to tell stories in paintings, to speak through paintings, and so that’s what inspires me; then what inspired me for this group show is seeing that there are other ladies like me who have this same passion, this driving force, that’s what inspired me to be a part of this.”

One of Onyinye’s paintings that spoke loudly was titled VIGIL; “It’s a girl reading in the middle of the night,” the artist said, “and so, for me, I’m talking to the generation that we have right now, who don’t read. Nobody reads anymore… young people- they’re either busy on their gadgets or they’re going to parties or they’re doing things that are not adding value to themselves. And so, for me, through that painting I’m telling us that reading culture should not be dropped in this generation; a reader is a leader- in any aspect, a reader is a leader. I am using the female figure because, the female -the lady, the woman -to a large extent, she has influence over the environment. For example children, when they see their mummy reading somehow they want to read…She just influences her environment, so I’m using the female figure to depict reading culture.”

Nnoli Chidimma Juliet Favour’s most outstanding work at the exhibition was a series of women preparing for marriage, one of which was amongst the first paintings that were tagged during the event opening as having been chosen by a collector in the course of the exhibition tour. The young artist shed some lights on the work: “…most of my paintings actually depict beauty of the African woman – her curves, her beauty generally. So the painting I’m going to talk about... we know that women are not really, really… like we’re really hard to…what will I say? There’re quarrels among women; jealousy, gossip and all that. So, in the painting I’m talking about, we can see the bride dressing up, and then we can see a woman beside her, envying her. It’s just about marriage preparations- the joys, the jealousies; “She’s getting married, I’m not getting married”, and all of that. So, that’s what I was talking about in the painting.”

And what was Chidinma really trying to say with this painting? “The message is... women, most of the times we envy ourselves; I feel like, if we work together it will be really, really good –like what we’re doing now together; obviously, women working together is quite shaky, most of the times there are quarrels, there are misunderstandings that we don’t easily let go off like the way males do let go of things. So, I feel like, if we support each other – like the painting is not saying –if we support each other it’ll be really good. If you see a fellow female that is beautiful, tell her “you’re beautiful”; do not envy her because she has something that [you think] you don’t have. I feel like, if there is unity among females it’ll be really good.” Asked if they had ever quarreled while preparing for their group exhibition, if there had been any misunderstanding between the five of them in the course of preparing for “THERE SHE IS” exhibition, Chidinma conceded, “In the world, we thrive on conflicts. There must be conflict in every single time; so, yes …sometimes.”

However, the young female artist (who intends to practice art after school as well as write literature) would neither agree to the theory that women are their own worst enemies nor that women contribute majorly to their own problems; Rather, Chidinma believes that “women don’t contribute to that problem; I think society generally has put them in a box, so they’re like still in that box, trying to break out….my daddy tells me this, “If you have a problem, you should look at yourself in the mirror, you should look into the mirror then you see your problems”....meaning that your problem is inside you. So, I don’t feel like that applies to only the females. If a male has a problem, he is…you’re the architect of your own misfortune, in my opinion. So, if you have a problem, just look into the mirror –you’re the cause of your problem, you solve your problem yourself. So, I just feel like it doesn’t only apply to women.”

Last but not the least, Ozioko Lawrencia Nnedinso, preached that people should always keep hope alive, no matter what they go through in life. She explained this from one of her paintings that impressed her the most: “The work that impressed me the most is the work I titled “HOPE Alive”. This work is about a young woman. This young woman has been through a lot, she has seen a lot in life. But despite these things she has been through and is still going through, she still believes that one day she’ll come out of it – she believes so much in herself. The purple colour I used in this work signifies royalty; she believes that one day she will get to that stage she has always dreamt of.”

On the reason why the five of them came together to have the group exhibition, Lawrencia said, “When we’re together, things work better; the exhibition we’re having today, it was inspired by one of our lecturers, Mrs. Esizimentor. We came for her exhibition and she encouraged us with her works. Looking at her works, we were inspired to come up with something… to start doing something. When you look at those works inside, you will see physiques, figures –the woman figure is so interesting that there is no way you will look at it without capturing something about it: the mood in the faces of the people, they always tell stories…”

On where she sees herself going from here, Lawrencia said, “Actually, the truth is, I love Art, and I chose it as my discipline…UNIBEN didn’t give it to me. I believe so much in myself that after school I’m going to practice Art. I want to be a studio artist – full time studio artist.”

Lawrencia’s general message to the public is that “…this exhibition is actually about life. Art is about life; expressions – we express ourselves, we feel free and talk about things happening in the society and encourage people to do the right things. This exhibition is all about art - our views concerning what we’re seeing in our society today. There are different thing happening in the society, and the work of an artist is to pick the anomalies that happen in the society and talk about it, and try to correct the anomalies, and thing work out better.

“Every lady is involved in the “Here She Is” title. When you look at our works, they tell us more about “Here She Is” – it’s all about ladies, what we go through in life, and then we believe in ourselves that no matter what you have been through, you will still make it. When you’re working, we believe in a better future.”

The group exhibition which lasted for a week at Fontini Cristi Art Gallery in Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria, and was also supported by the University Of Benin Trained Visual Artists (UBTVA), was a great success on many fronts. Not fewer than 10 works were tagged on the opening day alone; and the population of visitors to the group show was unprecedented. According to the CEO of the gallery, Mr. Umeh Uchenna Cyrinus, “These young female art students of the University of Benin are set to rewrite the narratives against the seemingly low exhibition interest among most UNIBEN trained artists/students….the exhibitors have proven to me that they have the sting and draughtsmanship that will take them far in the art world.”

Dr. Kenneth Njoku, founder and director of UBTVA, and curator of the group exhibition, said that “By choosing the female form as a common theme of preference, they have expressed visually the recurring features of human activities/affairs as it concerns their immediate culture and environment. This further indicates that works of art illuminates life more than anything else. E should feel and appreciate their pluralized technical, thematic, and stylistic choices since art that is free in its end as in its means is not free until it is freely appreciated.”

Mr. El Dragg Leonard Okwoju, a versatile artist and a teacher with the University of Benin, could not hold his joy for the rare art exhibition by his own painting students. He said for five of his female students to come together to do the group art show “…strikes a very, very interesting chord because, ordinarily, women have a problem uniting. There’s this common thing among women, you know – women are naturally envious of each other all over the world; anywhere you go to, women are generally against themselves…Women have a natural tendency to want to pull each other down; but to my surprise, this is a reverse of that narrative – women coming together to do something that is of a common interest; and all of them put their efforts equally, you know, all the females in my 4oo level class – five of them came together, got this idea and decided to execute it. It’s a very, very laudable affair.”

El Dragg averred that “...if they maintain this kind of tempo I think the sky is their limit, you know. Because, over the years most of the problems we have are with the female students because they always fall short, because they don’t feel they have to work as hard as the boys. But here, I see the girls taking stance that are expected of the men. So, I’m very, very impressed.”

Earlier in a speech, Nigerian Government’s National Gallery of Arts, (NGA) official representative at the event, Mr. Owolabi Obuezzar, Curator of NGA, Benin, Edo State, said the National Gallery of Art (NGA) was committed to assisting young artists like these ones in any way, in future, emphasizing that “…the National Gallery of Art (NGA) is in Edo State to help active stakeholders move the contemporary visual arts to the next level. This we have been doing since 2007; the office in Edo State here was opened in 2006 and by 2007 the first exhibition, at the grassroots, called ‘Children’s Day Talent Hunt’ started….At all levels the NGA is ready to collaborate with active stakeholders to develop contemporary art in Edo State in general, and that is the main reason why I am happy to be part of this exhibition. The Gallery is willing, at any point in time, to work with artists, to work with private art galleries in the State, to work with financiers, to work with promoters of arts and culture, at all levels. If it is beyond us in the State, of course, we have to link up with the head quarters in Abuja, and look for others to join hands together and do the exhibitions.

Photos: Francis Odupute
Top Photo: (Left- right): Mr.  Umeh Uchenna Cyrinus, the CEO of Fontini Cristi Art Gallery; Ofulue Nkem Precious, leader of the group exhibition team; Nnoli Chidimma Juliet Favour; Chukwu Onyinye Praise; Okorodudu Faith; and Dr. Kenneth Njoku, after the press preview for “THERE SHE Is” group art exhibition.


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