Mar 13 – Apr 6, 2019


Everard Read CIRCA Cape Town is proud to present ‘Walk on Water’ by Chibuike Uzoma. This is the artist’s first solo exhibition at the Cape Town gallery.


‘Suspended in Uncertainty: The Art and Imagination of Chibuike Uzoma’

By Bishupal Limbu


Chibuike Uzoma belongs to the generation of Nigerians who grew up with a sense of postcolonial disillusionment unalleviated by the euphoria that accompanied independence. Among his heroes and sources of inspiration, Uzoma lists Chinua Achebe and Frantz Fanon, both of whom wrote prescient and insightful accounts of the postcolonial era, foretelling the cynical manipulation of the energies of decolonization by the new powers.

Walk on Water is the title Uzoma has chosen for this exhibition, and the phrase suggests something impossible or fanciful, something that can only be imagined or brought about by an immense act of faith. Reflecting on the title, Uzoma asks: “Is it possible for the things that have gone wrong to become right again? How, when, and where can we walk on water?”

The works included in the exhibition are not so much answers to these questions as they are ruminations on how one lives suspended in the uncertainty of not even knowing where to look for answers.

The transformation of this uncertainty into art is what one finds in these paintings and photographs. They record an engagement with both the personal and political dimensions of “the things that have gone wrong”. In Chief and Hens (Portrait of a Pedophile), one of the most explicitly contextualized artworks in the exhibition, the title and accompanying text frame a wild abundance of colors and forms. One may detect a foot here or a flower there, but the painting is mostly uninterested in figures, demonstrating instead a gestural freedom that gives an overwhelming impression of controlled chaos. If the painting is a portrait, it is one in which the subject cannot be easily identified. The story of sexual abuse orients our perception of the painting, but this story is given larger significance by the title and the method of composition so that it becomes a criticism of the social structures that allow such violence to take place.

This concern with violence, power, and their effects on society is typical of Uzoma’s oeuvre. These themes are evident in both the paintings and the photographs. The bare-chested young men posing next to a “For Sale” sign in two of the photographs recall slave auctions and the transatlantic slave trade. This allusion to a horrifying episode in Africa’s history is updated for the postcolonial moment by the presence of a uniformed soldier who represents state authority. He is the one who holds the “For Sale” sign, implying that the state and its corrupt practices bear much of the responsibility for turning Africa’s youth into commodities for the new global economy of disposable bodies. A more hopeful note can be found in the three photographs that feature children. Although these children, like the young men in the “For Sale” photographs, pose in a line for the camera, their postures are more defiant, their expressions more playful. They are figures of possibility and their future remains yet open.

In the series of paintings and photographs associated with the Biafran War (“No Victor, No Vanquished”), Uzoma again explores the idea of state violence and its effects on ordinary lives. Many civilians died during the Biafran War (the exact number is not known, but estimates range from 500,000 to over two million), with starvation as the main cause. Images of starving and malnourished men, women, and, especially, children with emaciated bodies and bloated bellies form the most harrowing visual legacy of the war. Uzoma’s paintings Napoleon’s Interior I and Napoleon’s Interior II refer to this legacy by reproducing and foregrounding the figure of a starving mother and child. The paintings are in dialogue with the photographs of the period and with Achebe’s poem “Refugee Mother and Child,” which begins with these haunting words: “No Madonna and Child could touch / that picture of a mother’s tenderness / for a son she would soon have to forget.” By evoking photography and poetry, the paintings exhibit a transmedial artistic practice and expand the viewer’s sensory experience. Moreover, they also record an engagement with the European artistic tradition in the familiar form of postcolonial appropriation. In the background of the paintings looms the figure of Napoleon with his iconic hat clearly visible. Closer inspection of Napoleon’s Interior II reveals that Napoleon is on a rearing horse (the horse is also there but less distinct in the other painting), which then leads us to Jacques-Louis David’s famous portrait, Napoleon Crossing the Alps. What is the connection between an African woman and her child on the brink of death and a European military leader who later became an emperor? A possible answer is that Napoleon represents the megalomania of big men—a megalomania displayed by many of the men who have come to power in postcolonial Africa—that is responsible for the suffering of ordinary citizens. An early nineteenth-century French painting thus becomes an enabling device for the political commentary in a contemporary Nigerian composition.

Uzoma’s works engage with politics, history, and lived experience in open-ended ways. Although they register and demonstrate the concerns of an artist located in a specific place at a specific time, they also display the ability of art to transform local issues into aesthetic forms that resonate on a broader scale. The paintings and photographs in Walk on Water document a complex negotiation with the process of living in precarious conditions. If these conditions are “African,” they are so primarily through their connection to longer histories of colonialism and wider networks of globalization. By creating an artistic language that can encompass and convey these ideas, Uzoma allows us to encounter the constraints and possibilities of his—and our—contemporary moment.

Chibuike Uzoma (b. 1992 Port Harcourt, Nigeria) is a multidisciplinary artist who works with painting, photography, drawing, and text. He graduated from the University of Benin (2013) with a major in visual art (painting) and since then he has been practicing as a full-time studio artist, with projects, exhibitions and artist residencies in Africa, Europe, Asia as well as the United States. He lives and works in Ile Ife and Lagos, Nigeria.

Opening night event 18:30 Wednesday 13th March



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