With interest in African artists booming, Adora Mba opened ADA \ contemporary art gallery in Accra, Ghana in 2020. She intended for the space serve to serve as an art incubator for the emerging artists from the African continent. Mba, an African art advisor and editor conveys optimism about Ghana's long term prospects regarding its art.
For the inaugural exhibition for her gallery Mba chose a series of 17 paintings by a young Nigerian emerging portrait artist by the name of Collins Obijiaku entitled Gindin Mangoro (Hausa): Under the Mango Tree. An overview of Collins Obijiaku's art and creative journey is found on the ADA/contemporary art gallery website. The article is written by Azu Nwagbogu an art curator, founder and director of the African Artists’ Foundation (AAF), a non-profit organisation based in Lagos, Nigeria that is dedicated to the promotion and development of contemporary African arts and artists. The AAF was established in 2007 with the aim of unearthing and developing talent in Nigeria by organizing art exhibitions, competitions, and workshops.
Collins Obijiaku (2020) GINDIN MANGORO: UNDER THE MANGO TREE.
Nwabogu introduces his review of Obijiaku's work with a James Baldwin quote:
“I can't be a pessimist because I am alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So, I am forced to be an optimist. I am forced to believe that we can survive, whatever we must survive.”— James Baldwin
Nwaboguhe reflects on how there is "a lot of talk about diversity with regards to skin colour, gender, religion and so forth but the cruellest and most perverse form of diversity as human construct is that which we are most reluctant to speak of: the diversity of living conditions from one street to the next and one neighbouring country to another. We all live in our bubble and sound off in our own echo chambers but within all of these various states of existence there is a common desire to just be. To exist. To have the right to freedom of thought and space to ruminate and nurture our imagination. Where transcendence is a possibility and hope springs eternal".
Collins Obijiaku (2020) Gindin Mangoro: Under the Mango Tree.
Nwaboguhe defines Obijiaku's art series as a "refreshing, questioning body of work" and debut solo presentation whereby the artist proposes 'to reach out to people and immortalize my friends' and as with all genuine attempts at portraiture, it goes much deeper". It is important to note that this was Obijiaku's first solo exhibition in which he presented a selection of paintings with titles like Passports and Gindin Mangoro (Hausa): Under the Mango Tree which was a radical departure from his previous work based on social commentary.
Collins Obijiaku (2020) Papa and Joshua.
Nwaboguhe explains that Obijiaku presented a new body of work as a celebration of his own lived experiences and struggles as well as those of his friends and acquaintances. Nwabogu asserts that Obijiaku disrupts the natural order of image production in portraiture painting by texturizing his portraits in a such a manner as to suggest a sort of expressionism but not quite "The portraits do not speak to an expression of emotion but present each subject as an immortal destined for deification".
Nwabogu contextualizes Obijiaku's creative journey in great detail. Obijiaku was born in Kaduna, Northern Nigeria in 1995 but spent the last two decades living in Suleja, a small town near Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria. Nwabogu says that Obijiaku's creative ascent has been "nothing short of meteoric" as he is a self-taught artist. His creative journey started with sketches and comic illustrations blended into the margins of his class notes at secondary school.
In 2016, after finishing his secondary school education, Obijiaku moved south to live with relatives in a town by the name of Enugu where he took up part-time work in a shopping mall to earn his upkeep. After work hours Obijiaku would stay behind for hours sketching on his notepad. Those early sketches and solitary time allowed him to hone his craft. Nwabogu says that the vast expanses of the shopping mall sharpened Obijiaku's observational skills. "He read people and perfected decoding their gaze. He studied the carefree, the wealthy, the working classes, those burdened with keeping the wheels of society turning and the diversity within, on a superficial level, a homogenous group of people".
Colins Obijiaku, Untitled
Nwabogu says that these early pencil sketches were a form of release from the physical exertions of Obijiaku's job, that is, it served as a way to stimulate his mind and to find less clustered corners to freely imagine. He developed his particular style during that period with no formal art background or tutoring, simply continuing to nurture his gifts as a draughtsman. He would paint and sketch friends and slowly started to gain commissions.
Collins Obijiaku (2020) Shelter.
Nwabogu hypothesizes that Obijiaku's return to Suleja, after his sojourn in Enugu, was with a fresh pair of eyes, ennobled sensibility from the sense that he has become a man, able to earn his own upkeep. This introspective awareness guided his personality and art. During this idyllic period, he witnessed his friend survive a near lynching in a case of mistaken identity. Obijiaku's timely intervention saved his friend's life and triggered him to paint more purposefully and to chronicle the precarious existence of those on the margins of society.
Collins Obijiaku (2020) Stripe Jacket.
This was a turning point in his creative process. Obijiaku's paintings took on a darker, more sinister turn and he stopped making commissions and invented a style of painting that focused on societal ills and injustices in the hope of catharsis. Nwabogu reflected on how Obijiaku observed the great inequality in daily living and began a period of painting as a form of social commentary and that the practice did not give Obijiaku the cathartic psychological release he was seeking; instead, the significant change caused him to retreat further into his shell.
Tawanda Appiah is a Zimbabwean born curator, researcher and writer currently based in Sweden and is the editor at Njelele Art Station, and previously served as a co-curator at Skånes konstförening, and Curator for Education & Public Programming at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. Appiah reviews Collins Obijiaku's work and prefaces his commentary with Obijiaku's quote:
Making art is where I go when I want to feel good.-
Appiah indicates that Obijiaku's work is a celebration of blackness through elegantly constructed portraits. He says that by gazing at Obijiaku's paintings is to be transported into a world where black people exist for themselves, innately elegant and unfazed by the world and its never-ending problems "There is an affective connection between him and his subjects, which is made apparent by the graceful way he extends their complex personalities onto the canvas". Obijiaku usually paints his loved ones, and, at times, striking strangers he encounters in the city. “Obijiaku explains "I’ve always liked to draw and paint. I started out with animation, cartoons and the like. In 2016, I noticed that I was improving, and I started to look at artworks [online]. This inspired me to pursue a career in art. I feel free doing it, and it brings me relief.
Making art is where I go when I want to feel good. I started using oil paints in 2019. I was into hyperrealism at the time, but I wasn’t feeling very free doing it. Here in Nigeria, a lot of young artists are visually drawn to hyperrealism. I think it’s just eye-catching, but it involves too much rules. There is a certain way you have to do things, there is this, and you have to do that. I didn’t always want to follow the rules. I wanted to explore. So I started mixing different mediums to see if I could come up with something different, something that could actually capture what I wanted to capture: black skin. Something that could bring out a lot of blackness in my works. I started exploring, and I came up with what I have now.”