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‘Unusual Suspects’ celebrates the unique visual dialects of 11 contemporary African artists from Nigeria, South Africa, Ivory Coast and Lesotho

Contemporary artists from Africa and its diaspora connect through a non-linear timeline that draws inspiration from oral tradition, precolonial symbolic heritage, cultural symbols, fashion twenty-first century’s internet culture and personal iconographies. This enables the realisation of a unique vernacular that conveys a fresh worldview. ‘Unusual Suspects’ surveys the myriad of approaches employed by contemporary African image-makers that allow the ease of flow of ideas and relays their narratives to celebrate cultural histories. These modes are not limited to but include portraiture, abstracted forms, and symbolism. ‘Unusual Suspects’ cele­brates the unique visual dialects of eleven contemporary artists and Looks for connections between contemporary and precolonial expressions. African artists assemble new and pre-ex­isting symbols to translate an ever-changing, multifaceted continent.

Chiwendu Kelechi, You say people are goats 2, 2012Chiwendu Kelechi, You say people are goats 2, 2021. Acrylic colour on canvas, 54,5 x 43cm. All images courtesy of the artists & African Artists Foundation.

The works of Chinwendu Kelechi, Kelechi Nwaneri, and Yusuff Aina Abogunde are firmly rooted in pre-colonial histories. Kelechi cites traditional Igbo art forms and writing systems Iike Uli, Nsibidi, and Mbari as visual guides. Contemporary stories are revealed and erroneous notions about Igbo culture are dispelled using these historical African signifiers. Her work cen­tres on the duality of symbols, especially of male and female energies co-existing and is grounded by the Igbo phrase “elu na ala bu otu” meaning the top and bottom are unified. Kel­echi Nwaneri and Yusuff Aina Abogunde situate traditional cultural markers in the present day. Nwaneri adorns his figures with unique white motifs that reference tribal markings, indige­nous writing systems and traditional fabric designs. Nwaneri uses these symbols, which include aphoristic Adinkra symbols from Ghana, to unearth an individual’s history. Abogun­de’s figures resemble dilapidated sculptures with cracks and mask-like features. He uses the mask as a visual metaphor for the past and as a reminder of rituals predating colonialism. The presence of precolonial symbols acknowledges the importance of alternate knowledge systems and provides future generations with the tools to communicate with the past.

Installation view of Kelechi Nwaneri, Birthday Party, 2021. Charcoal and acrylic on canvas, 125 x 110cmInstallation view of Kelechi Nwaneri, Birthday Party, 2021. Charcoal and acrylic on canvas, 125 x 110cm.

Contemporary expressions of gender extend beyond Western twentieth-century heteronor­mative and binary forms. Colonial structures and the introduction of Western religions have played an active role in diminishing previously held notions of gender fluidity. ‘Unusual Sus­pects’ is a contemporary reflection on African antediluvian logic and evolves this visual lan­guage for the twenty-first century. Contemporary society is in continuous conversation around gender, toxic masculinity, feminism, and how they are expressed and what they mean for an evolving culture. Outside these confines of feminine and masculine expressions, gen­der-fluid identities are also finding a voice and expanding our conception of performed identi­ ty. Artists make visible that subjects should not be defined by gender roles and expectations. They challenge the dominance of patriarchy by encouraging people to express themselves beyond these limited confines. ‘Unusual Suspects’ embraces these new understandings of gender in visual culture. These artists use visual art through various modes of storytelling and imagination to represent shifting cultural and gender identities.

Ayanfe Olarinde, Flat soles & oddities (hot summer baecation), 2021Ayanfe Olarinde, Flat soles & oddities (hot summer baecation), 2021. Ink, acrylic and cotton on canvas, 152,5 x 122cm.
Mookho Ntho, Refuge, 2021Mookho Ntho, Refuge, 2021. Oil on canvas, 102 x 77cm.

New expressions of gender are visible in the works of Ayanfe Olarinde and Mookho Ntho. Ayanfe Olarinde uses acrylic paint with applique details to conjure highly stylised scenes. In Unapologetically, Stephen a braided figure peeks through a window at a fashionable male figure in a denim two-piece with giant floral details. This sartorial expression of male flamboy­ance, accompanied by an outlandishly large rose, speaks to a proud expression of personal style that is very prevalent in many African metropolises and is not reserved solely for women. Representation is at the heart of Mookho Ntho’s practice. Through portraiture, she immortalis­es queer bodies using a visual language closely associated with Western religious iconogra­phy. This action serves to bring these highly revered visual symbols into a new light using previously under-represented bodies. Ntho is also interested in the youth’s relationship with the church as an institution, and how its teachings might not hold space for their authentic self-expression. Fashionable garments and elaborate jewellery feature prominently in Ntho’s work as a symbol of reverence and respect for the represented figures.

Motlhoki Nono, Lenyalo, 2019Motlhoki Nono, Lenyalo, 2019. Multimedia print on fabriano, 50 x 70 cm. Edition: e.5; ev.2; 2AP.
Talut Kareem, Room for Two, 2021Talut Kareem, Room for Two, 2021. Charcoal and acrylic on canvas, 152,5 x 122cm.

Visual symbols can oftentimes embody both lightheartedness and excruciating heaviness. Motlhoki Nono is a Johannesburg-based printmaker and video artist. Her practice centres on the sociological inquiry of love through a decolonial lens. She adopts the visual language of her grandmother’s home with all its frills and adornments to lay bare the poetic, and some­ times violent, implications of these objects. In her video work Malana, the act of preparing chicken becomes a metaphor for consumption and domestic duty. Nono uncovers how the domestic space can at once be a space of erasure and a direct line to her matrilineal lineage. These repeated acts are a performance of love, but under the burden of patriarchy they chip away at women ‘s self-determination and agency. Talut Kareem makes visible inner emotional turmoil and brings awareness to mental health struggles. The central symbol in Kareem’s works is the balloon representing the fragility of the human mind. The balloon is light and ephemeral; its joyful shape only deadened by the potential for doom. Male and female figures in his works wear colourful, expressive hairstyles, painted nails and hold delicate flowers. Male figures are also found embracing which creates space for softer and more diverse expressions of masculinity. In Room for Two, two nearly identical male figures gently interlock arms; per­haps two sides of the same mind.

Michelle Okpare, Way Too Skinny Today, 2021Michelle Okpare, Way Too Skinny Today, 2021. Crêpe paper, acrylic & lace fabric on canvas, 91,5 x 91,5cm.
Moufhe Manavhela, On Arrival, 2021Moufhe Manavhela, On Arrival, 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 74 x 64cm.

Michelle Okpare and Muofhe Manavhela use their unique visual vernaculars to reveal truths about the joy and troubles that face young, black women. Okpare uses a mixture of folded crepe paper, acrylic paint a and lace applique to create highly stylised scenes that unpack the unrealistic beauty standards placed on women. The crepe paper is folded into flower motifs inspired by Okpare’s upbringing in Ivory Coast where she first experimented with these mate­rials. Mirrors feature in each of her works as a dual symbol of vanity that is often projected onto women and painful awareness of one’s body. Okpare draws from her strifes to create these works and uses her practice as a form of therapy. Muofhe Manavhela chronicles the lives of young, black women living in the concrete jungle of Johannesburg using herself as a starting point. Inspired by youth culture, particularly black women rappers, her figures wield long acrylic nails with geometric patterns and colourful wigs as they move from the domestic sphere to the heartbeat of the city. Subtle interventions, such as Twitter memes in the back­ground of Fixed, challenge the ease with which these visual diary entries are received and alert the viewer to quiet rebellion. The cycle of beauty management that young African women upkeep and the beauty technicians’ refined craft is memorialised in these works. Manavhela looks towards the nail colour wheels at beauty salons and the stylisation of hair posters to capture a modern woman that reclaims the beautification process as the ultimate form of self-care.

While the physical world is relayed in some of these works, other artists create fantastical land­scapes. These dreamworlds contain symbols and juxtapositions that speak to both the histo­ries and current struggles faced by African people. Here the irrational becomes a tool to express the intangible. Even the representational work in ‘Unusual Suspects’ contains clues and symbols that open up dialogues beyond what is visible.

Damilola Adeniyi, Atonement, 2021Damilola Adeniyi, Atonement, 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 122 x 122cm.
Luke Agada, Beauties & Barrels, 2021Luke Agada, Beauties & Barrels, 2021. Oil on canvas, 122 x 92cm.

Damilola Adeniyi and Luke Agada transport us to alternate realities with fantastical scenes. Adeniyi’s surrealist dreamscapes reference pop culture, ancient Roman garments and tradi­tional African fabrics amongst other diverse elements. These highly stylised works make use of linear perspective imbuing them with a sense of grandeur. Visual cues such as a woman smok­ing and a man with a gunshot wound return us to the present moment. Adenyiyi’s tableaux reveal hidden truths by introducing unfamiliar elements to otherwise familiar scenes. Figures have wooden mask-like faces as a nod to Nigeria’s pre-colonial sculptural tradition. Luke Agada reveals the nature of humanity through his human-object hybrid figures. The faces of his figures are replaced with symbolic inanimate objects like vintage telephones or bicycle wheels. Further props like the wooden rifle in Beauties & Barrels challenge the notion of women being incapable of holding agency. Agada obfuscates the immediately identifiable features of his figures to reveal unexpected truths.

'Unusual Suspects' installation.Installation of ‘Unusual Suspects’

‘Unusual Suspects’ interrogates new expressions of gender and unfurls boundless African cultural identities. These new visual vernaculars encapsulate the historic and contemporary moment to create a language to express the limitless potential of the future. Symbol icinter­ventions disrupt and question the accepted order of things. Damaging stereotypes and tropes are challenged through defying simplifications of what it means to be African. Unbridled imagination and confidence propel these artists to new soaring heights of self-expression.

‘Unusual Suspects’ is curated by Princess Ayoola and Jana Terblanche. The group exhibition is on view at the African Artists’ Foundation, Lagos, Nigeria, from the 23rd of May until the 23rd of June 2021.

Jana Terblanche is an Independent Curator and Art Advisor based in Cape Town, South Africa.

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