Dennis Osadebe wants to stand out.
He is a self-taught artist and a self-acclaimed Neo-African. The latter is an idealized tag that seeks to firmly establish that he is not traditional, and that he will not create art that has become expected or common amongst artists of an African origin. At least with artists from the modern era popular with auction houses abroad. There would be no masks, masquerades, depictions of local gods or patterns or forms inspired by an indigenous local culture.
His first solo exhibition, ‘Remember the Future’, that closes at Red Door Gallery in the second week of June clearly follows this line of thought.
The exhibition was inspired by an evening news piece of April 2016 on CNN where it was announced that Nigeria would be pursuing a space program. “I found it ridiculous. We were just queuing for fuel last week and this week we are going to space,” Osadebe says.
Until now and to no one’s surprise, the space program has not been noted for much aside the announcement of its existence on a globally watched news network. Osadebe however has been at work since the news broke, a year-long effort that resulted in his current exhibition which also happens to be his first solo.
The results are a bold, psychedelic splash of social commentary and depiction of a pessimistic, dystopic future. For Osadebe, a space program chasing Nigeria will still struggle with oil shortages. The program itself might inspire a new rash of ‘help’-seeking Nigerian 419 princes preying on the vulnerable and too trusting.
Dennis Osadebe, Afronaut.
A dystopic Nigerian future will look very much like its present, full of broken promises and poor results. Projects, like the space program will be announced with confetti and fanfare and then abandoned.
On the second floor of the exhibition, Osadebe sheds the space program entirely, the surviving attachment from his new palette of discourse being the space helmet. He uses this cleverly as a metaphor for technology and isolation to comment on varied topics from religion to poor leadership, importation of print fabrics and culture, to how Nigeria forgets to remember her heroes. Immediately, this seems too much to take in at once.
Although, the second half of the exhibition could have been another show on its own, it all still works. Why? The curation of the exhibition as a whole is faultless. By way of a descriptive wall text, there is an admittance on the second floor that the gears have shifted and the viewer should continue to keep focus for the rest of the ride. This self-awareness, though unsubtle, is the mark of a curator who understands how art is to be consumed and rescues the exhibition from going off course. The man responsible for this is Joseph Gergel. I daresay he deserves comparable praise to that which the artist will surely receive. Curatorial accidents avoided, the artist’s message is clear. A dystopic Nigerian future will look very much like its present, full of broken promises and poor results. Projects, like the space program will be announced with confetti and fanfare and then abandoned. We may continue to have leaders who rule from behind a space helmet, removed from empathy, lack compassion for their citizens, and far from being competent and capable to do a good job. Church leaders may continue to be isolated from the needs of their followers. Ultimately, we will have no surprises and no change to look forward to contrary to inspired political campaign speeches.
For an exhibition that makes such generous use of bright colours, its soul is quite dark.
Dennis Osadebe, Somethiing About Us.
There does seem to be a glimmer of hope in Osadebe’s work though. The space engineers depicted in works on the first floor of the exhibition are all women. Was this a progressive comment on the artist’s part or the reverse in saying a fictional – and therefore not real – future will have women running things?
Initially, I was convinced the artist meant the former. On second thought, I am not sure.
Review by Ayodeji Rotinwa | Rotinwa is a writer, culture journalist and communications consultant. He tweets from @ayodejirotinwa.
Top image: Dennis Osadebe, What Church Do You Go To II. All images courtesy Dennis Osadebe.
Remember the Future closes June 11, 2017.