It was a privilege to see Pieces of Me, an exhibition of works by Joe Amenechi ahead of it’s opening today at Rele gallery.
Pieces of me is a refreshing mix of traditional and realist paintings, pencil drawings, bead works, symbolic metal foil, plastocast, and sculptures marked with ancestral and cultural images from Nigeria. As indicated by the title, the exhibition is a selection of works in different media used by the artist for artistic expressions. Each medium stands out showing off a mastered skill not so common amongst artists.
Joe Amenechi is a middle-aged established artist dedicated to his art. He was trained and influenced by master artists Bruce Onobrakpeya, Kolade Osinowo and Yusuf Grillo. He was also at Rele on the day of my visit, fixing some of the works in preparation for the exhibition opening. Amenechi speaks more with a smile and his working hands. He spoke sparingly despite the discussions around him and questions about his works. But the works already say enough to understand his world view and desire to preserve cultural identities and the history of different ethnic tribes in Nigeria.
His works Yoruba Women, Titled Men, Royal Family and Atilogwu Dancers at the exhibition for instance, have traditional features and symbols common to some ethnic groups. The Yoruba women are dressed in traditional styles of iro and buba typical amongst old people in the western part of Nigeria, particularly the market women. A significant feature on their faces is the fast declining tribal scarification used as a form of identification from other tribes and to beautify the face or body. The Atilogwu Dancers are energetic young dancers in Igbo land who use feisty body movements to entertain the people during festivals or important occasions. They are believed to use magic in their dancing because of the spirited rhythm and heavy acrobatic movement of the body involved. It is one of the well-known traditional dances in Nigeria. Amenechi’s painting captures the vigour and youthfulness of these dancers with a subtle exaggeration of their body parts.
The Titled Men symbolize the importance of titles and role of the elders in the Eastern part of Nigeria. Titled men are identified with the revered ‘red cap’ worn as a symbol of authority and leadership in the society. It is synonymous with power and used to portray an Igbo man with influence in the community. However, in recent times, the red caps are worn by ordinary members of the society as a celebration of the Igbo culture, out of ignorance or to abuse the privileges that comes with the titles.
Amenechi also uses traditional motifs to depict some cultures documented in his works. The metal foil artworks have symbols and patterns used to design or decorate buildings, human bodies, textiles, wood, door post, pots, etc in traditional settings. Certain symbols have spiritual significance to the people who uses them while some were created for beautification and identification purposes. It is a historical form of art in itself. Artists integrate these art symbols into their works to protect and preserve the Nigerian culture and traditional believes.
The bead works are other examples of his commitment to preserve history. The importance of beads goes back a long way in Africa. They were used for work of art and adornment, and made from stones, ivory and bone. The tiny glass beads used in Amenechi’s works are modern beads introduced to us by the Europeans. They are mostly used in new medium of beaded art like the Faces on a Totem, Choristers and Garden of Eden. Some of the human figures or faces on these works are comical and distorted. The images on the work Faces on a Totem are faces of the artist’s friends, people he has met and some imagined, hence the character like depictions. In traditional believes, totems are objects with spiritual significance and used as emblems to represent important people or concepts.
Tradition may be the major context of Amenechi’s works, but he also captures everyday realities, social and political issues. Some of the pencil drawings and acrylic paintings are activities taken from the street, hospitals and classrooms as seen in Expectant Mothers and Nursing Mothers, Lagos Babes and the Examination Headaches series.
Joe Amenechi has participated in numerous exhibitions locally and internationally including South Africa, Scotland and England.
Pieces of Me exhibition opens today June 27th at 4pm, at Rele Gallery on 5, Military street, Onikan, Lagos.