Ugonna Ibekwe is an aspiring art historian, performance artist, and painter. Distinguished by his creative approach to visualizing forms, his paintings are often rendered in circular faces and eyes with the female figures having the stylistic hairstyle of the Igbo females of the 1960s and 70s. His artworks also feature elements of traditional Uli art, an influence he acquired from the Nsukka art school where he is undergoing his formal education in Fine Arts. His style has secured increasing recognition as he continues to call attention to relevant themes of discussion in the African contemporary society.
As the lead-curator, Ibekwe, in this interview with Desmond Okon, sheds light on ‘Shadows of Solitude’, an exhibition which also served as the inauguration of a collective of young student-artists called ‘Ten for Ten’.
What is the motivation behind the ‘Shadows of Solitude’ exhibition?
During the lockdown, several artists were expressing the situation of things in different mediums. But then something was common in almost all the works: majority of the works were either face masks, faces with masks, or the Covid-19 symbol. It was so much that it became a cliché in the art world. I was literally waking up each morning to see another face mask in the art community. I got tired of it, that’s how I threw two questions to the 10 for 10 members in one of our discussion sessions: Is it possible to create artworks without face mask that can still be talking about the lockdown or Covid? The second question was: Is Covid-19 the only documentable reflection that has happened within your environment during this time? With these two questions, sketches and drawings began to pop up and here we are. So, one key thing you will discover in the exhibition is the absence of face masks or the symbol of Covid in the artworks.
What are your views on the quality of works showcased?
As the curator of this event, I was particular about the quality of the works as I wanted each artist to show not just artistic qualities beyond his or her level but works that will stand the test of time – works that we can look back at several years from now and find in galleries. So, each work is carefully made with fine quality materials. With that I can actually say that all the works shown in the exhibition are collectable. I encourage art collectors from far and near to download the catalogue using the link http://bit.ly/soscatalogue and see for themselves.
What inspired the theme ‘Shadows of Solitude’ and what message does it have for Nigerians?
Unexpectedly, the whole world was thrown into darkness and uncertainty in 2020 by the deadly coronavirus pandemic, leading to a global lockdown which led to several events from the #EndSARS to the global #BlackLivesMatter movement. As I said before, we wanted to document these thoughts without the general symbols. So, the word ‘shadows’ stands for these events while ‘solitude’, which on its own means a state of being alone or remote from society, stands for the dark moments the whole world and the lovely people of Nigeria experienced.
So, what the viewers would see in this exhibition are those things that happened around them that they might not or would not have taken note of. As we generally say, artists are there to create awareness of the problems of the society, so that those who will take up solving them can do [so]. We don’t necessarily solve problems, we create awareness for them. In conclusion, the exhibition has thrown light on some problems for the viewers or the society to solve.
Could you speak on the economic gains of art exhibition and why it should be taken seriously in Nigeria?
Apart from gold, the next top treasure to invest money in is the art industry because just like gold, art appreciates in value over time, especially as the artist climbs the art world or dies. This nature of artworks makes it a viable venture today, tomorrow and till eternity.
Nigerians are gradually starting to understand the value of art. I would like to say that the only progressive aspect of the art industry is not just music. We have people like Nike Davis-Okundaye, Diseye Tantua, El Anatsui, Ozioma Onuzulike, Eva Obodo, among other Nigerians who have reached significant heights in the art world and are making giant steps to see more Nigerian artists in the global arena. The great Fela [once] said that soon Africans would realize that what they have to offer to the world are arts and culture. I personally believe in that statement from the time I heard it as a child and the time is now for Africans to rise up to that statement.
What is the overall goal of the exhibition?
The overall goal of this exhibition is to start creating public visibility and capacity for each member of the 10 for 10 group. This is also one thing the lockdown helped us bend our heads to see. By the time we saw our mates in other countries doing exploits and making them public, we just realized that the time for all the big visions we always discuss in meetings was now. And so, this is our first public outing as a group, even though each of us may have been involved in an art exhibition at different points. But this is our first step entering the public water and we hope for more successful and better-sponsored art programmes and events.
What specific challenges are you trying to address in the art world or society generally?
For me, ‘Shadows of Solitude’ shows the therapy levels, processes, and methods that occurred in the society at large and in humans during the 2020 lockdown. I say that because the exhibition features the ideas of solitude or the emotions of solitude from not just different perspectives but different locations and ethnic groups in the same sovereign tertiary Nigeria.
In this exhibition, you get to understand how important the statement that man is a social animal is to survival. This exhibition throws light on the fact that man by his normal nature can’t lose communication with others for a long time.
Did you have any individual or corporate sponsors for the exhibition?
We were not able to get corporate sponsors for this exhibition but we enjoyed the financial and moral support of Ozioma Onuzulike, the current head, Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and Richard Ndi Umezinwa, a lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Film Studies. They believed in the vision of the 10 for 10 group and spurred us on.
I will like to add that the encouragement we received from them as well as some of our families and friends went a long way to see that this exhibition, ‘Shadows of Solitude’, was a huge success. We are deeply thankful to them while we hope that the success of ‘Shadows of Solitude’ would encourage more sponsorship by our next outing.