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Charred Visions: Spotlight on place of charcoal in contemporary African art

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Once again, art lovers, collectors and the general public are in for another enthralling experience as Soto Gallery presents Charred Visions: Textures & Tensions, a group exhibition by three promising artists.

The exhibition, which is slated from April 13-30, 2023, at the Ikoyi Lagos-based gallery, if riding on the success of the just-concluded ‘What We Don’t See’, an exhibition by Ludovic Fadairo, a 75-year old Beninese art master.

However, the uniqueness of Charred Visions: Textures & Tensions is the huge deployment of charcoal as a major medium across the works by the three participating artists.

They are: Uche Uzorka, Chukwumereogo Okeke, and Uche Joel Chima.

Featuring newly-commissioned works across painting, works on paper, and installation, the show draws attention to charcoal’s long history as an artistic medium, dating as far back as early cave paintings to its use among Renaissance artists in preparatory sketches.

As well, in extending and complicating this history, the artists locate their use of charcoal within long, rich traditions in contemporary African art.

In Uche Uzorka’s drawings on paper, abstract shapes, markings, and geometric patterns reveal the artist’s interest in a spare but distinct expressive plane where the instinctive gestures of the hand, charcoal’s richness of tone, and the allowances of paper inform each other. This way, Uzorka works against and beyond any determined outcomes, instead allowing the interaction of these forces to yield a range of possibilities. Along the dominant grey-black spectrum of his drawings, the viewer sees alterations in rhythm and mood where Uzorka might’ve altered the pressure or angle of his stroke, where the charcoal might’ve crumbled and become finer and less dense, and where the surface of the paper might’ve risen or flattened.

On his part, Chukwumereogo Okeke combines charcoal, acrylic, and pastel in paintings whose blend of allegory and sharp social critique seize on timely issues of patriarchy, gender equality, and ownership in Igbo and wider Nigerian culture. The works on display comprise the artist’s latest body of work, The Visitors. With this title, Okeke references the precarious status of women and girls who are raised to accept the primacy of male authority, are passed between father and husband, and are discouraged from attaining independent means of livelihood and social recognition. Drawing from her experience as a first daughter, Okeke likens human forms to landscapes, illuminating the deep connections between claims to and conquest over territory and the process by which political, cultural, and religious institutions maintain and legitimize the objectification of women as a class.

In his mixed-media works, Uche Joel Chima find a compelling meeting point between Uzorka’s material-oriented research and Okeke’s socially-engaged themes. Working with an extensive repertoire of mediums including aluminum sourced from single-use beverage cans, copper wire, acrylic, and charcoal, Chima’s installations, within an ongoing body of work he titles Earthen Vessels, extend the artist’s preoccupation with humanity’s often tense and uncertain relationship with its mortality and with the environment that supports its existence. The direct consequence of avoidable and unavoidable processes of degradation, attempts to salvage the essence of our spiritual and cultural lives against the backdrop of wider social forces remain key concerns.

Most importantly, the exhibition presents fresh insight into the diverse applications of charcoal as an artistic medium and invites deeper reflection on its social, economic, and environmental impact in Nigeria, where the frequent felling of hardwood trees bolsters the country’s charcoal production, making it a significant export.

Charred Visions: Textures and Tensions opens for public viewing this Friday and closes on Sunday April, 30, 2023. The gallery, which is located at #10 Omo Osagie Street, South West, Ikoyi, Lagos, is open 10am – 6pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays.