Another Glimpse of Paradise – The works of Chike Azuonye
By Ike Okonta
All artists are dreamers, but there are some whose quest for the ultimate dream takes them away, irrevocably, from the here and now. Like Paul Gauguin, the French artist who exiled himself to Melanesia in search of the ideal and capturing the soul of those beautiful islands in such vivid colours that the world for an instant had a glimpse of Paradise, or what it might have looked like, through Gauguin’s eyes.
Chike Azuonye is in every sense a modem painter, living and working in London, the art capital of the world. And yet, like Paul Gauguin, he insists on dreaming the world anew- or rather, daydreaming the world of his Nigerian childhood in vivid Technicolor. In evoking an Arcadian past to confront the steel and glass of the European megapolis, Mr Azuonye is walking a well-beaten path, like the writer Camara Laye whose classic story of his Guinean childhood, THE AFRICAN CHILD, provided a refreshing counterpoint to the grey and sombre Paris of his student days.
But it would be grossly misleading to categorise Chike Azuonye as just another home-sick African artist working out his dreams on canvas in a lonely London studio. Azuonye is by choice and inclination a griot of sorts, journeying back to a past when the moon bathed the village green in a cascade of gold and the wily tortoise set out at twilight to conquer the world. These are folk tales of a forgotten past, a past sliding slowly and dangerously toward extinction but which Chike Azuonye has retrieved and captured permanently on canvas.
At first encounter with Azuonye’s work, you are immediately struck by the sheer visual power of the canvases. This is one painter who delights in spectacle for the sheer joy of it. He works mainly in oil and acrylic, using the palette knife and applying the colours in layers, cascade upon cascade until the painting begins to gradually take shape and then suddenly explode in a kaleidoscope of dancing images. Mi Azuonye’s canvas is a vast tableau of bright reds and indigos and Prussian blues and oranges. They clash and collide and then finally resolve themselves in an orchestra of colours. You see the griot’s tale as embodied in the visual images but it is the merry colours that bring Azuonye’s stories forcefully to life. He is, first and foremost, a painter of merry colours.
Life as it was lived in Nigeria, a vanishing past which nevertheless retains some of its charm and allure, is Mr Azuonye’s terrain. He celebrates northern Nigerian womanhood in a painting that depicts two women scantily clad in wrappers and beads and carrying gourds. The Fulani milkmaid is a favourite subject of Nigerian painters, but in Azuonye’s hand the object is relegated to the background and colour is given full play. You do not see the milkmaids as such. Rather you are treated to a visual feast- a brilliant interplay of reds and ambers and oranges. The red and blue wrappers, the beads, the full succulent breasts thrusting out at you in defiant display of their power and beauty-woman in all her glory, these are what Azuonye seeks to celebrate in this picture, using his colours the way an accomplished minstrel uses words to adorn his tale.
In work after work- two drummers on market day, women hurrying to the farm at dawn accompanied by an insomniac moon, a study of musicians and musical instruments Azuonye returns to the past, throwing up symbols of a dying culture- kolanuts, cowries, manilas, and using them, not as exotica but living things that people his canvases, silent witnesses to a life that was once simple and beautiful but is now giving way to the regime of grey steel that Western civilization has imposed on the rest of us. There is dance and merriment and celebration here. But you cannot help but detect the underlying sadness in some of the canvases. It is there in Azuonye’s muted blues and indigos, in the grim expression on some of the faces that stare at you as though protesting their dark fate, condemned as they are to vanish from a world that no longer has any use for moonlight tales, for new yam festivals, for truth and beauty.
Chike Azuonye is an artist working in a cultural milieu that has been given over to art as media hype, a society where a pretty lady sleeping in a cage or two cows copulating in a glass case easily passes off as the’ latest masterpiece.’ Installation and ambiguity is all, and the curator rather than the artist himself is the star personality in the new circus show. But Azuonye does not derive any satisfaction from conceptual art. For him art is spectacle, a celebration of life in all its splendour. A typical Azuonye canvas is like the Ijele masquerade, that masterpiece of Igbo art where design and colour and dance and sheer joie de vivre find a wonderful unity. Like his Igbo forbears, Chike Azuonye is keeping the faith, elevating spectacle over concept, entertaining rather than indulging in self-serving conceit- and the result is art that is refreshing in its beauty and simplicity, a glimpse of paradise.
By Ike Okonta – a writer and cultural critic.
Art, offspring of the mind
“True art is made noble and religious by the mind producing it. For those who feel it, nothing makes the soul more religious and pure” — Michelangelo.
For a long while these images prodded the mind of Chike Azuonye — images of an age of fiendish busyness; demonic unrest; widespread unrealness; seemingly featurelessness; and suffocating restrictiveness. But in the true nature of an artist, he sought to provide an escape, not only for himself but for the millions of humanity for which these images were realities.
His method to represent these concepts and their causes in paintings of aggressive, strong and fascinating brush-manship, reflective enough to make the souls of those who feel it, in the word of the legendary Italian Poet, painter and philosopher Michelangelo, “more religious and pure”.
Chike, a graduate of painting of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and last month at the Enugu Press Centre assembled a package of paintings which he titled “The Offspring of the mind”. It was his tenth exhibition and first solo outing. In all, 25 pieces of paintings were on display mostly done in oil on cardboard; four were in Watercolor; another four, in acrylic and one, in pastel on paper.
The collection was done in three categories — figurative, stylised (semi-distorted) and abstracts (completely distorted). Some of them reflect human sufferings and are forceful enough to compel the beholder to reflect on general human miseries. These were exemplified by “the beggar”, “who is leading who?” and “indignity of labour”. But the ruse of hiding agony and miseries in cultural flamboyance was represented by such works as “Ofala Festival,” “Oti Igba” (the drummer), and “the maid.”
However, the more curious and, in fact, fascinating works in the collection were those paintings which have touches of mysticism and spiritualism. Accordingly, the painter gave them such titles as “eternal search,” “life,” “symbol of sacrifice,” “Death shall have no domination,” “Mysterious edifice,” “Spiritual atonement,” Spiritual attainment”, and “A song of hope”.
These paintings were actually the result of the conflicting emotions of the painter himself, delivered in hard, strong, almost protesting pictures, that quite in contrast with their spiritualised themes, and represented the painter’s selfish attempt to escape from all the restrictions and limitations which both nature and man had built around him.
This apparent contradiction seeks an explanation which can only be found in the painter himself. However, the fact of its existence has the potential for making Chike a majestic visionary, a seer and dreamer, the type of which this nation cries aloud for at a time like this. ‘Another character worth noting about these works in question was their gruesomely horrifying abstraction.
When Artlife cornered Chike for an explanation since this singular factor could scare away prospective buyers, he straight-away asserted that he was not strictly a commercial painter. Chike said that his mission is to satisfy the cravings of as many different categories of people as possible.
He said that he could not tone down the intensity of the inner inspiration he translates on board because it was like distorting a prophetic message. “I find myself putting down every innate image and vision that comes to my mind whether they are horrible or happy ones. I don’t just throw away my innate urgings because of its consequence on the people. Just as well, I know that there are some whom only such works of horror could give solace”, he explained.
Chike further philosophised about his paintings; thus: “This is not selfishness, ‘nor an attempt to achieve some kind of reclusion. I believe my paintings are inspired by ‘ some divine force and, not rendering them as I received them, would amount to distorting a message given by God”.
That, he said, was why his paintings are in figures, semi-abstracts and abstracts. According to him, if people could not understand his striking and dazing abstractions, they would appreciate the more down-to-earth ones, some of which one must confess, were done in bold, solid and strong colours that give the painter’s works sanguine effects.
All said, one would agree no less with Dr. Ola Oloidi of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, that Chike’s entire works “show spiritual harmony between him (Chike), his works and his environment” while many of them “tap some sources of mystic experiences or beliefs”.
Chike, the painter, poet and actor had participated in nine other exhibitions before this one. Two of the nine had been in Bayreuth, West Germany in 1985 and 1986; many, in Lagos, including the NYSC president’s Merit Award Art Exhibition in 1987, and the rest in Anambra State. He recently completed his one year youth service and at present attached to the Anambra State Council for Arts and Culture, Enugu.
Aliyu, Azuonye On The Colours Of Spring
BY MOLARA WOOD
LONDON-based artists, Hassan Aliyu and Chike Azuonye, have held their second joint exhibition in the British capital.
Showcasing works from 15 years of production by both artists, the exhibition was titled Colours of Spring and displayed for almost two weeks. Text accompanying the show informed that both artists see spring as “synonymous with regeneration, aspiration and rebirth… a season of happiness and for celebration, following the dank and dull months of winter.”
Symbolising as it does new life, bold beauty and colour, spring was perfect for the display of vibrant works intended to evoke the spirit of the season. On the first day of the exhibition, Aliyu and Azuonye treated gallery visitors to their contrasting artistic and personal styles, taking them on a tour of the works and discussing the thematic concerns and other circumstances that inspired them.
There were some 29 pieces altogether – displayed on two floors and a stairway of the Waterloo Gallery, London. Azuonye has taken part in numerous international exhibitions, and had his first joint show with Aliyu in 1994; the former is soft-spoken, in contrast to latter’s more dramatic style.
The two have worked together since around 1991 when Aliyu, freshly returned to Britain from Nigeria, began working with the Caribbean Craft Circle.
According to him, the goal then was to create an engagement with black artists, for whom he became a contact point. “I realised that there was a need to vigorously convey the grandeur of our art,” Aliyu said – and he is still striving for the same goal in his work.
Azuonye, whose work is represented in private collections in Nigeria, Europe and America, discussed some of his pieces on display in the Colours of Spring exhibition.
A piece titled Talking Drum – and another of milkmaids – came from a series of sketches done by Azuonye in Kaduna. “What is exciting about them is that they were not painted in Nigeria.” Not having returned to Nigeria for some two years and thinking how to keep himself busy, he started painting from the sketches. He has now run out of the sketches but the finished works held the interest of gallery visitors.
Faces, a series of three paintings by Azuonye, fall more on the side of introspection. Speaking on the second in the series, Faces II in the exhibition, the artist explained his philosophical approach to the producing the pieces. “I was asking myself, when I meet people, what do they think of me? I was looking into the interpersonal relationships… what is behind the smile?”
Whilst he would not describe himself as a suspicious person, these are nevertheless some of the questions he occasionally asks himself. “It’s like my surname, Azuonye, which means: whose back is good?” He added that Faces II “had a place in this exhibition because it has a positive message as well, especially with the bright colours.”
The presentational style of the opening event meant that Aliyu, blessed with a gift of the gab as well as a talent for visual art, talked through Azuonye’s work as well as his own. As a result, guests were able to get both artists’ impressions of The Dowry, a painting by Azuonye, which incorporates symbols like the manila, cowries, and other elements referencing the four working days in Igboland, amongst other things. Aliyu spoke exuberantly during discussions of his own works also. A painting, Unmasked (1998) was described as “arguably the best piece I’ve in the last 10 years – from a period when there wasn’t any overt effort to produce work.”
The period occasioned a lot of energy and the artist by his own admission tried to stretch the limits of his creativity. “The course was overpowering and therefore accelerated the dynamism of purpose,” he reflected. “A good period is when I can produce work like this.”
Another piece by Aliyu, The Head That Wears the Crown, sent the artist into dramatic, freewheeling oration. A painting of the same title, produced circa 1986, is at the National Gallery in Lagos.
A “realistic work of superimposition,” it is a portrait of former head of state General Ibrahim Babangida (IBB) superimposed on the issues the nation faced at the time, as perceived by the artist.
The IBB painting is a big piece, whilst it’s namesake in the Colours of Spring exhibition is smaller and depicts instead a milkmaid.
However, the message has always been the same one of optimism. “Out of the darkness and bleakness, the doom and gloom would come an experience of victory and triumph.” Aliyu indicated that, beyond images of combat, strife and misery in the foreground, “every component of the painting is focused on the figuring of hope”- represented by the centre image of the radiant milkmaid. He was visibly passionate when discussing The Head That Wears the Crown. “The hope depicts a figuring who becomes a personification of identity, grandeur and dignity. It’s not only a documentation of the plight of the people, but also a celebration,” he declared.
Also at the Colours of Spring opening was batik artist, Bayo Lawal, who had helped organise Aliyu’s first joint exhibition at the National Gallery in Lagos. Lawal now concentrates mainly on what he calls, Gospel Art. Asked if it is really art, he replied in the affirmative, saying: “Anything you do that is beautiful is art; a chef is an artist. In Gospel Art, I have to make artistic choices, whether in colours or lettering.” He does not rule out returning to the “very unique” art of batiks. “To this day, if I see my work on people, I will still recognise it,” he said with satisfaction.
Azuonye described his pieces more as “stylisations” than realistic. Both he and Aliyu work in pastels. There are differences in subject matter and in the use of colour, with Aliyu’s touch being more subtle than Azuonye’s stronger hues. However, there is a textural similarity in their works, and this culminated in the exhibition of very harmonising works around the theme of spring.
And there was no better time for the exhibition, since it opened at the end of March – just as spring was beginning to arrive in London.