Escapism: Finding solace in exquisite art during troubled times

The ongoing joint exhibition at Art Pantheon gives momentary relief from the nation’s current woes while people find solutions.

NIGERIANS are going through a lot: insecurity, inflation and poverty have all conspired to make some people’s lives hellish. Indeed, the inability to endure all these problems and ensure a brighter future for themselves and their families in other climes is fuelling the ‘Japa Movement’.

Yet, others who are unable to relocate abroad have devised coping strategies for the hassles and problems. While some seek escape in alcohol and warm flesh, others find joy in the arts, particularly literature, music, movies and visual arts.  An ongoing joint exhibition, aptly titled ‘Escapism’, is an exciting offering that entertains and suggests a way to think about the troubles that ail us and from which we seek to escape.

Featuring interdisciplinary artist, architect and author, Peju Alatise, Northampton, UK-based painter, Ndidi Emefiele, painter and sculptor, Kainebi Osahenye, the audacious Gerald Chukwuma and painter Anthea Epelle, ‘Escapism’ opened at Art Pantheon, Bosun Adekoya, Oniru, Lagos on October 31 and is ongoing till November 21.

Founder of art Pantheon, Nana Sonoiki, describes the show, the fourth by the arthouse, as “an intervention in the Nigerian situation.” Explaining why in her statement, she said, “We see this intervention as necessary. A worsening economy, insoluble insurgency, and growing insecurity have become commonplace in the country, causing much despair and could use art’s response. We may not all be able to escape the sad realities that engulf us now fully, but we can meet them with fantasies and imagination to distract and give us relief for the moment and by doing so find our way through it.”

Joseph Ndukwu, in his foreword in the exhibition’s catalogue, affirmed the same. “The artists in this show-present works that are capacious in understanding and humane in their handling of the issues, both individual and societal, which plague us. Recognising the genuine human need for escape from these distressing issues that deserve our serious consideration (a dismissal which could be considered a moral failure) are a real danger posed by escapism. The exhibition ‘Escapism’ is situated at the nexus of this complexity. It recognises the very human need to take a break from reality, but it also doesn’t lose sight of the genuine danger of apathy. Much deliberateness and care are needed to walk this delicate line.”

There is no castaway among the works in the exhibition. From Alatishe’s beautiful, calming and reflective ‘When Trouble Sleep’ series, in mixed media, to Emefiele’s maximalist female paintings and Epelle’s images of the head of a young woman depicting different moods, they are all captivating. Chukwuma, renowned for his large sculptures, did not disappoint with an eclectic mix of motifs of Igbo origin. ‘Untitled’, comprising wood panels joined and with burnt ends and chiselled, is arresting. The choice of colours and engraved patterns are also unique. ‘When the moonwalks into the arena’ (mixed media), another of the University of Nigeria alumnus’ work in the show, is also noteworthy for its exquisite etchings covered with strips of cans.

“This is erotic”, a viewer said of Emefiele’s ‘Cactus Orgasm’ at the exhibition on Saturday. And the commentator, a man, was correct. Cactuses don’t grow in the rain forest, so it’s a bit strange to see lush green cactuses, somewhat phallus-shaped and sprouting male seed in one of her interpretations of escape. Her ‘Occasional Swimmer’ depicting a busy swimming pool with a female lifeguard seated in front of a ‘No lifeguard on duty’ sign is another nod to escapism; people refusing to take responsibility for their actions.

Osahenye bold strokes in the five works he is showing in the exhibition are impressive.

Explaining why all her paintings, ‘Undefeated’, ‘Hope’, ‘Melody III’ and ‘Melody IV’ are female profiles depicting different moods, Epelle said it was fortuitous.

She said, “It was not deliberate. Working with the female form is my default setting when I do figurative work. I was not trying to make a point about femininity, and I did not overthink it. I was more concerned with the process of interpretation and creation more than anything else.”

Any particular reason for the set of works? The self-taught visual artist responded: “I started to work around the theme ‘Escapism’ after I was informed about the exhibition, so I didn’t choose the works. I painted them specifically with the exhibition in mind.”

She added that showing with her four colleagues has been a unique experience. “Being in the mix of this group of visual artists has been a good experience for me, and I feel like I’m in good company. The pieces in the entire collection are strong, stunning and speak loudly, and I even have some favourite pieces that I wish I could run away with. I’m humbled and, at the same time, proud to be included in a group that is showcasing the diverse skills and dimensions of visual art. The creative wealth of Nigeria is witnessing in this exhibit through these talented and powerful artists.”

Though the ongoing ‘Escapism’/show won’t solve all of the nation’s problems, it offers relief and delights as art should. Art necessarily doesn’t have to solve all social ills; it only draws attention to them while entertaining. In this, ‘Escapism’ largely succeeds.

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