Sunday, January 21, 2018


By Bunmi Agusto.

If one is familiar with Plato’s The Republic, one would also be familiar with the Greek philosopher’s disdain towards the arts due to its ‘deceit’. He believed that paintings and sculptures only took viewers a step further from the integrity of the original subject especially with artists ‘tainting’ those subjects with their opinions; thus, Plato cited the arts as sinful and quite frankly he would definitely not like Emokpae’s exhibition Transparent, which confronts ideas concerning society and religion as well as other subject matters.

In a third of the works featured in the exhibition at the Rele Gallery, Emokpae uses stained glass to tackle topics of societal issues. Although people tend to encounter stained glass in a religious setting depicting religious stories and intricate patterns, hardly do we see the difficult technique depicting contemporary stories and concepts. It is this contradiction -yet intersection- of society, culture and religion that is the highlight of Transparent and is subsequently exuded from the first piece viewers were confronted with: the door. The intricately painted door almost seems like a gateway to a dramatically vibrant dimension due to the interplay of colours and light.

The paintings were spread across three rooms and can be divided by material and technique. The first group of paintings viewers encountered were these very loose paintings on fabric –possibly Aso Oke- of two people embracing each other. As their limbs intertwine with one another, it is difficult to tell the two figures apart as they become one; Emokpae brilliantly echoes that idea of two becoming one through his use of weaved fabric as a canvas. Such subtle details were present in most of this body of work and keeping an eye out for them made this exhibition particularly exciting.

In the next room were these beautiful simple, yet powerful, mixed media paintings in which Emokpae uses cleaner lines to depict singular, separate figures. Due to the simplicity of these paintings, they are much more open to various interpretations than the rest of the works in the exhibition. The subtle detail in two of these paintings are the white dots. With the deep blue background, one of these dots can be seen as the distant moon against the night’s sky; however, the two dots on the figure can be seen as the eyes. In these paintings dominated by rich deep colours and textures, these dots –synonymous with the moon and the eyes- can be seen as sources of light and ultimately insight in the images. In addition to this, both paintings depict solitary figures which almost asks the viewers to consider their actions when they are alone and is a very powerful headspace to put the viewer in before they enter the final room.

As viewers walk into the third room, they are confronted by this large circular item at the other end of the room. Along with the stained-glass paintings on the wall and gold fabric on the floor, it almost seems like the viewer is being led down an aisle to a confessional. The gold fabric on the floor discourages viewers from getting too close to the stained glass, not due to the fear of them damaging the works but in order to encourage the viewers to stand back, look at the works and truly reflect on the concepts being depicted in the pieces. Emokpae brings his mastery of the technique as he provokes viewers to consider the topics of societal roles, duality in one’s character and culture.

After looking at and experiencing the concepts depicted in the works across the exhibition, the viewers are made complicit in the crimes of lust, deceit and other sins that may come across in the paintings; therefore, as the grand finale, it is only necessary that the viewer confesses their sins and asks for forgiveness as is done in the Christian religion to the large sculpture at the end of the room. Although one would think that the story stops there, there is a door to exit through in that room and as one steps outside, there is the option of leaving or re-entering the exhibition through the stained-glass doors. The cyclical structure of this exhibition is reflective of how we as human beings seem to be stuck in the cycle of sinning and asking for forgiveness. There it is. Isaac Emokpae just exposed probably the most common moral cycle in the life of Nigerians. Come to think of it, the complicit nature of ‘Transparent’ is actually reminiscent of Plato’s opinions of how art could make one who experiences it immoral.

Hmm… maybe in some twisted way, Plato would like it.

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