Sunday, January 7, 2018


By Stephanie Amata. 

Niyi Okeowo. ARIA. 2017

In the last few days of 2017, specifically the 29th and 30th of December, Lekki Phase I was alive with electric Reds, Blues, Greens and Pinks as Were House hosted a two-day exhibition of the theme, Synthwave, a music genre that emerged in the 80's through the 2000's that took on an electronic sound with the technological advancements that were going on at the time. The exhibition featured Promise O'nali's bold paintings and 2-D sculpture, Morenike Ajayi's striking cross of photography and graphic design, GunnaZD's paintings and collage pieces, Ruby Okoro's star-studded photography, Painter Abe's Warhol-esque pop-art, Wami Aluko's simmering photography, TSE's ever mind-blowing photography, Kiel Orji's subversive sculptures, Chinedu Dalu's charged pieces, Andikan's engaging photography, Tomi Thomas' quirky doodles, Niyi Okeowo's Immersive worlds and 512 activity's well-lit installation to mention a few. I had a chance to talk to a few of the artists as well as the curator and organiser herself, Isabella Agbaje.

Isabella Agbaje. 

The mastermind behind it all gave me a few minutes away from her running-around and getting-shit-done to get a few words from her. Unfortunately, I couldn't record the dialogues because of the loud music so I took notes instead, therefore, most of the following conversations will be paraphrased. Of course, the first thing I asked her was why she decided to hold an exhibition of this particular theme. She told me easily that it was because she had seen the rise of digital work internationally and simply thought to herself that why can't we have that here, a space for artists of the sort to showcase their work. It is easy to see where the demand for a space for work like this comes from with the likes of neon lighting gurus, 512 activity setting up shop at every major event over summer and Christmas or TSE' s NO-1 exhibition touring all around Lagos and the general rise of afro-futuristic narratives with the likes of Nnedi Okorafor breaking into Hollywood with her speculative fiction of Africa's future. Agbaje wanted there to be a marriage of both the visual art and the music which, in the bubbling Lagos art scene is something that always goes hand-in-hand. Undeniably she achieved this with a playlist that was faithful to the New Age music scene, with the likes of, Lady Donli, Tomi Thomas, Aylø and Odunsi playing at Were House's airy exhibition space. She also went on to commend Were House commenting on their ability to maintain their exclusivity without being pretentious, stating that generally, it is important to protect your energy and crowd saying "if you go into a space with good energy you'll get vibes". Finally, Agbaje pushed on to mention how important this exhibition is to her as a way to give creatives a space for their creative expression and freedom saying she herself as a creative sacrificed the opportunity to show her work in favour of the other exhibitors. Nevertheless, she mentioned how amazing it was curating the exhibition despite some of the stress of doing it on her own. The fantastic turnout and vibes from the two days of the event merging exhibition and club night are a testament to Agbaje's foresight and dedication.

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Wami Aluko. 

Wami exhibited a vibrant set of pictures from behind the scenes of musician, Fasina's "Freaky" music video which she also did the styling for. When I asked her why she chose this set she said she thought the colours and the tones matched the theme of Synthwave quite nicely as the harsh red and blue washes cast on the model recall those of neon lights. She went on to explain how she likes the concept of getting ready or not being quite finished as is displayed in the images as the model, Wura Salvador is being prepped for the music video. She linked this to her previous body of work, which she exhibited at The Self Expression Exhibition in July, "Sorry I'm Late", which told the story of a messy but put together and fashionably late character mused by Anjola Fagbemi. The close framing of the shots as well speaks true to her style seen throughout her oeuvre, explaining that she believes that there is intimacy in proximity and therefore aims to channel that through. There is a clear expertise and confidence in the way Aluko uses her camera that makes it impossible to not be entranced by her images and the characters in it. She has also just released her first documentary 'For Those Who Listen' and you can check it out here.

Niyi Okeowo.

Okeowo put on 2 sets of works with two different narratives. The first set which consisted of digitally manipulated photographs of homely outdoor settings was quite striking. He explained that he had been inspired by the works of Edward Hopper in his ability to convey, stillness, emptiness and a sense of stasis in locations that typically should be the opposite. For example, Hopper's House By The Railroad and Okeowo’s photograph of Idanre Hills in Ondo share a lot of the same qualities. Hopper's 1925 painting of a majestic Victorian home is somewhat melancholic as we see the house at a distance with the train tracks cutting across the foreground further distancing us from the already lonely home. Similarly, in Okeowo's piece, the great hills are awash with blue giving off the same feeling of melancholia. The use of the wide shot is key here, while it is common in landscapes it does make things depersonalised as in Hopper's painting, which is also fairly wide. As veteran comic actor and filmmaker, Charlie Chaplin once said, "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot". It is that distance that detaches us or allows us to detach ourselves from the subject. With nothing in the shot to really invest in, we are then left with the image of the scorching yellow sun above the blue, with that contrast heightening the sense of stasis.

Edward Hopper. House by the Railroad. 1925. 

Idanre Hills by Niyi Okeowo

His second set was composed of works that had been entirely digitally rendered, which is quite fitting as it tells the story of a man in space, tying the medium together with the futuristic narrative. Okeowo's mind is clearly one that is constantly working as the tale behind the works were well-thought out and elaborate and which for the sake of spoilers I will not reveal. It does though centre on the aforementioned man that has travelled to space and created ARIA, an AI unit in his mind in order to compensate for the distance he feels from his wife. Tragically even his own mind's creation is still distant from him as in all the compositions they turn away from him and are never in contact with him. Okeowo's ability to compress his narratives into his pieces is something I truly marvel at and I believe that it is in his clarity and total control that he finds the skill to do this.


Gunna also showcased two series of works, both in tune with the theme of enslavement. The first set, prints of paintings onto canvas, featured two pieces of a dark-skinned character dressed in orange, the orange often relating to the American-style prison jumpsuit. Despite the seemingly unfavourable predicament, their poses seem quite tranquil with their eyes closed or head titled back in relaxation. They also pose quite steadfastly and assuredly in the frame taking the centre of it. Gunna explained that this was what he was trying to convey that they find "peace of mind no matter the situation".

[]: peace in pain ii. 2016.

[]: peace in pain i. 2016.

The second series, less optimistically, addressed the topic of mass digital consumerism and production. The series featured two pieces again, this time collages, presented side by side, he explained to me that one side represents "what they [digital corporations, the government etc] want us to see" while the other represents "what they actually do". While at first glance the two pieces seem quite clear with its breezy composition leaving lots of room for negative space, they are actually quite subtly layered. The top half of both pieces hold upside-down commercial buildings with notable brand names on them like McDonald's and even some iconic buildings like the CN tower in Toronto which ominously hovers over the subject in the lower half of the first piece. The buildings on the second piece are less flattering one of them even emits a thick cloud of dark smoke onto the red backdrop on the image. At the extreme corners of both images are CCTV cameras, the one on the first piece looks quite regular and benign while the one on the second takes on a more malicious look as the lens outline has been replaced with an eye giving it the 1984-esque Big Brother implication. The lower halves of the pieces I feel make the most interesting comments. The space is mostly occupied by a semi-circular earth over which, in the first half of the image, multiple presentations of the same man walk, one hand in pocket, other hand gripping a phone onto which his eyes are fixed. The word "NETFIX" sits below, a clever wordplay between the online streaming service Netflix and "fix" a word often used when drug addicts need a dose of the drug they are addicted to. As the man walks into the second piece he becomes bags of money and the word "faceless" another wordplay on Facebook this time, hides at the edge of the earth, Gunna explained that that's how he thinks corporations see us as numbers and not people. There also some logos hiding on the image of the earth like the bleeding Nike logo which he explained implied the low-income workers that essentially slave behind closed doors to create these products. There are so many brilliant nuances to this piece like the clear blue sky of the first but the red-tinged certainly polluted sky of the second and all the other signs carefully tucked away. Gunna plays with what we know, taking some of our easily accepted realities and throwing them back in our faces.

[sine.xchng]. 2017
Overall the exhibition was thrilling. The combination of sultry music and the white walls soaked in the hues of 512 activity's lighting scheme allowed you escape into the world that was the Lagos-style Synthwave.

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