In the words of Associate Curator,Iheanyi Onwuegbucha, “Ceramic Art Practice in Nigeria is mostly utilitarian and conservative”. Only a few artists have been able to hold that ground with as much passion and dexterity it requires. One of such is Ngozi Omeje, who has constantly challenged herself in Ceramic Art Practice in Nigeria by engaging in exploration of the clay medium in a broad range of unconventional adaptations.
At the 10th anniversary of Centre for Contemporary Art, she unveiled huge installations from her recent portfolio. Made from terracotta and plastic, the stringed Elephant figures floated within space for the audience to peruse.
Titled Connecting Deep, the artist spoke about her works and the memories it held for her,which she wants to share with her audience. In the Nsukka School, contemporary ceramic artistes, like Chris Echeta, Ozioma Onuzulike and Onu Caius, have also explored various approaches of exploiting clay in a cheaper, yet more effective and expressive manner.
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Like a growing number of hercontemporaries, Omeje has, over the years, shifted her practice form utilitarian ceramics, using potter’s wheel, to using techniques of pinching, typing wrapping and hanging to manipulate and experiment with clay. This shift opened up a vista of limitless artistic freedom of expression. During her
postgraduate degree exhibition at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the artist exhibited a series of radical experiments with clay and adjunct media like plastics and repurposed rubber flip flops.
It was in the course of her ambitious experimentation in Graduate School of UNN that she first explored the use of strings to suspend piece of clay. Her first work in this style, Imagine Jonah, completed in 2009, included the use of disposed cut-out rubber flip –flops.
The following year, she created another installation –Think Tea, Think Cup, during a one-month residency at Sevshoon Art Centre, Seattle, USA. In 2010,the
artist began to explore other formats, creating smaller constructions suspended from Plexiglas with steel pillars that can be easily transported and do not require special support for exhibition.
Omeje’s installations often reflects her personal experiences, growing up in Nsukka with her parents who were themselves skilled craftsmen –her father was a metal fabricator and her mother a seamstress –she was fascinated by her father’s metal welding fabrication processes, and off-cuts from her mother’s workshop
provided materials for her childhood creations.
She recalls her experiences growing up: “I played with fabric scraps often hammering pieces of cloths together with stones to create in my mind then, a kind of ‘art work’.”
With titles like She Bleeds and Placenta, she engages issues of pregnancy and childbirth. With three children, it’s not surprising that the artist would engage with such themes as “Placenta” as she is fascinated by the mystery of pregnancy.
The current installation presented as part of the 10th year anniversary celebration of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, is equally a compelling figurative statement.
In this work, she explores the elephant as a metaphor to depict her late father. In the Igbo cosmology, the Elephant (enyi) is a revered animal. The Igbo speaking people of southern Nigeria link men to elephant attributes such as strength, toughness and dangerousness.
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The artist takes this engagement further by inviting the audience to a participatory performance at the end of the exhibition. She invitesthe audience to take the Elephants down, one string at a time.However, the participation is articulated as a representation of something else, something about the administration of a kind of coup de grace: “The cutting of the leaves suggest shared memory that will transcend into collective memory.”
With this engagement, the artisthopes to transfer the memories of her father to the audience as living storage devices. As the Elephant stores memories for years, she hopes that by this act of sharing and deep connection with her audience, the collective memory of her father lives on.