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Planting new Mbari's

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In September, CC Strombeek presents 3 exhibitions on drawing. The artists An Roovers, Obi Okigbo and Nel Maertens each shape the medium in their own way. The exhibitions are presented as part of the Brussels Drawing Week (14 -19 September), in which about 40 cultural institutions in and around Brussels put contemporary drawing in the spotlight.

Brussels-based Obi Okigbo (1964, Ibadan, Nigeria) defines her work as an autobiographical self-examination anchored in her multiple identity. She finds inspiration in all aspects of life – faith, behaviour, cultural and aesthetic values are among her rich frame of reference. The artist grew up surrounded by the poetic legacy of her father, the famous poet and intellectual Christopher Okigbo. CC Strombeek presents a selection from Okigbo's hidden universe: a selection of drawings with Indian ink, oil paintings and collages are shown for the first time in Belgium.

I became increasingly fascinated by our belief systems – the art and architecture left behind as silent witnesses of humanity’s aspirations. My horizons widened as I became acquainted with Mbari art and ideology in Owerri, Igbo-Ukwu sculpture, the poetry of Hafez & Rumi (from the 13th century), the writings of Joseph Campbell, Coptic art, ancient Khemet philosophy, Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata, and Yoruba art. All these left indelible imprints on my world of imagination (…) – Obi Okigbo

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A conversation between Obi Okigbo and Charlotte Crevits:

You have a background in architecture. You were educated at Oxford Brooks University, followed by a Postgraduate at the Architecture Association in London. Is this training – with a focus on spatiality – reflected in your work as a visual artist?

My training in architecture is the foundation of my artistic practice. My first foray into the arts, titled Casa Dolce Casa (produced for a group exhibition in 2001), was a ‘deconstruction’ of drawings from my master’s thesis at the AA school of architecture. The reworked collages are like archaeological maps revealing through their layers the passage of time, movement, traces, and imprints. This ‘layering’ technique recurs throughout my practice. Building upon this fundamentally architectonic understanding of the world, I started making the shift towards a more conceptual means of expression through painting and writing.

In your work, storytelling and the transmission of narratives are very crucial. In describing your work, you often use concepts such as transcendence, healing, and collective memory. You frequently refer to the traditions and mythology of the Igbo, your Nigerian ancestors.
In 2005, you initiated the Christopher Okigbo Foundation, tasked with researching and preserving the legacy of your father. Christopher Okigbo (1932 – 1967) who died fighting for the independence of Biafra, is recognised today as one of the major African modernist writers of the 20th century. Can you explain how this exceptional legacy has affected you?

My fascination with storytelling goes back to the beginning of my career as an artist in 2002, when I embarked on a journey to work on a series of oil paintings in conversation with the poetry of my father Christopher Okigbo, a seminal passage that planted the themes for my work today. His poetry, steeped in his Igbo and Catholic heritage revived my deep-seated love for fables and epic tales. I became increasingly drawn to the stories behind belief systems, silent witnesses of humanity’s aspirations. This passion has evolved into a process of juxtaposing ‘archetypes’ from diverse cultures and epochs with my own personal experiences, weaving new narratives based on the most ancient of all – the eternal cycle of birth, death and regeneration.

In the exhibition, there are also several drawings and sketches that form part of a very special and ongoing project: a life-size reinterpretation of the famous Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers. In total, you have already produced 300 portraits of protagonists, spanning 3000 years of African (hi)story. Can you explain the urgency for the creation of this artwork?

Having established the foundation, I became more aware of the importance of celebrating and safeguarding intellectual heritage regarding the African history; everyone needs someone to look up to. Who are our heroes? The huge un-truths and omissions in the history of the African continent awakened me to the urgency of collecting, archiving, and narrating our own stories. As an artist, I feel a deep-seated responsibility to pass on this legacy to the next generation. In 2008, I started a series of Indian ink portraits of icons (philosophers, poets, kings, queens, musicians, astronomers, saints…) as testimony to this new and dynamic repertoire. This enterprise eventually evolved into Mystic Lamb: a re-interpretation of the “Ghent Altar-piece” by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck.

I’ve always been in awe of the early Flemish Primitives since I arrived in Belgium in 1994. Having never formally learnt painting, my approach has been that of an apprentice turning to these same masters for everything I know about the craft (technique, composition, light, shadow, perfection). Like the original Altarpiece, this body of work is perceived as an offering, a work of devotion dedicated to “those who have paved the way” so that we may shine.

Much of your work is autobiographical, anchored in your mixed identity as an African /Nigerian /Igbo /Igbirra /British /Belgian woman. This inward gaze is often manifested in the form of the female figure. In your exhibition at CC Strombeek, an early self-portrait, Narcissus (2008) takes a central place. Does your work also have a feminist dimension?

The work Narcissus is a symbolic representation of self-interrogation regarding this stance of introspection. Like you mentioned, most of my work is from a personal perspective and the female figure is almost always predominant in my compositions. I’ve been surrounded by formidable women since childhood. Their influence has shaped my life and views about living as a woman in society today. I admire the courageous, passionate, militant spirit in women such as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Audre Lorde, Wangechi Mutu, Yaa Asantewaa, Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh featured in the Mystic Lamb mood board installation exhibited here.

The use of Indian ink on both paper and linen is very typical, it imbues your work with great sensitivity, an intense flavour of fragility and spirituality. You mentioned the ink paintings by Ohwon Jang Seung-Ub (1843- 97) as a great source of inspiration for your way of working in 2008. The use of water and ink brings about a sense of non-control, of chance. Can you explain the importance of this liquid material, in what way does it generate meaning/content?

Up until 2008, I was working with oil paint and more focused on the use of colour to evoke certain emotions. During this period, I started practicing tai-chi, qigong and calligraphy which is an extension of the “breathing exercise.”. As a craftswoman, I had been looking for ways to hone my skill. When I came across the work of Oh-won, I was struck by the magic of the actual process, the alchemy of indelible black ink, the brush stroke and water on absorbing paper that was incarnated in his work. Every mark is permanent, intentional. This requires singular concentration. Combined with the aleatory reaction by intuitive water dilutions (ink stains), this method opens infinite possibilities giving the painting a timeless dimension, where past present and future coexist on the same plane.

Your sources of inspiration are rich, ranging from literature to music, ancient traditions, humanity, and ethical values. You often refer to religious iconographic art (Renaissance paintings, Igbo-Ukwu sculptures, Coptic frescos, Sufi poetry, Khemet hieroglyphs, to name but a few). In your painting Primavera - Mbari (2010), you consciously refer to Botticelli's famous eponymous painting. Can we consider this as a critical re-interpretation?

Over the years, my horizons have widened with insights into the different cultures you mentioned above that have left a lasting impression on my world of imagination. Such is the case with ‘Sandro Botticelli’s masterpiece Primavera. Several theories abound about its meaning, but one common interpretation is that the painting is "an elaborate mythological allegory of the burgeoning fertility of the world.” My research into the art of Mbari houses presented an opportunity to generate a dialogue between classic mythology and ancient Igbo art, between master-painter and apprentice.

In your title, you refer to the art and ideology of Mbari, can you tell us what exactly you want to convey to the viewer?

Mbari is a visual art form practiced by the Owerri-Igbo people in southeast Nigeria consisting of a sacred house constructed as a propitiatory rite. These large opened-sided square planned shelters contain life-sized painted figures sculpted in mud, to appease the Alusi (deity), Ala, the earth goddess and other deities of thunder, water, officials, craftsmen, legendary creatures and ancestors that make up the pantheon of Mbari cosmology.

It is interesting to note that although Mbari houses took years of skill and effort to make, yet when completed, a ritual was performed and it was left to and decay in the elements with the passing of time. After its complete demise, the next generation was called upon by the Deity to erect a new Mbari house. It is this notion of ritual healing, transmission, and transformation by each new ‘coming of age’ that I have tried to evoke in my work.

Chinua Achebe, a renowned Nigerian novelist and literary theorist, said "Mbari was a celebration through art of the world and of life lived in it. It was performed by the community on command by its presiding deity, usually the Earth goddess, Ala, who combined two formidable roles in the Igbo pantheon as fountain of creativity in the world and custodian of the moral order in human society".

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Installation views by Kristien Daem.