Artists have always been the custodians of every society’s conscience and critical culture. They have always had the burden of social commitment, profound thought, and far reaching vision that is able to penetrate the rubble of today, to espy the future. For most visual artists, their initial solo exhibits can be likened to a rites of passage ritual or a coming of age ceremony. Any neophyte must go through tutelary rigours before being called to prove his mettle. This is usually achieved under the guidance and kind consideration of an experience elder that guides the initiate through the turbulent and treacherous landscape of that society. It is within this matrix that one will try to situate the praxis of Bright Ugochukwu Eke.
The Fine and Applied Arts department of the University of Nigeria Nsukka, has consistently been a proponent of cutting edge art. The philosophy of this art school is hinged on African tradition, experiment, exploration, and social commitment 1 Today one of the pillars upon which this art institution rests is the eminent sculptor El Anatsui. Anatsui has gradually but consistently built a global reputation for himself as an artist, teacher and promoter of contemporary Nigerian art.2 Bright Eke has benefited immensely from both the institution and individual. He graduated from this department where he read sculpture and is presently rounding off on MFA programme under the supervision of Anatsui.
Bright Eke is among a select, but increasing number of young Nigerian artists who have engaged the postmodern mode of art presentation. What is postmodernism you may ask? Postmodernism is simply a cultural mood. Hence art that falls within this province can be classified as art without principles in contrast with modernism. 3 So that postmodern art is not hedged in by boundaries like sculpture, painting, and ceramics. It is a boundary breading behemoth that straddles the entire landscape, permitting the use of any creative strategy to resolve problems. It is an art form where the creative process, content and materials are as important as the finished art work itself. Hence this mode has to be “read” to understand its import.
From prehistoric period when man began to draw on the walls of caves, to the present, his environment has always been his source of inspiration and thematic concern.4 Bright Eke has deployed his sensitivity, intellect and creativity by harnessing and transforming ubiquitous materials into elements with which he makes profound artistic statements. That is, statements that have the capacity to rouse one from slumber into the immediacy of the danger that threatens. His major thematic concern is the environment, and the medium he has deployed to this effect is water.
Beyond the mixing of pigments, water is not usually perceived as a medium of creativity. Bright Eke has however, reversed this notion. He has used water effectively, both conceptually and physically, to convey his ideas about environmental degradation and the poor quality water available for human consumption. His works resonate with global and local issues.
`Acid rain comes to mind immediately. The artist uses the work to interrogate the phenomenon of acid rain. This environmental hazard is a product of man’s quest to improve his quality of life. Gaseous products of industrialization emitted into the atmosphere, are washed back to Earth by rainfall as a mild acid. In the long run, this has a harmful effect on the earth and all things on it. Acid Rain is a conceptual interpretation of Bright Eke’s experience and understanding of the acid rain phenomenon. It is not enough for the artist to alert us on imminent danger. It is also his prerogative to suggest a leeway out of this quagmire.
Shield is bright Eke’s antidote for the menace of acid rain. He conjoins polythene sachets used for packaging table water into raincoats and umbrellas. These sachets because of improper disposal techniques now constitute an environmental hazard. So these waste materials are now imbued with utility: for protection against environmental hazards. But we could stretch this shield as metaphor: to save us from ourselves vis a vis suicide bombers, nuclear attack and biological weapons of mass destruction that have become so ominous today.
Public Tap is a reminder of the fact that amidst the abundance of water resources, there is hardly good quality water for domestic consumption. This environmental monument is a trope for dry taps, broken pipes, long and arduous treks in search of water, unprotected and unhygienic sources of water. It is a symbol of want and deprivation.
Scarcity is another commentary on the state of arrested development of public utilities. It etches on ones mind, a picture of motion without movement. It speaks eloquently about the pain and energy expended in search of water, one of the basic needs of man.
Urban landscape is a metaphor for the fact that a large aspect of the Nigerian population lives in and off junk and use mostly second hand materials. It is a case of living in a “Tokunbo age” and being afflicted with a “second hand syndrome”. It is for these reasons that Bright Eke installs the bird’s eye view of an urban setting using waste and discarded materials.
The installation of flags made from discarded polythene bags is aptly title World Flag on the day of convention and deliberation on ecological disasters. This work illustrates the legend, “ All nation are equal but some are more equal than others”. While a few nations appropriate, produce and enjoy the resources of the Earth, others serves as dump sites for the waste products of their profligacy.
Back to the Shore revisits the issue of environmental degradation by highlighting the phenomenon of dumping waste in water bodies or exporting them to unwary and underdeveloped nations. This vessel loaded to its brim with cargo of toxic industrial waste was steered back to the shore upon the realization of its deleterious effect on the environment or by enforcement. Here, Bright Eke preaches the appropriate disposal of waste materials and a better deal for developing nations that are usually the target destinations.
In all, this of body of work speaks about vigilance, responsibility and equitable use and conservation of the earth’s resources. Though these works do not bears the characteristics of conventional art, they are by no means less effective in communicating their meaning. No doubt, these works need to the explained, to gain access to them; they also challenge the intellect of the viewer. And because it may not satisfy the rabid appetite of the collector, this makes it more of a public property. This is because upon proper interrogation of these works, they imprint themselves more in the viewers mind and provide it with food for thought and not necessarily aesthetic delight alone.
For Bright Eke, this exhibit, a coming of age ceremony of sorts, is only the beginning of a long and torturous journey. He has not made a statement yet, but he is still acquiring the vocabulary that will strengthen his creative and expressive powers. Subsequent outings will prove his eloquence or stagnation. However, this body of work goes to illustrate the role artists should play in their communities as watchdogs, umpires, activists, and social commentators.
Artist and writer.
Department of fine and Applied Arts.
University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
Simon Ottenberg, Seven Artists of the Nsukka Group. Washington, D. C: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.
John Picton et al, El Anatsui A Sculpted History of Africa. London, Saffron Books and October Gallery, 1998.
Eric Fernie, Art History and its Methods. London, Phaidon Press Limited, 1995.
Richard G. Tansey and Fred S. Kleiner, Gardners Art Through The Ages. Forthworth, Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.