Wednesday, May 13, 2009

FLUID CONNECTIONS, BRIGHT UGOCHUKWU EKE: by Celeyce Matthews, delivered in a graduate seminar on modern African art at San Jose State University

The widespread damage continually inflicted upon the environment and on human cultures in the name of modern progress is coming to a critical point.  Accelerating along the trajectory set in place by the Enlightenment, the rise of Western modernism created alienation and the fragmentation of cultures which in turn caused dramatic rifts between people, and between people and nature.  Nations, traditions, identities and relationships were shattered into disconnected splinters as a result of modernism’s ascendancy.  However, this fragmentation and isolationism is now being countered by a global push towards interconnectivity; the shattered modern world is beginning to reassemble itself into a more complexly integrated and interconnected planet.  Despite their many problematic aspects, globalization and communications technology are aiding this backlash against modern alienation.  Additionally, social, scientific, spiritual, political, artistic and ecological movements are seeking to repair disconnection and establish constructive interrelationships between cultures, races and genders, and between people and nature.  The term ‘interconnectivity’ has become a buzzword in these seemingly disparate subcultures (emphasizing the meaning of the word.)  

Working toward interconnectivity with an eye to practical ethical and ecological issues, many contemporary artists are bypassing postmodern issues of the so-called deaths of history, of originality, etc. in order to redress modernism’s blunders.  If we pollute our planet to the point of no return, do issues of authorship or pastiche really matter?   Philosopher Richard Kearney calls for an ethical and poetic imagination to replace modernism’s exhausted fantasies of individualism and progress, and postmodernism’s empty reflections of cynical surface.   Poetic approaches to ethical universal concerns release artists from the traps of modern alienation and postmodern apathy.  By stressing the interconnectivity of human action and the environment, artists poetically enact a practical reappraisal of critically fragmented relationships.   

Exemplifying this poetic approach to dire global dilemmas, contemporary Nigerian artist Bright Ugochukwu Eke creates installation sculpture from a desire to find commonalities and connections between people, and between people and nature.  Eke was born in 1976 in Imo Nigeria and earned a BA and MFA in sculpture from the University of Nigeria in Nsukka.  He studied with El Anatsui and gained confidence under his tutelage to experiment with non-traditional materials in his artwork.  Eke’s first professional outing was in the 2006 Dakar Biennale of Contemporary African Art in Senegal and subsequently he has been in several international exhibitions and won many awards and residencies around the world.  Currently living in Los Angeles, Eke is typical of a new generation of artist who embodies a transnational identity and is concerned with issues that move beyond locality into a global arena of concerns.  Eke uses a poetic approach to the critical ethical problems of environmental destruction and the disconnection between humans and nature that allow for ecological devastation.

With a strong sense of an underlying interconnectedness linking all life forms, Eke calls attention to the harmful man-made boundaries that cause disconnection and destruction.  Eke proclaims, “Having perceived this interconnectedness and interdependence of humans and nature, and having felt the damage, the separateness, and barriers we have created selfishly and egoistically, I thought it pertinent to find ways through which we could ameliorate or proffer some solutions to some of these… I thought of a common language in nature.  That brought me to the language of WATER!”  Eke uses water as both a material and a metaphor to speak eloquently about universal human and environmental problems.  Eke explains, “Water is a universal medium.  It’s common to everybody, no matter who or where you are.  Whatever I do with water is what every other person does with it in every part of the world.  The most interesting part is that we are bound or connected by [water.]”  This connection has been ignored and abused, and as a result, water has become critically damaged by the industrial processes of modernism.   Eke’s work foregrounds this issue of alienation between humans and nature.

Created for the 2006 Dakar Biennale of Contemporary African Art in Senegal, Eke’s installation Acid Rain comes from his direct contact with toxic rainfall.  While working in Nigeria’s gravely polluted Port Harcourt, Eke developed a skin irritation due to acid rain from local industrial pollution.  This incident inspired enquiry into the causes of acid rain and his resulting artwork illuminates this problem.  Eke’s piece is an assemblage of small plastic bags containing water fouled with battery acid that are bound and hung from string at different lengths.  A 2008 rendition of this work, Water Drop, is also a cluster of polluted water packets, each resembling (acid)raindrops, forming a larger shape of a water droplet, emulating water’s ability to be multiple units yet part of a unified body.  In this allusion to the concept of interconnectivity, the fluid multiplicity of water serves as a metaphor for individual humans making a cohesive, although perhaps dysfunctional, societySimilarly, the individual affects the whole - individual consumption of the products of industry, namely oil and consumer goods, drives the toxic processes that create wide-scale environmental damage.  The connection and interdependence between human action and the environment is frequently ignored and disrespected; by suggesting the fluid nature of the dichotomy of the individual and the whole, Acid Rain and Water Drop call attention to a global problem we all participate in and are effected by, consciously or not. 

Water Drop 2008, Bright Ugochukwu Eke

In Eke’s installations, we are initially drawn in by the visual beauty and meticulous process of construction; thus engaged, we become aware of the serious content embedded in the work.  Eke explores the theme of (dis)connection further in his spectacular large-scale installations Natural Connection, created for the 2008 International Festival for the Arts in the Netherlands, and Confluence, made for the 2008 international exhibition CodeShare in Lithuania.  In both of these works, hundreds of clear plastic water bottles were painstakingly connected into dazzling, sinuous mazes that viewers can interact with and walk through.  These installations are “an attempt to create a common ground for interactions between people” Eke states, as they struggle to move through the narrow ‘waterways.’  Although officially part of international art events, these pieces were exhibited in everyday environments like a shopping mall and a local neighborhood street, not just in the privileged spaces of gallery and museum.  In these unconventional spaces, the artwork is available to everybody, connecting the work and its meanings to everyday life.  Additionally, the water bottles used in these pieces were culled from the surrounding areas of the installation sites; this attention to connection with the artworks’ environments is very much a part of Eke’s message.  Eke explains, “My medium/work is from the environment, about the environment; from the public, about the public and everyday life - from the society/culture and about the society/culture.”  Regrettably, plastic water bottles have become an everyday aspect of our daily life and environment.

The ubiquitous plastic water bottle is a contemporary symbol of the increasing problems of acquiring drinkable water and is arguably the quintessential icon for the disconnection between people and nature.  In many parts of the world the water supply is dwindling and much of it is contaminated by industrial waste or by lack of appropriate sanitation, forcing many people to resort to importing water in plastic bottles.  Whether merely trendy items of convenience or tools temporarily fulfilling a genuine need, plastic water bottles are not a sustainable solution for portable water; rather, plastic water bottles create further environmental problems.  Made from petrochemicals in toxic processes, plastic water bottles contribute to pollution in their production and international transport, and add to the political shenanigans surrounding oil.  Furthermore, plastic is not biodegradable and water bottles are rapidly littering our environment, harming wildlife, releasing toxic fumes in their incineration and filling our garbage dumps. There is also concern about the safety of drinking water bottled in plastic due to chemical leaching.  Eke’s choice of plastic water bottles as a medium to signify the drastic disconnection between humans and nature is an eloquent and effective one.   

Natural Connection 2008, Bright Ugochukwu Eke

Besides the water bottles being potent indicators of the disconnection between humans and the environment, the meandering walls of Natural Connection and Confluence are also symbolic of the ideological walls people erect to separate each other from diverse cultures, races and genders, as well as from the natural world.  Assigning Otherness to an individual, a group, or to nature, sets up an alienating opposition; Eke’s work highlights and attempts to dissolve the barriers separating people and cultivates awareness of the interconnectivity of life.  Eke chooses to collaborate on the construction of his works with people from the local installation area and considers this cooperation a vital aspect of his work.  Joining forces with a variety of people emphasizes the content of Eke’s work; Eke states, “Working with people has always been something I like to do because of the nature of my work… I also like to feel the connection with other people in my work.  My idea is about the connection with people, the societies/cultures, and the environment.  How one affects the other.  So I will not feel fulfilled even when I can do the work all alone.”  Eke’s art-making process works toward building connections with diverse communities which facilitates breaking down the barriers between people and dissolves the alienating classification of Otherness. 

Natural Connection 2008, Bright Ugochukwu Eke

Pushing beyond the assigned identity of the Other, many third generation post-colonial African artists, like Eke, are less concerned with constructing and projecting a specific and recognizable African identity than African artists in the first decades of independence.   Negritude and Pan-Africanism expressed the backlash against colonial imperialism and embodied the search for a new cohesive African identity.   Artists of this dynamic era played a major role in constructing this new identity, often under strong social and political coercion.  New hybrid identities acknowledging and embodying multiple cultural influences became the new social paradigm in Africa, and around the world.  As professor, writer and critic Okwui Enwezor points out, the identities of Africa are a construction of the “collision of Africa and Europe” which have created the heterogeneous positions in African contemporary identity.  Enwezor confirms “all forms of culture and identity are constructed, shaped and reshaped by varying forms of historical conjunctions, appropriations, contestations and refusals.”  Cultures have always borrowed from each other, now more than ever in this age of globalization and interconnectivity.   The current generation of African artists is expressing a transnational or global identity that is moving beyond locality and hybridity, and emphasizes the interconnectedness of cultures.  Eke is one of these transnational artists explaining, “I am an artist from Africa but in a global society.” 

Confluence, 2008 Bright Ugochukwu Eke

Although Africa is now technically post-colonial and participating in a global world from a freer political stance, many Western writers, anthropologists, scholars, art historians and art collectors continue to contrive to assert their imperialist notions in regards to African art.  The voyeuristic pleasure of creating an African Other isolated in a ‘primitive’ and exotic past has compelled some Westerners to continue to select, promote and support a narrow range of African art – art that professor and critic Nkiru Nzegwu claims “must be outside Africa’s own modernity [and] is...relocated outside of time and history.”  A large part of the West’s need to dismiss and marginalize contemporary African artists is played out in a self-serving narrative constructed for the African Other by the West surrounding ideas of authenticity.  The drive to label certain African artwork as ‘authentic’ is an extension of the attempt to contain and dominate African artists and maintain notions of Western superiority.  

The West often chooses African aesthetic forms that satisfy a Western-constructed African identity that is assumed to be disconnected from Western influences; African art that can be linked to Western practice is often disqualified as ‘inauthentic’.  If ‘inauthentic’ contemporary African art merely mimics Western art, that sets up the logic confirming that Western art is the superior origin; the West is confirmed as the source of originality and authentic genius and ostensibly only the West can assimilate other cultures’ aesthetics without losing its identity.   This is an imperialist belief that allows the West to impertinently graze the world’s cultures for its own usage and to mask its own empty cultural concoction.  Artist, professor and critic Olu Oguibe contends that the West needs to create the identity of the inauthentic, or the simply Other, African in order to “not reveal itself as mimic, as a culture of quotations, as a mediated translation of cultures and art traditions other than itself, as pastiche.”  

These issues surrounding authenticity are also another means of isolating and separating people and cultures; the isolationist stance of the West denies the interconnectivity of culture.  However, as the world moves inexorably beyond modernist notions of simplistic binaries and isolationism, and beyond postmodern ideas of hybridity and pastiche, the concept of authenticity versus inauthenticity collapses.  The acceleration of interconnectivity and complex interchanges between cultures nullifies these outmoded methods of alienating classification.  Eke does not play into the Western demand for African exoticism and ‘proof’ of authenticity; his artwork comes from his direct experience of the world around him: “My materials and the issues I try to address are found both in Africa and globally.”  Eke’s work seeks to examine and repair the disconnection between cultures and move beyond the limitations of imposed Western narratives.
  Bright Ugochukwu Eke’s installations illuminate the connections (and disconnections) between people and their environment, which mirrors the (dis)connections between people and cultures.  Through evoking issues surrounding water, Eke uses a poetic approach to the critical ethical problems of environmental destruction caused by the disconnection between people and nature.  Eke sums up his artistic intention declaring, “I am interested in exploring water in ways that can examine global human and environmental issues.”  Seeking commonalities and stressing the interconnectivity between people, Eke is part of a new generation of transnational artist concerned with global dilemmas that transcend specific identity and locality.  The fluid multiplicity of meanings in Eke’s work is artfully expressed in his chosen medium: the universal and unifying element of water.



 Richard Kearney,  HYPERLINK "" \o "The Wake of Imagination (page does not exist)" The Wake of Imagination. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), pp.s 361, 367.

 Bright Ugochukwu Eke, Eco-Scope Blog.

 Bright Ugochukwu Eke, Written email interview by Celeyce Matthews.  (California, April 25, 2009).



 David Grossman,“Breaking the Bottled Water Habit.”  (September 22, 2009).

  Deborah Kotz, “The Study of Chemical in Plastic Bottles Raises Alarm.”  US News and World Report.  (April 16, 2008).   HYPERLINK "" 

  Eke, interview by Celeyce Matthews.

Enwezor, Okwui. “HYPERLINK ""Tricking the Mind. The Work of Yinka Shonibare.”  Authentic/Ex- Centric: Conceptualism in Contemporary African Art. Ed.s Salah Hassan and Olu Oguibe.(Ithica, NY: Forum for African Arts, 2002), p. 217.


Eke, interview by Celeyce Matthews.

Nkiru Nzegwu, “Introduction – Contemporary African Art and Exclusionary Politics.”  Issues Contemporary African Art.  (Binghamton, NY: International Society for the Study ofAfrica ISSA at Binghamton University, 1998), p. 11.

Olu Oguibe, The Culture Game.  (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), p 7.

Eke, interview by Celeyce Matthews.

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