You can count on your fingers the number of artists/painters whose beginning in art had some maternal influence. Henri Matisse is one famous example. Matisse was recuperating on a hospital bed when his mother presented him with a set of art materials to relieve his boredom. He fell in love with art. Thus did the career of one the greatest painters of the 20th century begin.
Juliet Ezenwa Pearce is another. In her pre-teens and teenage years, she was fascinated by the wall decorations her grandmother painstakingly limned in her compound, decorations that had their origin in Uli paintings in some parts of Igbo land. Like Matisse, Juliet was hooked. As time passed, her fascination grew. Many years down the line and now an established artist, there is no denying the source of her métier.
For as Luciano Uzuegbu, curator of a recent five-day exhibit (Saturday, August 25 – Thursday, August 30) by Ezenwa notes, “Juliet’s artistic trajectory owes its fame to her early engagement in Uli mud wall painting by her grandmother, a traditional decorator who had kept the young girl busy more than her contributions were deemed indispensable.”
From lessons learnt at her grandma’s feet, Ezenwa has widened her artistic horizon with the relevant degrees, first from Bendel State University, Abraka, Arts Management (Level 1) Certificate from Arts Business Management Techniques and Methodology from Terra Culture, Victoria Island, and an MA from National Open University of Nigeria. But for most artists worth their hues, degrees hardly count without the corresponding works to convince fellow artists who are also rivals or collectors that they are still in the game.
Just as the theatre is the ultimate place to be seen as an actor, exhibitions are the barometer with which artists are measured. It is where the public gets to see and appreciate what an artist has laboured at in monastic silence for weeks, months or even years. It was no surprise, therefore, when a sizeable number of family and friends, the press and art connoisseur converged last weekend to browse some of Ezenwa’s latest works, an exhibition titled Beyond 2018 at National Museum & Monuments, Onikan in Lagos.
No one or two years have passed without a joint or solo exhibition by Ezenwa in and outside Nigeria. A cursory glance at the catalogue shows an artist who has never been far away from her easel, dabbing and painting, or sculpting, building or installing as she is adept in other media, ever since she had her first show in 1991 at NYSC Art Exhibition in Ilorin, Kwara State where she served.
The more than 30 works on display by Ezenwa are a refreshing breath from the countless art works and installations gathering dust and cobwebs in the dark recesses of a national museum most Nigerians rarely visit.
The most striking of the paintings are the Girl Child Series. Painted in bright hues, they portray young women, some in pairs, threes or fours with plaited hair or wearing a scarf and all of them looking to the future. There is no dismal look in any of them, perhaps the painter’s boundless optimism for young women in Nigeria in particular or the world in general.
My Favourite Things and Happy Family (both in mixed media) also capture that optimism. Both are done in gold colours with white and black partitioning the entire canvas into boxes with stylized figures and symbols. In the second, Ezenwa shows a truly happy family in the African sense, complete with the protective power of the elders – two masks on the top right and left corners – over a family in the centre of the work.
In his prefatory remark as curator, Uzuegbu insists that Happy Family “highlights the peace of an African family and how they enjoy the benefits of an extended family system.”
A Nigerian artist born of Igbo parents, Ezenwa is steeped in her native culture as some of the works amply demonstrate. Take the three Guards of Honour, for instance. They are sculptural representations of masks common among the Igbos. Beyond that is Ezenwa’s artistic license in draping the masks with ropes, mirrors and whatnot. To the artist, anything and everything can be made or incorporated into art.
Her artistic license is also visible in three of the paintings, titled Maiden Masquerades (Dancing Girls) in which two lissome girls seem to glide like ballet dancers across a field blooming with colourful flowers. The girls are masked, for sure, but what any adult male Igbo would take exception to are the horns on their masks. Ezenwa herself describes it as her “artistic license.”
There are several influences in Beyond 2018, from Sam Ovraiti, who tutored Ezenwa, to his teachers in university, Professor Egonwa and Dr. Emeni, and two masters, Ben Enwonwu and Bruce Onobrakpeya. Ezenwa insists she owes much to Enwonwu, particularly the mask paintings. A student of African masks, she says that “you cannot study it without encountering and drawing reference from the master, Ben Enwonwu,” adding that “you would not be faulty to say that mine is a replica of Enwonwu’s masquerades; that would be a compliment for me as a young artist.”
With some of the works focusing on masks, the late Enwonwu would have been proud of Ezenwa’s creative effort and artistic scope.
Hopeful as the title seems, the exhibition was born out of a period of gloom the artist herself experienced. “I woke up one day and found that just listening to the radio depresses me. To keep at what I’m doing, I decided it was safer to look past the present situation and see a bright future; a better society and time. And so I focused my mind there; that was how my creativity returned.”
More than anything, Beyond 2018 shows that Ezenwa’s muse has never been more faithful. She also worked hard for the exhibition. Though artists are not in the habit of boasting about the creative energy invested in their works, his spouse, Adewale Maja Pearce, said offhandedly in a private conversation that “she worked hard.” He should know, being a partner who has lived with her and seen her beavering away all through the years.