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From Niger Delta, Ukpong hits South Africa with blazing century

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Ukpong’s installation art

After returning to home two years ago from Europe for an art project tagged Blazing Century-1, Wilfred Ukpong has taken the Niger Delta narrative to South Africa. But his new work, in installation and performance art, is laced with deconstruction of art from its widely held commercial context.

Started in Eket, Akwa Ibom State, with 50 works produced in four years, Ukpong’s extended edition of the social art engagement project took public performance dimension in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

It started in Nigeria in what the artist described as “disruptive interlinked site installations and performance actions.”

Generally, his art practice includes sculpture, painting, installation, performance, photography, architecture, film, and music/sound. However, the artist appears to be moving fast into the extreme end of art that is woven with critical appreciation. In fact, his new work leans more towards the academic wing of critical appropriation of art.

Ukpong, whose art in the past decade burst forth from wall hangings of aesthetics canvas onto installation and conceptual genres, enthused about the ‘success’ of his last presentation.

“They were presented at the Mesh and FNB Art fair in Johannesburg (where my art-photographic prints showed at the David Krut Projects), and while the second part of the intervention was enacted at the grand opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town.”

Quite a historic one for Ukpong for being among the first artists to show at the much-publicised Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art, Africa. The facility, which was opened last year, is the largest museum of contemporary art in Africa.

“A complementary site of installation was created during the Espresso TV show to extend the work to a broader non-art audience in South Africa,” Ukpong said during his visit to Nigeria a few weeks ago. “These events were supported by a series of talks session to engage the art and cultural audiences.”

The images of the show viewed via soft copies suggest performance that looks like scenes from a sci-fi movie set. They show Ukpong in costume as an industrial worker with three other performance artists as bodyguards. Basically, the performance, he explained, was meant to deconstruct the growing trend of art as a commodity, yet not losing the main message of the Niger Delta narrative for his choice of medium. He argued that “in Africa,” art such as paintings and sculptures “have been highly dependent upon the existing economic conditions and social relations where art is often fetishised as commodity object within existing conservative and emerging capitalist system.”

Indeed, the issue of art as being caged in capitalist context is not only an African challenge in art appreciation. In fact, purists in art appreciation circle have always expressed such worries across periods and geographical spaces all over the world, as history has recorded. With current period in Ukpong’s art trajectory, he might just be enriching the world’s art lexicon within the critical context.

“The performance action and site installations were created to challenge this very form of commoditised artistic objects while intervening in contemporary ecological, socio-cultural, political, and economic environments,” Ukpong insisted.

In the body of work, the artist’s interest includes exploring interventions to show that it is possible to “encompass in one performative gesture the socio-political agency of a red traffic cone and a red costume of this strange mother,” among others.

And like quite a number of outdoor performance art, Ukpong’s work was also interactive “by presenting these interventions during these art events, both the public and the art audiences – in these environments – who are invited to touch the objects are lured into a series of engagement with ‘the return of the object’ through compelling symbolic enactments and visual stylization.”

Within the context of similar appropriation of contextual focus, in painting for example, Ukpong also simplifies his performance in representational form. He breaks the content into colours of red and black that represent “the violence of spilled blood and its source, crude oil; yellow depicts the hope for a better future.” Other depictions in colours include what he listed as marginalisation, decay, loss, grief, hope, rebirth and power.

He explained: “The project seeks to explore ways in which strange objects – beyond their original context – can provide privileged sites of analysis and intervention while serving as an intrinsic medium in shaping our perception and developing new socio-cultural and political categories of ‘the other.’ In dealing with these difficult-to-read objects, which seem invoked from other worldly universe or removed from their original and specific context, this work also shows that for a strange object to be well received and understood, a considerable amount of re-contextualisation and re-negotiation is critical to their understanding in a new context.

“A series of complementary talk session under the title: ‘Possibilia: Speculative Materialism and New Objects as Transformative Agents in Contemporary Art’ was initiated to supports these interventions.”

He argued further that his performance and site installations were created to challenge every form of “commoditised artistic objects” just as they also serve as intervention in contemporary environmental issues such as ecological, socio-cultural, political and economy.

“I strongly believe that the future of art lies in the transversal encroachment of innovative ideas and creative imaginations from the realms of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural practices that seek to be transformative and responsive to our socio-cultural demands, economic deficits, and environmental emergencies of our precarious time. Herein lies the crux of this Blazing Century, for these are days of many artistic commitments for change.”

In the last decade, performance and other conceptual content works have been struggling to gain strong presence on the African art space. The most visible personality is Lagos-based Jelili Atiku, whose works have been acknowledged globally. However, with Ukpong’s work, the performance and installation art spaces in Africa seem set to be broadened for the world to see despite his academic approach.

“At a time where an artist’s obligation and identity are continuously redefined and tested by social conditions and challenges in our society, an alternative artistic model becomes highly imperative,” he asserted. “My practice over the past seven years deals with the idea of reimagining and reconceptualising an alternative contemporary form of artistic practice between two worlds – traditional, individual, studio-based and extended connective social practices prevalent in the west and other parts of the world.

My work, therefore, tends to offer an implicit critique that relates to questions about the difference between the worlds of contemporary studio-based art and socially engaged artistic practice. They do this through formulating a series of context-specific, interdisciplinary, cross-cultural methodologies and approaches through what I conceived as the “mediating objects.”

Ukpong is a multidisciplinary artist, filmmaker and social practice researcher, who lives and works out of Oxford, Paris, Johannesburg and Port Harcourt. As a former engineering student-turned-artist, Ukpong would later obtain his MFA with distinction from Ecole Supérieure d’Art Lorient, France, before embarking on his Ph.D. programme in the Social Sculpture Research Unit of Oxford Brookes University.

In 2010, Ukpong took a seven-year hiatus from art exhibitions to concentrate on academic research as well as developing his current ten-parts, socially engaged international art and film project, entitled Blazing Century. His work has been shown in international group events in Lagos, London, Lorient and The Hague. His performance BC1: The Return of the Object was presented as a form of site installation during the opening of the 56th Venice Biennial Arts Exhibition in Italy.

Ukpong has been awarded project grant from the Prince Claus Fund for cultural development Amsterdam. His works are in private collections in Nigeria, United Kingdom, United States, France, The Netherlands and South Africa.


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