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Changing Niger Delta narrative through arts


Some of the works at the exhibition

For Wilfred Ukpong, a French-Nigerian interdisciplinary artist and practice-led researcher based in Oxford, UK, using arts to address socio-cultural and environmental issues is not just a passion, but also a calling.Having dropped out of engineering school in pursuit of his first love, arts, he says, “you won’t be satisfied until you engage in what you are called to do.”

According to him, the question is, “of what use is living luxury life in Europe when your people are suffering.”Speaking on his recently held exhibition at the Alliance Française de Lagos/Mike Adenuga Centre, he said, “this is my first major solo show in 14 years.”

Noting that the Niger Delta region, which is the cash cow of the country, is faced with a lot of challenges including poverty, corruption, community disputes, youth restiveness, unemployment, environmental degradation underdevelopment and infrastructural deficits, said the show, a travelling series, is the first installment in a 10-part multi-faceted art project entitled, Blazing Century.

Each series, he explained, “is titled BC1 to BC10. It is site-specific and set within a geographical location often embroiled in socio-political and environmental issues and filtered through a fictional and futuristic lens that redefines art’s role in building and shaping a future world.”

Ukpong, the son of a former ExxonMobil manager, said the dominant colours — red and black — represent the violence, restiveness and spilling of blood in the region, not forgetting the source of such ugly narrative, crude oil. He added yellow represents the hope for a better future.

Continuing, he said the exhibition is aimed at opening conversation on change. “I use my work as a reminder on societal ills.”Bothered by the highly explosive themes in his recent works, some of Ukpong’s friends have asked him if he is still practising artist or a social worker. That doesn’t disturb him.“I want to call individual and institutional patrons to partner with me in the development of this project,” he said.

According to him, “my work is not for everyone or for any art collector who wants something beautiful to adorn his or her home. It is for those interested and committed to the ongoing discourse.”He added, “by so doing, the person becomes a patron and agent of change and would be given information on how the project is unfolding.”

On how he developed his passion for arts, he recalled, “my mom took fashion as a hobby, while my dad was interested in photography in his spare time. My cousin Victor Ekpuk, who is a Washington-based Nigerian-American artist, played a pivotal role in my budding career. Thereafter, the late proprietor of Quintessence Art Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos, Aino Oni Okpaku also contributed. She influenced my career. When I came to Lagos, she gave me that push when no one else believed in me. Her gallery hosted my exhibition in 1999 and the show was a huge success — 90 percent of my works were bought and that launched my career as an artist.”

Ukpong said, “the avid art collector, Prince Yemisi Shylon, also played an important role by being a founding patron in that seminal show. I also had a solo exhibition at the French Cultural Centre in Ikoyi. I later travelled to Europe and that was when my direction changed to socially engaging art during my days in Ecole Supérieure d’Art Lorient, France. Afterwards, embarking on a doctoral research programme at Social Sculpture Research Unit in Oxford Brookes University, I came to understand that art could be used as a tool or apparatus for empowerment, development and change. Visiting the Niger Delta region again, through the support of the Prince Claus Fund in Amsterdam, helped me to view how arts can be used as a tool of community empowerment.”

On the solution to Niger Delta problems, he said, “creating an inclusive infrastructure that generates development structures would bridge the gap.”

The artist revealed, empathically, “using art — in the frameworks of Social Sculpture and Social Practice — through creative and experimental workshop activities, encourage community youths to deepen and expand their understanding of their social potentials as agents of social and environmental change, adaptive repurposing and recycling of oil and gas industry waste materials among polystyrene, fiberglass and metals — found along with the coastal Niger Delta communities — into art objects and film props as a formal imperative associated with the idea of transformation, which offers an emphasis on material agency and environmental sustainability; an in-depth exploration of beauty and ethics, namely, a challenge of poverty porn, which negatively contributes to subordinate identity for the African continent.”

He said this would be achieved by creating a sophisticated universe (with strange indigenous beings in opulent costumes, high-tech props, and expensive sets), where new visions of identity, hope and social justice are expressed while seemingly reframing the gaze of the subject matter.

According to him, by creating a platform for the intersection of trans-disciplinary, cross-cultural and connective aesthetic practices that reflect on the diversity of creative ideas and approaches in contemporary visual art, an alternative model process that can inspire local artists, designers and filmmakers in Nigeria is being evolved.

For Ukpong, his desire is to leverage art exhibition as a “critical space” to reflect on the contemporary condition of coexistence in the Niger-delta, while also “inspiring cross-cultural dialogue and conversations on indigenous environmentalism that envisions a humane, culturally sustainable and ecologically viable future-cosmos.”

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Niger DeltaWilfred Ukpong
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