A keen observer of the Nigerian art scene might have heard and know of John Madu, the black muse. An eighties born Lagos-based artist with a rather distinct artistic oeuvre; his compositions are rife with what he has termed pseudo (humanoid) silhouettes and figures portrayed in varying degrees of movement and expression, laced with multiple layers of metaphors.
It is a fair argument to say John has a preoccupation, probably bordering on obsession with identity. In his eight years as a full-time studio artist, his ethos, as expressed in majority of his works can be summed up by the term ‘Identity’. Madu’s works being metaphorical often tell stories; stories of identities being discovered, lost, infused, or engulfed in globalization, and the interpretation of which he is bold and contented enough to leave to his viewers to unearth, decode and interpret at will. According to the artist in a recent exclusive interview I had with him, he is actually happy to have people ponder on his works and subject them to multiple interpretations, not minding that these conjured analyses could stray from his intended message or motive. “I actually like my work to have an eclectic feel -my viewer is open to his own interpretation. Sometimes, when I create [a piece], I’m thinking something, but before I finish it, it means more than what I thought about -it’s even bigger than myself. I like leaving those spaces open, it’s more fun! … [It] makes it interactive. A good artwork is work that makes people talk -so the metaphors are actually key parts in my work, because you have to think; I want you to think …you have to actually walk closer and really look“.
This is not the first time John Madu will be taking a swipe at Identity and the effects of globalization on the concept. In SAO and the Muses 2, in 2017, he exhibited a similar body of work which addressed the contributory factors of globalization on the alienation of individuals, during a two-day group event which portrayed and celebrated various creatives -Dipo Doherty, Niyi Okeowo, Medina Dugger, Adam and Daniel Obasi, Dennis Osadebe, fast rising eclectic artiste Kaline and a host of other talents, on how they go about their crafts and professions all trapped within the Lagos urban sphere. Now on his third solo exhibition, following on the heels of Morphogenesis, his first ever solo show in 2013, held at the Didi Museum and his second solo at Terra Kulture in 2016, Identity Tones is an arrangement of palettes used to depict identities and the shifts in these identities brought about by an ever shrinking world, catalyzed by the effects of social media, the internet and globalization as a whole. John Madu’s thematic concern is hinged on globalization’s contribution to the alienation of individuals from their native traditions and culture, (arguably being) modest as compared to the impact of modernism on same. According to this deep creative, “my process is marked by the consumption of cultures that have been diffused by the internet, popular culture, the media and international travel”, [amongst others].
In a recent conversation with a collector friend and art benefactress, she expressed her displeasure and dissatisfaction with the ubiquitous faces that now pervade contemporary Nigerian art as created by the upcoming crop of artists. True to this claim, there has indeed been an upsurge in the focus on faces and facial features in recent art; popularized in my opinion by the growing trend of hyper-realism –especially the water-splashed, sweat-drenched faces that saturate the social media space and which now has everyone with the technical ability to shade declaring themselves as professional artists. Not that I have anything against hyper-realists and their art, I manage some of these artists, being mindful that their works are more than technical enough, and of course, time consuming. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to witness art that considers the message crucial and perhaps more critical than the mode of delivery. A cursory glance might cast John Madu along with the lot of earlier portrayed “artists”; however, he is well aware of his strengths and shortcomings and he use them well to his advantage. He has never touted himself as a hyper-realist, and he is not, nor as a professionally trained studio artists, even though, his creative propensities can blend him in a room of true fine artists. With a background in Policy and Strategic Studies from the University of Lagos; his passion for working with his hands -creating things, got him to experiment in the Visual Arts, after having dabbled into the fashion world. While in the University, he enrolled in Fashion School and had a relatively successful clothing line that was popular among his peers and friends. His clothing line -Dark Muse even partook in a fashion show sponsored then by Diesel; thus, creating for public consumption is not really new to this creative. As for the seeming fixation with faces, he set things straight educating me that “isn’t the face the best way to portray identity”? Of course, I had to agree with.
A close examination of his oeuvre shows that he paints faces with as much passion and frequency as he depicts the body in movement. More of these movements and figures can be seen in this bold body of works themed Identity Tones. One of the many personal favourites on exhibit is a classic composition of a charcoal black prima ballerina silhouette, coasting through the air in mid-flight grand jeté pose: confident, free, and seemingly carefree, with a trail of her jet-black smoky hair giving a clue of her trajectory. Not all is as it seems however; the apparent blithe danseuse definitely conscious of her environment seems to be leaping over a traditional fiery red hurricane lamp atop a stool or rostrum draped with painted Ankara fabric –the signature African textile export of the 21st century. The lamp happens to be a household item in most poor and many average African homes, where electric power supply is erratic and unreliable. It is often said that such devices are the power infrastructure, with the public, government electric power relegated to the role of the backup option. The incongruity in the said composition will not be lost on many, as the lamp and the ballerina seem to be from two divergent worlds, times and climes; yet, this is the current Nigerian reality –where many parents strive to pay exorbitant fees for extra curricula activities as ballet and elocution classes in private grade schools; but fail to consider the ever declining and decaying educational standards into which they thrust their wards.
It is such subtle but deep metaphors that endear me to this Delta-born, Lagos based artist -John Madu; whom I have worked with now for a few years. Down to earth, unassuming and yet severe in his ways; his will be faces which will continue to thrill and open themselves up to deeper layers of interpretation with each passing glance. I am certain we are yet to see the best this ingenious artist has to offer, and his offering will continue to be relevant in a society as ours; where communal forgetfulness and complicity masked in indifference seem to be our national identity.
Catch the artist at #IdentityTones, the solo exhibition, running from August 18th – 24th, 2018, at the Artyrama Building; 1B Alhaji Masha Close, Off Ademola street, (Off) Awolowo Road, Ikoyi. Curated by Akinyemi Adetunji for Artyrama (online) and sponsored by Bombay Sapphire and Artyrama Limited.