At a gallery in Paris, France, Ozioma Onuzulike’s signature ceramic reconstructions of palm kernels and yam seedlings are captivating a global audience with their universally recognisable nuggets. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
So far, for the ceramic artist Ozioma Onuzulike, it’s been a binge outing. He has, this year, made significant forays in the local and international exhibition circuit, leaving indelible imprints on the industry’s consciousness in his wake. This is while he strategically kept himself within range of its radar. Could it, therefore, have been any busier for this University of Nigeria, Nsukka lecturer, who has chalked up two recent solo exhibitions in New York and Paris, following closely on the heels of each other after three group shows in Paris, London, and Nsukka, and participation in several art fairs in New York, Chicago, Mexico, Geneva, London, and Lagos?
“It’s [been] challenging,” he confesses, in allusion to keeping up with the demands of these outings. “But remember, I work with a team of studio assistants, including members of my family. So, they too are my hands for the laborious studio processes.”
Talking about the more recent solo exhibition, which opened on November 9 at the Afikaris Gallery in Paris and is on until December 9, its title, When Hearts Beat with Lofty Dreams, is derived from a poem that the artist wrote in 1997.
Predictably, this exhibition—a significant one for that matter—focuses on the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine, USA, alumnus’s iconic series: the Palm Kernel Shell Beads Project and Seed Yams of Our Land. This, the gallery’s official press statement corroborates, thusly: “Ceramic tapestries, site-specific installations, and clay sculptures take over the 180 m2 space at 7 rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth, examining the mechanisms of social ascension through the presentation of objects of pomp and prestige.”
Apparently, Onuzulike takes cues from upscale apparel and fabrics, which he distils, for the appreciation of his growing audience, into a range of site-specific installations and ceramic wall pieces from the Palm Kernel Shell Beads series. In contrast, “Tendrils” I and II appear to flow down from the ceiling, offering the viewer a fascinating aesthetic tangle—one with a following that spans demographics. As both tangled roots and headdresses, they support the notion of upending the existing order.
Sadly, the intellectual illusion of a more egalitarian world imperceptibly deals a mortal blow to the otherwise admirable concept of striving for social advancement. For as long as humans live and freely choose their lives’ paths, egalitarianism as a notion will remain illusory. Clothing, meanwhile, could be—and is indeed—a symbol of membership and a social identifier, which is why the artist creates imperial blouses, flowing gowns called “babanriga,” and royal shirts out of a fusion of ceramic and glass beads strung together with copper wire. Nonetheless, it is also known that the hood does not necessarily make a monk.
Then, the fact that the works that make up the Palm Kernel Shell Beads series are only clay-formed simulations of palm kernels is one that must be stressed. Now, here is the subtext lurking beneath these works: The artist appropriates these palm kernels—which are the core of palm fruits from which palm oil is derived and which are often picked for food by the poorest people (thus also becoming hallmarks of destitution)—for his motivational message, bordering on the resilience of the human spirit. That, in other words, is his way of saying that a pauper can aspire to become a king. Hence, the artist challenges individuals in positions of political and financial authority through his titles to transform their societies’ dark pasts into bright futures where “hearts beat with lofty dreams.”
Of course, the wealth-generating potential of both palm fruits and palm kernels might as well be interpreted as a metaphor for Africa’s economic exploitation, the aesthetic refrain of the artist’s opinion that “Africa’s natural resources have been at the base of its woes.”
Upon closer inspection, the works’ astounding delicacies and suppleness proclaim from the rooftops the artist’s deft manipulation of a medium—bordering on the intuitive—that few among his peers would dare to attempt. This is what obviously sets him apart in an art scene teeming with an overabundance of talents.
Moving on to the Seed Yams of Our Land, Onuzulike further extends the metaphor of colonial exploitation, which can occasionally take the form of violence. Here too, the yams, a prestigious and revered food crop among the Igbo people of south-east Nigeria, are not real. Rather, they are also ceramic simulations of tubers, which are arranged in rows, sorted, and ordered as if in a barn. They all conjure still bodies wrapped in body bags, even if they are depicted in various forms and degraded conditions. Through them, the artist also draws comparisons between the way African slaves were once crammed into slave ships like mere commodities and the way they are currently, as illegal migrants, packed into trucks and boats, hazardly travelling the desert and the sea in the hopes of finding a more favourable environment in which to “grow.” Many have, meanwhile, been known to have died while in transit.
Indeed, the series Seed Yams of Our Land, which was once the title of an exhibition he held two years ago at the Kó Gallery in Lagos, metaphorically alludes to Africa’s youth population as its yam seedlings, which, to the Igbo people, are pointers to every family’s hopes for sustenance and wealth.
Thus, Onuzulike, a fellow of the Civitella Ranieri Centre, Umbertide, Perugia, Italy, where he once participated in a residency programme under the UNESCO-ASCHBERG Bursary for Artists, mines useful universally relevant nuggets from symbols that are rooted in Nigerian and African society.