Nigerian artist Williams Chechet creates a visual space of jubilant cultural encountersPosted on
“I love colors. […] I really like bright colors,” professes Nigerian artist Williams Chechet. It is a long-running love story dating back to his childhood before his memory of such love was even formed. “My mum,” he continued, “told me I was really attracted to bright lights.” Forty years on, his artistic practice is a testament to his unwavering love of colors, but it is also about a lot more.
Chechet’s digital compositions are a unique space where the playful meets the stern, the traditional unites with the contemporary, and the bold and bright mingles with the black and white. This singular universe pulsates with energy and bursts with bold and vibrant colors that often form the background of found images of iconic people such as Basquiat or Marilyn Monroe. The series of reimagined portraits of the actress, titled Her Worth, is an unambiguous nod to Andy Warhol, whose pop art influence runs deeply through the work of the Nigerian artist.
Interestingly, this juxtaposition of contrasting colors, ideas, spaces, and times is more potent and striking when Chechet applies it to the images of people from the northern part of Nigeria where he is from. Black and white images of equestrians in their full regalia, their heads finely adorned with ceremonial headscarves, and their bodies dripping in swatches of fine fabric are digitally inserted into the colorful and vivid world of Williams Chechet. The resulting artwork, a visual encounter of pop art and northern Nigerian traditions, is almost a mirror image of the very artistic and cultural identity of the artist.
The body of work showcasing northern folk is born out of his desire “to show the culture, the heritage of the northern people.” With most Nigerian artists hailing from the southern part of the country, he explained that there is hardly any representation of the north in the arts. “I took it as a responsibility to show the heritage because I feel like there is more about the north than people perceive.” The northern part of Nigeria has been reduced to a “single story” (to borrow the term coined by writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) of violence, devastation, and displacement. While that is true for some areas, others have remained relatively peaceful and thriving places of cultural life, especially during Hawan Dayshe. The festival coincides with the end of Ramadan and is renowned for its pageantry and dazzling parades filled with riders and music.
Creating a visual counter-narrative has been central to the Nigerian artist’s practice. His 2016 series “We Are The North” delivered a pop, lighthearted portrayal of northerners. It was a break from the perennial austere aura embedded in their representation. Chechet’s concern with a multilayered portrayal of the north was also visible in the artworks exhibited in the group show Cu-ulture and Tradition: Same Experience, Different Local in London in 2018. These nuanced visual stories are attracting not only viewers from all parts of Nigeria. They also resonate with Ghanaians, Senegalese, and Malians, who, as a result, cast a different eye on the northern populations in their countries.
Sometimes, these stories come coated in a layer of playfulness, mostly visible in the portraits of elderly northerners wearing funky and colorful accessories. The artist’s visual signature, an astute blend of collage with bold colors, could mislead viewers into stopping at the surface level of his enchanting aesthetics. However, he raises essential questions about identity, cultural dialogue, and gender equality. Through these works, Chechet has been exploring the ways in which “the north can also embrace the western ideas, but still hold onto their local heritage.”
Now pushing further the ideas of cross-culturalism, Chechet lifted the model Madeleine from the emblematic and now controversial 1800 painting by French artist Marie-Guillemine Benoist, where she sat half-naked and objectivized, and transferred her into his hybrid universe. Here, dressed in a ceremonial getup, perched on a horse, and with all the pomp of Hawan Dayshe, Madeleine is a vision of dignity and royalty. “I wanted to represent the Black woman as being powerful.” Powerful enough to be a horse rider, a position traditionally reserved to men. As it turned out, with Phenomenal (a title inspired by Maya Angelou’s 1978 poem), Chechet was also serving a vision of the future where gender equality would no longer be a dream.
The concern with women’s position in Nigerian society can be traced back to his personal life and the role both his mother and wife play in his life. “Growing up, my mum has been a big influence in my life. Currently, my wife has also been my cheerleader.” He came to art in a roundabout way after a lecturer encouraged him to follow his passion for art. He subsequently swapped building engineering courses for industrial design and majored in graphic design. In a Nigerian society that favors the certainty and prestige of professional carriers of lawyers and doctors, his mother was “his backbone” and supported his foray into the creative field.
Chechet’s entry into the Nigerian art scene came via the country’s dynamic music scene and the design of album covers. He has kept from that background a distinctive ability to create images that are arresting, striking, and stay with the viewers long after their first exposure to it. Throughout the lockdown, he has honed and perfected those skills. “Phenomenal,” and most of the artworks in Chechet’s ongoing exhibition Hyperflux at Retro Africa were created during the lockdown.
That period of restricted movements and reduced distractions has proven to be creatively fruitful for the artist. “It has,” he admitted, “improved my art.” At home, and with all his focus channeled onto his work, he experimented with new materials. Neon art installations have emerged with messages that merge, as usual, the playful “pow” with the serious “For The Culture.” With the addition of new video installations, this expansive exhibition paints the image of an artist of the 21st century who seamlessly blends his Nigerian heritage with the digital medium and western artistic influences stretching from Andy Wharol to Roy Lichtenstein and to Tracy Emin. Underneath the playful and the exuberant lies an open invitation to engage in a genuine cultural dialogue. It is something the world could use a little of in these divisive times.
Williams Chechet’s solo show “Hyperflux” at Retro Africa will conclude on March 14th.