Seeing the unseen through Àsìkò’s lenses

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Picture The Impact of, Asiko Ade
The Impact of, Àsìkò, 2018. Courtesy of Gallery of African Art (GAFRA)

I arrived early at the Gallery of African Art to take in the latest work of the photographer Àsìkò ahead of his scheduled talk with Eliza Anyangwe of The Nzinga Effect and the writer Sharon Obuobi (who also works in the modern and contemporary African art department at Sotheby’s).

Àsìkò’s work is evolving, yet his style is unmistakable; mostly, duotone photographs where the off-white background contrasts sharply against the artist’s subject matter, the black female body, purposefully depicted with the darkest shade of black.

His body of work is a portrayal of black African womanhood in all its complexity with a moving touch of sensitivity blended with an incredible aesthetic. His previous series of photographs about “cultural adornments” was exhibited at the Gallery of African Art in a joint show with Evans Mbugua in 2016. He has created with this new series, a space where strength cohabits with vulnerability. Subjugation dances with resilience and resistance, and beauty coexists with violence.

Here, beauty is used not as a cover-up, but as a dignified veil that covers violence sufficiently to allow the opening up of a bearable space to engage and start a remedial dialogue. That is the title of the exhibition: “Conversations + The woman Code.”

For his first solo show, Àsìkò is presenting a combination of two series of conceptual work. The images of “Conversations” on the ground floor, evoke the violence against women through an astute composition grounded in body movement and floral adornments. In the basement, the women portrayed radiate serenity and strength. Their black skin has turned deep blue, the color of Adire, a traditional dyed textile, from Nigeria. Their skin texture is also transformed. Now it bears the coded patterns of the Adire textiles.

Àsìkò explained that the series was born out of shock and a “gut reaction” to finding out about violence against women carried out through cultural practices rooted in tradition. These practices are going unchallenged, except maybe for FGM (Female Genital Mutilation).

2 photographs by Asiko Ade, Baring scars, and Masquerade lies
Left: ÀSÌKÒ, Baring scars, 2017, Right: ÀSÌKÒ, Masquerade lies, 2016. Courtesy of Gallery of African Art (GAFRA).

He has struck a delicate balance that celebrates the black body without objectifying it. He evokes genital mutilations without any graphic scene. The dignity of those, whose breasts are ironed, to delay the onset of puberty and womanhood, is preserved with floral arrangements.

One of the photographs, “The balancing act,” encapsulates to perfection this series of work. It depicts a beautiful woman, whose body seems to have been shaped one muscle at a time by life’s twists and turns. She is squatting on tiptoes, head down, her arms stretched to the back. It is the kind of uncomfortable position that, if shown on television, would have come with a warning, “do not try this at home.” The picture alone conveys a sense of uncertainty and precariousness. It also speaks volume for the unbearable and contorted positions women frequently take in a patriarchal society.

Put together, these artworks are a reminder as James Brown puts it that, this is “a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” and women are being mutilated, violated, bruised, bent and twisted to fit into the little space that has been carved out for them. And there lies the creative talent of Àsìkò: the ability to serve, with a regal aesthetic, a blend of thought-provoking, gut-wrenching, social and cultural commentary.

If being shrouded in mystery and secrecy has enabled these practices to continue for so long, then these sets of artworks are acting like a mirror, projecting back to the society, uncomfortable, hidden truths.

Dorothea Lange, the celebrated American photographer, said: “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” And it certainly must have been the case for Àsìkò. He remarked that “photography [was his] journey as a person.” His sensitivity and his art practice have set him on a re-discovery journey of his culture.

Ade ‘Àsìkò’ Okelarin was born in London in 1978 and spent his childhood years in Lagos before moving back to London. His moves back and forth between London and Lagos have positioned him at the junction of two cultures and pushed him to profoundly examine his identity. In turn, his introspection has led him to explore his culture at a deeper level and influenced him to turn his gaze towards practices that others shy away from.

photographs àsírí aládìre, ọ̀rẹ́ mẹ́rin by ÀSÌKÒ
Left: ÀSÌKÒ, àsírí aládìre, 2016, Right: ÀSÌKÒ, ọ̀rẹ́ mẹ́rin, 2017. Courtesy of Gallery of African Art (GAFRA)

Despite the unflinching gaze, what transpires, both from the talk and his work is his attachment to, and his pride in, his Nigerian background. He said on multiple occasions “my culture is beautiful and very important to me.” He calls for a cultural introspection of the Nigerian society, and for changes in the harsh treatment reserved for women, particularly at the time of life events such as puberty or funerals when the weight of tradition is felt the most.

Although these practices are specific to Nigeria, or some parts of Africa, the conundrum the artist is calling to be resolved has a universal appeal, and resonates way beyond the African continent: how to stay grounded and proud of a certain culture while transforming it into one that treats women with more respect? Other societies may have made headway in this quest, but none has, as of yet, reached a satisfactory stage of equality. In the absence of real or notable progress, what has been salient is the resilience of women.

Back to Nigeria, Àsìkò’s latest foray into his culture has been a dive into the dyeing technique and traditions of “Adire.” Adire is a textile tradition that has been revived by Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye. She and her daughter gave the artist the keys to decipher the patterns in the textile. The symbols were a coded language that women developed to communicate when they were not allowed to talk.

These symbols once inscribed upon the skin of the models in “The Woman Code,” create trans figurative images of the black African Woman. These photographs showing exquisite details on the skin reminded me of Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I rise,”

“Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide”.

The poem was about “the dream and the hope” of a slave. However, it finds a new meaning here for the women who carry in their flesh, scars left by tradition. As sure as we are that she will “rise,” it is refreshing to see an artist, who happens to be a man, celebrate that resilience and call for society to revisit some of its values and change some its practices.

“Conversations + The woman Code,” is at the Gallery of African Art until June 9th.

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