Ceramic metaphors: the installation art of Ngozi Omeje.
As a fresh entrant into the world of installation art, Omeje's background sheds light on her current creative struggles and studio projects. On a humourous note, when during her undergraduate days Omeje was being teased as a 'half-baked' ceramist by the postgraduate students of her department, little did she know that she was being challenged to develop an experimental and innovative temper in the use of the ceramic medium for extensive mixed media sculptures and installations. Born in 1979 and brought up in the university town of Nsukka , southeastern Nigeria, young Omeje was fascinated by her father's metal welding and fabrication processes, which reinforced the impressions created by the drum constructions of her paternal grandfather. Omeje 's mother trades in aluminium kitchen wares and utensils, a business in which she often lends helping hands. The artist's early involvement in the use of the hands for gathering and arranging materials constitutes creative influences that appear to be playing out in her current mixed-media constructions and installations, most of which are realized through the local processes of folding, beating, coiling, perforating, gathering, tying and stacking. Among Omeje 's most engaging works so far are Mushroom I, Mushroom II, Fishers of Men, Sleeping Arrangements, and Couple.
Mushroom I is made up of vertically oriented forms composed mostly of cardboard papers rolled into cylindrical pipe forms. These are all capped with circular creatures in the form of the tortoise, an animal associated with wisdom and trickery in Igbo folklore in which Omeje is well versed. Although the composition is essentially in clusters, they come in varied heights that lend the installation a visual delight. The poetry in this installation is heightened, not only in the rhythmic formation of the composition, but also by the lyrical qualities of the clay coils used in forming many of the tortoises' shells, as well as the decorative incisions on several of them. Here, the clay figures act as activating elements in the entire installation. They command significant attention, luring a viewer almost completely away from other non-clay components of the installation. These forms also tend to allude to the structure of traditional Igbo architecture in which the artist was brought up. They echo the communal life that characterized African traditional societies.
Omeje's Mushroom I is quite dense in meaning and open to several interpretations. With her use of unfired clay for this installation, it appears that the artist has made a critical comment on what appears to be the 'fragile' wisdom in Nigeria's current over-dependence on its crude oil wealth. By her use of fragile covers for the empty and fragile pipes (made of paper), Omeje appears to be drawing our attention to the current crisis in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria where restive youths (who are agitating against long years of government neglect) have now turned to illegal oil bunkering and even outright vandalisation of oil pipelines. This is currently threatening Nigeria's government 'wisdom' which the artist has likened to fragile tortoises capping empty and fragile pipes. Since mushrooms in their nature are fragile plants, they become a fitting metaphor for the instability of Nigeria's economic policies, especially in its neglect of the oil rich Niger Delta region for several decades.
Mushroom I tends to also remind us that mushrooms thrive in decay. The current environmental degradation of the Niger Delta and, in fact, many of Nigeria's cities, calls to mind. In deed, Omeje's mushroom is rich in its formal references and monumental in its social significance. In an interview with the artist, she described a scenario in which many local youths drift away from their rural homes to urban centres or foreign countries in search of greener pastures, leaving the village to face decay. Some of them return home later with a lot of money to demolish the remains of their village huts, replace them with modern buildings and again leave them uninhabited while away in big cities or foreign countries.
As can be found in Omeje's Mushroom 1, the clay elements that make up Mushroom II also command significance attention. They act almost like spices that garnish the taste of a meal. Here, the simplicity of form and composition add up powerfully to make a attractive installation. Cheap plastic plates sold in local markets in different colours have been collected by the artist and satirically used as shields over the vulnerable pipes. The stern-looking terracotta heads installed on each of the plastic plates tend to draw our attention to the vulnerable security arrangement by the government in guarding its major source of revenue. The plastic plates are themselves products of crude oil and tend to re-echo the work's subtle reference to oil exploration and issues surrounding current challenges in that sector. The effects of the circular lines found in the colourful plates and the rhythmic up-and-down movement of the paper pipes poetically convey a vicious circle of pregnant uncertainty in the heavily guarded area.
Ngozi's Fishers of Men tend to comment satirically also on the burning issue of Nigeria's Niger Delta crisis. In this work, one finds a composition of hundreds of threads passed through several cut-outs of Dunlop slippers which have strips of different colours. The tail ends of these threads hold terracotta coils (perhaps representing fishing hooks or baits) and fishes. All are suspended by laying them on what looks like dry lands. Apart from clay, perhaps all other materials used for this installation are products of crude oil. Here, Omeje attempts a visual reproduction of the activities of the multi-national oil companies in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria where oil pollution has had a devastating effect on the ecosystem. Indeed, this is currently a major issue in the artist's home country.
The Niger Delta region has experienced several instances of oil spillage which not only destroyed the land but polluted the fresh water and killed much of the fishes (a major source of the people's livelihood). In this work, Omeje makes metaphorical references to what appears to be empty fishing hooks, strange baits and dead fishes. The myriad of cut rubber materials (representing the floaters) draws our attention to the material itself as a product of crude oil. They reference the main source of pollution in the Niger Delta region. The theme is re-enforced by the installation of several dead fishes into what looks like a decaying human corpse. A closer look at the terracotta fishes (that make up the human form) reveals inscriptions of symbols and motifs that are associated with the script writing traditions of the people of that region. This epitomizes the devastating outcome of pollution and the outright destruction of the source of income of the local dwellers whose major means of livelihood is fishing.
The artist herself, in an interview, has related Fishers of Men also to the current exploration of religion in Nigeria and other countries of the world for material gains. Recalling Jesus Christ's injunction to his disciples to fish souls, the artist opines that many religious ministers invest in churches to fish for money since larger congregations lead to tremendous financial gains. This growth in the congregation is usually achieved by conditioning the minds of people to run around in search of such religious commercial baits as miracles, healing and material prosperity. The artist likens the rubber floaters in her installation to the religious ministers' several indicators for monitoring the growth of their empires and the attendant financial progress, rather than the redemption of lost souls and the quest for righteousness which Jesus Christ represents.
The tale of the precarious situation in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria re-echoes in such other installations as Sleeping Arrangement and Couple. In Sleeping Arrangement, several human figures have been rendered in strokes of clay coils in ways that reference crowded apartments. Omeje appears to be referencing the police cells in which many Niger Delta youths (who have taken it upon themselves to fight for their course) are detained. The artist may also be referencing the crowd of fatherless children raised by single teenage parents who in search of daily bread have been victims of illicit sexual relationships with rich oil merchants and oil company workers operating in the region. It is a common experience to find the rich staff of oil companies desecrating teenage girls through the lure of material gifts and promises, leading to a multiplicity of teenage mothers who are often abandoned by the men responsible for such children. Omeje 's depiction of amorous dancers in her work titled Couple also alludes to the theme of immorality.
There are a number of other interesting works by Omeje that explore other social phenomenon. These include the Porcupine series, a collection of works done using thousands of short clay coils. In these pieces, the artist comments on people's concern for their security. According to the artist, the porcupine is a metaphor for the instinctive behaviour of human beings who build various defence mechanisms for security purposes. According to her, people become aggressive or are cold towards others for, sometimes, no just cause. This in her opinion is a major social issue because people exhibit these traits when people come around them, even when such people mean no harm, just like the porcupine that usually releases its spikes even when there is no danger.
In all of Omeje's installations, the clay components function as strong activating elements. Not only that, the clay forms tend to congeal her metaphors into a monumental whole, sometimes approximating the visual qualities of the works of Louise Hindsgavl. (1) By her current works, Omeje holds promise as an emerging female Nigerian artist working not only in an international creative language but who also focuses on serious issues of both local and international concerns. Omeje has carried on her work with a remarkable vigour and dedication which makes her a young female artist to watch. She has quickly creatively grown to develop the freedom to express herself, despite the initial challenges posed by the low quality of clay found around her working environment and, especially, the incessant power failure that frustrated her firing processes. These appear to have been turned into a creative advantage by her presentation of works in their green or terracotta stages which hold new meanings and fresh contexts. Unlike the expressive and moving works of Anne Cofer which has been described by Errol Willett (2) as not fired and not meant to be sold, donated or collected, Ngozi Omeje's works can actually be sold, donated or collected, while they also make serious social commentaries. One expects more from the creative pots of this emerging Nigerian ceramist and installation artist.
(1.) Thulstrup, Thomas. "Ceramics Underground: A Generation Unearthed". Ceramics TECHNICAL Issue No. 22, 2006, p. 31.
(2.) Willett, Errol. "Cloth and Clay". Ceramics TECHNICAL Issue No. 23, 2006, pp. 65-69.
Article by Grace Ngozi Ojie and Ozioma Onuzulike
Dr. Grace Ngozi Ojie (email@example.com) and Dr. Ozioma Onuzulike (firstname.lastname@example.org) are both ceramic artists and writers who teach in the Fine and Applied Arts departments of the Delta State University, Abraka and University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria, respectively.