New Telegraph

December 8, 2023

With her unique art, Wanger Ayu explores multiplicities of being

Even as we have moved into a New Year, some of the art events of 2021 are still under review. One of such events was an exhibition titled; ‘Weaving Identity’, held between December 17 and 23, 2021, at 1952 Africa Gallery, Lekki, Lagos. It featured two artists finding their rhythms in the Nigerian art scene.

The show centred on exploring traditional ideas alongside contemporary living in the 21st Century. One of the exhibiting artists, Wanger Ayu, is among the many young professionals from other fields rediscovering and thrusting their artistic talents to the centre, especially in recent years and contributing to Nigeria’s burgeoning art scene. As the curator of the exhibition, Naomi Ogbebor, explained, the body of work presented by Ayu, gained her attention because of her inventiveness in the way she infused her processes and contexts.

“The artist is a creation of the society she lives in, and Wanger has soaked in the mixed bath of sensibilities and diversities of the contemporary environments that have nurtured her. She believes that an average person though may be born into an ethnicity, she is also conditioned by other multiple identities. She sees her life as a reflection of this reality.

Her father is from the Tiv tribe in Benue State, North Central Nigeria, while her mother is Esan from Edo State, Southern Nigeria, but Wanger was born in Jos, North Central Nigeria. She has lived in Abuja and other Nigerian cities and currently lives and works in Lagos. Wanger has also travelled to and lived in some European and mid-eastern metropolises in the course of studies and business,” Ogbebor said. “These places have left their influences on her and have contributed to making her who she is,’’ she added. Trained as a lawyer at the University of Exeter, UK, Ayu holds a diploma from the French Fashion University (ESMOD), Dubai.

For her creativity, she has won some fashion awards and is patronised by many Nigerian celebrities, among them the globally acclaimed Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Art has always been a part of Ayu’s life even though it seemed suppressed for her other interests. “I longed to take my artistic talent more seriously someday,” she says. But her transition to studio practice was surreptitious when it began in 2017, while she was confined for weeks over an illness. Unable to move about or engage in serious physical activities, “making art became my therapy, freedom, and a means of escape from my physical pains.

This period allowed me to take an inward look and make a serious decision about my art.” To improve her latent artistic skill, she attended a series of Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Harmattan Workshops, where she met the legendary artist and other artists like Sam Ovraiti. Other influences that have mentored her include: Nduwhite Ndubuisi, Uthman Wahab and Patrick Akpojotor. Within a few years, she has honed her skill enough to step into the arena through this exhibition. From fashion practice, she brings her knowledge of the historical and identity values in fabrics by abandoning the conventional canvas, for the Tiv national cloth, a hand woven fabric with black and white stripes or patterns. The 13 works she exhibited include: Kumakavwen (It is time to understand), Amboraivungu (Carved head), Kwase Ngohol (Ikpine), Wan Ipav (Daughter of Ipav), No Longer Lost, Seiha (One of a Kind).

She explains her work titled Kumakavwen: “The formative years and how the period affects who we become as individuals are important. We essentially take the ‘colour’ and ‘shape’ of what is poured into us in those impressionable years.” The artist believes that understanding our history as a people, is a missing element that should be taken seriously and imparted at the right period. “This will help us know and appreciate who we are and why certain things are the ways they are while helping us understand how we can navigate the future.”

The wedding night is a linocut of a Tiv maiden wearing her hair for a wedding. According to the artist, this represents the good wishes upon a newly married sister, daughter, friend, niece, such as peace and fertility. So; “the wedding night for me is more like a prayer of sought for those wishes to come true,” says Ayu. The work Kwase Ngohol (Ikpine) on the other hand preaches the protection of the girl child.

The work is about ‘marriage by capture,’ an old practice in Tiv land that involved men, who were not capable of decently paying a girl’s bride price, seizing her forcefully and defiling her. With her “virginity” gone, the girl’s family would not want her back. She becomes effectively married to her captor. “While I was growing up,” says Wanger, “my dad would say daughters are first.” Relating this to the kidnap of Chibok girls and similar violence targeted at girls in recent times, Wanger wonders if it is possible to etch her father’s words in everyone’s heart. The piece; Amboraivungu (Carved head), was inspired by the Kwaghir Puppetry Performance of the Tiv people. At the advent of Christianity in the early 20th Century, the German missionaries often used force to wage war against some traditional practices. They went around villages, seizing carved wooden masks used in traditional worship. To give up one’s religion is often hard to do. So people always found other ways of continuing with bits of their old practices. The artist says that her expressive paintings are recreations of elicited emotions when people’s religious totems were confiscated. Ayu’s work has deep cultural effects when you encounter them, and she believes it is her way of negotiating the multiplicities encapsulated in the world she lives in. As one awaits her next line of work, she hopes to continue her exploration of the diversities, which helps make the world a beautiful place.

*Enekwachi, an artist and culture writer, writes from Abuja

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