Nigerian painter Collins Obijiaku's portraits of Black subjects contend with identity, misrepresentation, and the Black sitter's place within the tradition of portraiture.Read More
Born in 1995 in Kaduna, Nigeria, Obijiaku started drawing at an early age, leaving sketches and comic illustrations on the margins of his class notes. A self-taught artist, Obijiaku's first painting was a portrait of his sister and her baby from 2019 made to memorialise his one-month-old nephew.
Collins Obijiaku's attention-grabbing portraits of Black subjects recover the tradition of portraiture to immortalise sitters, fixed in a different time, rendered to look back to the viewer.
For Obijiaku, who would often stay after work at the shopping mall to draw, pencil sketches served as a form of release from the physical exertions of work, eventually developing into a distinct style marked by imaginative and pointed observations of the seemingly homogenous, yet distinct people who went by him.
'When I observe people in spaces, I am looking to memorialize them, and in doing so, I seek to guess their past, present, and potential futures', the artist has said.
These differences are not only visual, but socio-economic. As the press release for Obijiaku's first solo exhibition Gindin Mangoro: Under the Mango Tree, which was shown at ADA \ contemporary art gallery in Accra, reads: 'the diversity of living conditions from one street to the next ... is the cruellest form.'
The exhibition featured 17 portraits of strangers, many of whom were from his surroundings, re-imagined by the artist rendered in a blend of charcoal, oil, and acrylic. Depicted in resting postures against royal blue and gold backdrops, fingerprint whorls mark bodies and faces adorned with solemn but penetrating expressions.
Beyond depicting individual lives, subjects in Obijiaku's portraits are equally vehicles that convey narratives of personal identity and Blackness, not only returning dignity to sitters adorned with symbols characteristic of the leisurely class but re-positioning the Black subject within the art historical canon itself through the act of portraiture.
Among the more overt declarations, Girl with Stud Earring (2022), referencing Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665), shows a young Black woman wearing the piece of jewellery along with a defiant expression, set against an ochre backdrop of the same shade as Vermeer's sitter's jacket.
While distinct, Obijiaku's sitters share lingering gazes that hold on to the viewers', glancing over with apathy, surprise, or disdain as if trying to convey a kind of knowing, already aware of how you might see them.
In one untitled portrait from 2020, a Black man with a red afro and a red gown with white dots is rendered with a serious expression as if to evoke the trope of the Black man as the comic, clownish figure, only to overturn it.
Collins Obijiaku's works have been shown in Europe, Africa, and the United States.
Group exhibitions have been held at Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York (2021); Luce Gallery, Italy (2021); Unit, London (2020); CFHILL, Stockholm (2020); Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco (2020); National Gallery of Arts, Nigeria (2017); and Korean Cultural Center, Abuja (2017).
The artist lives and works in Suleja, Nigeria.
Elaine YJ Zheng | Ocula | 2022