Art Agenda: "Lagos Roundup"

Jareh Das, Art Agenda, November 20, 2020

In more ordinary times, the high season for Lagos’s art scene runs through October and November. This year, as in other cities across the world, major events have been scaled back and directed towards a local audience, with an emphasis on smaller physical events and online presentations. But disruption in Lagos has not been solely due to the pandemic. In the first weeks of October, the city was brought to a standstill by the decentralized social movement #EndSARS, which saw Nigerian youths take to the streets across the country to demand an end to police brutality and bad governance. Members of the art community mobilized, joining protests on the ground and drawing outside attention through their social media channels. Following the fatal shooting of at least twelve protesters on October 20 by the Nigerian military, the art community has shown solidarity: postponements and program modifications as direct response.....


At the newly inaugurated kó gallery, founded by Kavita Chellaram, collector and founder of Arthouse Contemporary, Thebe Phetogo’s “blackbody Composites”explores figuration and a politics of blackness drawing on the artist’s experiences growing up in his native Botswana, and on time spent in Lagos earlier this year as an Arthouse resident. The exhibition takes as a starting point the scientific “blackbody”—in physics, defined as a surface capable of absorbing light of every wavelength—and goes on to reference liberation struggles against apartheid in South Africa, Nollywood, Igbo masquerades, organized labor exploitation, and nineteenth-century minstrelsy traditions in the US. Phetogo paints with oil, acrylic, and shoe polish, the latter reclaimed from its history of use in exaggerated caricatures of blackness by non-black performers. By connecting past and present injustices directed at Black folk, these works highlight that oppression is cyclical, and permeates every aspect of modern life. Paintings depict black figures against vivid green backgrounds resembling the chroma key screens used to create visual effects in digital filmmaking. In blackbody Composite (In Protest) (2020), a group of men, women, and children take a knee with their fists raised in a stance now synonymous with protest movements from Black Lives Matter to #EndSARS. On the other hand, blackbody Composite (Back to back) references the movement of Igbo masquerades, as incorporated into works by Nigerian Modernist Ben Ewonwu, an artist whose work inspired Phetogo during his Lagos residency. The resulting portrait conveys the gestures of a masquerade whilst seemingly emerging from behind a green screen, as if moving between real and imaginary worlds.