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No Longer Art Tease

An art exhibition recently stripped cultural and religious norms about the place of a body. Turns out, it’s not always under the cover of clothes

The body. It is the first thing we encounter, even before the human being. The base before everything else is formed. For centuries, the body has been a source of fantasy, obsession, liberation, struggle, oppression, voyeurism, politics, shame, commoditization, and of course a reference point to reality. But is the body simply what it is? Or is it so much more? – rele Gallery. 

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The prejudices against a naked body in Nigeria, a country bound by cultural velvet ropes and religiosity are legion; just like its ethnic groups (and laws); and churches, mosques and traditional worship grounds. Even the most sophisticated, worldly citizen is under attack at the sight of exposed flesh, be it even fairly harmless body weapons such as the décolletage or the torso of a man. How audacious then, the sheer nerve of an art exhibition showing varying degrees of nudity across different mediums. Shouldn’t art be imitating this very modest, prudish life? That was the question I posed to myself when I was given the opportunity to curate an exhibition that did the aforementioned. rele Gallery, Lagos’ new art destination was the progenitor of this idea. The gallery, at the time of this report is an infant in the art industry, barely four months old, but in the able hands of Adenrele Sonariwo, a passionate lover of the arts who has been actively involved as a curator, dealer and visionary in the arts community for five years and is at the helm of launching Nigeria’s first dedicated arts and design school: Modern Day School of Arts. rele Gallery also represents, brands and promotes artists, another first-of-its-kind, in the country. Of course, it’s not far from logic that it be the first to stage such an avant-garde exhibition which was to be aptly called, ‘STRIP’

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Having been set the task by the gallery and paired with a co-curator in person of culture savant, broadcaster and poet, Wana Udobang, work began in earnest. Well aware of the kind of climate we were in, we decided from the onset to not let that unduly influence our choices in the selection of artists & works. Art isn’t meant to make anyone comfortable anyway. We sought to provoke a conversation and slightly distended stomachs that apparently come with age. Isaac Emokpae’s ‘Queen of the Night’, the Mona Lisa of the collection, was an accomplished use of the Plexiglas, showing a woman, slightly seductive, sitting under a night coloured with stars.

At the opening, having invited guests to come stripped of the caution of the modest and clothed with the courage of an open mind, there were no jaws hitting the floor, or scandalized looks. Guests heeded the call. Logor’s work, the most daring for the photography category had close- up, stark monochrome shots of a faceless woman’s breasts, and even closer shots of her nipples. Guests sipped on glasses of Demi-Sac, Brut and Rose provided by Laurent-Perrier Champagne, sponsors of the event- and took the art on display in, calmly. There were remarks about the audacity of the exhibition but it was of a good sort.

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One guest said the exhibition was “pretty brave” A corner has been turned in the mind of the rosary-bearing, Bible-thumping Nigerian prude it seems. Around the human form, investigating notions of power, shame, freedom, beauty; the attendant feelings that accompany an encounter with a naked body. We sought out artists that brought these expressions to life in ways that were not vulgar but introspective, that lit up the eyes and darkened the mind with thought. We arrived at painters: Ibe Ananaba, Isaac Emokpae and Ayoola Gbolahan; photographers: Reze Bonna, Kelechi Amadi-Obi, Toyosi Kekere- Ekun and Logor. Ayoola Gbolahan’s work in the painting category was perhaps the most brazen. His blue women are without inhibitions, naked as the day they were born with the addition of red lips and red shoes and proud of their love handles, saggy breasts.

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