By Mamelodi Marakalala
Usen Obot is a Nigerian artist living and working in South Africa, whose artworks have come to blur the line between sculpture and canvas. He has been largely based in Gqeberha (prev. Port Elizabeth) – the most populous city in the Eastern Cape province. Obot’s work has been exhibited in South Africa and internationally at art fairs such as FNB Art Joburg and Turbine Art Fair as well as art spaces such as Gallery Guichard in Chicago, Rust-en-Vrede Gallery in Cape Town, Nelson Mandela University’s Bird Street Gallery (Gqeberha), Gallery MOMO in Johannesburg, and now through Lizamore & Associates at the Rosebank Workshop17 Firestation, Johannesburg. Moreover, some of his pieces can be found in corporate collections such as the Nando’s Art Collection, Absa, and more.
Obot is also a gallerist, having founded Galerie NOKO in Gqeberha. The space is more than an art gallery in the traditional sense, its purpose is to develop and launch the careers of emerging artists through competitions that lead to residencies and exhibitions, along with the careers of art practitioners through internships as part of PESP, the Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme.
The Mkpese Series
Obot’s sculptural paintings, titled the Mkpese series, present a visual exploration of African pre-colonial history with the purpose of reimagining the African story in contemporary times. He has created different bodies of work in this style and they were showcased as “Mkpese: The Incarnate” at Bird Street Gallery in April – May 2022, “Mkpese: Then, Now, and Future Histories” at Gallery MOMO in April 2022, and in the “Reflections” group exhibition at the Bag Factory in May – June 2023.
The series is about exhuming the past, echoing the present, and appealing to the future. This is done through a closer look at institutions and dynamics of the individual identity, the family unit, knowledge and governance, religious and traditional practice, politics and society. Obot references the Ekpo Society of South Nigeria, originating from the Ibibio, Efik, and Annang people.
The word Ekpo translates to “ghost”. Founded and existing long before colonisation, the Ekpo Society was mainly responsible for establishing law and order, overseeing cultural practices and social life, and connecting people to their ancestry and spirituality. They were composed of male members and are known to have been highly secretive, living in the depths of their region’s forest and engaging in ritualistic practices and performances.
The Ekpo Society used to hold masquerade festivals that were considered to be an extension of the ancestral realm within the world of the living by those participating in or experiencing them. During an Ekpo masquerade, selected members could be seen donning black or dark masks and traditional attire, with their skin painted typically in a shade that matches their mask. Each masquerader had a purpose and role: there were elder and youngster masqueraders; there were groups of masqueraders who were bringers of rewards to their community for living well and abiding by tradition; as well as masqueraders whose purpose was to chase away evil spirits and hold unlawful or uncultured members of the community accountable for their actions.
Mkpese Karma: the present into the future
The artworks in the Mkpese Karma exhibition highlight the traditional values that speak to what it means to be a lawful and cultured person in African society, especially in this contemporary period wherein de-colonisation has ensued from post-colonisation. In the three sculptural paintings the spirit that guides us 1,2, and 3 (2023), one can see that the African individual is rooted in their spirituality and their life journey is paved by their ancestry. There is no isolated existence, the people must have foundations upon which their morality, decency, and fulfillment are built.
Obot’s paintings consist of abstract figurations with bodies that are sometimes filled with his own artistic interpretation of ancient communication symbols meant to represent the Nsibidi Script that Ekpo secret societies used. Scholars have found that Nsibidi is one of the oldest writing systems in human history, saying that it dates back as far as 400 CE. The heads of the figures have no sensory organs or there is a hole where the head is, which may even suggest that the viewer see beyond simplified or veiled presentations of Africa.
The gifts from the last god (2023) artwork portrays Obot’s figures each holding a distinctly-shaped glowing parcel. This seems to be a reflection of the Ekpo rewards system, which stipulates that benefits such as good health, psychological wellbeing, and worldly fortunes shall be given to those orbiting within their circles and following their particular social, cultural, and philosophical doctrines.
In truth seekers are lightbearers (2023), three figures are holding sticks of light and appear to be leading a few others behind them. Light is a significant element in life itself. The Earth looks to the sun for illumination, climate, and energy to sustain and facilitate the cycles of the ecosystems. Humanity has relied on candles and lamps that were lit by energy sources such as oil, kerosene, gas and, eventually, electricity.
Light also represents knowledge. At the root of “not simply existing, but becoming whole or coming into oneself”, is knowing where you come from and understanding the heritage that has been left behind by those that came before. Obot has acknowledged that Ekpo, and more broadly African, heritage has been diluted since colonisation and it has become a purpose for the populace of Africa to gather knowledge that once again enriches our cultures – for ourselves and future generations.
Conversations (2023) is the artwork that particularly speaks to this glaring theme of retracing African histories and reviving essential stories and values in the present and future lives of Africans, as suggested in the full exhibition title “Mkpese Karma: the present into the future”. This piece portrays a total of four tall figures, two of which are in the middle facing each other and the other two participating in the discussion.
Different cultures have operated by way of talking, to move their civilisations forward. In this instance, Obot’s artistic intervention can be taken as a means to inspire and ignite the interests of his people to engage with matters of the home and community: looking beyond, or rather beneath, themselves; reimagining African traditions and values in the current state of the world, with rapidly rising technological advancements.
“I am very happy with the [artworks]. I think they are very intricate and the storytelling is just beautiful,” says Teresa Lizamore, Director and Curator of Lizamore and Associates, as she was sharing delightful details at the exhibition opening about how she came to know Usen Obot and how Mkpese Karma came to be.
The show can be viewed until 30 November at Workshop17 Firestation on 16 Baker Street, Rosebank, Johannesburg. The opening hours are Monday to Friday: 08H00 to 17H00.