As with his last three solo exhibitions, which also held at Nike Art Gallery, Nsikak Essien’s ‘Agape! (Heir Apparent)’ dwells on the love of God for mankind, his heirs. Back in 1991, the renowned mixed media and experimental artist—who, in the tradition of Gani Odutokun, Chris Ebigbo and other best students turned educators, had stayed back to lecture at his alma mater, Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu, after graduating in 1979 with a Distinction in Painting—retired from teaching to focus on his studio practice. A few years later, he had an experience, which he describes as akin to the biblical road to Damascus experience of Saint Paul, and thinking it meant a call to social crusading, he began making anti-establishment art. But he found no joy in depicting social ills, instead he was led to show the solution to the problem: love. Essien says he is called to tell the world, through his art, about “The love dimension of things”.
In his compositions, Nsikak Essien explores the parent-child love as an expression of the different shades of God’s love. The collection on display at the ‘Agape!’ exhibition immerses us in this world of love. Joint Heir is the king of heart card. The king, a Benin king judging from his beads, is shown sharing his space and staff with his son, who occupies the top part of the card. Inscribed on the edges of the card are Bible scriptures of God’s assurances and promises to his children. Heir Apparent 2, one of my favorite works, is a moody dark canvas depicting a baby elephant with the bigger trunk of what would be a much larger elephant around it. The bigger elephant is obscured by foliage but its tusks protrude menacingly. The tusks, the rough surface, the sombre colours fill me with foreboding but I can see the baby elephant feels safe. Worth mentioning for the brilliant juxtaposing of strength and tenderness is Thug Love @ 50 Cents, a depiction of a muscle-bound tough looking man cradling a child gently.
My favourite painting here is Medicine Pot. Evoking memories of bygone times of communal living, when, as children, playing meant chasing each other around family compounds. It depicts an old room full of rustic charm. In a corner is a covered earthen pot with a familiar aluminium cup, with signs of rust, turned upside down on the cover of the pot, a fleeing child’s leg with slipper flying and several footprints of other children that had ran that way. The 61-year-old artist said it’s a recollection of a room in his grandfather’s compound in Uyo, where he grew up. The pot served as the source of drinking water and the aluminum cup was the dipping and drinking cup. He finds it miraculous that with everyone dipping and drinking using the same cup—including children who would in the process of taking water immerse their dirty hands in the water, there wasn’t an epidemic of cholera or some such disease. For me, spending time with the work fills me with nostalgia for simpler times, those good old days I’d heard so much about.
What I find most compelling here is Nsikak Essien’s mastery of the canvas, which enables him bring his amazing creative imaginations to life. Looking at the works, I’m reminded that in mid-1980s, Essien, along with Obiora Udechukwu, Tayo Adenaike, El-Anatsui, Chike Aniakor et al, was one of the founding members of the Aka Circle of Exhibiting Artists, a group known for their pictorial and sculptural sincerity. By extension, his current form of expressing divine instructions can also be considered a spin-off of this association when one recalls that in 1989 Sylvester Ogbechie wrote of the Aka Circle of Exhibiting Artists, “Speaking with several voices amplified by a union of aims, the artists presented their perception of man, of society, life and the cosmos.”
‘Agape! (Heir Apparent)’ is at Nike Art Gallery through 5 October 2018.