Collins Obijiaku in 2020
Collins Obijiaku's interest in the visual began from a young age when he enjoyed drawing and painting, often illustrating the margins of his school workbooks. Obijiaku’s artistic practise began to develop further when he relocated to Enugu to live with relatives. After taking up some part time work for a shopping complex, he began to sketch the vast surroundings of the building. Equally, he started to observe the strangers that surrounded him, studying their mannerisms and individual movements. Obijiaku grew particularly fascinated by the gazes of certain shoppers and how these idiosyncratic ways of looking could denote, not just the emotional state of an individual, but their socio-economic background. In this way, the artist began to decipher distinctive elements of diversity within seemingly homogenous groups of people. The early pencil studies that Obijiaku produced during this formative period became instrumental in the evolution of his current style. It is an aesthetic that has been informed by the outside world rather than by a, perhaps circumscribed, background of formal artistic training.
Once Obijiaku returned to Suleja with this new perspective, he witnessed a friend survive a near lynching. The experience led him to embark upon a steadfast and socially engaged artistic practise, which sought to document the perilous existence of those living on the periphery, excluded by society’s systems and conventions. This was a seminal point in Obijiaku’s creative process; his work began to embody a sinister darkness as it strove to render the unjust divisions and inequalities that are embedded in life’s very framework. However, working in this way did not offer the catharsis that Obijiaku had expected, but it instead began to consume him both physically and emotionally. As such, Obijiaku’s work began to evolve, electing instead to represent autonomous and seemingly detached individuals who are emancipated from their surrounding environments.
Obijiaku is currently exhibiting with Unit London as part of the highly successful group show, The Medium Is The Message, which brings together the works of black artists who seek to draw attention to the materiality of artworks. Obijiaku presents three striking works on paper, Girl with Stud Earrings, Agu and Untitled, which explore notions of Blackness, identity and the unpredictability of lived experience. The artworks are instantaneously visually arresting, emphasising Obijiaku’s preoccupation with the gaze of an individual. The backgrounds of the three works are monochrome and sparse, drawing the viewer’s attention inwards to the sitters’ expressions. Here, Obijiaku engages in an unusual interplay between art object and observer; the gazes of his subjects seem to meet that of the viewer. In particular, Untitled feels like a moment interrupted, as if the viewer has intruded on the sitter’s reverie or deep introspection. These portraits then take on an extraordinarily intimate presence as Obijiaku renders the human gaze with devastating realism. These works equally demonstrate Obijiaku’s masterful dismantling of the conventional systems of image production. His portraits are composed of almost cartographic or topographic lines that unfurl to form impressions of dactylograms. Each visage represented suggests the idea of a distinctive fingerprint. These works therefore become symbols of individuality, elegising those features that make each of us unique.
Untitled, Collins Obijiaku, 2020, Charcoal and oil on paper, 106 x 91. cm
In addition to The Medium Is The Message, Obijiaku has recently been featured in several international group exhibitions. Notably, his work has been presented at Christie’s virtual selling exhibition, Say It Loud, in New York, CFHILL’s Black Voices / Black Microcosm in Stockholm and the Museum of the African Diaspora’s Diaspora Unite! in San Francisco. Currently, Obijiaku’s newest body of work is being displayed at the inaugural exhibition of the ADA/Contemporary Art Gallery in Accra, Ghana. Gindin Mangoro: Under the Mango Tree is the artist’s debut solo exhibition and is a continuation of the artist’s profound examinations of Blackness, the hidden interiority of his subjects and human existence.