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  • By Folu Oyefeso (K-AiR Guest Writer-in-Residence)

The Art of Nengi Omuku and Her Residency at K-AiR

Updated: Apr 25

Life at the Kobomoje artist residency progressed with new developments every week. We had spent some time reflecting and finding new ways to make our residency-artist relationships stronger. Oftentimes, development can feel like being a passenger in a micra taxi, a bumpy ride but closer to the destination with each passing moment. 

One of the more exciting items on the list of developments was Nengi Omuku’s visit to Ibadan. She would be our guest at Kobomoje for a 5-month period—ample time for her to learn from us and more importantly, we from her. Apart from being a fascinating painter, Nengi has a warm personality and the atmosphere of the room seems to light up when she’s in it! Her passion is infectious and makes you feel excited to learn about her work. 

The Asaba-born artist is quite familiar with Ibadan. Her first visit in 2015 for her NYSC service and since then, she’s made frequent appearances to visit family, friends and source materials. She speaks of it like a home away from home in her recaps and she jumped on the opportunity to escape noisy Lagos for a few months.

Ms Omuku was encouraged from a young age to pursue a career in the arts and holds a bachelor’s and master's degree from Slade School of fine art, in London. This institution explores contemporary art through history and theories from an experimental, research-oriented and imaginative lens. As a result, Nengi has been exposed to the finest resources available, especially art history. Her outstanding work has merited some awards as well, most notably the British Council CHOGM art award, presented by the Queen of England herself! Nowadays, Nengi focuses her skills on promoting Nigerian culture through her work. 

Nengi’s paintings are quite unique so let us explore the fascinating elements. She borrows methodology from the renaissance era and paints faceless figures existing in space. These bodies take on idealistic poses, seemingly trapped in the ballet of life - their unnatural shapes evoking feelings of belonging and being alien. This complex duality makes you wonder how much of one's being is a part of their space and alternately how much of that space is a part of them

In “Reclining Figures”, Omuku draws heavily from the renaissance period, having been exposed to art history in school. The musculature of her subjects (and their idealistic poses)are similar to  classic Greek sculpture. During this period, there were profound developments in the Humanist movement, characterised by realistic portrayals of human bodies. Nengi blends her afrocentrism with that element seamlessly.

With regards to how her figures pose, Nengi has coined the concept of ‘reclining figure’. According to her, this term represents the relaxed positions her friends would take when visiting her. 

”I was having moments in my studio where guests would visit me. I would notice their relaxed poses and apply them to my work.” These relaxed poses would then go on to influence Nengi’s paintings, particularly in her newer work.

We also found it very interesting that Nengi paints humanoid figures without humanoid expressions. The faces are blank but the gradient of browns - reminiscent of African skin - provokes a spectrum of emotions. Maybe the idea is to make the audience focus on the bodies, but (maybe) unintentionally, the artist allows us to picture ourselves in place of these figures and thus, project our feelings of joy, pain, confidence, sorrow (etc). 

Omuku’s paint brush isn’t the only piece of magic in her arsenal, her chosen medium also plays a major part in her overall message. Her early work created between 2011 - 2016 were painted on canvas, and they feature anthropomorphic forms in sharp contrast to the scapes they inhabit. Although the  subjects of these paintings share some human characteristics, they are mostly abstract. The scapes have strong colours, but they are blackened to give an eerie and otherworldly effect.

Prior to this, Nengi had been collecting vintage Nigerian textiles because… but didn’t create her first Sanyan painting till 2019.  “My journey to become an artist had always felt incomplete, but I got closer to filling that gap when I started painting on Sanyan” she explains emphatically.

Sanyan is a type of “aso oke”, a ceremonial hand-woven cloth that threads Yoruba culture together across Western Africa. It comes in 3 distinct types, but the “Sanyan” variety - made from a blend of silk from an anaphe moth and cotton - is our artist's choice. It is slightly rough to the touch but it drapes in the most majestic fashion. It is no wonder that it is the preferred textile for Yoruba special occasions and it being sourced in Ibadan, makes us even more proud. 

Another interesting theme to note is the gentle introduction of humanoid realism in her work. From 2017 till date, Nengi shifts from using abstract figures to more realistic depictions of human beings in her pieces. The mysticism doesn’t suffer however, it is now just wrapped in a human context, making them more relatable.

Her work is quite exciting to look at, not just because of the expertise but also when one considers the global movement that is black art and black artists. There is a global awakening as black people are recognizing their skills, talents and greatness and taking back their place in the world - a movement we are calling the black renaissance. However, a renaissance does not emerge on its own. It needs structures to be built to allow creativity to truly flourish and such is the role of institutions like ours. We pride ourselves in fostering relationships with artists and promote the free exchange of ideas and it goes without saying that we are very happy to have had Nengi with us. Truly a fascinating artist who has merely begun to scratch the surface of her potential.


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