Peter Uka: Remembrance is the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York, NY. Born in 1975 in Nigeria’s Benue State and based in Cologne, Germany, Uka paints large-scale portraits and group scenes that draw inspiration from childhood memories, including 70s-era fashion and hairstyles, wallpaper patterns, and dance moves. Elucidating the richness and joyfulness in both the solitary and shared moments of Black life, the artist offers a counternarrative to outmoded perceptions of both his home country and non-Western culture at large. A text by artist and curator Folakunle Oshun accompanies the exhibition.
Peter Uka: Remembrance
By Folakunle Oshun
Checkered tiles in barbershops, bell-bottom trousers, afro hairstyles, and vibrant colours are just some of the recurring elements that constitute the compositions of Peter Uka’s paintings. Born in Nigeria in 1975, the painter who was initially trained as a sculptor at the Yaba College of Technology, has made his presence felt on the international contemporary art scene with several exhibitions across Europe and now, a first solo exhibition at The FLAG Art Foundation in New York.
Peter Uka’s larger-than-life paintings reference the modernist/post-independence era in Nigeria and draw from everyday life events he encountered as a child in the 70s and 80s. Based in Cologne, Germany, since 2008, Uka has created a unique aesthetic vision that meshes real-life compositions (painted from pictures with staged props and backgrounds), those channeled from memory, and a flirtation with nostalgia. He uses these techniques and inventions to further articulate his depictions of a surreal past. The tensions within a post-independence society attempting to find its identity by breaking with Western ideals, and at the same time aspiring to the fashion and technology of an imposed modernity, can all be felt in his paintings.
The themes in Uka’s work may be perceived as another painterly expression of Blackness–taking into consideration global tensions surrounding the issues of racial equality. Still, a conversation with the multi-talented artist reveals deeper roots linked to his migration from Nigeria to Germany and a longing to connect with home. Place, time, identity, and memory are some of the factors that define his practice irrespective of his chosen medium.
A visit to his studio reveals more uncompleted or abandoned paintings than finished ones. Does this suggest a form of fractured memory, or does the artist, like many others, give up on a piece that just doesn’t come out right? Whatever the case, it is evident that Uka i is keen on recreating scenarios precisely as he remembers them, or sometimes, as he imagined they looked. Like his Nigerian female counterpart Njideka Akunyili Crosby, whose work reconnects with Nigeria’s more recent past, Uka’s paintings equally rely on draftsmanship and composition.
Considering the dearth of museums and archival institutions in Nigeria, it is critical to evaluate the consistency of creatives in music, theatre, film, and visual arts who recreate memories of different periods in the history of the newly-formed federation. In the case of Uka, we must consider his artistic agency and creative freedom to highlight certain elements in compositions that he considers more important or memorable than others. An example is the artist’s tendency to finely render the heads of his figure while leaving the hands and feet unfinished. This approach to painting can be juxtaposed with indigenous carving techniques, which, based on Yoruba philosophy, prioritize a figure’s head “Ori.” In these carvings, the head is represented proportionately as one fourth of the entire body and is given more detail and prominence. It can be assumed that Uka picked up this approach when he moved from Benue State, located in the middle belt area of Nigeria, to South Western Nigeria at age fifteen. His technique, which is drawn from the Yoruba philosophical canon, goes beyond the aesthetic value the head may possess and is more vested in the conception of the head as the purveyor of destiny, and thus a sacred vessel that receives more attention in the art-making.
Uka had his first encounters in art cutting stencils and making stamps for his father’s workshop, whose primary occupation was writing and painting images on signs for commercial lorries that ferried produce and other goods across the country. The influences of printmaking and signwriting are evident in Uka’s paintings, specifically his use of bright colours, a common feature in the lorry-painting business. It becomes impossible to disassociate the nomadic character of the artform practiced by the Uka’s father from the contemporary practice of the artist whose high-demand paintings traverse the globe. From one generation painting indigenous proverbs and moralistic quotes on lorries—in an attempt to differentiate and beautify the vehicles—to the next generation piecing together fragments of memories, Uka establishes a continuum in Nigerian art history that refreshingly take a non-photographic gaze on the past in an attempt to better understand the present. The artist has evolved this rigid technique, mainly involving cheap gloss or car paint, into a more sophisticated method using traditional oil paint.
Titled Remembrance, Uka’s exhibition at FLAG showcases a nonlinear selection of the artist’s work and includes a series of paintings that highlight some of the artist’s most robust aesthetic, philosophical, and conceptual leanings, which border on recollection and the reconstruction of childhood experiences.
Peter Uka (b. 1975, Nigeria) is an artist living and working in Cologne, Germany. Uka studied at Yaba College of Technology, Yaba, Lagos, Nigeria, from 2000-06; he was guest student, Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Germany from 2007-09 (class of Professor Tal R) and from 2012-17 (class of Professor Eberhard Havekost); and in 2017, he was master student under Eberhard Havekost. He has been the subject of solo exhibitions, including Longing, Mariane Ibrahim, Chicago, IL (2021); and Inner Frame, Galerie Voss, Düsseldorf, Germany (2020). Uka’s work has been included in numerous group exhibitions, including J’ai Deux Amours…, Mariane Ibrahim, Paris, France (2021); Polke und Die Folgen, Akademie-Galerie, Die Neue Sammlung, Düsseldorf, Germany (2019); Fragment of the Present Past, Galerie Voss, Düsseldorf, Germany (2018); among others. Uka is represented by Mariane Ibrahim, Chicago and Paris.
Folakunle Oshun (b. 1984, Ibadan, Nigeria) is an artist and curator currently based in Paris, France. Oshun earned a B.A. in Visual Art with a major in Sculpture from the University of Lagos, Nigeria, in 2007, an M.A. in Art History in 2012, and received the first Curator-in-Residence grant by the Potsdam City Council, Brandenburg, Germany, in 2017. He is the founder and director of the Lagos Biennial, a nonprofit contemporary art platform that privileges adventurous approaches to art-making, presentation, and critical discourse–aspiring to broach complex social and political problems, cultivate new publics, and establish fresh modes of engagement within the city, as well as throughout the country and internationally. Oshun is curator at the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, Germany, and advisor for the Afrique 2020 season in France. In 2021, Folakunle was invited as Guest Professor to the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe where he teaches the course “Spatial Politics and Story Telling.” He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts de Paris-Cergy, France, where he also lectures.
Peter Uka: Remembrance was organized by The FLAG Art Foundation with the generous support of the artist, his studio, private lenders, and Mariane Ibrahim.