Stuck in Gdańsk, Poland at a time the outbreak of coronavirus forced the Polish government to decree a lockdown, Nigerian artist Bob-Nosa Uwagboe rues his suspended solo exhibition and art residency programme in the port city while looking at the brighter side of his ordeal. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Somewhere in Gdańsk, Bob-Nosa Uwagboe will be spending another day – his 24th day today – in limbo. He has been in the Polish port city as the guest of the National Museum since Friday, March 13, a day before the planned opening date of his solo exhibition, titled Transit.
Talking about the exhibition Transit, it is a visual chronicle of experiencing in this gross material part of creation against the backdrop of the fundamental principles that govern human existence. It is to these principles that earth-men owe the things that make them humane, he muses. “The images are my visual representations of the consequences of our transgressions against the society in which we co-habit and also document the depreciation of human values as well as man’s inhumanity to man.”
But, no thanks to an inexorable weaving of fate, the exhibition’s title has turned out to become a metaphor for his present condition. The exhibition and the complementing art residency programme have had to be suspended after the Polish government announced a lockdown – which would linger until Saturday, April 11 – to checkmate the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, a.k.a. COVID -19.
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Since he arrived in the Eastern European country, the 45-year-old’s daily activities have blurred into a numbing sequence of sameness, which sees him rising from bed sometime between 10 am and 11 am, working out shortly afterwards, having a warm shower, engaging in a cerebral colloquy with his curator over breakfast, chatting and making video calls with his wife and son back in Nigeria as well as with friends, listening to reggae music (his core source of inspiration), going for a short walk with his curator and then getting back to his lodgings for another round of robust conversations with her over dinner.
“I went into isolation soon after my arrival due to the Polish government’s stay-at-home order,” he narrates. “The weather hasn’t been friendly for me since it has been very cold. But then, I have to adjust. As for the cuisine, which is purely European, I’m already familiar with it since my wife experiments with different continental dishes back home in Nigeria.”
“The coronavirus complicated the situation,” the curator Małgorzata Paszylka-Glaza corroborates. “The exhibition at the National Museum in Gdańsk is ready and waiting for the public. The residency, which was specially organised for Bob-Nosa Uwagboe, is rather time-bound and is an element accompanying his exhibition. First of all, I want to extend the exhibition time. The audience in Poland should definitely see this exhibition because it is unusual. Bob-Nosa’s paintings and drawings look completely different in the space of the museum. They are even more universal, full of power, of colour and truth about the world. If I succeed, I will try to extend the art residency programme, whose purpose is to get him to know, and socialise, with Polish artists working in Gdańsk. For now, Bob-Nosa is ‘condemned’ to my company and he endures it very bravely.”
Notwithstanding his curator’s laudatory remarks about his fortitude, Uwagboe admits feeling trapped on account of the prevailing uncertainties. “This has been a lingering experience that, for me, only climaxed during this period of COVID-19,” he says. “I’ve been in this mood for a while, feeling caged and disillusioned. I have consistently expressed this mood in my visual language, which is art. So, I hope to document my current COVID-19 experiences in my next body of work.”
It all began in 2018 in Berlin, Germany. A Berlin-based Polish amateur artist and art aficionado Marek Brodecki was drinking coffee with a female friend, Iwona Kohnke, a real estate luxury agent who also loves art, at the legendary Café Cinema – a watering hole for artists, filmmakers and locals located at the entrance of a courtyard on Rosenthaler Straße. They were flipping through the images of Bob-Nosa Uwagboe’s paintings as they sipped their coffee.
Then, it occurred to Marek that his friend back in Poland, Małgorzata Paszylka-Glaza, who works as the curator of the Department of Modern Art at the National Museum in Gdańsk, would make a big deal out of these paintings.
“They liked his magical colours,” Małgorzata Paszylka-Glaza recalls. “They sent me pictures of these paintings and I saw something more than just strong, energising colours. It was the beginning of one of my most interesting and intense curatorial adventures.”
But, what was it about these pictures that immediately aroused her interest? Could this have something to do with their authenticity, uncompromisingness and strength? “I discerned great determination, courage and truth in these works,” she enthuses. “These were the works of a conscious and mature artist, who speaks about universal things with the universal language of art.”
With no previous experience of contemporary art in Nigeria or Africa, she had set out to Lagos in November last year when the city’s aficionados were swarming around the ART X Lagos venue. While still in Nigeria’s most populous city, she was able to visit its modern art galleries and the local art community with the help of Bob-Nosa. “For three years, I have been cooperating with artists from all over the world (including France, Germany, Iran and UAE-Dubai). The cooperation with Bob-Nosa is the next stage of showing important artistic phenomena in the world to the Polish audience.”
No doubt, she discerns a great talent lurking behind Bob-Nosa’s paintings. “He is an artist with enormous artistic potentials and a very unique, consistent and mature artistic vision. His art is so mature that it should already be shown in the museum. The museum is a specific exhibition space for very socially conscious artists and Bob-Nosa is just such an artist. Before the exhibition, I always meet the artist and get to know his place of creation. Bob-Nosa’s studio in Lagos delighted me. This space is an artistic microcosm. Long conversations with Bob-Nosa and joint work on the selection of works for the exhibition in Gdańsk, Poland, confirmed my curatorial intuition that Bob-Nosa is an artist with great talent. The world should know his art.”
Coming to Poland – and indeed Europe – for the first time excites the Edo State-born dreadlocks-sporting artist. Indeed, which artist wouldn’t be excited about having his works displayed in a reputable museum with a long history of art appreciation? “It was a dream come true for me, working with an amazing, experienced curator with over 25 years of practice in the field.”
His previous trips outside Nigeria had taken him to Kenya, Cameroon and Argentina. But, none of those compares to this current one, which coincides with a time of a global pandemic. “The beautiful side of this experience, in my opinion, is that it makes the powerful powerless,” he says. “It’s put a stop to all human activities for man to reflect inwardly. The earth needs to heal itself again, for it has been over-abused.”