Nude art works, whether paintings, drawings, photography or sculpture often get a bad rap.
If they are not being accused of objectifying women by promoting the so-called ‘male gaze’ then they face the charge of over-titillation and salaciousness from their (re)presentation of men in homo-erotic images.
So, the duo of Wana Udobang and Ayodeji Rotinwa who curated Rele gallery’s electrifying ‘Strip’ which ran from May 17 to June 7, 2015 deserve high marks for boldness and courage in going against the conservative norm and presenting works that, for lack of a better phrase, have pushed the envelope in strange new directions.
In their curator’s statement the duo writes that “for centuries the body has been a source of fantasy, obsession, liberation, struggle, oppression, voyeurism, politics, shame, and commoditisation and of course a reference point to reality. Artists have long preoccupied themselves with documenting this endless source of expression.”
That pre-occupation began formally, as extant records show, in Greco-Roman sculptures. In Greece, Olympic athletes with their rippling muscles and well sculpted bodies were the first ‘models’ for nude art. It wasn’t nude in the real sense of posing in the buff because back then in antiquity, athletes competed in the nude. Those sculptures, because of the well-defined physiques, came to be seen as celebrating youthfulness, triumph, glory, and physical excellence.
The Greek free-standing sculptures known as Kouros (meaning youth, or boy, especially of noble rank) remain popular today. Often representative of youth, the sculptures are idealized pieces that represent physical perfection.
The same was the case with classical Roman sculptures of the same period the most popular of which, were religious in tenor and made in honour of Venus, the goddess of fertility known as Aphrodites in Greece. The female forms in the statues were never fully naked, unlike the men; there was always an averted gaze, a hand and or a sash covering her modesty.
While Greco-Roman nude art celebrated the human form in all its physical glory and geometric symmetry, Judeo-Christianity presented a less idealised and romanticised version.
Nudity or nakedness in Judeo-Christian art connoted shame instead of glory and often depicted Adam and Eve after the fall or sinners damned in hell. The only other exception was a nude baby Jesus.
How about Africa? Africans paraded around naked before colonialism brought clothes but they were naked without being so.
But in terms of nudity as agency, nudity has always played a dual role in Africa where it is used to shame a person who is stripped naked or a person who strips naked in order to communicate opprobrium to another.
Artists such as Nicola Pisano (13th century) and Giotto (14th century) who are both regarded as fathers of the Renaissance helped translate nudity in art from antiquity while others likeFrancisco de Goya, Gustav Klimt, Gustave Courbet, Egon Schiele, Paul Cezanne’s and even Pablo Picasso helped complete the move from antiquity to contemporaneity.
Lucien Freud dropped the idealisation for a more realistic and ‘less-than-perfect’ depiction of the female nude form thus providing a clear paradigm shift that has influenced many.
In more recent times, with the advent of photography, nude art has transformed, assuming an immediacy that did not exist and works by artists and photographers working now make Goya’s ‘The Origin of the World’ look like child’s play the way ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ makes one wonder what the fuss was about ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.
The works on display in the ‘Strip’ exhibition at Rele are 33 in number by seven different artists of various ages and temperament. They are at once subversive, shocking, sensual and surprisingly daring.
Reze Bonna’s stylized photography are probably the most daring. Showing full frontal nudity, the works’ overt depiction of nudity is mediated by the interplay of light and shadows which ironically also make you want to peer closer.
Isaac Emokpae has three works on display. The most remarkable is ‘Queen of the Night’ which shows a female form super -mposed on a stained glass tableau. The choice of stained glass especially in the light of its association with churches is both subversive and exciting making the work a comment on both the sacred and the profane.
Ibe Ananaba has four works on display, all of them done in water colour on paper and they represent a marriage of daring and subtlety. There are naked forms buried in layers of suggestiveness and mostly represent the works that could be easily displayed in a public space without raising eye brows.
Logor’s photography is direct and in your face. There are breasts aplenty but the very close shots somehow manage to de-sexualise the overtly sexual images. In bringing the camera so close to the subject, the voyeuristic context that is often provided by distance disappears.
Ayoola’s women are corpulent thus providing a departure from the mostly slim figures with perky breasts. His use of blue is also instructive. The voluptuousness of the figures owes more to Lucien Freud and despite the overly sexual pose of ‘Blue Meditation’, it does not appear too risqué or even pornographic. There is a sense, in which, they are almost vulnerable and sexless.
The painting also riffs on the classical Leda and Swan archetype in which Zeus is said to have descended in the form of a swan and seduced or raped Leda who then gave birth to Helen of Troy.
The reference to Leda and Swan assumes a fresh perspective here especially in Ayoola’s use of a Cock in a homophonic and homonymic way.
Kelechi Amadi Obi who is, without a doubt, Nigeria’s most successful commercial photographer continues to extend the limits of his creativity as an artist with the eight works on display all of them realised in black and white.
His works are mature and tasteful even when depicting nudity and his female subjects are reflective of different moods and temperaments. They straddle the spectrum as sirens and seductresses, Sappho and Sentinels. There is something obviously Sapphic in ‘At Peace’ and ‘Friends’.
Toyosi Kekere –Ekun’s works are daring in their approach to nudity especially coming from a female which is welcome because when male artists or photographers portray female subjects there are no eyebrows raised but when they portray subjects of the same sex then charges of homo-eroticism fly.
Which brings us to a major issue, why the preponderance of female forms in nude art? Is it because our general conception of beauty privileges the female form or is it because most artists are male or maybe because of the so called male-gaze which objectifies women?
The question is pertinent because a practice that developed from the celebration and depiction of male forms has now become, almost, pre-occupied with female forms.
Unfortunately ‘Strip’ did not help much because out of the 33 works on display, only four depicted males forms and of those four, one is of two men in a canoe intrigued by the sight of a naked woman in their path as they sail by in Kelechi Amadi Obi’s ‘Encounter.’
But male forms or not, ‘Strip’ has succeeded brilliantly in its avowed aim of helping to “strip bare, rediscover and reopen the discourse around the human form….”