Thursday, 5 November 2015

Artistic Insight: Uzo Egonu

Artistic Insight: Layla Gatens is a recent graduate of the University of East Anglia, studying History of Art and Anthropology. Here she explores Uzo Egonu and his work, Portrait of a Guinea Girl

Uzo Egonu, Portrait of a Guinea Girl,  1962, Oil on Canvas 
The internationally renowned modern painter, Uzo Egonu, explored the relationship between painting and sculptural forms, fusing his western and non-western influences to evoke a different kind of modernism. Painting at a time when the anti-colonial struggle was gaining momentum, Egonu’s work came to negotiate political themes of domination, racism and oppression. No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960- 1990 feature’s a rare and exciting example of Egonu’s figurative work; Portrait of a Guinea Girl (1962).

Egonu’s Portrait of a Guinea Girl (1962) explores the artist’s nostalgic feelings towards his homeland, whilst marking a crucial moment in the development of his personal aesthetic. Egonu’s oil painting depicts a young, Guinean girl, dressed in traditional West African outfit with a matching head dress and jewellery. The girl, with a neutral expression, leans forward with her arms crossed. The rigid pose, powerful graphic style and vivid colours draw similarities with Gaugin’s female subjects in his paintings of Tahiti in 1891-1892. 

After moving from Nigeria to England at the age of 14, Egonu studied painting and printing at Camberwell School of Arts until 1951. Graduating in an era of increasing cultural awareness, the global opposition to imperialism became crucial to the young artist’s process of cultural self-definition. This period of anticipation and political excitement led Egonu to spend much of his time in the offices of the West African students union. Like the Walter Rodney Bookshop that inspired the No Colour Bar exhibition, this provided young migrant students such as Egonu with “a place to read newspapers, engage in long discussions about the times and generally feel at home”. (Oguibe, 2004: 61)

In 1952, Egonu travelled Europe to expose himself to major works from the renaissance, cubism and surrealism, as well as those from Africa. During this period, Egonu was also engaging with the philosophy of the Negritude movement, which encouraged a common racial identity for Africans worldwide, and emphasized nostalgia as the core of their philosophy. After initially struggling to give form to his new conceptual and cultural ideas, Egonu’s creative crisis was solved by the route of memory and recollection, leading him to produce Portrait of a Guinea Girl - a celebratory, heroic portrait of an African female. The image romanticizes, valorises and reclaims the notion of ‘home’, positioning the girl as the embodiment of a future ‘Mother Africa,’ a vision of the beauty and potential of the African continent. With this view, Portrait of a Guinea Girl thematically and conceptually alludes to the 1945 poem Femme Noir, by negritude writer Léopold Sédar Senghor:

Naked woman, black woman
Clothed with your colour which is life, with your form which is beauty
In your shadow I have grown up; the gentleness of your hands was laid over my       eyes.                                                                   
And now, high up on the sun-baked pass, at the heart of summer, at the heart of noon,
I come upon you, my Promised Land,
And your beauty strikes me to the heart like the flash of an eagle.
 -        Extract from Femme Noire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, 1945

Portrait of a Guinea Girl marks the beginning of Egonu’s crucial link with ‘home’, a theme that continues throughout his body of work.  Egonu continued to assert his African background with forms of European modernism, and in turn achieved an expression that was committed to his identity as an African artist in Britain, as well as his socio-political vision. Through his painting, Egonu confronted the barriers between Western and African art, and went on to overcome the processes of exclusion that made British galleries and exhibition spaces inaccessible to artists of non-European descent. By the 1960’s Egonu was a revered leader of the avant-garde scene in London.

See Uzo Egonu’s work, as well as many other seminal artists at the 'No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960 - 1990' exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery until 24th January 2016.

-        Layla Gatens

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