Peter Uka's Vibrant Storytelling on Display @ Galerie Voss
When showcasing Peter Uka in our current Fall 2020 Quarterly, we wanted to see more of his colorful paintings and hear more of his equally vibrant stories. Now that he’s back at Galerie Voss in Düsseldorf for a second solo exhibition, called Inner Frame, we’re introduced to a new body of work informed by those memories of growing up in Nigeria. With the series of bright, mostly big-scale canvases, the Cologne-based artist affectionately shares quiet and humble stories of his homeland and the people who shaped him.
Although trained as a realist painter, Uka has decided over time to abandon the exact depiction, including the subtle imperfections of the romanticized pictures into his work. "I just go with the flow, I just do my thing, but somehow, subconsciously I felt certain things sit where they are supposed to sit," the artist recently told Juxtapoz about the approach to building his images. "The basic principles which I started working with when I came up with the idea of painting this way, for now, is that things that happened 10, 15 years ago you might remember people, certain faces. You might remember certain shirts. The backdrop and the rest, you don't remember those things. You don't remember every nitty-gritty detail of those things. And so if I am picking back bits and bits of memory in order then to create an image, certain things will be left out. And so what you see here is what is left of whatever I have in my head, that I remember."
The results of such an approach are vibrant images in which everyday people are caught during their everyday activities. Strolling the streets, dancing, hanging at home, posing at their business office, taking a "selfie" with an old fashioned camera, or playing the game of Ekpa or Oló, they are caught inside of places that the artist recognizes as real or authentic. It's the popular game that the artist dedicated a special spot in the presentation, giving the spotlight to a moving clash of the cultures by recreating the setting of the familiar childhood pastime in the corner of the bright, white cube gallery space.
Through his practice, the artist is bridging the emotional gap between his adopted homeland of Germany and his native culture. "I'm doing it for my own wellbeing," he tells us. "Also, I come from a culture where we don't write down our history. Our history is passed on orally. And I am not so eloquent when it comes to the art of telling a story. I'm all over the place, to be honest. So for me, it's always better to put it in pictures. I can tell you about certain things and certain times." And the outfits, the wallpapers, distinct architectural elements or furniture designs, are suggesting the events on the paintings are happening a few decades ago when Uka lived in his hometown, just before moving to Lagos to study. Sensitive to the ambiance of the spaces he is depicting, to the expressions, attitude, and the appearance of the subjects he is portraying, he is creating images that are missing from the ongoing narrative about his motherland in an effort to show the essence of the people and the place.
"At the moment I'm just in this dark phase where I just make my figures super dark," Uka finally tells us about the reasons his work is dominated by such strong, prominent contrasts. "It is about the state, the mood, the point, or the place where you are. If I stand at a particular spot, and the light hit me at a particular angle, I will be super dark. But if I stand at a specific point, like I am right now, I wouldn't be that super dark. But that doesn't take away that I'm a brown person, a very dark person still. And so at this point in time where this person is standing, put him in that light, for the atmosphere. This is how I want it." From the tropical colors of both the scenery and the outfits of his characters to the strong contrast as a result of the everpresent, bright sunlight, the current body of work is the result of Uka's inner framing of personal perceptions and memories. —Sasha Bogojev