Nengi Omuku’s innovative fusion of art and indigenous textiles garnering international recognition
A distinctive convergence of artistic expression and Indigenous craft traditions has been taking root in the ever-evolving landscape of contemporary art. At the forefront of this movement stands Nengi Omuku, an artist whose unique approach combines textiles and Indigenous heritage, resulting in captivating, sculptural paintings on fabric.
Omuku’s work has made waves on the global art scene, with exhibitions spanning Nigeria, the United States, and Europe. Her recent collaboration with New York’s prestigious Kasmin gallery, along with joint representation by Pippy Houldsworth Gallery and Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery in London, has propelled her into the international spotlight. Notably, a solo exhibition of her creations is slated to grace Kasmin’s walls in the upcoming year.
What sets Omuku apart is not only her ethereal and dreamlike paintings but also the canvas on which she works—traditional sanyan cloth. Sanyan, an elemental type of aso oke, a woven Yoruba textile, holds profound cultural significance in Nigeria, Omuku’s birthplace and current home. Trained as a painter at the renowned Slade School of Fine Art in London, Omuku embarked on a textile exploration upon returning to her roots. Her curiosity was sparked by the realisation that what is often perceived as “African” fabric is, in fact, Dutch Wax print, originating in the Netherlands. This revelation ignited her quest to identify truly African textiles.
Early in her textile journey, Omuku painted on textiles from various Nigerian states, engaging with older generations to explore notions of indigeneity deeply. It was during this exploration that she encountered sanyan cloth, a pivotal moment in her artistic evolution. In sanyan, she saw a synthesis of Nigerian culture and indigenous concepts, allowing her to embed the fabric’s inherent significance into her practice.
Initially sourced from local markets, the fabric came in the form of complete dress sets used for special occasions like weddings. Omuku meticulously deconstructed these garments, rearranging their panels to create a tapestry-like canvas. She painted on the reverse side, preserving the fabric’s artistry and the prayers woven into its pattern through symbolic motifs.
Omuku’s transformation of sanyan cloth not only influenced her choice of muted tones in her palette but also fostered a profound dialogue between the fabric and her painted compositions. The fabric’s features, such as yellow stripes, harmoniously guided her color choices.
Her artistic style, rooted in Impressionism, embraces visible brushstrokes and the interplay of colour and shape to reveal the image. Her inspiration draws from a wide range of sources, including art history, her imagination, life experiences, and her deep connection to nature. Landscape often takes centre stage in her paintings, seamlessly blending with the subjects rather than dominating the narrative.
Omuku’s artistic journey aligns perfectly with the “Aso Oke: Prestige Cloth from Nigeria” exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM), running until March 10, 2024. This showcase of Yoruba weavers’ textiles prominently features Omuku’s contemporary interpretation. Additionally, Hastings Contemporary in East Sussex, UK, will host a solo museum exhibition titled “The Dance of People and the Natural World” featuring 10 of her paintings, starting on October 7.
For Omuku, this artistic odyssey is a return to her roots, a rediscovery of her soul’s creative essence. Moving to Nigeria allowed her to find the missing link in her practice and attain a newfound balance in her artistry. As her work continues to captivate audiences worldwide, Nengi Omuku remains a visionary artist who bridges the gap between tradition and contemporary expression.
Omuku’s work, according to a statement on the Kristin Hjellegjerde website, is inspired by the politics of the body and the complexities that surround identity and difference. With every journey, she considers how human beings position themselves in space in relation to other beings. Foremost on her mind are the ways in which the body needs to adapt in order to belong. It is constantly selecting and gathering its identity, mentally, physically and emotionally.