The joke is on us in Tega Akpokona’s Bloom Art solo exhibition – Toni Kan

“And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not..” John 1:5.

Tega Akpokona is so young but his art seems so old, dating back, influence-wise to the Baroque period of Dutch masters like Rubens and Rembrandt and Van Dyk, but there is also something essentially modern, something that borrows from Aina Onabolu and Ike Ude. It is this interplay of contemporaneity and antiquity that imbues his works, curated for this exhibition by Ugoma Adegoke, its gravitas.

In 11 works realized in oil on canvas, Akpokona presents fictional characters who, sometimes, play dress up to revitalize the art of portraiture in a visual language that borrows from the past while remaining firmly rooted in the present.

Baroque art was mostly court inspired and sponsored and so featured either religious imagery or royal subjects. In Akpokona’s works, there is a subversion, in presenting us with 11 Ordinary Joes and Janes, the University of Benin graduate, elevates his subjects by the mere stroke of his brush, bringing single named characters alive in paintings that play with light and darkness to achieve verisimilitude.

The images are simple. Their backgrounds are bare, mostly dark except for Ufuoma, Sukari, Babatunde and Light Bulb Moment. In the hands of a less accomplished artist, they would be flat and one dimensional, but in playing with light and darkness, and in imbuing his subjects with ambiguity – cue the Mona Lisa effect-  Akpokona instils these still figures with tactile agency instead of stasis.

So, even though they are sitting or standing still there is something palpable, as if they have been captured at the precise moment just before movement.

“Sukari” seems caught on the cusp of a ‘tell me something’ moment; “Ufuoma” in a petulant “No” moment; the subject of a Light Bulb Moment seems to be having an epiphany while “Muna” and “Ekaete” appear caught at the exact moment after some bad news has been delivered and received but it is in the “Laughing Man” that the sense of stillness and motion is best captured. Looking intently at the image and wondering what has made him laugh, we realise that we will never know and his animated face tells the viewer without equivocation that the man is having a laugh at our expense meaning that the joke is on us.

But aside the dynamism of his subjects there is also that feeling that the framed images are engaging in a conversation with the viewer albeit a muted one. Looking at the images one appears to embark on a silent and ambiguous adventure with characters filched out of Tega Akpokona’s imagination.

And adventures, such as this, are always a beautiful thing.

(Tega Akpokona’s solo exhibition runs from March 7th to April 6th at Miliki, Etim Inyang Crescent, Victoria Island, Lagos.)

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