Diary of the iron bender: Steve Ekpenisi solo exhibition

14 - 24 March 2020

The happenings are daily; you have to work, really bend iron to live, to justify your artistic value and worth. It is not for nothing that the studio artists keep busy all the time, creating varieties of works. No day should pass by without you producing at least one work, no matter how little. The only thing that works is work.

These few words are from Steve Ekpenisi, one of the most exciting contemporary sculptors in Nigeria who embraces metal and discarded objects as a primary medium. These words set the tone for his first solo exhibition, which takes place from March 14th to 24th at Lagos-based Signature Beyond Art Gallery. More importantly as the artist asserts, they offer encouragement and advice to budding artists on the importance of active practice and attaching value and worth to one's work.

The title of the exhibition, 'Diary of the Iron Bender'isaptandasitimplies,isamemoirof his journey; the rigorous routine of sourcing material, conflating events and scenes, as well as rolling, hammering, twisting, soldering and welding metal— methods that at once define his practice and allude to Africa's age-old traditions of art and craft-making.

The exhibition features 15 works, mostly predictably sculpted in metals, incorporating such found materials as automobile parts and household paraphernalia. Strongly figurative, the

works can be loosely classified into human and animal forms. According to the artist, it is easier to see the form at the beginning unlike with other mediums of the visual arts.

Interestingly, the works are united by two distinct elements. First,anunconventionalpersonalstyle that ignores the use of an armature— a framework around which the sculpture is formed—in favour of a methodical and slow process of fabrication, with smaller pieces sliced from a larger metal sheet, beaten into flat bars, which when intertwined, form a whole. Secondly, is the clearly visible structure of networks and voids that embellish each individual work.

The majority of the sculptures are inspired by socio-economic realities, contemporary politics and indigenous traditions from which they draw their titles. A fine example is 'ANUN NHU' (thou can't eat alone), represented by the kudu bull. Inspired by the cultural traditions of his native Abavo, Ika South of Delta State, Nigeria. The work's underlying philosophy emphases the importance of sharing, peaceful co-existence and communal living.

I am using my art to enlighten and to bring to the notion of the world, the cultural heritage of my people, which has promoted peace, unity and love.

Of particular interest are the figures vaguely

reminiscent of the work of celebrated modernist, Ben Enwonwu MBE, their similarities arising from the exaggeration of several facets of the human anatomy. Significantly, their strength lies in the clever juxtaposing of their elegantly distorted proportions and stance, which imbue their fluid forms with a rhythm and balance that defies the law of gravity.

This sense of rhythm is amplified in the seeming incompleteness of each piece that tends to leave the viewer to form the finished image in his mind, ultimately lending to its power. This treatment is also common in his portrait heads and busts of not only humans but also animals—the latter expression typically uncommon amongst artists. Perhaps, the incompleteness in Steve Ekpenisi's work alludes to the fragility and the fleeting qualities of life. However, for some other sculptors, it is about a particular concept they are trying to achieve. Noteworthy is 'The Flow' by visionary artist Gil Bruvel, well-known for translating complex ideas and fleeting impressions into stunning portraits.

Born in 1978, Steve Ekpenisi's journey began when he was five, creating art from household items much to his parent's disapproval. Despite the absence of an external artistic influence, he was resourceful and determined. These early successes inspired him to study at Federal Polytechnic, Auchi where he earned

a National Diploma in painting and general arts (2003), and completed a Higher National Diploma in sculpture (2008).

Today, what began as a childhood adventure has blossomed into several group exhibitions and monumental commissions. Indeed, 'Diary of the Iron Bender' marks an important chapter in the trajectory of a gifted artist, one that is filled with hope, promise and potential.

Oliver Enwonwu
President, Society of Nigerian Artists March 2020

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