Asemota’s project is, as the title suggests, the first of a planned three part series. Divided over two floors, his work engages with issues coming out of the Victorian era, Benin culture and mechanical reproducibility.
On my first round of viewing Leo Asemota’s The Ens Project’s First Principles exhibition at the New Art Exchange, I have to admit I was at loss for what to write. As well as it’s somewhat exotic sounding title, I found the outlook of the conceptual looking work on display at a first glance rather oblique. Frustratingly the exhibition guide was only a little helpful in that respect. Yet with all that said, after a belated look at the related books by the show’s exit, after listening to the artist’s talk a few weeks ago and having another look at the show, I thankfully (and finally) managed to get a firmer grasp on the concept of this intriguing exhibition.
Asemota was born in Benin City, in the Midwest of Nigeria, an area historically tied to British history by way of the Victorian taking of the Benin Bronzes in 1897. This displacement of Benin’s precious artifacts is alluded to in the exhibition in such works as Misfortune’s Wealth, a piece with etched bronze looking pieces mounted against an old article. The article is about ‘Great Benin’ and it is no conincidence that it is from London’s Museum of Mankind, which had housed Benin’s stolen treasure. 1897 was also the very same year that Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, in the back drop of the era of the Industrial Revolution. Asemota refers to the ironically happy event of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee with a work referencing Rudyard Kipling’s Recessional on the upper floor, a poem composed for the event. A copy of Walter Benjamin’s seminal text, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is also displayed in the exhibition, and it comments on art’s loss of aura after being put through the ‘machine’.
Fuelling the revolution of technological culture is coal, which Asemota repeatedly uses as a medium to create his work. Chalk often features in the same types of work too, yet it is coal’s cultural contrast, symbolic in Benin culture for its medicinal and ritual qualities that is most poignant. Asemota explores their symbolic opposites and also engages with it when the Queen Victoria becomes, as one work underlines, The Queen of Diamonds. Perhaps she is the head of the earth as well as the ruler of heaven, as she is depicted wearing a coal halo around her crown.
Asemota continues to play with this idea of the head in his work, as the head is traditionally viewed in Benin culture as containing the essence of a deity. He does this using more modern techniques, approaching it with a series different multiple shots of his head, taken on a Polaroid camera. The images have been taken in such a way as to block out his facial features, with a halo left radiating around his head. It becomes almost like another worldly being, a Christ like form captured on camera. Here Asemota seems to reference Walter Benjamin’s work considering the loss of a certain quality of art, which Asemota perhaps tries to reclaim with his camera.
There is the notion of process in his work, it is apparent in his sketches and diagrams. We see this in one of his pieces, which looks like a graph of the lead up to the British expedition to Benin City, as if the event was perhaps meant to be. I also can’t help thinking that the compass used in his live televised performance at the National Portrait Gallery also seems to suggest some astrological association with the mapping of the future and what is to come.
During a recent artist’s talk, it has been said his work doesn’t intend to associate with the postcolonial argument, but goes beyond that. His work seems to engage with cultural opposites and cultural tensions within the changing modern environment. To me, he might even be suggesting the inevitability of it all. I’m sure his work will raise a lot of questions, but as of yet these questions may go unanswered for some time.
His work really is rich, multilayered and full of contradictions, though it may be difficult for the uninformed to get some idea of what Asemota is engaging with. As previously mentioned, reading the accompanying texts in the gallery’s reading area is insightful, helpful and a virtual must, as ultimately the beauty of this exhibition is that you really have to engage with the work visually and mentally to get something out of it.
‘The Ens Project First Principles’ exhibition is on at Nottingham’s New Art Exchange until November 26th 2011. Admission to the exhibition is free.