Ifeyinwa Joy Chiamonwu
Kola nuts are on offer at Ifeyinwa Joy Chiamonwu’s new exhibition, “Genesis,” at Jack Shainman Gallery, where piercing gazes and determined postures usher us through the Nigerian artist’s drawings and paintings of friends and family. A sign of hospitality in Nigeria’s Igbo community, the bulky seeds appear in the larger-than-life drawing Onyinye 2, in graphite and charcoal, demonstrating that even the show’s rare illustrations of the non-human still operate with the fragility of portraiture. Though they are missing both eyes, which function as wells into the soul, and wrinkles, which signal the passage of time, Chiamonwu’s depiction of kola nuts almost breathes as flesh and soul. Due to the artist’s masterful command, the offerings burst out of the surface of the paper.
“He who brings Kola, brings life,” Nigerian author Chinua Achebe writes in his seminal 1958 novel about Igbo life, Things Fall Apart. Life, in Chiamonwu’s work, runs through faces, bodies and costumes, through the artist’s siblings, close friends and fellows. Realistic on a photographic level, the depictions of skin, expression and attire revel in their precision, each smear of sepia pigment, acrylic paint or charcoal contributing to a cosmos of history and memory.
Umunne (Siblings) (all works 2021) shows two siblings dressed in colorful attire. The patterns on the sister’s dress are rendered with an impossible vivacity, bright hues of yellow, blue and red radiating a morning light. The boldness of the fabric speaks to the subject’s energy, hidden behind her closed eyes. The brother joins his sister in calmness and choice of accessory—they both wear pink-colored bead necklaces and shell jewelry—though he seems to focus his potential, also behind shut eyes, to the sound of a far-off whisper.
Films, books and songs have borrowed the expression “portrait,” but The Portrait of an Igbo Man - Nwoke and The Portrait of an Igbo Man - Nwanyi truly do justice to the word’s essence. The two portraits carry gazes fixated at opposite unknown horizons, captivated by something we fail to see. The posers’ symmetry expands to their sartorial traits, each wearing traditional Igbo garb across one side of their torsos. The fabrics unite in their star-patterned motifs yet diverge in their colors, the man sporting orange and the woman, green. Chiamonwu’s meticulous delivery of skin shines in her rendition of hair as well—each strand in the man’s beard is distinguished. The immersive depth behind the figures stems from the artist’s choice of pigment: coffee. Grainy and mysterious, coffee conveys a sense of both infinity and ethereality, seeping into the background like liquidity of remembrance. Ceremonial, romantic, but bitter, coffee rhymes with the sentiments of kola nuts: a gesture of welcoming and serenity, at home or elsewhere. —Osman Can Yerebakan
Ifeyinwa Joy Chiamonwu, Ihu Nwata Nwanyi (The Face of a Young Girl), 2021. Charcoal, sepia pigment, acrylic paint on paper, 27 x 35 inches. © Ifeyinwa Joy Chiamonwu. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.