Shanique Emelife’s 12 paintings of life in Akpu, Nigeria, in her first solo show, “The Village” at Fortnight Institute, are based on photographs from the 1970s and ’80s of family, friends and neighbors collected by her aunt. Emelife was born in Nassau, Bahamas, and grew up in Minneapolis, where she is currently based. The resulting vignettes articulate a sense of close community and express the complex emotions of a first-generation immigrant through simultaneous feelings of familiarity with and distance from the past.
Small in scale and painted on panel, each work is suffused with vibrant details that give memory new life in paint. Every scene is set outdoors and framed by richly textured greenery and earth—the sensation of fauna and dirt on your hands is palpable. The vibrantly dressed figures in the village reflect Nigerian culture in the late 20th century. Floral dresses, colorful costumes representing Igbo spirits and men in patterned collared shirts and Igbo attire show the individuality of the wearer but also place them as part of a shared heritage.
The villagers’ faces comprise one of the most compelling motifs. Their eyes are either closed or portrayed with black lines on top of the painted brown skin. These marks deemphasize the faces, allowing the overall figures to become fixtures of their environment and create a pleasant perception of unity. Seen this way, the villagers’ lives become open-ended narratives: A chief and three wizards gather. Two children walk down a path flanked by bright, yellow, tall grass. A woman knits outdoors in a moment of respite. Each scene is a part of the totality of the village.
In Kin (all works 2021), two women, a man and a small child all sit along a blue bench, wearing vivid and stylish outfits. They’re bunched so tightly together, under the shelter of a foliage canopy, that they overlap. While we can’t tell the exact relationship from person to person, the work’s title and its potent sense of kinship reflects the Igbo concept that family is not defined by blood.
“The Village” is not a total idealization though: it’s a powerful and beautiful representation of a lived history. A particular painting, titled The Threat of The West, visually reinforces this. Three figures have their backs to us as they face a collection of large and modern buildings and an abstract sculpture. Despite the narrative’s ambiguity, it does away with the genial atmosphere of Emelife’s other paintings. There is no sense that these buildings are hospitable and the open space and greenery found in the other paintings is nonexistent. The Threat of The West adds another layer of complexity to the show, a reminder that Emelife’s kin were intertwined with the legacy of Western imperial forces and rapid modernization, a decade after Nigerian independence and in the immediate aftermath of the Nigerian/Biafran Civil War. Still, this is only an element of a celebratory story: the overwhelmingly wonderful atmosphere of Shanique Emelife’s exhibition is a loving presentation of life and connection to one’s culture. —Bryan Martin
Shanique Emelife, Kin, 2021. Oil on wood panel, 8 x 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Fortnight Institute, NY.