Critics’ Picks

Collins Obijiaku, Ajire, 2020, acrylic, oil, and charcoal on paper, 40 x 31 1/2".

Collins Obijiaku, Ajire, 2020, acrylic, oil, and charcoal on paper, 40 x 31 1/2".


Collins Obijiaku

Villaggio Vista North Airport Road Ground Floor, ALTO Tower
October 15–November 19, 2020

That the twenty-five-year-old portraitist Collins Obijiaku did not attend art school, learn art history, or grow up going to exhibitions—his earliest memory of fine art comes from the internet—is belied by his self-taught and phenomenally self-assured style, seemingly traditional but inflected with a subversive approach to color and line. Whereas many of today’s younger Nigerian artists gravitate toward an alluringly fetterless conceptualism, Obijiaku’s art belongs to a resurgence of Black figurative painters whose work hearkens back to bygone Nigerian (and Western) conventions; in the early 1900s, it was in vogue for Nigerian socialites to immortalize themselves through painted portrait commissions. Obijiaku’s process, too, is conspicuously old-fashioned: Whether inspired by the Old Masters or practitioners like Aina Onabolu, William Kentridge, and Robert Longo, he relies heavily on charcoal when realizing his dazzling forms.

The characters in his first solo exhibition, “Gindin Mangoro: Under the Mango Tree,” were strangers (many from Suleja, the town where Obijiaku is based) who made a stirring first impression on the artist—and us. Each sitter is captured in repose: sitting, lying down, legs crossed, concentrated as much on posing as on holding the viewer’s stare. Intimately grooved so as to look like fingerprints, the paint has a musical quality, the same waywardness we might ascribe to life itself. The skin is further layered with a dull ochre and sometimes seems to recede into monochrome backdrops: white, green, red, and, as in Ajire, 2020, a regal bronze. The finished result satisfies: These chromatic figures are undeniably Black in form and identity, but, as in the meticulous ballpoint portraits of his compatriot Toyin Ojih Odutola, they appear luminescent. They are ordinary yet transformed, or rather, forever caught in the midst of transforming. Their beauty is without apology or qualification. Obijiaku does not aspire to any grand ambitions here, nor does he need to. “I am documenting my time,” he says, simply.