Critics’ Picks

Peter Uka, Veranda Lovers, 2021, oil on canvas, 74 3/4 x 96 1/2".

Peter Uka, Veranda Lovers, 2021, oil on canvas, 74 3/4 x 96 1/2".

New York

Peter Uka

The FLAG Art Foundation
545 West 25th Street 9th Floor
March 12–June 4, 2022

Peter Uka’s figurative paintings quietly sing. Music seems to emanate from each work via the twist of a dancing body, a subject’s unflappably cool posture, or a vibrant pattern on cloth. Music is represented in more literal ways as well, as we see in the vinyl 45s hung on a wall above an amplifier and turntable in Basement Barbers, 2018, or the three-piece band in Highlife (Funky Groove 2), 2021, who are barely visible behind an ecstatic crowd of dancers. Rhythm is an attitude in the exhibition “Peter Uka: Remembrance,” which nostalgically recalls the 1970s Nigeria of his early childhood, a time when the nation was forging its own identity after gaining independence from Britain in 1960.

Each canvas contains an astonishing array of hues. In particular, Uka uses tangerine and lemon—as well as an emerald green and a vivid effervescent red—to forceful effect. The artist seems to pull from all regions of the color wheel with each composition, yet balances the tonal range with a keen eye and deft hand. Uka’s figures, whose skin and hair are rendered with a soft and loving delicacy, are perfectly situated in time with their bright period-appropriate fashions. Outfitted in platform shoes, butterfly collars, and flared trousers, his subjects reflect the boom years of the Nigerian economy, when oil revenues made the country prosperous. Yet the horrors of civil war and geopolitical instability do not lurk far behind, as we see in Veranda Lovers, 2021, a tableau that hints at the damaging impacts of economic policy on Nigeria’s stratified population. In this scene, a couple gaze at one another in worry while behind them the clamor of industrial forestry ensues. What we witness is not the delight and ease of tender affection, but the pain of imminent loss and an uncertain future.