Tonia Nneji, Far from Here, 2020, oil on canvas, 34 × 24".

Tonia Nneji, Far from Here, 2020, oil on canvas, 34 × 24".

Tonia Nneji

Tonia Nneji’s canvases bear heavy burdens. Those in her autobiographical exhibition “You May Enter” centered on the artist’s ongoing battle with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal condition that can cause complications ranging from infertility to depression. In the sixteen paintings on view, Nneji’s melancholy was palpable. Women were depicted sometimes solo, as in Seeing Green (all works 2020), where the figure rests her head on her hands. They were also shown sitting back-to-back, as in Prayers in Orange, and elsewhere they held each other, held on, heads slightly bowed, unsmiling, as in Far from Here, or cupped each other in an embrace. The poses the women adopted were immediately evocative. What was being communicated was clear: These women carry a cross but they do not always carry it on their own. There’s a moving tenderness to how Nneji renders these figures, how clearly she communicates help, companionship, camaraderie. It feels like an original perception, and authentic in a way that’s not trying to announce itself. In some paintings, the women were faceless, their skin in hues of blue, blue blacks, sometimes in the neighborhood of purple. Their bodies were draped in the Ankara prints popular across West Africa, embossed with church paraphernalia, as are the garments often worn in Nigerian religious celebrations. These blue women are everywomen, sometimes suffering alone, sometimes suffering together, praying their way through it all.

While Nneji successfully captures emotion on the canvas, the works on view here fell a little short in technical achievement. Her painting is wayward in places; the women’s visages lacked depth—specifically in the portrait-like paintings, where psychological probing was presumably the intent. In the multifigure works, the facelessness of the women heightened the feelings evoked, but where Nneji delineated clearer features the various hues of blue didn’t quite strengthen each other—they lacked chromatic intensity; the emotion was lost. There was fluidity without control here, and a certain rigidity, too. In painting the draped Ankara prints, Nneji’s use of what looks like a ruled or taped rather than a freehand line gave an effect of exactitude without flourish. These visages aspired to realism but fell short.

The exhibition’s shortcomings were more than made up for in its presentation. The walls were painted neon yellow and red, drawing the viewer in at once and inviting us to get lost in the works. An ingenious, almost decadent use of color gave the ensemble precedence, at least at first, over particular details. The pieces’ spatial distribution was clever, too. On entering the gallery, one saw the multifigure works first, and then opposite them a row of portraits. Both sets were hung on red walls in a long corridor. Down the hallway to the left in another room were more multifigure works with significantly brighter Ankara prints, hung on an even more striking yellow wall. This arrangement, already a feast for the eyes, led to a quiet corner where one encountered the installation You May Enter, which evokes the interior of a home—similar to the setting seen in the works of Njideka Akunyili Crosby, but realized in three dimensions. The place felt like a prayer room. The floor was covered in raffia mats; the walls were papered with geometric shapes to the left and bright floral yellow and blue Ankara prints to the right.

At the end of the longish space were some stools and a small altar of the kind typically set up in the home of Nigerian Catholics, bearing figurines of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, with candles lit in the trays. On the wall above was a relief of the Virgin and Child and a picture of the Holy Family. It felt intimate, solemn. Nneji invited us in to bear witness to her pain—and also to her spirit powering through it.