Lagos

Olu Amoda, Ruga I, 2021, welded mild steel rods, mesh, stainless steel, dry leaves, dimensions variable.

Olu Amoda, Ruga I, 2021, welded mild steel rods, mesh, stainless steel, dry leaves, dimensions variable.

Olu Amoda

In Olu Amoda’s presumably calloused hands, aluminum spoons, steel belts and rods, nails, bronze, and wood take on a new purpose. Patiently and painstakingly, the artist bends, carves, and cuts masses of metal in repeated motions, steadily spooling them out into monumental sculptures like a spider crafting a web. The work is an epitome of endurance: a dense spread of intricate patterns, lines, shapes, forms.

The materials are often familiar. Similar steel rods, painted white, were typically used to make balcony railings in middle-class Lagos households in the 1990s. In Amoda’s work, they are bent almost to resemble a calabash—a different sort of nostalgic cultural product. The artist’s stated intention is to grapple with the dire state of Nigeria, and he does so through works that, like the country itself, are at once chaotic and scanty. Certain things seem to be working: Against the odds, our cultural industries are attaining heights in art, music, fashion, film. But the politics? Violent, fatal, and bleak. “The ants in their colony,” Amoda observes in the exhibition’s press release, “will marvel at how humans have managed so far” without going extinct.

This show, titled “Carte Blanche,” seemed to pick up from Amoda’s 2017 exhibition “Season ii,” which considered the changing of the political tide at the ballot box after the 2015 Nigerian election, in which an incumbent was defeated for the first time in the country’s independent history. In that exhibition, we saw repurposed nails welded onto one another and painted the colors of foliage in different seasons: army green, lime green, golden orange, and gray brown. Amoda offered a metaphor for change, reflecting his hopeful message that we as a people would do the right thing, that the tide would turn for the better.

This time, things looked bleaker. Except in one piece, Amoda used no color on his metal. Rust and age were prominent features. In the earlier exhibition, the works looked and felt too perfect, too finished, almost machine-cut; here, there was an edge of disorder. And just as well. After all, the works spoke to the fact that in Nigeria, we elected a conservative, arguably tribalistic, divisive president who has overseen attacks on civil rights and press freedoms. And other governments, among them that of the US, have done the same, or have come close to doing so.

Amoda’s works are striking in their orchestration of small parts used in a technically and stylistically accomplished manner to make a whole. The materials are familiar from the local Nigerian context. They reflect a spirit shared with an artist such as El Anatsui, suggesting that if you use materials from your environment, you can make work relevant to your situation and circumstances. Of course, steel isn’t unique to Nigeria, and the ways Amoda refashions it while recalling its previous use invite one to remember and to ponder, perhaps, the way things were. And the way they are now: spoiled. And yet the works on view fell short of evoking the emotion that the narrative spun around them demanded. Perhaps because they were too respectful of the limits of representation? How can you really depict a country that is, according to some, on the precipice of economic and political ruin? Do you have to drive the point home? I don’t think so. In any case, Amoda here established fairly clearly, in his abstract forms, that he has no interest in making his point simply. But topics such as terrorists attacking defense infrastructure across the country, unemployment numbers going up, young Nigerians protesting and being gunned down by their own military are in themselves fairly heavy—mentally and emotionally demanding. Having to decode art that responds to them need not be.