Marc Straus is pleased to present new works by Ozioma Onuzulike in his first one-person exhibition with the gallery. A ceramics artist, renowned poet, and a leading figure in the contemporary ceramic art scene in Africa, Onuzulike will present works from four series: Palm Kernel Shell Beads, Yam, Honeycomb, and Chainmail. The works directly address challenges that are not only historical and contemporary to Africa but also the world over with regard to colonialism, migration, and global warming.
In the Palm Kernel Shell Beads series, Onuzulike reflects on the historical use of beads as items of commercial exchange for slaves in Africa by European merchants. A variety of other goods traded through the network included spices, silk, gunpowder, jewels, textiles, glass, wine, and mirror, much of which Onuzulike subtly references in the nuanced colors, textures, and formal structures of the works in the series. It will be recalled that as human cargo quickly reached a premium, beads supply dropped and its worth and production vastly increased. When the slave trade was abolished, slave merchants turned to trade in Africa’s minerals and agricultural resources, including palm oil and palm kernel. In this series, the palm kernel becomes a contemporary currency replacing slave trading beads.
In production, Onuzulike uses local clays to recreate palm kernel shells into beads and inlays them with recycled glass and ash glazes.
Subsequently, he uses these new beads to weave textile structures that remind one, not of the slave trade era, but instead of Africa’s prestigious cloths like the Akwaete of the Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria, the Kente of Ghana, and even the Aso-Oke of the Yoruba people of Southwestern Nigeria. Commemorated in ceramic, we are reminded of these textiles’history in the West African weaving tradition and their political and cultural standing. With these works, Onuzulike also highlights the moment wherein attention was shifted to Africa’s agricultural resources and innovatively explores the aesthetics of social change.
Yams, one of the most important crops produced in Africa, are primarily cultivated in a fertile region of land known as the “yam belt,” which stretches across Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Benin. In Onuzulike’s Yam series, suggestive textures, hollows, and recycled glasses are used to enhance the visual perception of rotting, that is, the manner in which yams deteriorate or perish when they are not properly cared for on the farms and when grown in adverse climate conditions such as lack, or much, of rainfall and rising temperatures. The production process of pounding, kneading, cutting, firing, perforating, and at times, burning the yams, highlights the violence that we inflict on the earth. The work speaks to issues of climate change and also touches on migration, specifically as it relates to the declining well-being of Africa’s youth population. Metaphorically, planting oneself like yam in a foreign land in the hope of better years ahead is also at the heart of Onuzulike’s discourse in the series.
The Honeycomb series started during the Covid-19 outbreak, and while the work addresses concerns directly related to the pandemic, it also casts a larger net around issues of climate change and, more directly, addresses Africa’s position as the “honeypot” luring imperial interests. This effectively relates to the growing interest in Africa as a major global supplier of natural resources.
Africa’s vast natural resources have had their own colonial footprints and contemporary entanglements with governmental and private entities. In the production process of the beehives, the chard earthenware and stoneware clay bodies and recycled glasses, processed through high-temperature firings in both electric and gas-firing kilns, speak to the way in which Africa’s resources are being exploited in unsustainable ways.
The fourth and most recent series is the Chainmail. Here, earlier conceptual, and technical elements intersect, including combining iron oxide with other colorants in the making of thousands of terracotta pieces, providing color and nuances of age. The formal structures seen in the Chainmail series tend to allude to how what were historically slave chains in the past have been transformed into graceful armors by true African nationalists, and the heavy burdens they still bear in the task of nation-building. Conclusively, the works in the four series are linked by material, technique, and overlapping concepts.
Ozioma Onuzulike was born in 1972 in Achi, Enugu State, Nigeria, He graduated First Class from the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he is currently professor of ceramic art and African art history, and Director of the University’s Institute of African Studies. Among solo exhibitions, Seed Yams of Our Land was held at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, Nigeria, in 2019, along with a presentation of his poetry collection of the same title also published by the CCA.
Moreover, his works were included in the exhibition held at the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, UK, arising from the [Re:]Entanglements Research Project led by Professor Paul Basu. Onuzulike is a fellow of the Civitella Ranieri Centre, Umbertide, Perugia, Italy, where he completed a residency under the UNESCO-Aschberg Bursary for Artists. Additionally, he is a 2011 recipient of the African Humanities Postdoctoral Fellowship Award of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), and 2010 Leventis Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of London Centre of African Studies, SOAS; and an alumnus of the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine, USA. His work is in the collection of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Lagos, Nigeria; Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, Cambridge University, Cambridge, UK; Princeton University Museum, Princeton, New Jersey, USA; The Design Museum, Munich, Germany; Hudson Valley Museum of Contemporary Art, Peekskill, New York, USA; Donnersberg Collection, France, among others.