Smiling and suffering

4 June — 17 July, 2022

The winds of change that swept through Africa in the 1960’s and 70’s signalling the end of colonialism and western subjugation, was supposed to usher in a new age of development, advancement, prosperity and self determination. The seductive promise of a new Africa, and African, one that did not have to scrape or bow to anyone, and could walk tall with its head held high, was a heady proposition that nobody would dare to refuse. 

Unfortunately, this intoxicating dream would soon fade as soon as it had started, and quickly become a nightmare. Whilst colonialism had drawn to an end, neo-colonialism; the last stage of imperialism, as written by Ghana’s first President, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, was to take root and replace the former system of governance and rule, enforced by African leaders either backed and influenced by their former colonial masters, or simply out to enrich themselves at the expense of the people they swore to serve.  

Inspired by the iconic late, great singer and social activist, Fela Kuti, ‘Suffering and Smiling’, a reference to Fela’s moving song of the same title, speaks to the suffering and endurance of African people living under harsh post-colonial conditions after the broken promise of prosperity and independence. Despite the economic malaise, the huge disparity in wealth, employment and opportunities, and the general lack of systemic order and structure, the average citizens of these African nations still strive to succeed, by any means necessary, and do so with a smile, humility and grace. 

This is a direct reference to what the artist believes is the lack of a Matthew Eguavoen questions the enduring affects of mental and physical slavery on the ordinary Nigerian citizen, who despite living in a free and sovereign nation, still live their lives as though they are slaves on a 18th century North American plantation, bowing without question or hesitation to the powers that be functioning state, where economic power and wealth are siphoned by the political and business elite, and opportunities and meaningful jobs for the ordinary citizen are scarce, resulting in the average Nigerian striving to either escape Nigeria for the West in search of greener pastures, or having to wallow in misery, and make the best of their situation. 

His portraits, hauntingly beautiful and striking, belie a deeper pain and an inaudible cry for help, which the lingering gaze of his muses allude to. There is an unmistakable sadness in the eyes of all his subjects, in spite of their confident, stoic poses, and vibrant attire, which showcases this juxtaposition of these two ideas of presenting a show of confidence and strength externally, but internally dealing with battles that only the subject knows of, and suffering in silence. 

Despite this, Matthew maintains that his subjects remain defiant in the face of their oppression, and despite the odds stacked against them, they have not yet been defeated, or resigned to a fate of misery and pity; their resilience and determination is steadfast. Much like the subjects in his portraits, the artist himself, lives and works in Lagos, Nigeria, and is adamant to become a success on his own terms in his country, and not have to leave for the west, in search of greener pastures. For him, ‘the grass is greener on this side’, a bold and patriotic proclamation and philosophy increasingly being promoted and adopted en masse by a generation of continental Africans determined to be the change they wish to see, and realise the true potential and wealth of their respective nations, for themselves, and by themselves.  

The same story holds true in neighbouring Cameroon, where Daniel Onguene lives, and works, with the socio-economic issues of the country not only plagued by the usual economic mismanagement and corruption, but exacerbated by social tension, division and violence between anglophone and francophone Cameroon, a lasting relic of the impact of the French and British influence and control of the nation.

Daniel Onguene’s bold, harsh portraits are an unapologetic depiction and reference to what the artist’s views as the dire plight of the socio economic conditions of his native Cameroon. Chaotic at best, and apocalyptic at its worse, the dreary greys and the moody and muted palette of his pieces’ backgrounds speaks directly to a bleak situation of violence, conflict, urban decay and languish, which has been brought about by historic social division, economic mismanagement, corruption, and a lack of empathy for the working people, resulting in the informal sector or black economy becoming the main epicentre of commerce and trade.

And yet, in spite of this, the most obvious point in Onguene’s work is that his subjects are still managing, and in some cases possibly even thriving, in these circumstances.

The welcome pop of warm, vibrants colours, and in some portraits, the smiles of his subjects, is indicative of an optimism, courage and hope that offers a promising counter narrative to the current state of turmoil and decline. The artist makes clear that he reveres and respects his muses for their tenacity and ability not to succumb to despair and anxiety, and on careful inspection and reflection, his subjects could be viewed not just as survivors, but as ordinary, everyday heroes.

Both Matthew and Daniel, whilst illustrating the real issues that plague their respective nations in their unique and piognant modes of artistic expression; are united in their vision of a functioning and prosperous Africa, and remain hopeful and expectant that a positive change will come, sooner rather than later.

More Information:

Dates: June 4 – July 17, 2022
Address: carrer Nou, 1, 08870 Sitges, Barcelona
Hours: Monday to Friday 11 – 2 pm · 6 – 8.30 pm   Saturdays: 11 – 2 pm · 6 – 9 pm ; Sundays 11 – 2 pm  5-8.30 pm
Telephone: (+34) 618 35 63 51
eMail: sorella@outofafricagallery.com
Web: outofafricagallery.com