In the Studio With Peter Uka, the Artist Painting From Memory
The Nigerian painter Peter Uka remembers his native Lagos as a teeming jungle, but now estimates that ninety percent of that original foliage has been laid to waste. “Green used to color Lagos, now it is all dusty and brown,” Uka laments. “Green is a very powerful color to use, to be honest, as a surface and as a background. I wanted to reflect on that time and the loss I feel now.” The 46-year-old artist invokes Lagos’ former flora with his latest exhibition, “Longing,” currently on view at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Chicago.
Transforming childhood snippets into heroic portraits, Uka is part of a starry generation of African painters, like Portia Zvavahera, who currently has a show at David Zwirner in New York, and Amoako Boafo, who is also represented by Mariane Ibrahim, pulling from the cache of consciousness—dreams, impressions, remembrance—to create arresting images. Ibrahim’s program has been essential in introducing practices like Boafo’s and Uka’s to American audiences.
Nowadays, Uka concentrates on the big picture. This means he may not bother drawing hands or feet precisely, but will make a certain fabric or item of clothing utterly life-like. The realism of the images fades in and out, much like memories do. “People are always asking me if I use photographs to make my paintings or if I’d consider painting white people. Neither of those things has anything to do with what is going on in my work at the moment,” Uka says. “I’m pulling from this archive in my head. The little details that stand out to me: that one shoe, that one gesture. I can build an entire story from one fragment if I can see it clearly.”
Uka finds this process of making fragments whole therapeutic. He confides that the only person he’s depicted multiple times is his mother; the other characters are amalgams—very fashion-conscious, well-heeled ones. Uka’s figures often reference Nigeria’s history of trendsetting style on the African continent and beyond. The specificity of the clothing is something that draws the viewer into the painter’s stories—fashion is a vehicle Uka uses to make his recollections real. His favorite period is the 1970s, when he claims clothing took on a kind of timeless appeal. I ask if he can imagine painting the present day some time, and he pauses. “I’m not there yet, but there is an image in the new show that depicts a friend of mine, Marsha.”
When I speak to Uka, he is in his studio in Cologne, where he’s lived on and off since 2007. Before that, he studied classical techniques at the Yaba College of Technology in Lagos; he won a class competition to showcase his work in Cologne, and during his visit met the Danish artist Tal R, who convinced Uka to stay in Germany for his studies, and to give the strict realistic style he was being taught back home a rest. “Tal always talks about the little things—it could be one dot on the surface that makes sense out of everything,” Uka says. “It is always about the whole sum.”