Activism in Nigeria is geared towards ensuring justice and fairness, especially to the less privileged. While several people carry out these functions with their voices, Matthew Eguavoen relies on his skills to champion Human Rights in Nigeria and Africa. The Lagos-based civil engineer turned visual artist’s works are unique as he explores the versatility of the African skin colour.
Matthew Eguavoen is a contemporary artist from Edo State who’s currently living in the city of Lagos, Nigeria. Before heading out as a full-time artist, Matthew went to the University of Port Harcourt and attained a Bachelors in Engineering for Civil Engineering and Structures. After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree, he decided to devote himself full time to painting and studied it on his own. Matthew decided to pursue his passion for the arts through his own self-studies. When painting, he’ll often reference an image that he’s sourced before staining the canvas with diluted burnt sienna acrylic paint, letting it dry once again and adding layers.
“I use my works to address the societal, economic and political views across the complex intersectionality that Nigerians and Africa at large face in different facets of life,” he told Creative Boom.
“The constraint of societal ideology about life, on human existence and survival; this is my own little way of contributing to the society where I find myself.”
He paints portraits of people from his surroundings who are not marked by despair; instead, they appear confident and strong. They are all marked significantly by their living conditions. As with every human being, they are subject to environmental influences, and their experiences shape their behaviour, their character and their view of the world. And this view – in the physical sense – is of central importance to Eguavoen. All the people in his portraits have a strong look and maintain fixed eye contact – a characteristic that he admires in others but lacks himself.
‘Did We Really Leave The Plantation’ is a piece that represents Matthew’s ethos entirely. In this work, a subject relaxes on a chair, embellished in golden sunglasses, a scarf and a plush jacket. “It’s a piece that questions the effect of slavery on the mental state of Africans,” explains Matthew. “Plantation in this context is relative; it represents religion, traditions and societal values, seeing that Africans are still greatly influenced and bound by values introduced by westerners from hundreds of years ago. It makes me personally want to question our emancipation.”
In another painting entitled Womanhood, Matthew questions the role of gender – a societal construct that’s forever evolving. In particular, he looks at how gender is “constantly in flux” and how the “biological sex” is conceived as “two distinct realms”. To represent these ideas, he’s painted a female subject sitting quietly but sternly in front of his gaze; she’s wearing feminine florals that pair well with the bouquet to the right and the rosey drapes hanging to the left. He adds: “I often find myself wondering about the nature of womanhood. What does it mean to be a woman? We no longer make sense of what it means to be a woman through a set of physical characteristics or personality traits, nor through fixed societal roles. But if being a woman is not determined by these dimensions, is there some other element that is shared by all women?”
Identity in a social context
Eguavoen as reported by Art.Salon portrays people with strong personalities and fixed gaze. Depicted against a reduced background, the social context is kept deliberately hidden, making it a subject for discussion. Eguavoen challenges the observer to speculate about the living conditions, experiences and characters of the people depicted and takes them into uncertain terrain. A young artist from Nigeria with his own signature, whose paintings deal with the central question of origin and identity.
This nightmare is what real life is like for many people in Nigeria, and it shapes the work of Eguavoen. The brutality of everyday life is more of a context than a subject, as Eguavoen focuses his impressive portraits on the strengths of the people, who every day have to cope once again with their lives despite the more than adverse conditions. It’s a daily battle that he describes with admiration and shock: “Living in Nigeria is terrible. Its citizens are living, not sure if they are the next kidnap victims or the next victim of police brutality, and the economy is poor. But this doesn’t stop them from going about their daily life, hustling for their daily bread, trying endlessly to survive.”
Origin and identity
The history of the people that gives them this attitude is deliberately not depicted. People stand against a neutral background, removed from their social context. Although this context is of central importance to the artist, he deliberately cuts it out in his pictures. This is a message and a challenge all at the same time: origin shapes identity, but it is not deterministic. The person remains the subject but is not inescapably held captive by his or her history.
Yet the social context not only shapes the person themselves, but it also characterises the way others encounter them. Without the social context, the key signals needed to be able to read a person in the usual way are missing. For Eguavoen, this isn’t a deficiency; it’s an enrichment. He challenges the observer to speculate about the stories of the people portrayed in his paintings. What has the person been influenced by in their life that has shaped their attitude and personality? What is the reason for their strong, frank look?
A painted portrait tends to have one main goal: to accurately represent a human subject. In a modern context, and in the work of Matthew Eguavoen, the medium is far more adventurous and freer of any rules. Matthew, for instance, paints colourful, figurative works that he uses to tell stories of society, economics and politics. In an interview with Mitochondria Gallery, he said: “I love to make my works address political, economic and societal ills in the country because in Nigeria we have a lot of political issues so I love trying to make my work (address these challenges). It is the little I could do as an artist. I love making my work tells a story that addresses these issues.”