Longing: Peter Uka @ Mariane Ibrahim, Chicago
“I can’t go back to the fifties because life in the fifties for me is not pretty, nor is it pretty in 1320 or 1460 or 1580 or 1820 or even 1960 in this country, very frankly,” English novelist Zadie Smith commented about “historical nostalgia” being a sentiment not “available” to black people. This unjust and weighted fact is at the core of Peter Uka's practice, and his current solo show with Mariane Ibrahim in Chicago presents some of the finest examples of what such sentiments can inform.
"I come from a culture where we don't write down our history," Nigerian-born Uka told us in an interview for our Fall 2020 issue, explaining why he chose the visual art as a channel to tell his story and express his emotions. "Our history is passed on orally, but I am not so eloquent when it comes to the art of telling a story. I'm all over the place, to be honest. So, for me, it's always better to put it in pictures." For an artist that left his home at the age of 15, these stories revolve around brief snapshots and bits and pieces of everyday life in the 70s and 80s. Street vendors, moments of leisure, everyday routines, are all captured from memory, with only occasional elements being authentic, but most of them simply conveying the atmosphere as experienced by his younger version a few decades ago. And such an approach isn't only helping the Cologne-based artist to deal with his own feelings of homesickness, but also, it helps him create some sort of documentation of life in Nigeria at times when the rest of the world wasn't paying attention or caring about it. Taking place with the soundtrack of jazz, afrobeat, and the traditional fusion of jazz, soul, and ska, known as highlife music, these scenes help Uka be unapologetically himself. "What I’m doing right now is a way of documenting myself, and my life and my culture, for my son, and for the unborn, for those to come—so that it is not forgotten," the artist explained the motivation behind his current body of work that he is developing.
After getting recognition in his adopted homeland of Germany, Uka has now introduced his work with a Chicago-based gallery, both with a solo show at their space and a presentation at the recent Art Basel in Miami. In these works, he continues to explore his memory and cultural identity. A romanticized version of reality he experienced, is helping him create an emotional bridge between his current day life in Europe and his past experiences of life in Nigeria. Directly and openly confronting the stereotypical views as perceived by the European or American culture and media, he is depicting scenes full of life, beauty, passion, and energy. In fact, he is portraying the virtually unknown counterculture lifestyle of hippies in Africa, reaffirming the cultural dignity of his fellow countrymen. Successfully capturing the heat and the glow of the tropical sun which emphasizes the vibrant colors of both nature and the man-made elements, Uka is constructing captivating images imbued with both emotional and literal warmth. This glimmer that permeates indoor spaces as well as outdoor scenery is transformed into a cosmic spotlight in which his sitters shine with their nonchalance and friendliness, defiantly and casually authentic and stylish in every aspect of their everyday lives. —Sasha Bogojev