Exhibiting at the small white showroom of the IICD, the dominantly impressionistic paintings and sweepy line drawings of Yusuf Olayinka Umar, line up wall-to-wall, the four corners of the white showroom.
Typical of the impressionistic subjects, the exhibition explores the everyday people, and the bright, yet muted colours, reminiscent of yesteryears, herald his alma-mater, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Arts School.
But beyond the content, Umar displays eye-catching styles, his leaf print style, and pasted-leaves on canvas, styles that allow him achieve diverse textural effects in his art pieces and coincidentally is quite cost-effective, a sustainable means of art production.
With The Roots, Umar explores the mundane activities of the ordinary people, whom he describes as neither of the government or the elite class of the society but those taken for granted, whose daily activities directly or indirectly affect any society. They are like the “roots of a vascular plant beneath the earth’s surface, responsible for the provision of nutrients and water for other parts of the plant such as the stem, leaves and equally the fruits,” says Umar. And so, in paintings as Pensive Mood, The Quest (a Scavenger), Fair Bargain, Expectation and Imitation Game, the artist strives to attach accompanying moods to the everyday activities of a young hawker, a waste scavenger, a female farmer evaluating her food wares, and the innocence of two young boys ensconced in their expectations and living itself.
Amidst the ordinary people, we see the majestically clothed Dogari and other chiefly figures garbed in wealthy robes, all part of his Durbar series. To Umar, they are part of the ordinary people who, on the specific occasion, the Durbar festival, take time off their daily lifestyle to celebrate and return to their grinding, normal existence.
While celebrating the “dignity in labour” of the ordinary people is necessary and charming, the exhibition feels overcrammed with images that rather than fit into a larger frame of things, are distracted from the theme. One struggles to place works like Self-Analysis, Sound From The Past in the exhibition’s theme. There is the feeling that at some point, a repertoire of the artist’s pieces was thrown in to gain them spotlight.
Yet, worthy of note is the artist’s painting styles, that hold future potential. He paints in two techniques, Leaf imprints as seen in works like Pensive Mood, Young Shepherd, Fair Bargain and others, and, substitutes brush strokes for pasted leaves on canvas carefully dabbed with hues of red, blue and brown to create articulate intensive and storytelling portraits.
In his leaf imprint style, there are no real backgrounds. Subjects are projected at the foreground supported by a floral (feather-light leaves) background which doesn’t distract attention from the image; whites and darker hues on the skins of the subjects are used to achieve value, shadow and lighting, and in the portraits like Interwoven I and II, Solace, and Hawan Dokin, they create additional texture and the impression of folding, while thin lines of red and blue etch in the gained years of the subjects. And in Congregation II, of enamel on canvas, it establishes the feel of running fingers over a field of sun and red coloured flowers.
Using mixed media of burnt brown leaves pasted on canvas, then dabbed in specific spots to yield introspective portraits, Umar has hit upon something, a means to achieve a more sensory texture to his works. With the former, the impression of raised surface, rendered in pastel but instead is quite visual oil painting; while the latter gives off the impression of smooth flatter surface as of imprints, but the burnt coloured dry leaves are physically pasted on the canvases. The beauty of latter technique comes through in Self Analysis, where the deceptive simplicity of the patchy pieces of burnt brown leaves, coalesce like a jigsaw to reveal a child’s features. The patches of leaves represent the aspects of the child make-up, who he is, yet the gaps in the feature indicate there is more growing to do, an incomplete, metamorphosing individual.
Umar began exploring both styles in 2010 and 2013, beginning with the leaf imprints during his final year in Zaria School of Art, and ‘pasted leaf on canvas’, some three years after, approximately eight and five years ago. Coincidentally, the latter style proved a useful method of sustainable art practice if not an environmental approach to art. Although, inspired by his supervising lecturer and early pioneers of arts in Zaria Schools of Arts, Professor Jerry Buhari, Umar, rather than address the subject of environmental degradation as his teacher, preferred to “use materials from his natural environment to tell about the people around him,” drawing inspiration from another local fabric-and-figurine artist, Shonibare, his style of giving audience a glimpse of the role of his natural tools of his environment in his work.
It is quite self-learning that the artist has placed priority to judging art community’s response to his styles over sales, and he is determined to base his next step on that. He can refine content/narrative of his work, in order to gain a stronger voice than what is heard in The Roots; then perfect his styles particularly, to a distinct such that when deconstructed and viewed from afar, won’t resemble the swirly brush strokes of contemporary Nigerian artist, Sor Sen’s Abstract Impressionistic art.