Colette Oluwabamise Omogbai
Colette Oluwabamise Omogbai was a pioneering female artist in an art scene dominated by men. She earned art degrees from schools in Nigeria, England, and the United States, and produced this painting during her time as a student at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. One theme she carried throughout her career was the humanity of emotion, a subject she typically addressed through expressive color and abstracted forms. “I try to reproduce on canvas nightmares and dreams, in fact, the otherness that underlies the human flesh.”
Part of a series of paintings titled with emotions, Agony (1963) is a jarring composition of contrasting colors and jagged forms. The extreme fragmentation of the human body has rendered the subject almost unrecognizable. Disjointed limbs, neck, and hands collide in this painting’s shallow depth. Radiating outward from the bright pink central sphere, faces and bodies disintegrate into highly saturated blocks of color. Conjoined without overlapping, the amalgam of body parts floats before an impasto background of cobalt blue, the lack of narrative context further disorienting the viewer.
Calling these paintings a personification of universal themes, Omogbai created a psychological work, leading some critics to point out that her sense of ripping, disassembling, and unexpected reordering is similar to the syntax of Nigerian poetry. Neologisms bring together disparate words and shock the reader just as often as they open new avenues for thought. Similarly, Omogbai’s reordering of the human form elicits both a visceral reaction and a new intellectual line of questioning.
Colette Omogbai is a pioneering Nigerian painter who identified as a Surrealist. She received a degree in painting from the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria) in 1964, where she met artists of the Zaria Art Society such as co-founder Uche Okeke. During her first solo exhibition, at Mbari Ibadan in 1963, her works rejected academic realism for an expressionism verging on pure abstraction, with anguished figures and areas of bright color. When she moved to Lagos after graduating in 1965, her bold, formal experimentation provoked critics to find her works “unfeminine.” She retaliated in a promodernist manifesto, “Man Loves What Is ‘Sweet’ and Obvious,” published in Nigeria magazine in 1965. Omogbai later studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, and received a PhD in art education from New York University.