Unpopular among Nigeria’s conservative population, Erhabor Emokpae created artwork that was large in scale, experimental in coloration, and rooted in his training as a graphic designer. Working in a newly independent Nigeria, he scandalized the Lagos art scene with this symmetrical modernist composition of bold geometric shapes. Struggle Between Life and Death (1963) presents both light and dark elements of varied hues in a simple duotone image. The textured shades of white play off the gradations of black at the edges where they meet, interrupting the crisp borders between forms. Although Emokpae impressed both hands on the painting, a gesture that might indicate his authorship, this work seems more concerned with notions of division or opposition. The opposite of complementarity, the boundaries between forms signify tension.
As he has declared, “I see life and death in a dialogue between the womb and the tomb. They are parentheses within which we love and hate, laugh and cry, grow and decay. This duality appears in varying dimensions throughout the complex pattern of creation and has been very largely the determining factor in the visual interpretation of my experiences.”
In this painting, Emokpae conveys duality not only through the binary palette and mirrored shapes, but also through his use of rigid, regular geometry interrupted by the biomorphic shapes and organic lines of his handprints – the precision and universality of mathematics versus the unique, imperfect mark of an individual.