Erhabor Emokpae

Struggle Between Life and Death

Emokpae Struggle Between Life And Death  Collection Afolabi Kofo Abayomi 1500
  • Erhabor Emokpae
  • Struggle Between Life and Death
  • 1963
  • Oil on board
  • 61 x 122 cm
  • Private Collection. Photo: Anthony Nsofor. Courtesy Chika Okeke-Agulu

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.

Joseph Underwood

Biography of Erhabor Emokpae

  • Born 1934 in Benin City, Nigeria
  • Died 1984 in Lagos State, Nigeria
Erhabor Emokpae began working in a romantic and ethnographic figurative style, and later in abstraction. He is known for his paintings featuring legendary individuals in African history and for his lifelong artistic focus on the theme of dualism. His earliest artistic influences date back to his childhood, especially the Benin guild of carvers. In 1951 he moved to Lagos and attended the Yaba Technical Institute. He also studied privately with a graphic artist and became a commercial artist for the Federal Ministry of Information in 1953. Following Nigeria’s independence (1960), Emokpae gained recognition in the emerging modern Nigerian art scene. His contributions to cultural policy and his efforts to redefine public perception of contemporary modern Nigerian art began when he helped organize the Eastern Nigeria Festival of Arts (1956–59). During the 1960s and ’70s, Emokpae served as secretary for the newly founded Society of Nigerian Artists and the Lagos Arts Council. After working as a graphic artist for the advertising agency Lintas, he finally decided to become a professional painter and muralist. Some of his most acclaimed works are for the 1977 Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) and the National Arts Theatre building, Lagos.