Rom Isichei’s many women

Rom Isichei’s many women

You would think you
have met them all, in different sizes, colours, or styles. They are
unmistakable because they are rendered in thick linear lines of warm
colours. Some of the women appear in full figures (thin and large)
while others merely show happy or serene faces. The portraits of these
women are sometimes cohesive in one large canvas or divided by straight
white lines.

However you see
Rom Isichei’s women, their splendor will captivate you even though many
have a certain air of sadness oozing from their eyes. Many art
enthusiasts who have been following Isichei for years would conclude
they have seen all his women. To them I say, not so fast, until you see
the new ones in his new solo exhibition, ‘Quiet Spaces’, at the Nike
Art Gallery.

Late last year, I
visited the easygoing artist in his studio, to hang out and discuss
Nigeria’s contemporary art, a subject he is very passionate about. The
new works I encountered were, in a way, different from what I was used
to yet the same. What he was working on got me transfixed for a while
because I was trying to resolve the duality of my interpretation. His
latest women were rendered quite differently from what people like me
were used to. The known lines had been ditched for thick layers of
paints; the heavy wood dust foundation that foregrounds these new works
gave them a three-dimensional, sculptural feel. The layering of colours
to build depth had earlier been commented on by the renowned artist
Kolade Oshinowo in 2001 when he said, “His (Isichei) colours are
generously and heavy palette knife-applied, most of the time virtually
built into relief, enhancing the tactile value of the painting.” And 10
years later, he piled it on these works even thicker.

Since I knew I
would be back, I did not ask too many questions before I left. Most of
the works were still in the formative stage though the Isichei
signature was already unmistakable.

Lots of women

Two Saturdays ago,
when I needed a break from preparations for my own ongoing exhibition
at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Yaba, I went back to see the
progress of his works. Upon arrival in his studio, all the women in
their regality, like no one has seen them before, welcomed me. In
various media, they climbed from the artist’s tastefully furnished
living room on the first floor to his spacious studio on the second
floor and everywhere else in the house. Isichei had stretched his
terrain, both in subject matter and the material used since my last
visitation. I was more interested in the women, because they form more
than 90 percent of his latest offering. Some of the women were painted
with or, rather, sculpted from found objects, discarded bottle covers
and corrugated zinc roofing sheet. Large eyes popping out from behind
gorgeous colours were either coloured by acrylic or represented by
round hard metal objects.

The first question
I asked the artist from Asaba, Delta State, was, why the obsession with
the female subject? In short, what is your fixation with women
characters? I asked and he laughed because I was not the first to ask
him that question. Surprisingly, his answer had to do with the inside
than the external physical and visual viscosity of colours that one
sees in the large paintings. Isichei believes women are more
emotionally expressive than men. One can hardly measure the temperature
of an environment through the stoic and face-masking, macho-masculinity
of the male specie in our society, hence his concentration on women to
spread his subliminal socio-political message. This is why over the
years he has tapped into the expressiveness of women and keeps painting
them in varying degrees.

Fire in his furnace

The body of work
that makes up ‘Quiet Spaces’ deals with how we react to events in our
private spaces. And the first painting to capture this essence in its
entire oeuvre is ‘Prayer Warriors’, which has two characters with hands
in private supplication. The mixed media on board painting is used by
the artist to remind us that private religion alone will not solve
national problems; we need to publicly tackle issues head on.

This leads us to a
lone figure, a heavily made-up female portrait with all the whistles
and bells that come with a Sunday preparation. This painting speaks
with many voices in an interesting and thought-provoking way with a
title like ‘Preacher’s Wife’. Despite its multiplicity of meaning,
Isichei narrowed it down to “the way Nigeria overdoes things. Though it
is called ‘Preacher’s Wife’, it is more or less about our various
leaders’ wives and the way they carry themselves. Their loudness that
signifies certain hollowness. Our first ladies are distractions to
their husbands and it is unfortunate the men at the helm of affairs
cannot see this overzealousness.”

As if to
counterbalance his take on our leader’s wife, a similar painting titled
‘Feeling Incomplete’ talks about the pursuit of perfection, using the
preachers’ wives of our society as a benchmark. ‘Feeling Incomplete’
has a very dissatisfied woman tugging at her disjointed and badly
coordinated beads. Her head gear is askew and her dangling single
earring makes her incomplete. Though the subject’s face is bleached
out, she is not as gorgeous or loud as the preacher’s wife.

Unsurprisingly, it
was ‘Preacher’s Wife’ that fired up the usually quiet artist
politically and sent him commenting on all that has gone wrong in our
society. At the end of our discussion about the painting and its
accompanying piece, Oshinowo’s voice came screaming in my head, “There
might be snow on his (Isichei) roof, but there is plenty of fire in his

Fresh frontier

Many of the
paintings in ‘Quiet Spaces’ reference religion or the pageantry that
one is bound to experience on a Sunday afternoon in Lagos. This is not
surprising as most of the warehouses around Isichei’s Ilupeju axis have
been converted to churches and a large number of women fill these
places of worship. The fiery colours that exude from two outlandish and
heavily-coated paintings, ‘Habits and Rituals’ and ‘Glitterati’, speak
volumes about the way our women dress on Sundays and during social

‘Habits and
Rituals’ and ‘Glitterati’ are both diptyches that depict women in
different formations and dresses, with handbags that glow and glitter
once in contact with light. These paintings remind one of Isichei’s
floral paintings of the past, because the colours are like the blooming
field of a well-tended garden. Though the artist does not zoom in on
these female figures’ faces as he does with others, the exquisiteness
with which he painted these city girls and fashionistas puts him in the
forefront of other chroniclers of beautiful women.

No matter how we
view these female characters, Rom Isichei has an unending stunning
romance with women in his art and there is always something new about
his old style. In his new exhibition, many art lovers who know Isichei
will find something to ruminate about. Though one is bound to find his
old style among the new works, their similarity form a pleasant
continuation of the conversation the artist is having with his
environment. The newer ones, especially those in the ‘Body Language
Series’ and the introduction of metal linearity in works like ‘Passage
to Remorse’ and ‘Ruminations of Uncertainty’, are definitely pushing a
fresh frontier.

How have you grown as an artist, I asked Isichei. “Very subjective.
Growing for me is that I am satisfied with where I am now and where I
am heading because many people were worried when I left advertising for
an uncertain future of a studio artist. [There is] no need to measure
myself with my financial success, but the fact that I like waking up
and doing what I love doing, is very satisfying and I would rather
measure my growth with that,” he says.

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