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Peter Uka - Between Two Places

Words:

Edd Norval
November 11, 2021

Drawing on memories of his childhood, combined with archival documents, Peter Uka captures the colours, shapes and energy of Africa whilst adhering to Western artistic principles. This convergence of two worlds heightens the effects of both, imbuing his art with cultural preconceptions and perspectives that allow him to explore the effects of culture and identity. 

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Having grown up in Nigeria, one of the world’s most populous countries and Africa’s largest economy, he was surrounded by life. There is a huge disparity between wealth and poverty. The scales are tipped greatly towards the latter and as a result, Nigeria’s culture is defined by the economic restraints of the majority of its citizens. 


It’s clear from Uka’s works that he finds a sense of affinity and kinship with these people. They’re not iconoclastic in any way, but down-to-earth figures - all symbolic of a new kind of Africa. Eschewing many of the stereotypes of depicting a youthfully romanticized ‘home’, Uka chooses reality over rose-tinted glasses. 


His paintings could quite easily be photographs, such is their propensity to feel completely natural, his subjects entirely at ease. Each protagonist embodies a true sense of vibrancy that African culture is renowned for. From facial expressions to the colours the artist uses - there’s a true sense of everything being imbued with a larger-than-life presence, despite the fact that nothing out of the ordinary is actually going on. 

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Perhaps that’s the power of nostalgia - both for the artist and the life he knew - and for his audience with a life that we can imagine. Based in Cologne, his paintings have taken up many typically Western traits. For example, as natural as they appear, there is a sense of curation about the images, like his subjects have been sitting a certain way and Uka told them to hold, or slightly accentuate the moment. Staged, but not completely. 


His tableau’s tell a story, both of character and place. He situates Nigeria in a global context, capturing certain styles that are recognisable to people of a certain age all around the world. This universalising of fashions hints towards the impact of globalisation - when media like film and music began to permeate cultures everywhere. Whilst still distinctly Africa, his paintings could quite as easily be based in certain parts of the USA or UK.

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Exploring the past - most of his paintings are linked to the 70s and 80s - gives the artist the remit to understand how much of himself is African and how much of that is influenced by the rest of the world, having left aged 15. The sense of reciprocity, of Black music and style being reinterpreted in the UK or USA and then sent back to Africa is an irony highlighted by the artist. By capturing these elements in his figurative works, Uka is able to pull the two apart, to understand a sense of self and identity amongst an array of global factors.


Painting largely from memory, Uka utilises his craft as a sort of therapy session, a place where he can get his thoughts and ideas down on paper, remembering his family and close family friends with the wide eyes of a child, painted with the scholarly dedication of a maturing artist with a dedication to timeless storytelling.

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