From Time to a Time: Johnson Eziefula


But now accept these gifts dripping with fraternal tears, handed down by the ancient custom of our forefathers as a sorrowful tribute in funeral rites,

and forevermore, brother, hail and farewell! – Extract from Catullus 101: A Fraternal Farewell

Johnson Eziefula’s debut solo exhibition explores the purgative power of loss. This exhibition presents a new series of recent paintings dedicated to the artist's late brother who passed away in March 2022. This presentation emerges from a new series of naturalistic paintings entitled ‘How Did We Get Here?’ In which Eziefula pays homage to the memories of familial bonds painfully ripped away. The scenes depict contrasting episodes from different phases of the artist's life, and surreptitiously his brother's too having grown up together in a tightly knit family in Lagos. In some of the scenes, his beloved brother is ‘present’, in that he was vigorous, energized and capable of sharing in the conveyed common consciousness. In others, his brother is absent, having already departed to fortify the realm of the ancestors. There is an essence and joyous presence in virtually every piece that masks the deeper heartache that propelled and fuelled the creation of works in this series. Eziefula is a notoriously patient and deliberate painter but for this series, grief catalyzes and accelerates the creative process, allowing a prolificacy that he never knew was imminent. 


For most, our first taste of Tragedy is abstract, through literature; Shakespeare (Macbeth) and Achebe (Arrow of God), Euripides (Bacchae). For Aristotle, “tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude… through pity and fear affecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” From Time to a Time demonstrates that the mimetic means may differ, but the cathartic release engendered has the same purifying effect as the tragic narrative arcs of the dramatic heroes and heroines of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. There is no analog or similitude for the grieving artist but to convert the restless energies into meaningful, endearing narratives; image-making that transcends the ordinary and keeps his brother’s memories alive.


It is the tender sincerity of Eziefula’s clear-eyed embrace of now forever archived direct or indirect interactions with his late brother which gives these works their emotional resonance. Just as the Roman poet acknowledges the futility of saluting and saying goodbye to the mute remains of his dead brother, which cannot answer back, yet nonetheless calls upon his poetic genius to make the vain attempt, and in doing so purges his own grief, so too the visual artistry of Eziefula powerfully underscores the contrast between his own painful agency and the impassive silence of his departed sibling. The paradox is all the greater because the addressee can neither view the offered works nor participate in the purging of emotions they elicit, because he himself is the unwitting cause of both.


Eziefula is in this series invoking memories; an obstinate refusal to forget. He needs to sit with his grief, and we are empathetically gazing onto his canvasses in familiar but abstract, hazy recognition. Grief cannot exist where love was absent and indeed, in return grief can yield new love and new energies. For the viewer, we are the beneficiaries of paintings made from honest feelings and emotions. Much like the seminal works of Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilych, inspired by the passing of Tolstoy’s brother Dimitry, or Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ or a Platon Karataev in Tolstoy’s War and Peace there is innocence or even a sort of unworldliness in the vulnerability of bereavement. A poignant irony that allows beauty to emerge from grief and sorrow.


The real-life subjects depicted in these autobiographical paintings, be they family members, friends or passing strangers, all have the shadow of his departed brother overhanging them. The nostalgia and longing conveyed by the depicted scenes are diffused through the prism of absence. This is perhaps why Eziefula’s trademark naturalism is here especially glossy, insistent, and realistic: the hyper-realistically dark and glossy skin tones, luxuriant hair textures, and unexpected electric pastel color effects in the clothing, hair, accessories, and footwear of the depicted subjects seem to be striving in striving for an almost photographic verisimilitude that would be fixed and made palpable these images forever. In parallel to tasking the viewer in this rigorous straining after fixity in the visibles and tangibles he depicts, Eziefula subjects himself to an equally exacting self-examination in which the objects depicted are intermediaries.


Text written by Azu Nwagbogu, Curator

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