Now, the first thing to say about ‘Remember the Future’ is that it is a brilliantly curated exhibition – the space at ‘Red Door’ is used to ample effect, and the works on display, of which there are many, but not too many, are given their dramatic due. That is where the drama ends, because Dennis Osadebe’s paintings are not so much dramatic, as they are stylishly delicious. The key feeling one has about these painting is their coolness, on both levels of meaning. The influences are clear but not slavishly obvious, and amidst the derivation there is a clear sense of an artist trying to say something new. On the surface, this is pure pop art, but there’s a seriousness about most of the pieces here that belie the playfulness of the style, with the exception perhaps of one piece ‘Afro Dynamic I’; there is an air of worthiness about most of the other pieces, many of which are nonetheless witty and wry commentary on the society in which Osadebe makes his work. Closer to home, the theme of the mask as a medium for exploring ideas lies at the heart of these pieces; other tropes feel pleasingly familiar, the printed fabric of many subjects echo the work of Yinka Shonibare, and in an oblique way, Cheri Samba. Most subjects in the paintings are depicted in clothing that echoes Ankara print, but without the mawkishness that comes with the familiar patterns; Osadebe digitally creates the patterns, which are then silkscreened onto canvas, after which the background is painted. The astronaut is in many ways a mystical being, like more familiar masquerades, they travel into other dimensions from a present that sends them, but from which they are also no longer or not fully a part; they represent pretense of the future, not a fully realized version of it. And so the metaphor goes, Nigerians find themselves to be modern in their aspirations, but with a staus quo that denies many of their ideas and pretension of themselves, some of which are now possible thanks to technological innovations, one thinks of the mobile phone and its transformative impact, and the corollary impact of the internet, but Osadebe’s conceit neatly shows these masks to be just masks – the characters in these paintings are in a space that is not space; aside from their masks, they’re not dressed for the future; this is perhaps a less emancipatory message than the painter wishes to convey in the exuberance of his work, but the darkness is certainly there, amidst the colour.
In ‘Remember the Future’ Osadebe has taken Nigeria’s vaunted ambition to launch a man into space, and riffed off this hubristic national desire to explore ideas of power, class, and gender; it is an elegant collection of work encapsulating the contradictory zeitgeist of a country whose aspirations for modernity are ostentatiously ambitious, and achievement of those have aspirations have also ostentatiously fallen short. ‘Oil Rules the Nation’ in which an astronaut surveys the universe from a generator powered space station. This is work that will be enjoyed for its message, the currently laughable idea of putting a Nigerian in space wrapped in bubblegum images of current preoccupations, but what’s more enjoyable is the sense of fun, and confidence in these works. Osadebe is one to watch, though one is not quite confident to say these particular works will stand the test of time, it seems certain Osadebe is an artist who may well make his mark on these our futuristic times.
Dele Meiji, June 2017