Identity in a social context
Matthew Eguavoen portrays people with a strong personality and a fixed gaze. Depicted against a reduced background, the social context is kept deliberately hidden, making it a subject for discussion. Eguavoen challenges the observer to speculate about the living conditions, experiences and characters of the people depicted, and takes them into uncertain terrain. A young artist from Nigeria with his own signature, whose paintings deal with the central question of origin and identity.
Imagine saying goodbye to your child at school in the morning not knowing whether you will see them again in the evening, because you always have to reckon with the possibility that the school will be raided and your child will be kidnapped. You too are in constant danger of becoming the victim of criminal gangs. The police offer no protection but are in fact an additional threat in everyday life defined by poverty and hunger.
This nightmare is what real life is like for many people in Nigeria, and it shapes the work of Matthew Eguavoen, an artist living in Lagos. The brutality of everyday life is more of a context than a subject, as Eguavoen focuses his impressive portraits on the strengths of the people, who every day have to cope once again with their lives despite the more than adverse conditions. It’s a daily battle that he describes with admiration and shock: »Living in Nigeria is terrible. Its citizens are living, not sure if they are the next kidnap victims or the next victim of police brutality, and the economy is poor. But this doesn’t stop them from going about their daily life, hustling for their daily bread, trying endlessly to survive.«
Strong personalities with a fixed gaze
He therefore paints portraits of people from his surroundings who are not marked by despair; instead they appear confident and strong. They are all marked significantly by their living conditions. As with every human being, they are subject to environmental influences, and their experiences shape their behaviour, their character and their view of the world. And this view – in the physical sense – is of central importance to Eguavoen. All the people in his portraits have a strong look and maintain fixed eye contact – a characteristic that he admires in others but that he himself lacks.
Origin and identity
The history of the people that gives them this attitude is deliberately not depicted. People stand against a neutral background, removed from their social context. Although this context is of central importance to the artist, he deliberately cuts it out in his pictures. This is a message and a challenge all at the same time: origin shapes identity, but it is not deterministic. The person remains the subject, but is not inescapably held captive by his or her history.
Yet the social context not only shapes the person themselves, it also characterises the way others encounter them. Without the social context, the key signals needed to be able to read a person in the usual way are missing. For Eguavoen, this isn’t a deficiency; it’s an enrichment. He challenges the observer to speculate about the stories of the people portrayed in his paintings. What has the person been influenced by in their life that has shaped their attitude and personality? What is the reason for their strong, frank look?
His own signature in the canon with Boafo and Palito
If you ask Eguavoen which artists he admires, you won’t be surprised that he doesn’t hesitate in naming Amoako Boafo and Zéh Palito. His work leaves associative traces of both of them in the choice of subject, though Eguavoen has found his own signature in the composition. In his paintings, he combines acrylic and oil paint, working out his figures. The reduced background and slightly stylised paintwork on the clothing direct the observer’s eye all the more to the face and to what is, for the artist, the central view, a style that Eguavoen developed partly under the influence of Eniwaye Oluwaseyi and Collins Obijiaku.
Matthew Eguavoen was born in Lagos in 1988. He was passionate about painting from an early age. Nevertheless, he initially studied Civil Engineering at the University of Port Harcourt. After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree, he decided to devote himself full time to painting and studied it on his own. Recently, he has drawn increasing international interest and has already taken part in his first exhibitions in London. A young artist with an important contribution to make towards the debate around origin and identity, he is sure to attract more attention.
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