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Issue 240

Kadara Enyeasi’s Power Moves

At The Treehouse, Lagos, the artist evokes the Yoruba concept of àse into visions of men enacting rituals in dialogue with unseen gods

BY Emmanuel Balogun in Exhibition Reviews | 29 NOV 23

For the Yoruba people of West Africa, the word àse denotes the life force given to all living and non-living things by the supreme god Olodumare. In ‘Because It Must Be’, his solo exhibition at The Treehouse in Lagos, Kadara Enyeasi evokes this concept through a new body of photography, sculpture and painting that translates definitions of àse – such as ‘power’, ‘authority’ and ‘command’ – into visions of men enacting rituals in dialogue with unseen gods and handcrafted artefacts that speak to ancestral belief systems.

Kadara Enyeasi, ‘Because It Must Be’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist

Every silence has consequences (all works 2023) is a jet-black, totem-like bust that appears both to bless and to curse the space. Set on a low, seemingly handmade wooden plinth, the sculpture has a band of thick metal chains wrapped tightly around its head, conjuring a world of queer sex clubs and sadomasochism more likely found in Berlin than Lagos, where same-sex relationships are punishable by lengthy spells in prison. Despite this pitiful horned humanoid lacking any facial features, I can almost hear its screams. Arousing feelings of attraction, caution and disgust, Every silence has consequences is hard not to read as a commentary on the Nigerian government’s treatment of its queer citizens.  

Kadara Enyeasi, Untitled (Vase 05), 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

If homosexuality is often (wrongly) spoken about as a colonial import by politicians and religious leaders in many African nations, Untitled (Vase 05) could be seen to refer to one of the continent’s biggest exports: its cultural artefacts. Reminiscent of ceramist Magdalene Odundo’s full-bodied vessels, Untitled (Vase 05) is made from compound clay covered in texturized cowrie shells, which have been dyed white. An artefact in its own right, the cowrie shell was thought to have supernatural properties, protecting the wearer from evil spirits, and served as legal tender across the continent up until the 20th century. Bearing a resemblance to a pregnant woman’s belly, the shell still symbolizes fecundity and fertility when used in ritual, despite being worthless in today’s global markets.

Kadara Enyeasi, ‘Because It Must Be’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist

Enyeasi’s investigation into contemporary religious aesthetics continues in a selection of photographic works documenting relics from unspecified African cultures. Shrine III, for instance, depicts a wooden sculpture devoid of any contextual information. Its body is covered with earth, while two white candles jammed into the soil burn ominously. Three further lit candles rest atop the figure’s head, causing wax to trail down its solemn face like tears. The work captures what seems to be a ceremony but, without knowing to which ethnic group or religious sect this assemblage of accoutrements is connected, we are left to guess what purpose the ritual might have.

Kadara Enyeasi, Untitled I, 2023, inkjet print, 23 × 30 cm. Courtesy: the artist

Another photographic triptych, Untitled I–III, shows the body of a Black man in different stances. In each image he wears nothing but translucent blood-red tights and a black mask fixed in a woeful expression with reflective patches on each cheek. As with Shrine I–III, the use of candles – in Untitled II the protagonist holds a number of them in his hands – carries loaded meanings that reference a forgotten or devalued past, while the mask’s modern finish implies a clash between inherited ancestral belief systems and the creation of identities in the new world. Seeing the faceless, shirtless male with his hands either behind his back or held high in surrender, it’s impossible not to think also about the relentless sexualization and policing of Black men’s bodies. In each image, Enyeasi’s subject seduces the camera into a game of voyeuristic consumption, offering a circuitous interrogation of personhood, identity and loss.

Main image: Kadara Enyeasi, ‘Because It Must Be’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist 

Emmanuel Balogun is a writer and researcher based in London and Lagos.