Chinwe Roy looks at the world which exists behind the mask

Suffolk-based Nigerian artist Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy has created a vibrant series of paintings which captures the stoic spirit of the people of Nigeria during the days of British colonialism.

Chinwe admits she was surprised at the intensity of her feelings while working on a series of wonderfully bright, powerful paintings which challenged the traditional view of colonialism.

The administrators saw seemingly quiet, obedient tribes people who needed to be checked, corrected and shown the right way to live while their lands were robbed of their resources.

But, as Chinwe points out, if you are only looking at the surface you don’t always see the true picture. The Nigerian people have a long history of using masks in their storytelling and religious ceremonies and Chinwe observes that it always pays to look behind the mask – which became the title of her exhibition.

The trigger for this latest show was the opening of a display of Ibibio tribal masks by Ipswich Museum ? drawn from the Charles Partridge Collection. Charles Partridge was a Suffolk-born Edwardian colonial officer in Nigeria and his collection of Ibibio artefacts is close to Chinwe’s own cultural heritage which explains her strong emotional reaction when she started work on her paintings.

“The paintings show a range of contrasts from the dark to the joyful. When I was reading about the administration I was shocked to discover that they burned houses to quash any dissent and hanged people just to show the population who was in charge. I did get quite wound up. Then I questioned myself: This happened such a long time ago, why am I getting so cross? Why am I feeling like this?

“It was then that I felt it was important to show that good did come from it – that people did carry on. They found a way to survive. People did triumph through adversity. Pictures are dark but there is also a celebration that the people survived.

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“I also wanted to produce something as an artist that captured the whole experience, not just the bleak moments. That is the essence of the idea Behind the Mask. The paintings show what is going on behind the mask. Behind the mask there are a lot of laughing men, living their lives.

“In reality, they are saying what they have to say, doing what they have to do to get on – but away from the administration they are their own people.”

Chinwe’s paintings are a glorious celebration of people’s resilience, their optimism – their ability to live their lives in the most trying circumstances.

The art is made up of an impressive array of dark images which are contrasted with bright, rich colours and seemingly playful scenes. But with Chinwe’s work, it always pays to take a close look in the background.

Her work is more akin to a collage than a traditional oil painting. The more you look at her pictures, the more you see. Details are tucked away to be discovered on the second, third or fourth viewing.

Chinwe started having discussions with the museum more than a year ago with a view to producing some work which would serve to counterbalance the Partridge Collection’s Victorian look at Nigeria and its people.

“I was fascinated by the story surrounding the Behind the Mask idea. I was thinking about why did he collect what he collected? Did he like them, was he genuinely interested in another culture or were they just souvenirs?

“Invariably, that led me to thinking about the administration at the time and how they governed. Sometimes the stories were heart-rending but looking at the history, the people, the images, looking at how the people lived in those days, I was determined to combine all those elements together. I wanted to deliver my take on this whole story. What I presume life was like for the people.

“I looked at books and stories, at artefacts from the time and distilled them into my pictures. This was my take on this part of history. I am sure that someone else would approach it quite differently.”

She said it had taken just over a year to bring the exhibition together. She described the painting process as both difficult and exhilarating at different times.

“The beginning was difficult because you are working up ideas. You think some may lead somewhere and you go to work. Others you leave to one side. You don’t really know what will turn out to be good images until you get there.

“I did tie the pictures quite closely with the exhibition next door. I fell in love with one of the masks and a lot of the work has got that mask in.”

Chinwe also became fascinated with the whole notion of identity – both personal and a cultural identity. She said that as she worked on the paintings, a series of questions continued to pop into her head and changed the nature of the paintings.

“Masks are very concerned with identity. Masks are presenting one face to the world but they ‘mask’ other feelings, other fears and other identities. It’s all tied up in the question of who we are – both as a person and as a people, a society.

“I enjoy working with masks. They have always fascinated me, even as a child. But, looking at the wider meaning of masks, it is interesting to see the way we mask our intentions – mask who we are. I also looked at the administrator masking his intent and the impact on the people and how they had to mask who they were just to live and to survive.”

She said although on the surface these pictures appear to be very different to her portrait work, her approach is largely the same. It is just a question of interpretation.

She said a portrait is her interpretation of someone sitting in front of her whereas these pictures are an interpretation of the images inside her head, formed by what she has seen and read.

“I think it is the subject matter which provokes changes in style and execution. Whatever I am looking at, I get a different feeling from it. Invariably I am quite direct in my approach. If someone is sitting for me then what I feel is different. They want to see an image of themselves. There is this need to get a likeness.

“This mask work is painted direct from the emotion, whereas a portrait is direct in a different way because I am trying to represent what is in front of me. But, even the portraits have feeling in them. I like to have people talking to me when I’m painting their portrait because it opens them up. You get a sense of their character, their personality, who they are.”

She said with the Behind the Mask paintings, the trick was putting down on canvas the images which were floating around in her head rather than what was in front of her eyes. “Portraits do have a different style but the approach is the same because it is about interpretation.”

This latest series of pictures does include one portrait. A portrait of a man and a cultural mindset.

The image is the one which Chinwe has chosen to reflect the whole exhibition on the publicity material. It is the picture of the white administrator looking at the native population standing before him.

“This picture shows Partridge. He took a lot of anthropological photographs. Cameras were just becoming prevalent and he took many pictures of nude men. So I did this picture of a man taking a picture of another man, almost as if he were an animal. I remember thinking: ‘How can you look at another man quite so dispassionately?’

“Then it dawned on me that reading between the lines, I think he was gay.”

Chinwe said that prior to working on this particular picture she found Charles Partridge quite an elusive character – she found it hard to discover what made him tick. “All through this, there was something that I couldn’t quite get a handle on and that I think that was it.”

What Chinwe has ended up with is a strong image of a white man looking beyond the Nigerian standing in front of him. You realise that he is looking at you and then comes the added realisation that he is looking at you ? you are next in the queue.

Also included in the exhibition is a series of studies which were either worked up into finished pictures or remained as studies. One very emotive picture shows a village in flames with a traditional mask seen floating over the tree canopy.

“It was so horrible, so much violence and distress, that I found it hard to continue, so in the end I said, it’s a good picture but why do I want to go there?” Although, the painting didn’t make into a full-scale finished picture, Chinwe was sufficiently pleased with the small study to include it in the exhibition. “It’s a very strong image so in the end I put it in.”

Elements of this picture did make into the background of my favourite picture in the exhibition, that of a dancing girl entitled Fettered. It’s the sort of picture at which Chinwe excels. The picture has a clear focus – the dancing girl – and yet the more you look at it, the more you see. In the background of the painting there are a multitude of different discrete images. It provides a compendium of the ideas which are reflected across the rest of the exhibition. The exhibition is hung in such a creative way that the painting next door, depicting a man outside a traditional hut, appears to be watching the girl dance. If you stand back then these two pictures become one.

“It is a very active picture. The woman is dancing and it’s asking: ‘What does fettered mean?’ She is clearly not physically fettered because she is dancing, so how can she be fettered in another way?

“In the background I have put images or suggestions of images of some of the things that happened. There are the burning houses, there are scenes of village life – it’s a complicated process and you build up the picture as you go along.”

Chinwe said that the picture started off as a series of pastel drawings of dancing girls which was then reworked into this oil collage.

“I knew I didn’t want her just to be dancing, so I needed the story of what had been happening in the background.

“The mask has become the spiritual image of the whole works. But, at the same time I didn’t want these background images to overpower the work. I am quite used to making composite images especially with emotive subjects. They featured in my slavery series and the works I did looking at African politics.

“They provide a snapshot – an entry point into what could be difficult, emotive subjects.”

Chinwe comes from a highly artistic family. Her grandfather was such an excellent craftsman that he was selected to attend the second Great Exhibition at Alexandra Palace in the 1920s.

“My mother’s father was a blacksmith. He designed gates for the royal family and was invited to attend the Great Exhibition. It was a great honour for Nigeria. My other grandfather was the best carver of ivory in his village.

“He was a master craftsman – one of the few who were entrusted to work on ivory with a blemish – confident that the blemish would be completely invisible in the finished piece.

“My father belonged to the lost generation. He was brought up at the height of colonialism. At the time, educated men in Nigeria were clerks and administrators. He went to Oxford and if you went to university in England then you were destined to be an administrator – but he always had the mentality of an artist.”

Chinwe followed in her family footsteps and came to Britain in 1975 to attend the East Ham College of Art and then Middlesex Polytechnic.

“While I was studying I met my husband Roderick Roy and we were married in 1980 and we moved to Suffolk in 1990 to be close to my in-laws which was great because it meant that my boys could know their grandparents.”

Behind The Mask runs at the Ipswich Art School Gallery until March 4, 2012.

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