Uthman Wahaab

The multidisciplinary artist Uthman Wahaab was born in 1983 in Ilorin, Kwara State, Nigeria and grew up in Lagos. He received a degree in Fine Art from the School of Art, Design and Printing under Yada College of Technology in Lagos.

Wahaab is an artist who possesses an overarching interest in social phenomenon and eschews a consistent use of medium or even singular aesthetic style. Utilizing the disciplines of drawing, painting, graphic design, film, photography, sculpture and installation, Wahaab’s foremost concern is developing a new visual language that consciously rejects traditional forms of depiction in order to document ongoing history and unfolding reality.

Wahaab’s current work focuses on issues of identity, beauty, sexuality, and cultural influences that inform technological change and social shifts in Africa. To move forward in a globalized world, carefully examining the past and learning from historical lessons are of the utmost importance. The artist is truly committed to giving back to the community by exercising artistic agency to shed light on difficult and often tenuous political, economic, and social dynamics. The artist’s work provides a critical lens on social phenomenon not only within Africa, but more significantly looks at the ways that globalism and post-colonialism complicate the African socialscape.

Wahaab’s work has been shown internationally to wide acclaim in Africa and Europe. He is currently represented by Sapar Contemporary in New York City.

Artistic Statement

As an artist, I seek to engage in dialogues that challenge popular opinions in mainstream discourse. My practice brings to light difficult subjects and encourages my audience to reconsider their preconceived notions of society, history, and reality. Each of my series is an in-depth sociological study. In the wake of post-colonialism and the “Black Identity Crisis”, my portrayal of bodies becomes an instrument of analysis and reflection.

In the Victorian Lagos series, I explore the Victorian era of the 19th century and how this period in British history sowed the seed of crisis that manifests globally in the present day.Victorian Lagos illustrates the struggles and desire of the Nigerian middle class to become “modern and civilized”, while simultaneously being trapped in their assigned identity as defined by Western standards. The fact that middle-class Nigerians cannot see themselves as “modern and civilized” without the Western narrative demonstrate the lingering effects of imperialism on contemporary notions of progress and beauty.

While Victorian Lagos deals with questions of post-colonialism and its implications, my first New York solo exhibition Phenomenal Woman critiques the ever-shifting social paradigm around the female form and challenges dominant standards of attractiveness. Paintings in the exhibition replace sensual curiosity with exalting commemoration by celebrating women’s bodies as beyond flesh, but rather a lens through which beauty shines.

Phenomenal Women confronts the dogma of the traditional reclining nude. Inspired by an encounter with a woman with larger than normal stature and the extreme anxiety she felt about facing the world, I depict heavy women in various states of repose and relaxation that speak of luxury and beauty. My work is at once a nod to the Fattening Room tradition in Nigeria that contradicts western-centric standards of beauty and sensuality and a reflection to Freudian theories of female vanity, suppression, and alleged sexual inferiority. The series aims to appropriate these conventions by emphasizing the under-appreciated beauty that exists in the curves and contours of voluptuous female figures and to celebrate the female form as an awe inspiring, powerful object that may exist independently of sensuality.

Although various formal elements of my work can be compared to many classical female nudes, such as the work of Rubens, my figures serve a different purpose than the classical tradition. Using the body as a point of departure, either as the catalyst to its appraisal or as its subject, my work boldly confronts the subjectivity of Western-centric beauty standards. The portrayal of bodies in these works also suggests a certain disinterest in Western imposition of beauty ideals on African women and society.

What remains consistent throughout my work is a critical questioning of the way Africa continues to flounder in the global economic forum while being socioeconomically patronized by the West. In Hybrid Theory, I address the inability of Africans to apply themselves to economic, scientific, and technological processes that enable modernization. This inability has been at the core of numerous depictions and historiographies that portray the African as a primitive being, incapable of self-evaluation with regards to its culture, language and environment. Why is inhibiting the average African from applying him/herself to the forms that have made other races advance to the stage they are now? This body of work raises several rhetorical questions and narratives on identity, representation, and agency for change.