1, 2 “Connecting Deep” exhibition detail views, 11 ft. (3.4 m) in length, clay, polyfilament, monofilament, metal, 2019.
The African elephant is the largest existing land animal. During the Roman Empire, elephants inhabited the entire African continent except the Sahara; over time their numbers have diminished greatly due to dwindling habitat, climate change, and poaching. Those that survive can live as long as 70 years. Elephants communicate with a variety of sounds, they have long-standing memories of places to go for survival, and grieve the loss of members of their species as well as humans to whom they are attached. Males and females live separately, mothers are fiercely protective of their young, and a matriarch reigns over her herd looking out for its safety and sustenance.
Dr. Cynthia Moss, who spent 40 years observing elephants in Tanzania and Kenya, describes these creatures as having characteristics comparable to humans: “intelligent, social, emotional, personable, imitative, respectful of ancestors, playful, self-aware, compassionate.” Despite qualities that prompt us to anthropomorphize these gentle gray giants, they are themselves: animals who can be grave, silly, curious, worried, and downright bratty. One story tells of a young male whose mother repeatedly wouldn’t let him suckle so he stuck his trunk up her bum and then kicked her!¹
On August 12, 2020, World Elephant Day, it was reported that there were less than 500 elephants remaining in Nigeria.² Centered in Lagos, the nation’s capital, ivory poaching is booming regardless of efforts by conservationists. This threat was not the inspiration for Ngozi Omeje’s “Connecting Deep” exhibition, yet her depiction of the majestic beasts has a quality that suggests vanishing and vulnerability.
Rite of Passage
Ngozi lives in Nsukka, in the eastern part of Nigeria, where she teaches ceramics at the University of Nigeria and earned her MFA. During her studies, she began work that she calls suspensions, which were initially two-dimensional images comprising multiple bits hung from a frame on the ceiling. In 2018, her expertise with the technique led to Connecting Deep, which was her first solo exhibition in Lagos, and included a display of 8 three-dimensional elephants. The life-sized creatures (a large bush elephant might be 13 feet tall; a forest elephant, 8 feet tall) consist of tiny clay leaves, no more than two inches long, suspended on monofilaments. The title, the subject matter, and the means of display all have significance.
Ngozi was extremely close to her father, Lazarus. He was a welder by trade who made metal chairs and tables in the 1970s and was later employed in the works department at the university. When he died at age 73, Ngozi was bereft. She asked herself, “How, when I remember him, do I feel joy rather than sadness because he left me?” She needed a tangible way to express her grief and chose to do so with art.
Lazarus’ mother had given him the title Oruimenyi (meaning the strength of an elephant) because of his tirelessness. The elephant motif was an ideal metaphor: care, love, and commitment in gigantic ways. The tree—another symbol of strength in its trunk and branches, as well as tenderness, life, and growth in its leaves—was deemed an appropriate figurative contributor to the whole. Originally Ngozi intended to use casts of tree limbs along with leaves, but the low-fired clay branches (fired to 1832°F (1000°C)) broke when suspended. Thus, eight elephants composed of terra-cotta leaves (fired then smoked), one for each mourning member of her family, hung in the Centre for Contemporary Art. At the end of the exhibition, the symbolism of cutting down the Lazarus elephant served as the ritual whereby he was laid to rest. The clay shards were gathered up and buried by the family. The remaining seven elephant sculptures are stored in Ngozi’s studio with plans for adding to the herd.
Even without this backstory, Connecting Deep still resonates because of the demise of elephants. The gently swaying filaments replicate the animals’ movements through terrain, and the forms’ lack of solidity suggests a stage in the elephants’ potential disappearance. While Ngozi was provoked to make her herd of elephants as a memorial to a beloved human, it is also a memorial to consequences of anthropocentrism.
Challenges and Goals
Ngozi is still emotional when she talks about her father. Uncharacteristically for men in her country,³ he encouraged her: “The strength he invested in me. He taught me how to be strong. He believed so much in what I am doing; that I know I am doing the right thing.” Nigeria is a country where, due to traditional and socio-cultural practices, its Global Gender Gap score is 133rd of 149 countries (2018): it is adamantly patriarchal.4 When Ngozi received her graduate degree, she was loath to give up her practice and leave life as an artist. She says, “I didn’t want to get married and spend my time pleasing my in-laws and my husband.” Although her mother has been somewhat independent as a seamstress with her own shop, social norms prevailed—Ngozi couldn’t go against the will of her parents. She married and has three children, and in 2014 added to her commitments by enrolling for a PhD in order to ensure promotion at the University of Nigeria. The challenges she faces as a woman in a traditional African society are evident in her ceramics.
In 2016 she created In My Garden There Are Many Colours II, a multi-layered suspension consisting of flip-flops and terra cotta. The sandals, which are ubiquitous footwear in Africa and frequently discarded, provide color once they’ve been cleaned and shaped. The clay rings, underneath the plastic flip-flops, are ballast, both literally and figuratively—they hold the suspensions steady as well as being the anchor in Ngozi’s life. This garden is replete with vibrant ideas; the central cavity in the shape of an eye refers to the inner eye of imagination. In My Garden seems to be a statement: I have an infinite number of bright thoughts and talents that will grow with proper nurturing.
Think Tea, Think Cup I was the result of a post-graduate residency in Seattle, Washington. Ngozi was excited to be invited to Seattle, but frightened about leaving her community, physically and psychologically. Yet she decided to let her ultimate goal—being a ceramic artist—fuel her journey and dispel anxiety. The cup and saucer, made of tiny suspended teacups, has a central negative space that metaphorically contains all the effort necessary to fulfill an ambition. “The goal is represented as a cup . . . what you are going to put in; the hard work that you are going to put in. Look at the cup as a gain, what you are going to benefit at the end of the day will carry you forward.” This work was expanded in 2019 to include a teapot that pours an artist’s effort into a cup. In the center of this cup is a target with its usual colors of white, black, and red. The infinite number of drops of tea, standing for the countless tiny incremental steps required to reach any goal, are Ngozi’s inspiration.
The process Ngozi uses to make the three-dimensional objects has evolved over time. At first, she “sketched in the air,” essentially creating the object in situ by adding and subtracting elements. Now she produces a full-sized sketch, suspends elements to conform to the outline, and builds one side of the sculpture out from the sketch. When side one is complete, she removes the sketch and duplicates the configuration on the second side. In order to send installations to China (First Central China International Ceramics Biennale, Henan Museum, 2016), Italy (60th Contemporary Ceramic Biennale–Premio Faenza, 2018), or South Korea (Cheongju Craft Biennale, 2019), the groups of suspended elements are bagged according to their placement for easy installation at their destination (see image 4).
In addition to a series of small vases—models for larger projects and of a more readily salable scale—Ngozi’s current project, a component of her PhD degree, consists of plates that “describe the dualism and conflicting roles of women in southeastern Nigeria.” Using leaves to create the plate form, they depict silhouettes of women toiling or carrying a baby on their back. In this region, the Igbo people’s traditional hierarchy assumes female servitude, like that of a plate, which provokes abuse and subjugation. Like the elephant, the women’s focus is on children and survival. Ngozi Omeje, like her father, warrants the title Oruimenyi, as she tirelessly brings attention to the culture of her country.
1. Observation by Dr. Vicki Fishlock in Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015).
2. Premium Times, “Elephants almost extinct in Nigeria, conservationist laments,” Journal of African Elephants, August 12, 2020, https://africanelephantjournal.com/elephants-almost-extinct-in-nigeria-conservationist-laments.
3. Clifford Meesua Sibani, “Gender Inequality and its Challenge to Women [sic] Development in Nigeria: The Religious Approach,” UJAH: Unizik Journal of Arts and Humanities 18 (2017): 432–449.
4. World Economic Forum, “Global Gender Gap Report 2018,” https://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2018/data-explorer/#economy=NGA. Accessed November 6, 2020.
the author D Wood has a PhD in design studies and is an independent craft scholar whose artist profiles and exhibition reviews have appeared in an international roster of art and design publications.