Daughters of Esan at Rele Gallery, Los Angeles (through 4 December 2021)
Reviewed by Eve Wood
Marcellina Akpojotor’s second solo exhibition, Daughters of Esan, continues her exploration into notions of personal intimacy, drawing on her own relationships with her family and the tremendously powerful and transformational possibilities of education and love. Inspired by her great-grandmother’s impassioned commitment to learning and to literacy specifically, Akpojotor has fashioned a series of deeply intimate portraits that insist on knowledge as an essential means of crafting an individual’s sense of self and how to operate within the greater world at large.
Akpojotor is fiercely committed to her own matriarchal lineage and operates from a position of curiosity and wonderment. These paintings speak to a variety of intimate moments that correspond to the artist’s own parental journey, presenting us with scenes from her own family life. While the paintings are deeply personal, they also touch on universal themes that we all can recognize within our own lives. Many of the scenes center on domestic spaces that at first appear mundane or seemingly obvious, yet upon closer inspection, these lush and intimate worlds open out into larger more complicated narratives that are at once exuberant and fierce, tender and electrifying.
Marcellina Akpojotor, “Beauty in the Curls (Kesiena’s Diary)” (2021) and “The Dinning Table (Kesiena’s Diary)” (2021)
Akpojotor’s vision spans generations, moving effortlessly through the complexities of human interactions, focusing on the sheer thrill of being alive. For example, in “Fly Baby, Fly! (Kesiena’s Diary),” we see a little girl reaching up to catch a balloon in the shape of the letter S. The image is particularly tender as the child gazes up not only at the literal balloon, but symbolically at her own future and the span of life laid out before her. The letter represents but one possibility within a range of so many yet to come. The girl’s shadow is truncated and colorless and strangely at odds with her beautifully intricate and colorful body, yet it is the erasures that make this image unforgettable. There is a single yellow line that extends the length of the girl’s arm, and this becomes the singular point of focus within the painting. The multicolored banner above the girl’s head could also represent the multiplicity of possibilities yet to come or the variety of experiences and people the girl will inevitably encounter.
Akpojotor is particularly committed to representing the lineage and legacy of women and how the past extends its long and sometimes harrowing arm toward the future. The artist uses paper, acrylic and vibrantly colored fabrics, sourced from Lagos markets, to express the fundamental essentials of building and comprising a human life. She recognizes the need for stability within the lives of her own children, and how education allows for hope, which in turn transforms into dreams. Nowhere in this exhibition is this expressed more powerfully than in the tender eloquence of “Letters and Doodles (Kesiena’s Diary),” where we see the artist’s daughter once again sitting by herself, immersed, as children are want to be, in her own universe. Beside her sits a vibrant yellow truck, poised and ready to be played with, yet the girl is completely consumed by her own ruminations and the marks she makes on the paper in front of her. This painting is about the amplitude of dreams, and the sheer force of imagination.
“Letters and Doodles (Kesiena’s Diary)” (2021) and “After School Hour (Kesiena’s Diary)” (2021)
The colorful fabric Akpojotor uses in these paintings echoes the complexity of human experience, and the shifting memories as we move through our lives. It’s as though each color represents a singular moment, and when put together our lives become a tapestry of lived experience. Akpojotor represents a range of childhood experience from riding a bicycle for the first time to reading a book and braiding hair. While these acts may appear simple and altogether uneventful on the surface, Akpojotor suggests that through these seemingly simple life events, children learn to navigate the world with self-confidence, persuasiveness and patience. After all, the greatest gift we can give a child is to allow them to flourish on their own terms.
Works like “Beauty in the Curls (Kesiena’s Diary)” also emphasize the importance of family interactions and how these interactions teach children the importance of sharing and exchanging ideas. In the painting, the artist’s two daughters sit together, one reading something on a tablet while the younger girl braids her hair from behind. The image is suffused with a sense of endless possibility and one has the sense that these two young women will grow together on their quest toward womanhood, teaching one another through the kindness and patience that has been instilled in them.
Finally, as viewers we come away from Akpojotor’s work with a renewed sense of hope that this particular artist’s vision may indeed come to represent the norm – that all children, no matter the color of their skin or the economic situation they’re born into, might be afforded the same opportunities. Ultimately these are paintings of divine hope, insisting that we look deeper into our own lives for inspiration.
“Fly Baby, Fly! (Kesiena’s Diary)” (2021) and “Wheels on the Street (Kesiena’s Diary)” (2021)
Featured Image: “Papa’s Girl” (2021)
Eve Wood is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Wood’s poetry and art criticism have appeared in many magazines and journals including Artillery, Whitehot, Art & Cake, The New Republic, The Denver Quarterly, Triquarterly, Flash Art, Angelino Magazine, New York Arts, The Atlantic Monthly, Artnet.com, Artillery, Tema Celeste, Art Papers, ArtUS, Art Review, and LatinArt.com. She is the author of five books of poetry. Also an artist, her work has been exhibited at Susanne Vielmetter and Western Project and Tiger Strikes Asteroid in New York. Wood is currently represented by Track 16 Gallery in Los Angeles.