Jebila Wolfe-Okongwu was born in London, raised as a young boy first in Africa then Australia. After a period working in New York, he has been living in Rome for the past decade. Over time, his work has dramatically evolved, incorporating figurative painting, hard-edged abstraction, and most recently, sculpture in wood, terracotta, bronze, horn, fiberglass and cardboard. His bold watercolours and three-dimensional works are inspired by the traditional geometric carving typical of his father’s tribe in eastern Nigeria, mixed with the slogans and aesthetics of Western advertising, to create works which consciously deal with issues of racism, colonialism and sexuality. In his hands, the traditional, carved ceremonial stools of West African kings become regal seats of subverted power. He turns childhood taunts from the Australian playground (“African Zulu”, “Mumbo Jumbo”) into statements of political pride, reclaiming emblems and symbols from his African heritage, but always with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. These “tribal lines” (a term recently used by Barack Obama to signify the active links between dispersed peoples) appear in all of Jebila’s works.a
Some of Jebila’s recent works feature the banana as a motif, used by the artist as an object loaded with multiple associations. In the 1920s, Josephine Baker shocked Paris by appearing semi-naked in a skirt made from bananas, performing her legendary Danse Sauvage, exploting the European construct of the exotic identity. He uses the phallic connotations of the banana to examine issues of masculinity, and to playfully undermine the elegance of his compositions.
“Much post-war art was made within a very macho context. Nights at the pub would quickly degenerate into brawls as artists argued about the direction of modern art. The hard, erect and detached minimal forms of modernist sculpture display an obvious masculine aesthetic. By replacing these modernist forms with phallic bananas, I am ironically highlighting this condition.”
Also conjuring up the memories of African colonial trade and the slapstick comedy of the slippery banana skin, Jebila paints bright yellow bananas on canvas, or sculpts them as realistic terracotta forms. In his Rome studio, Jebila has been recently creating Pop Art-inspired banana sculptures made from cardboard. They are stitched together from colourful banana boxes, printed with the logos of European fruit importers – Chiquita, Del Monte, Diamante, Tropy – conglomerates still active in what can be seen as post-colonial trade (unexpectedly, the largest importer/distributor of bananas in Europe today is a company in Ireland).
His work questions issues of identity, appropriation, iconography and cultural stereotypes. His graphic sensibility combines 1960s Op Art with Nigerian Igbo traditions. Also inspired by music, including the songs of Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone, much of Jebila’s imagery plays with the limited Western concepts of ethnic artistic expression and what the artist himself refers to as “the imposed exotic”. Welcome to the Banana Republic.
Jonathan Turner, curator, Rome.
Jebila Wolfe-Okongwu’s work has been featured in exhibitions in Melbourne, New York and throughout Italy. Curated by Jonathan Turner, this exhibition of recent sculptures and paintings at the Project Space at Gallery Barry Keldoulis in Sydney is his first solo show in Australia.
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