When many Africans go to great lengths to leave and settle in western countries, one western visual artist’s quest is to learn and enjoy African culture and heritage.
Maria Onyegbule’s one-month art residency at Nairobi’s Rahimtullah Museum of Modern Art (RaMoMA) in July 2008, is only part of a long cultural and heritage journey she has taken.
It all started many years ago in England, when Onyegbule was born to an Italian mother and a Nigerian father. Her father ensured the family had ties with their African roots by going to Africa and their extended Nigerian family visiting them abroad.
Onyegbule and her siblings started drawing at an early age before she proceeded to study fashion, costume, textiles and finally fine art. She explores her self-identity through art. She focuses on the simple, daily life of the people and their surroundings.
I met her in the art studio at RaMoMA Gallery. One could smell the oil paint, of the art works as they stood on the studio area drying in readiness for the exhibition.
“We are more than vessels, past, present and the future”, Onyegbule said as she pointed to small vessel paintings, comparing people’s lives to earthen wares.
What really stood out was a series of four large paintings titled “The Moon’s Journey”. The paintings depict a Maasai Moran (a young unmarried male warrior of the Maasai people)’s life.
“The Moon’s Journey shows the sequence of new to full moon and represents the transition from boyhood to adulthood”, said Onyegbule who hastened to add that she had received this explanation by some Maasai Morans she had met in Nairobi city.
All the paintings looked decorative and rich with pure bright colours. A Maasai man’s decorative figure seemed like a peacock due to the way his hair looks. The other works included a painting of a Maasai woman, a mother figure who seemed to be shielding her family from danger.
“It is a celebration of colour, involving heritage and culture and open to discovery”, Onyegbule termed the works she created in Nairobi.
“Comforts of Heritage”, the exhibition she put together at the end of her art residency RaMoMA, attracted many art enthusiasts within Nairobi, including members of the Nigerian community.
“My work and colours are influenced by my African heritage, life in Africa and Greece,” she said. Her works are infused with light; especially the portraits of people.
Blue seems like to be her signature colour as it is evident in all her works.
“Light affects my work as England is a bit closed weather-wise and Africa is open,” she said. This has made her acquire another home in Zakynthos, a Greek Island, where she spends part of her time.
Onyegbule draws her inspiration from many sources: travel, literature and more personal issues. Most of her work is inspired by her own cultural heritage.
Her experiences of Africa are not just as a traveller but also as a resident, living with the people and their culture as an African.
Kenya is the first East African country she has worked from. She has been in Nigeria, Ghana, Mali and Morocco. She has also spent time in the Sahara Desert living in tents with a local tribe.
She currently teaches at Walsall College of Art. “As a practising artist teaching in college, I like pre-degree students who are always eager to learn and experiment, soaking in what they are taught” she says.
It is only in the 1990s that Onyegbule “a management board member of the Ghana-based Institute of Women’s Art Africa” began working as a professional artist.
Her’s is a family of artists. Her son, 26-year-old Martin, is trained in music production and instruments, while 22-year-old Bianca, who started doing stage production at an early age, is studying theatre, acting and film at Liverpool University.
The art residency of Onyegbule, who has exhibited in the cities of London, Birmingham, and Bristol in the UK and in Budapest, Hungary, was funded by the Arts Council of England. This was her first exhibition in Africa.
Saying her plans include painting everyday, producing beautiful work and exhibiting them in Africa, Onyegbule says, “I feel at home in Africa and I am still on a self-discovery journey.”