Having recently arrived in Birmingham from Lagos, Awofeso shows all new work as part of Ikon’s Arrivals programme (June - August), concerned with the international movement of people and ideas and organised to coincide with the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Awofeso’s work for Ikon is made entirely from discarded wooden pallets. Used to transport goods around the world, this widely used material forms a metaphor of human migration, as well as the artist’s own frequent journeys between Nigeria, South Africa and Europe.
His figures take the form of wall reliefs, freestanding sculptures and installations. Each figure is individually carved and painted by hand. Their physical traits and vibrant colours are inspired by the people he meets on his travels and subcultures such as the social movement La Sape. Prevalent in Kinshasa and Brazzaville (Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of Congo respectively), the colourful, sartorial style of La Sape originated as a response to colonial rule and western ‘dandy’ fashion. The artist’s reference to collective identities give his figures the quality of universal portraits. Their individualised forms, however, resist cultural or racial categorisation.
Do You Know Who I Am (2022) represents people who Awofeso met on a visit to the UK from Nigeria in 2021. During the trip he and fellow travellers were held in Amsterdam, as the UK government imposed a swift ban on arrivals from Nigeria due to the country’s then rising cases of Covid-19. A number of the sculptural portraits depict people wearing masks, reminding us how much face coverings have become part of our physical and social identity. Another portrait shows a man in sunglasses playing a saxophone, symbolising the jazz musicians and communities encountered by Awofeso in Birmingham and Nigeria. Resembling wall reliefs, these profile portraits are in fact freestanding sculptures displayed on floating shelves. A large portrait accompanies these works, its relief format reflecting the quasi-flat sculptures.
Several works in the exhibition respond to the gallery’s architecture. A shaped doorway mirrors the rectangular forms of Boujee (2021–22), a series of figures displayed on custom-made plinths at different heights. An installation of 3,000 individuallycarved figures, Avalanche of Calm (2021–22), fills the floor of an entire gallery. They embody the modern city, where people from all walks of life come together. Suspended above the miniature figures are wooden clouds, their subdued hues recalling the overcast British weather. In life, passing clouds often remind us of the ephemerality of human existence. Awofeso’s installation evokes this and the relative smallness of people in relation to the cosmos – at the same time as humanity’s collective strength.