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The African Arts Trust
"The African Arts Trust will act as a catalyst for the emergence and growth of locally managed and sustainable contemporary visual art organisations in Africa"

In the Beginning by Onyis Martin

Dates: 16th March- 11th May 2024

For almost a decade now, Onyis Martin has been intrigued by walls, particularly those in public spaces, and the stories that they tell. Especially interesting for Onyis are those on which, over time, there has been an accumulation of textual and visual material as the walls are painted and drawn on, scratched, eroded, plastered with posters and banners, and many other such processes that are evidence of a human presence in those spaces. This accumulation of marks and matter speaks to the passage of time, the events that unfold in/around the spaces demarcated by the walls, and the actions of the people who have inhabited or moved through these spaces, each of them attempting to claim or use these spaces for different ends.

On the surfaces of the walls, one encounters an array of images and text ranging from advertisements of goods and services, declarations of ownership, warnings against interference with the wall/space, and statements on the future of the space itself (e.g. impending demolition). With time these marks and their makers compete for space and visibility on this surface; they are layered over each other, and different actors choose which colors or images are most prominent or visible, and the presumed owners of the spaces, in attempts to assert their authority over the spaces cover these up and issue warnings against further marking and postering, as well as against idling and loitering. And on and on it goes, the process compounded by the actions of nature and the elements on those same surfaces. In this process, the wall becomes a site for the negotiations about these spaces, as different assertions are made - directly and indirectly - about the space ownership and use of the space and, by extension, about the going concerns of the people who inhabit those spaces, as suggested by the symbols and messages that found there.

This exhibition, In the Beginning, presents the most recent works, painting and sculpture, borne on Onyis’s fascination with this phenomenon. The paintings offered here are created through a process devised by Onyis, involving gradual accretion of material — usually paint and paper — on the surface of the canvas, alternating between layering and stripping, wetting and drying, sedimentation and erosion. The resulting surfaces mimic those of the walls from which his inquiry begins, and the works approximates the process through which walls are transformed from an initial supposedly clean slate to a palimpsest bearing traces of lives lived around, and witnessed by these walls. The sculptures, too, reference objects that are both sites of and subject to the same processes as the walls from which the paintings are drawn.

Onyis’s process and the resulting works speak of time as an accumulation of interactions and relationships rather than a simple forward progression of events. They also trace the shifting social makeup of the urban spaces that inform the work and bring to the foreground the questions around ownership and access, the public or private status of the spaces, and the porous border between the public and private sphere.