In his first London solo exhibition, Wahab Saheed uses portraiture to explore notions of nationality and identity.
On This Field of Green is founded in Saheed’s own relationship to his native Nigeria. The colour green appears as the constant thread that weaves throughout this body of work, framing each figure in bright and vivid tones. As the key colour in the Nigerian flag, green symbolises the wealth and richness of the country’s natural resources. For Saheed, the colour green also carries significance in the context of mass migration, as young Nigerians leave their country to search for greener pastures abroad.
With his exhibition, Saheed considers the phenomenon of japa. In the Yoruba language, japa is a slang term that means “to flee” and it summarises the trend among young Nigerians who choose to migrate to Europe or North America. The artist himself has had to say goodbye to many friends who have left the country with little notice. Saheed’s exhibition, however, focuses on the beauties of his home environment, examining what might encourage a person to stay in Nigeria. The artist’s latest body of work aims to shed a positive light on his country, prompting a younger generation to rethink their perspective of home.
Each of Saheed’s portraits stems from quiet observation. The artist always begins with charcoal, a medium imbued with history. Prominent in prehistoric cave painting, charcoal is mostly used in Nigeria today for practical tasks like cooking. For Saheed, the material possesses a time travelling ability, able to connect him to a broader art historical legacy. His subjects are first built up with layers of charcoal and the fluidity of the medium becomes important. The malleability of charcoal is able to capture expression, inner struggle and nuance. The artist then uses brightly coloured pastel and acrylic paint to contrast the dark smudges of the charcoal base. For Saheed, the duality of these materials is crucial in symbolising the internal complexities of each sitter and is also emblematic of balance. As a final stage, Saheed uses oil pastels to create a boundary between sitter and background. These boundaries, sometimes broken, represent the fragility of human nature. As such, Saheed visualises the innate level of vulnerability that accompanies portrait painting.
The artist remarks that the everyday person in Nigeria keeps very busy. When choosing his subjects, therefore, he searches for an immediate connection. He often does not have long with his sitters and, working from real life and from photographs, he looks to represent true stories that are shared in quiet moments of repose. Always allowing his sitters to be as candid as possible, Saheed aims to capture a person’s essence. Surrounded by a rich green, the people in Saheed’s portraits represent those who have stayed in Nigeria and those who have worked hard to recognise that greener pastures can be found at home.
Courtesy of the artist and Unit London