Part of an avant-garde of artists who grew up in the 1980s and emerged in the new millennium from the bubbly creative landscape of Lagos, John Madu is a self-taught artist who holds degrees in political and strategic sciences.
“The Year of the Masque” was John Madu’s first Italian solo exhibition at Fondazione Mudima in Milan from June to August 2022.
The titular idea of the Masque and Masquerade that threaded throughout the show, was used to comment on the contradictions and hypocrisies of our present.
Through the characters featured in his paintings, often striking for their stature and assertive personality, Madu deconstruct gender stereotypes and social belonging.
I spoke to John Madu at the Mudima Foundation about his exhibition and what inspires his painting practice.
John Madu: Doing well, with these fine goods, 2022 – Acrylic on canvas, 230×190,5 cm.
Why did you choose the masque as subject of your first Italian solo exhibition?
John Madu: I’ve always been interested in the idea of the mask in relation to human existence, the way we represent ourselves in society. Knowing that I would exhibit in Milan, I also thought that Italy has a long tradition of carnival and circus, of masks and masquerade parties, circuses and clowns. The theme was perfect.
In a playful sense, “The Year of the Masque” shows society as a masquerade, everyone wearing a mask or trying to get something out of each other. Each piece portrays this lifestyle with great pomp. We are all artists in our lives.
You hold a degree in political and strategic sciences, what made you decide to take the path of art?
John Madu: I think it’s something I grew up with. As a child, I scribbled on walls and won art competitions. My father collected art, especially prints, and there were postcards and art magazines in the house. I read a lot about the Old Masters and their lives: Salvator Dalì, Picasso, Modigliani, Picabia. But I never thought I’d become an artist professionally, I didn’t know how to. The epiphany came while reading a magazine featuring Nigerian art sold at auction in 2008. I realised that my calling was to do what I do best.
John Madu: Year of The Masque, Fondazione Mudima, Milano 2022 – installation view | Courtesy Fondazione Mudima ph. Fabio Mantegna
Your paintings often explicitly refer to the masters of Western art. What about Nigerian art, which also has an important and long tradition?
John Madu: I am very intrigued by Nok art, (the earliest sculptural art of West Africa, mostly found in central Nigeria N.d.T.). I also admire the modernist Nigerian masters who have greatly influenced contemporary Nigerian art, such as Ben Enwonwu and Bruce Onobrakpeya.
In the exhibition catalogue, art critic Oliver Enwonwu compares your approach to that of the eighteenth-century English painter William Hogarth, whose satire chastised society’s hypocrisy and ills. What are the ills of contemporary society, in Nigeria and elsewhere, that you wish to chastise?
John Madu: Like the artists in the past, I record the history of my time with its political and social ills. While I was working on this exhibition, for example, there was a considerable increase in the price of fuel in Nigeria which created social unrest. And the war in Ukraine has triggered a worldwide butterfly effect. My paintings also engage with the religious conflicts and killings, and the political and selfish interests that often mask wars that are characterized as ‘tribal’.
John Madu, If only life was a circus, 2022, Acrylic on canvas, Diptych, 284×462 cm | Courtesy Fondazione Mudima
If I’m not mistaken, war and oil inspired one of the most striking pieces in the exhibition, “If Only Life was a Circus”, which also features Donald Trump . Can you explain what this painting is about?
John Madu: The large diptych depicts today’s society as a circus, where everyone is welcome, in the sense that everyone is born into society, where there is good and bad. Trump is a strange character who intrigues me, whom I kind of like because he made some things happen out of thin air.
I like basketball, so there is a tribute to basketball player Kobe Bryant and a Roy Lichtenstein character who’s talking on the phone about the war in Ukraine. When I started painting, the war had just begun. In Nigeria, it was a difficult week, we had fuel shortages and constant power outages, chaos. I was in a bad mood most of the time when I was working. But eventually things settled down, and in the end the outcome was a happy painting.
Another painting titled ‘Soot City’, addresses oil economy, which actually underpins Nigerian economy and progress. You also touch on the ecological issue, with the illegal oil trade causing pollution and environmental disasters also due to the illegal stocks of fuel being burned. Can you tell me about it?
John Madu: Soot City is about Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s leading oil refining city. The people who live there cough up soot, which is in the air, on their clothes and windows. The sky is black, I wanted to experience it personally, and it really is terrible.
John Madu: Soot City, 2022 – Acrylic on canvas, 227×190 cm.
I was intrigued by a character in the painting wearing a colorful mask, like a hood on his head.
John Madu: Yes, it’s a reference to Lágbájá, a popular Nigerian Afro-beat musician. Lágbájá, in the Yoruba language, a Nigerian tribe, means unknown, and this artist is also famous for wearing masks during his performances.
You grew up in the suburbs of Lagos in the 80s. You’ve often talked about how your neighborhood has influenced the work you create.
John Madu: The place where I grew up was then the heart of the city. The largest video club in Lagos, a large videogame center and a water park, were right up my street. In the house, we had cable TV very early on, and I was able to watch a lot of movies. It was a very ‘contemporary’ and lively environment that opened my mind to the world. I could reach out to distant places and art forms I had never seen before. Had I lived elsewhere, I don’t think I would be who I am today.
John Madu:Year of The Masque, Fondazione Mudima, Milano 2022– installation view | Courtesy Fondazione Mudima ph. Fabio Mantegna.
Your work also explores the effects of globalization on African identity. What has been your personal experience of a rapid globalization process in Nigeria: overall positive or negative?
John Madu: Like everywhere, globalization meant the world was at hand. I understood very early on that we live in a global environment because before my engineer father traveled a lot and brought home objects from all over the world, and books and magazines. Of course, the internet in the early 1990s also helped.
I realize that in the global world native cultures, languages and local music may be lost to new generations.
Music has become one of the most global art forms, we call African music what is the result of many contaminations. But to answer your question, I think being able to connect to other places is a great thing. The Nigerian economy has opened up to the world. Going global helps any economy, provided that wealth circulates through society.
John Madu: Who now, is the intruder, 2022 -Acrylic on canvas, 190×225 cm.
Your paintings are complex allegories, how do you proceed in your research? What are the main sources you draw from?
John Madu: First I make an outline of what I would like to research. I like to read about psychology, art history and economics. I am interested in gaining knowledge.
My political and strategic studies helped me to learn how to put projects together, to make them coherent. Not attending art studios per se was, after all, a good thing.
Nigerian literature has many prominent figures, what do you like to read?
John Madu: Chinua Achebe is my favorite, because his stories are indigenous, they reach deep into culture. He really says a lot about the Igbo culture in Nigeria. I also really like Chimamamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels.
Can you tell me about some of the characters, like the colonial soldier, and symbols that recur in your work?
John Madu: Africa is still in a post-colonial situation. New colonialism is linked to the West, which also influences us culturally. This is what my recurring character of the colonial soldier refers to. I like to change the mainstream narrative though, therefore I put the soldier in situations that history has not allowed.
John Madu: Fine Goods make the World go round, 2022, – Acrylic on canvas, 227×190 cm.
Without pants and suspended in mid-air, as featured in your painting ‘Fine Goods make the World go round’?
John Madu: Yes, he jumps in fright!
Clowns, on the other hand, are a recent addition to my work, in the context of the circus and masquerade. I really like the red nose, one of my favorite colors!
The sunflowers are a reference to Vincent van Gogh. The Ghana-must-go bags also recur in my work, and stands for migrations, the movement of people. These bags typically belonged to Ghanaian immigrants to Nigeria in the 1980s.
Everywhere, not only in Nigeria, it is mainly immigrants who using those bags, which is why they are called differently in each country: Turkish suitcase in Germany, in Trinidad and Tobago Samsonite in Guyana, Chinatown Tote in America.
The hurricane lantern appears in many of my paintings, again alluding to energy problems. I often use, metaphorically, the figure of Grace Jones with her punk look, to represent a strong femininity, she has been one of my favorite characters since I was a child.
Lagos is today an international arts center, full of art venues. Which are the places you find most interesting, where do you like to spend your time?
John Madu: There is a place called Boulevard, by the sea, where the artists exhibiting are not professionals, which is why I find it interesting: what you see is original. I also go to the craft markets. I like watching artisans at work, observe their techniques. There is an intense club life in Lagos that I take part in, this also inspires me.
John Madu. | studio shooting ©Fred Salami
Half of the Nigerian population is under the age of 19. Do you believe that art is an effective means of speaking to the younger generations about important issues concerning society?
John Madu: Art really is the future. And it’s growing very fast. Young people travel, study abroad and return, and there is also a strong musical culture. Right now, we are in a creative transitional space, there is a lot of buzz. Social media has certainly been a crucial factor in this explosion of creativity. People can see what’s happening around the world in real time. The government is not helping us much but it is taking an interest in this phenomenon, they know that young creatives have power because they have a large audience, and this, potentially, has political relevance as well.
What is the goal, as an artist, that you have set yourself for the future?
John Madu: Above all I want my work to enter the right collections and institutional exhibitions. I am not interested in money, but rather I’d like my work to end up in the right hands, and that in the future it can enter art history.