Artist Profile: Emmanuel Osahor
Author: Yang Lim
Complexity and multi-faceted: these are two words that point to the motivations behind Emmanuel Osahor’s art. Having graduating from the University of Alberta’s BFA program in 2014, Emmanuel Osahor has developed an artistic practice that is informed by two distinct yet interconnected threads: (1) a desire to explore complexity and challenge people’s assumptions of the work that they are looking at, whether this is in terms of the work’s subject matter, medium, or approach to the topic; and (2) a desire to grapple with utopic ideas.
In his reflections on problems that we face today, Osahor comments that his work is “trying to deal with my own frustration at the impossibility of having a quick fix.” Discrimination, marginalization, and homelessness are entrenched problems in our communities today that we may desire to address quickly, yet such is not the case in reality. As such, his art becomes a way to negotiate his own thoughts on these subjects as well as a means to challenge his audience’s perceptions of reality in the process.
However, it is important to avoid viewing Osahor’s art through an activist framework as this misses the nuances of what he has set out to do in his art. He regards the role of art as a catalyst for reflection, dialogue, and empathy, all of which can provide the conditions for changing people’s perspectives and attitudes. For Osahor, the ability of art to generate empathy is powerful and can enable people to be more open to change.
The evolution of Osahor’s art can be traced back to a number of influences that connect with his educational and personal background, coupled with his awareness of societal issues that developed from his immigration to Canada and from his artistic collaborations with cultural communities and organizations in Edmonton. Although he immigrated to Edmonton in 2010 for educational reasons, Osahor has since made Edmonton his home. After finishing his BFA program with a specialization in painting and printmaking, he worked on some projects that reflect a confluence among his desire to draw upon his personal experiences and his interest in engaging with issues of social and political relevance.
His initial projects dealt with personal subjects that he used as a starting point to explore broader concerns. In “The Distance Between Us” (2014-2015), Osahor explores questions about peoples’ memories, their relationship to the past, and the ways they construct narratives to make sense of that past. The starting point for his considerations are some old family photographs, from which he drew his inspiration. Similarly, his work “And Then My Hands Shook” explores the topic of violence of contemporary society by reflecting on a variety of images that range from personal photographs of life back home to images found in newspapers, through which he reflects on the lingering effects of civil war in Nigeria as well as the pervasiveness of violence in a broader, global context.
His subsequent projects, such as “Green Pastures” (2016) and “My Journey,” (2016) focus on engaging with the local community and documenting the experiences of immigrants and newcomers to Edmonton through art. Intent on giving voice to their perspectives, Osahor affirms that these peoples’ experiences tend to be unacknowledged or unappreciated by the public because of their skewed assumptions about immigrants’ intentions for coming to Canada as well as the nature of their experiences once they have settled here. Far from being a smooth transition to a new country, immigrants are often leaving their community, livelihood, and a whole way of life behind in order to come to a country that is completely foreign to them. Such a disjuncture in their lives is something that Osahor feels is not recognized enough.
His own experiences as an immigrant have also served as a catalyst for him to explore these issues. When he was a new immigrant in Canada, he had a particular preconception of Canada that was utopic and not really grounded in reality. However, he gradually came to realize that the public was unaware of the actual lives of newly settled immigrants in Canada and the actual conditions of what Africa is like. He observed that Canada’s mainstream news coverage of Africa was often negative or otherwise did little to cover it at all. While in school, he also volunteered with iHuman and later worked with them for a period of time after graduating in 2014. He then began working with photography as a medium and began taking a lot of street photography to gain experience.
From working in these mediums of painting, printmaking, and photography, Osahor grew to appreciate the strengths of each medium as well as the possibilities that they provide. Indeed, his attraction to photography arises from his recognition that he can challenge people’s perspectives and assumptions about the genre, through which he can explore subjects that are important to him. For example, his River Valley project in 2017 explored the river valley and the complex meanings attached to it. Although the river valley can be regarded as a sanctuary or oasis in the middle of Edmonton, it has different meanings for people who visit it and for the homeless who make their home there. As such, this highlights the complexity of what a space can mean: it can be an escape, but it can also be a home.
At this year’s The Work Art and Design Festival, Osahor will have a 24-foot high installation that will feature a selection of photographs from this River Valley project as well as a living wall with plants that will reflect those that grow in the River Valley. This is an extension of his previous work as he continues to challenge people’s perceptions of what they are seeing as well as the possibilities for making use of a space. His hope is that the installation will encourage people to pause and reflect in the midst of a media culture that is saturated with images.
Patrons can check out Osahor’s work at Capital Plaza, the central site of this year’s festival. To learn more about Emmanuel Osahor’s art, more information is on his website at https://www.eosahorart.com.