Sunday, 25 September 2011

Peter Odeh. Face of Africa, 2003. Acrylic on Canvas. 26” x 36”

It is a classic portrait painting in size as well as subject matter and with additions to emphasise the position of the person in the portrait or what the painter himself wants to portray. In this case the sitter does not know Odeh exists but he knows she does. It is a portrait of Patricia Onuchi, an Ibo, Nigerian and the face of Africa in 1998.
It is a striking portrait. At first glance some have criticised it for looking to photographic, or too sleek, almost like an advertisement I was once told; but that is the power of this portrait. The portrait is suppose to be of a woman who is chosen as face of Africa to represent us internationally in a commercial industry of modelling. The seekness of that industry Odeh captures and makes it a likeable painting. The media industry in mass being quite young in Africa, persons under 35 or so who see this painting often say, wow, I like that; because they are used to the sleekness we now see in most commercial pictures.
Back to the painting, in the foreground is the image based on Patricia.
The female figure appears in a bust–type position (from her chest upwards). She is sideways but her head is turned to be seen full frontal view. Her natural hair is pulled back and elephant straws used to decorate it.  These elephant straws Odeh uses to fill a large space above the females head and it frames the painting by complementing all compositions in it, and also being of the colour white/off white, it adds light to the painting. The colours black and white dominate the painting; the only other time we see a different colour is on the female’s skin. The straws, with the images below the portrait being in the same colour draw the painting together. The extravagance and creativity of the fashion world is also seen through these elephant straws; furthermore it being on the head of a black face may take some viewers back to the stereotypical image of some costumes worn in the past days. The female hair as said is a very soft curly afro, almost like that of a mixed race person but at times even softer and so this easily allowed the twists in her hair for the creation on the head to be made. Patricia is Ibo in origin, from the East of Nigeria, hair like hers is common in her native land.

Her face is a long beautiful and elegant one. She has a defined forehead and eyebrows carefully tweezed to complement the rest of her features including her nose which his long and thin but fits her face. Odeh confessed in this painting he changed her eyes to make it more cat like and by doing this adds a come hither look or sexiness to the face; her eye lashes are defined by one sweep of a brush. The eyes again add to the sleekness talked about earlier on.  Her lips are well positioned underneath her nose; it has the definition and plumpness that makes it that of a black woman lips. Odeh uses a dark purply brown colour to paint her lips. 
Shade covers the back and most of the left side of her face but enough of her features are in view to see why she won the face of Africa. This includes her cheekbones high and defined, the way the fashion industry likes it. Her long face is one that has been greatly admired by the western fashion scene long before her time. Long faces and long necks are also very common in East Africa and it is an image that has been replicated for at least 55 years in the west. The model Iman is an example of these features. The shade engulfs most of her neck but you know it is long. On her brown skin painted by Odeh, his brushstrokes are so fine that on her face you see the highlights of her make up around her eyes, the powder used to highlight her cheekbones and around her nose one sees the make up carefully placed to accentuate all features making her face look as healthy as possible. The cleverness or brilliance of Odeh is in the portrayal of her make-up; making it look so real it is almost like a photograph. It is one thing to be admired in this painting. On her arm too Odeh does well to highlight the undertone of African dark skin: red. He gives the skin a milky appearance, making it seem smooth and soft. She is represented in this portrait as very slim; also ideal for the dominant western fashion industry. She is portrayed in a sleeveless v-neck black dress. What made Odeh paint her was he was proud to see a woman with black skin win the competition and given the chance to represent her people internationally. This is not the only portrayal of Patricia Onuchi Peter Odeh has. According to the painter himself, he has a very large and realistic portrait of Patricia in his studio, it is his centre piece. Additions Odeh made to the popular image he saw included, the couri shell on her forehead, the seashell as her necklace, and the arm bangle on her left arm, to make it look more native; according to Odeh. This is an interesting thing because it shows how, African woman can be placed next to any other woman in the world and not look like she does not fit in. There is a modern image of the African woman. Africa does move with the times just like the rest of the world; but it is not often shown outside Africa.

Next to the portrait on the left are two masks the first being of the Queen mother Idia of Benin. A very famous mask and because it is from a time before slavery in Africa it represents the power women once had more dominantly in Africa. It is a sculpture made out of a bronze so advanced in its making at that time, that today the metal itself cannot be copied; it is not known how it was done. Queen mother Idia is seen in this sculpture to also have a prominent forehead and a long face. Odeh again seems to be emphasising the view that nothing is new but also as if Patricia Onuchi is like a queen in his eyes. The mask with the round eyes is one that represents the Poro Society, a secret society in Benin City according to Odeh, he knows what is trying to portray with that. Both masks have been drawn in like shadings in the paintings to allowing the face of Africa to dominate. It is a painting that celebrates the beauty of an African woman. It shows the grace, precision, and modernity of the African woman. Africa is the only continent I hear of being called mother Africa perhaps it is because both the women and men know that without the women of Africa the continent would not stand so strongly. From Ner-fer-ti-ti to Sheba, to Amina, to Yaa Asantewaa, and to the modern women like Patricia and the standing Liberian president, African women would always be known for their beauty and definitely also for their strength. The African woman and those of the diaspora, have many dimensions which are yet to be explored by non Africans. If the painting is to be criticised for anything it could be said that is not enough subject matter in the painting or perhaps the neck could have been placed in a better composition. Also to praise a woman who has been in a kind of beauty contest too can be seen as slightly controversial due to the negativity surrounding pageant-like shows.

Odeh himself is half Ghanaian, half Nigerian resides mostly in Ghana to paint. He spent four years training and learning to become a painter. He is in his thirties and owns his own company, the Afrocentric Clan.

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