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Wilfred Ukpong: Niger-Delta / Future-Cosmos

by Anne Kimunguyi
Reviews / Exhibition • 10.04.2024

The seamless movement between the Niger Delta as a site of extraction, performance and imagination is integral to this solo exhibition by Wilfred Ukpong (b.1971) at Autograph, London. Employing frameworks of transcendental and mystical storytelling, the artist explores the state of environmental degradation in the region of his birth. Niger-Delta / Future-Cosmos centres on the first instalment of Ukpong’s series Blazing Century (2010–ongoing), a ten-part project that uses photography, sound, film, performance and community interventions to generate conversation about a viable, sustainable future.1 Each Blazing Century series is set within a different geographical location beset by various socio-political and environmental issues. The exhibition is curated by Mark Sealy, the Director of Autograph, and continues an already long-standing relationship with the artist. In 2020 works from Blazing Century 1: Niger-Delta/Future-Cosmos were included in the group exhibition African Cosmologies: Photography, Time, and the Other, curated by Sealy for the FotoFest Biennial in Houston; this exhibition marks their first showing in London.2

Mirroring its two-pronged title, the exhibition is split into two rooms, the first of which features the thirty-minute film Earth Sounds FIG.1. It follows Ukpong as he makes his way down a narrowing waterway in a wooden boat. With an arrangement of eight black heraldic flags behind him, the artist chants, vocalises and rhythmically taps a pair of branches against a long red object held between his legs. He sets a small totem-like sculpture on his head, balancing it as he continues to whistle, sing and move the greenery in his hands. As the film progresses, a black liquid begins to seep down Ukpong’s face, into his eyes, along his body and onto his clothes. The discomfort of seeing the artist gradually drenched in this viscous fluid is heightened by a swelling instrumental soundtrack and his almost hypnotic movement and persistent vocalisations, which become increasingly difficult to perform. Ukpong stands and lifts the red object from the floor of the boat, revealing the two faces carved into either end. The artist kisses one set of wooden lips, before launching it – and then himself – into the water.

Earth Sounds is an almost hallucinatory vision of nature at its most sublime, with luscious greenery enveloping the artist as he makes his way through the landscape. The front of the boat remains out of frame throughout, giving the viewer the impression that they are accompanying Ukpong on his journey. As noted in the exhibition material, here the artist adopts a shamanic role, seemingly invoking spiritual energies to project the endangered landscape around him. It is a mesmerising and devastating plea for preservation, which speaks to the polluting and suffocating ravaging of the Niger Delta. The natural biodiversity of the region has historically sustained local farming. However, since the discovery of crude oil in Oilobiri in 1956, it has suffered from for forcible and hazardous extraction practises by Western corporations, the origins of which can be traced to colonial exploitation. Coupled with limited opportunities for community participation in the formulation of environmental planning, these activities have contributed to the destruction of the area’s ecosystem, displacement, a lack of employment opportunities, and poor health resulting in high neonatal, child and adult mortality rates.3

In the second room of the exhibition, the visitor is welcomed into the otherworldly realm indicated by the latter part of the show’s title. Here, visual motifs reoccur across ten large photographic portraits and a short film: figures with black- or red-painted skin are draped in yellow or red sashes and curved antennae protrude from their heads. In his creation of a fantastical, textured dimension, Ukpong presents themes of violence and pollution as pervasive and all-consuming. The artist’s alternate universe is fully steeped in this feeling of submersion, an effect achieved at least in part by his use of a vast seascape as the central site of activity. The Advent of the Visionaries–A Screen to Behold FIG.2, for example, shows two black-painted figures stood in shallow waters, holding a technological device that allows for communication between different places – perhaps even times – in which a red-painted figure is caught in an expression of apparent anguish. Shown alongside this is By And by, I Will Carry This Burden of Hope, Till the Laments of my Child is Heard #1 FIG.3. It depicts three red subjects standing around a crib-like structure in which a baby is nestled. This structure and the baby inside it reappear in the neighbouring image, seemingly the source of the red figure’s agony. The sequence is a tragic portrayal of mourning and threatened life in the Delta.

Inhabiting a timeless natural landscape, Ukpong’s supernatural cast is characterised by a phantasmagorical use of colour. Employing Afrofuturist motifs – that is, aesthetic tools rooted in speculative art practices that centre Black and African history and culture – the artist moves beyond the established futuristic tenets of the genre to cultivate an interrelating dynamic between the past, present and future.4 The large-scale format of the photographs facilitates an immersive viewing experience as the visitor moves between scenes. Each is framed in a scrunched black fabric that resembles an oil-drenched material, not unlike the thick black paint that covers many of the works’ subjects FIG.4. Ukpong’s futuristic seascape, therefore, is incontrovertibly seen through an oil-saturated lens; despite the still, oceanic setting, the realities of exhaustive oil drilling are inescapable. This is particularly resonant in London where many art institutions have been criticised for their controversial ties with oil giants.

The activities of Ukpong’s characters are contextualised in the sixteen-minute film FUTURE-WORLD-EXV FIG.5, which follows the journey of an oil-rig worker (played by Ukpong) as he encounters an Indigenous community who worship a sea goddess, in a telling of the violence of extractive activity. This is a socially focused portrayal of Ukpong’s supernatural world, and its insertion in the middle of the room on a small screen, to some extent, disrupts the potential for speculation afforded by the photographic medium in the images that accompany it. Set in 2060, the film includes the discovery of the aforementioned baby floating in the sea, and the rounding up of the painted figures, who are forced into labour at gunpoint. The opening of the film incorporates a recording of Leonardo di Caprio’s address at the Climate Summit in 2014, where his appointment as United Nations Messenger of Peace was announced – an inclusion that is somewhat jarring, not least because of the actor’s well-documented environmental hypocrisy, as well as his distanced position from the ecological particularities of the Delta.5

Ukpong worked with local youth groups to create FUTURE-WORLD-EXV, establishing workshops intended to activate artistic engagement. Heavily influenced by Joseph Beuys (1921–86) and his expanded concept of art, Ukpong’s work is as much an intervention for change as it is a work of art.6 Indeed, throughout FUTURE-WORLD-EXV, it is the act of collective imagination that resonates. Unfortunately, the tragic precarity of this is made evident by the acknowledgement of the death of several participants since the project was made. The artist’s complementary artistic practices envision an alternative cosmology that engenders conversation about the Niger Delta’s histories, its present and its potential futures, bringing forth a trans-temporal way of effecting change.7

Ukpong’s immersive world-building is further exemplified by the symmetrical positioning of various photographic series, including two works titled Are my Dreams Too Bold for the Carbon Skin I Bear, which are installed on opposite walls. Each photograph shows the head and shoulders of black-painted figure, wearing the now-familiar headpieces, set against a fiery red and orange background. Whereas in #1 FIG.6, the upright subject looks out directly at the viewer, #2 FIG.7 shows a figure leaning backwards, eyes closed – the direct, confrontational gaze of the former contrasting with the resigned endurance in the latter. In At the Center of the Delta, I Come Settled To Bear Your Grand Entry FIG.8, the red-painted figure makes a reappearance, wheeling the baby along a desolate, misty beach. This is flanked by a pair of photographs FIG.9, both of which show a character with their heads bent forwards – a gesture that indicates either reverence or a resignation hauntingly at odds with the anticipation described in the works’ titles.

By depicting the same subjects again and again in recognisably natural environments, and by reusing visual tropes, Ukpong effectively renders conceptualisations of ‘the other’. The artist captures figures in moments of anguish, contemplation and solitude, fostering a connection with the viewer that is rooted in emotion and recognition. His work is both representative of decolonial efforts to embrace ‘strangeness’ and indicative of the historical alienation that has allowed for atrocities against ‘othered’ bodies to take place. Ukpong’s photographic lamentations allow for the freeing of suppressed knowledge and experiences – a crucial tenet of African cosmological traditions.8 Indeed, this facet of Afrofuturism has been increasingly emphasised in terms of its potential to provide the tools for envisioning a ‘new, equitable and inclusive environmentalism’.9

This collective agency is perhaps best encapsulated by the final work in the exhibition, Strongly, We Believe In the Power of this Motile Thing That Will Take Us There #2 FIG.10. Four black-painted figures are sat atop an inflated red tube inscribed with the words ‘Blazing Century’. Waves crash around their feet, giving the impression that they are hurtling through the ocean, each with an arm outstretched, horizontal to the shoreline. At once mystifying and assured, the image reflects the only glimmer of sunlight in Ukpong’s Future Cosmos.


Exhibition details

Wilfred Ukpong: Niger-Delta / Future-Cosmos
Autograph, London
16th February–1st June 2024

About the author

Anne Kimunguyi

is a writer, editor and arts administrator at Tate. She curates and contributes to the monthly Artist Spotlight series for Shade Art Review.


See also

Photography after Discard Studies: the case of Agbogbloshie
Photography after Discard Studies: the case of Agbogbloshie

Photography after Discard Studies: the case of Agbogbloshie

by Jacob Badcock

Africa is everywhere
Africa is everywhere

Africa is everywhere

11.11.2020 • Reviews / Exhibition