The familial influence is stronger than some might think. Peter Uka, an artist born in Nigeria and currently based in Cologne, Germany, grew up surrounded by creativity. And this was inevitably going to inspire his future endeavours, even if he didn’t quite think it at the time.
His grandfather was a woodcarver and farmer, his grandmother a potter and his father a self-taught artist. “My parents, as most parents do, wanted me to pursue a career that would financially secure my future,” he tells It’s Nice That. “I started out studying architecture, but soon discovered that was not the path I wanted for myself.” Upon realising this, Peter began his inquest into the arts and started to pursue a new and exciting path – one that saw him discover an adoration for capturing the human face. “The expressions the human face projects is also the initial impression to give to others. I found this fascinating and wanted to challenge myself to interpret this, as well as communicate the complexity behind these overlooked occurrences.”
This is perhaps why, after meandering through Peter’s portfolio, you’ll start to feel a sense of closeness with his paintings. His subjects are adorned with subtle intricacies, detailed expressions and mannerisms, all of which are paired with realistic backdrops of textiles and furniture. It’s figurative art at its finest and only heightened by his impeccable use of colour and ability to capture a narrative.
These particular compositions hark back to traditional 20th Century painting, a time in which artists were embracing a new era and thus rejecting the previous styles of realism, representation and traditional aesthetics. Abstract and expressionist techniques were on the rise which made way for cubism and a less restrained approach to recreating a subject or scene. Peter grew up in Nigeria, and during his younger years was exposed to the traditional side of art – focusing more on the fundamentals and techniques of the masters before him. “When I came to Germany, I discovered different avenues of art that were both related and not related to my own approach,” he says. “I channelled that into exploring techniques, asking: how do I express it?”
One of Peter’s main muses is the inimitable Kerry James Marshall, whose works Peter was fortunate to observe at the Ludwig Museum, Cologne. An American artist known for his paintings of Black figures, Marshall has gained acclaim for examining African-American culture in the United States. “It was the first time I saw a work of a Black artist in Europe, who is unapologetically authentic in his work,” says Peter. “I watched a mini-documentary and interview he gave, and I knew at that moment that this is what I wanted to do from the beginning, but I lacked the boldness of how it would be received. Seeing his show gave me the confidence and the ability to be unapologetic in my pursuits.”
As his confidence grew, Peter went on to further his studies in the arts at Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, and he’s now had works exhibited at ARCOmadrid, National Museum Onikan, Haus der Kunst, Kunsthaus Mettman and DIDI Museum – his next show will be his first solo exhibition in the USA with Mariane Ibrahim later this year in November.
It’s safe to say that Peter is wholeheartedly flourishing in his medium, and spends most of his days working at his studio, refining his craft. “First things first, music,” he says of his typical day. “I am very old school.” In this sense, he’ll be bellowing out Nigerian Highlife – a popular genre of dance music that originated in Ghana. His most played artists are Prince Nico Mbarga, Victor Uwaifo, Bongos Ikwue, not to mention a selection of old blues and jazz artists too, plus Israeli composer Avishai Cohen. Oh, and some days he’ll be listening to a more melancholic array of tunes, especially from Scandinavian musicians like Esbjörn Svensson Trio or Lars Danielson.
Peter’s love of sound is made evident through his dynamic paintings, like Spunky Vibes, a piece that sees a trio of men jiving away from the artist’s lens. They’re sporting shirts and wide-cut jeans, shimmying across a patterned floor as the bright green walls complement their every move. There are many more scenes like this – of subjects enjoying the sweet sound of music and responding with a move or two. And then there are the softer paintings, like Quiet Listening, that depicts a suited man sat peacefully as he listens to his gramophone. Whatever the scene, however, each has a vibrant consistency about it; a stylistic move used to convey the scenes of Peter’s childhood growing up in Nigeria.
“As time goes on, I don’t know if I will be doing the same things in the coming years,” Peter reflects. “But I think I will evolve in a different direction. Stories need to be told. The best way to articulate stories is to paint. I am only telling my truth, not trying to be anyone else and share things for my own experience. I knew there would be people who would relate to what I was saying and would somehow and somewhere experience it. In the end, it turned out to be that you take a subject and the composition out, and place it in another environment. People can also relate to it, others can experience it in different cultures.”
Peter Uka: Pause, 2020, 200 x 140 cm. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist and Mariane Ibrahim (Copyright © Peter Uka, 2020)
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she became online editor in 2022 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.