Painting with colour and detail, Tonia Nneji addresses her experiences with polycystic ovarian syndrome
Currently on show at Rele Art Gallery in Lagos, the Nigerian artist presents a body of work that depicts an ongoing exploration into pain, trauma and women’s bodies.
- Ayla Angelos
- 9 December 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
“Sadness does not have to be in black and white or grey and brown,” says Tonia Nneji in a statement from her first solo exhibition You May Enter at Rele Art Gallery Lagos. Proving that anguish doesn’t have to look so bleak, the Nigerian artist confronts her experiences with pain, trauma and engagement with the female body through a signature chromatic colour palette. A style which paints figures – mostly women – embracing, sitting or lying, adorned with details and motifs from her birth country.
As such, Tonia sees her practice as a tool for understanding her lived experiences – like that of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). “I speak of my struggles with menstrual cycles, weight, insomnia, depression and the agony of discovering meaningful diagnosis in the collapsed healthcare system in Nigeria,” she tells It’s Nice That. A disorder that affects one in 10 women of childbearing age, it’s a condition that still causes much mystery; there’s no definite diagnosis to the syndrome. Alongside the symptoms noted by Tonia, it also alters hormone balance and can lead to excess male hormone levels.
By addressing this experience with joyful, decorated colour, it can be understood that the creative process is remedial for the artist. Meandering through her recent works in particular – that which is currently on show at Rele Art Gallery Lagos until November next year – the viewer can make sense of this therapeutic approach. In one painting, Faith and Worry II [pictured below] a female character appears to lay weakly across the lap of what appears to be a male figure. The texture of their skin is layered, deep blue and built up as if the curves were signalling the crest of a mountain – hinting to the mammoth journey that women, especially those with PCOS, often have to undergo. Then, in perfect harmony with the vibrant orange-tinted backdrop, there rests pieces of cloth. Intricately painted and full of rich colour, the fabrics are splayed in such a manner that not only do they denote the fact that it’s keeping part of their bodies clothed, they also call out to the fabrics of Tonia’s Nigerian heritage.
It’s clear that these pieces take time to complete, and of course take plenty of skill and devotion to do so too. Tonia will begin her usual day in the studio and begin to paint her figures with acrylics, before making a start on the fabrics with oil paints. “It involves patience because of the realistic way I depict the fabrics,” she says. Here, she’s referring to her heritage cloth – Akwete cloth that’s traditionally woven and produced in Igboland, the homeland of the Igbo people located in southeastern Nigeria. Full of vibrancy, pattern and character, it’s created with a technique that’s centuries-old; the fabric strips are weaved together, using sisal hemp, raffia, cotton or other fibres. In the past, the cloth has been used as warrior headgear, while the other uses include clothing, towels, ropes and handbags.
It’s a complex and highly skilled practice that, if replicated into a painted piece of work, will equally amount to a laborious (although rewarding) job just like its physical counterpart. However, it’s not just the craft that Tonia wants to present in her work: “I feel that, while fabrics are being explored in contemporary paintings, we don’t always get to understand their deeper significance in society,” she says. Resultantly, her work focuses on the details of the textile materials in order to draw attention to its value and significance in her life and society: “These fabrics are a link to my story as an Igbo and African woman," she says.
Tonia’s paintings allude to both emotion and history. Every piece she makes has a place in her heart, and her recent pieces are no exception. “They’re about joy in the midst of sadness and trauma, comfort, an act of defiance and the role of religion in a typical African society,” she says, pointing to the fact that there’s much to be seen and heard within her work if you take the time to observe it, and look deeper behind the colourful depictions of bodies and textiles. “My paintings depict a community of ‘pain bearers’, which is something that I felt led to because of how, in the paintings, they hold each other.”
The textiles play a key role throughout her work. During Tonia’s treatment for PCOS, she recalls a moment when her mother had to sell some of her valuable fabrics to fund the medical bills. Another time, when she’d set off on a journey from one religious institution to another in search for alternative treatment, she’d come across materials with a set of different and interesting patterns. “The intimate detailing of the textile materials in my paintings eventually became an activity I love to do,” she says, concluding on the fact that these fabrics are of great importance to her personally, as well as within her paintings. “I expect my audience, especially women, to be aware of PCOS and its complications. And to find strength in the midst of chaos.”
You May Enter is on show at Rele Art Gallery Lagos until 1 November 2021.
Tonia Nneji: Faith and Worry. Acrylic and Oil on Canvas, 48 x 48 inches. Exhibited at Rele Art Gallery Lagos. (Copyright © Tonia Nneji, 2020)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.