Nigerian artist Abdulrazaq Awofeso tells stories of migration, of departure, of arrival. For “OUT OF FRAME,” his first solo exhibition in the U.K. (on view through August 29, 2022), he has filled Ikon’s three top-floor galleries with a multitude of figurative sculptures made from discarded wooden pallets. Awofeso takes this blankly ubiquitous material—used for transporting goods around the globe—and imbues it with humanity and character, using a variety of display techniques to evoke the personal and the collective experience of human migration.
Awofeso’s own story is contained within the show’s colorful mix of sculptural portraits and toy-like figures. He recently moved from Lagos to Birmingham, where he made these new works in a makeshift, tent-like studio erected in his back garden. Even before his arrival in the U.K., migration had played a crucial part in Awofeso’s life, in particular time spent living in Johannesburg, South Africa, a meeting point for people from across Africa and beyond. As he says in a short video interview that accompanies the exhibition: “I’ve always been in transition, in transit, in different places.”
The exhibition itself takes the viewer on a journey of sorts. We begin with a lively group of relief-style head-and-shoulder portraits that hover at differing heights on individual, white-washed shelves. Collectively titled Do You Know Who I Am (2022), they are depictions of people Awofeso met on a return trip to the U.K. from Nigeria, which included an extended period in Amsterdam due to U.K. government Covid restrictions. While that experience must have been at least unpleasant, if not traumatic, Awofeso’s portraits feel like a celebration. They are full of warmth, rich in color, and, despite their rough appearance, small details highlight the real, individual lives being represented. There’s a woman with red hair in two large buns, a man with a yellow beard and turban, a baseball-capped youth with bright yellow sunglasses. In a nod to the pandemic, a long-haired woman in an off-the-shoulder turquoise dress is wearing a face mask.
The second space is devoted to an installation of works titled Skhothane (2021–22), part of the ongoing “Boujee” series begun in 2009. There’s a distinct shift in tone, form, and presentation here. Boxy male and female figures are displayed on plinths of different colors and varying heights. “Boujee” is slang for bourgeoisie, and the figures are extravagantly dressed in bright suits, pointy shoes, and bow ties. Their rectangular construction makes them resemble an analog version of characters from the computer game Minecraft; and while there’s something darkly comic about the depictions, the overriding feeling is playful, joyful even.
The mood changes again with the final installation, Avalanche of Calm (2021–22), which features 3,000 small figures, each one carved from a single piece of pallet wood and placed on the concrete floor. Here, color is drained and the emphasis is on the crowd rather than the individual. Painted wooden clouds hang above the figures, which collectively resemble a cityscape. Are these people lost in a new city or migrants who have now found a home? Or is this just the arrival before the next departure, before the journey continues? Awofeso leaves things hanging, and the danger and uncertainty that come with migration seem to rumble in the gray-blue clouds overhead.