Exploring the Politics of Identity in Jacqueline Souwari’s Now I Wear Myself

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By Anote Ajeluorou

“ON first encounter with Jacqueline Souwari`s work, one is immediately struck with its sheer monumentality – a factor which amplifies her purpose to convey ‘emotional subliminal expressions’ through body language and identity, and how they impact on communication. Taking more than a cursory glance, one observes that this factor is given greater agency through her tedious but elaborate approach of drawing or mark-making with ballpoint pen, layer over layer.”

Souwari

That is how Oliver Enwonwu, one of the reviewers, starts his critical assessment of Souwari`s body of works that have elicited one of the finest scholarly out-pourng on any artist’s works in recent times. It`s titled `Now She Wears Herself: The Art of Jacqueline Souwari.’ The sheer number of heavyweights who have lent their critical and scholarly attention to Souwari`s work titled ‘Now I Wear Myself’ is a testament to a gifted artist who has once again made a bold outing.

The list of scholar-artists who took time to write critical essays mostly in praise of Souwari’s work is not only impressive but contains some of the finest in the country and beyond. For them to find her work deserving of such critical acclaim means that Souwari came fully made, as an artist of immense promise. And so from Prof. Jerry Buhari to Prof. Frank Ogiomoh to Enwonwu, from Dr. Christena Cleveland to Prim-rose Ochuba and from Eileen Jeng Lynch to Charles Gore, these scholar-artists certainly know who a prodigious talent is and say so when they see one. So what they have said is a stamp of authenticity that Souwari should take seriously and build on.

In writing the essays, these eminent scholar-artists take time to draw references both from ancient and modern masters of the creative process to spotlight the works of Souwari and to contextualise the theoretical constructs that undergrid her works. Indeed, Souwari`s works, if anything, already fit into a category that would occupy the attention of art historians and critics alike as they draw deeply from both traditional, modern aesthetic and the artist`s own idiosyncratic tastes.

Perhaps, the scholarly interest Souwari`s works elicit stems from the uniquely personal thematic preocupation of `the self,` especially at a time when Nigeria`s socio-political and indeed the entire world appears crumbling in the aftermath of a debilitating global pandemic. The question then arises: how does one remain unperturbed in the midst of the outward chaos and still create inward-looking works?

‘Now I Wear Myself’ would appear to be Souwari’s answer to such a poser at a time when most artists are up in arms against the forces constricting the political space at the expense of a vast majority of the downtrodden. It`s not escapism as much as per-haps a need for deeper introspection to identify the true self amidst the external chaos many have succumbed while trying to deal with forces well beyond their scope.

In his essay titled ‘Invitation to Journey into the World of Human Experience,’ Prof. Buhari attests to the identity question in Souwari`s works which he says she does to perfection in mapping the inner vision of her portriats. According to him, “Jacqueline Souwari`s visual language explores and reflects the state of the minds of her models. Issues of identity are captured in the features and surface quality of her fig-ures, consistently and deliberately captured in black and greys, where all the models are in varying shades of grey, as if to celebrate the beauty of blackness.”

Buhari also argues that though Souwari deploys accompanying texts to explain her work, this does not detract the audience from individually interpreting them according to their aesthetic tastes. In other words, Souwari’s works are open-ended such that they yield mutiple layers of meaning just the way her ballpoint pen has created multiple layers upon layers of ink on acrylic.

In Prof. Ugiomoh’s essay, ‘Now I Wear Myself: Extrapolating on Supplanting Self in Jacqueline Souwari`s Work,’ he argues that Souwari`s works plumb the depths of appearances that may be deceptive, ambivalent or even changeling, especially with her focus on women that are often left in the margin of representation or outrightly un-der-represented. A hint of feminism is therefore palpable in the works, he says. This prompts Ugiomoh to note, “Jacqueline Souwari`s works hint at seeming psycho-analytical correspondences that appearances betray. The identity complex is an inchoate reconciliation of facades or appearances against the person or personality within. On another level, the term identity concerns a social site or insertion into societal relationships. The word identity structures different social categories through specific designations such as the term `feminist` artists.”

Ugiomoh also remarks on Souwari`s mastery of draughtsmanship and how her visual narrative has morphed from preoccupation on body language and expression into identity. This, he observes, is a mark of growth on the part of the artist whose visual language has kept shifting to meet her artistic vision.

In `Embodied Sanctuary,’ Cleveland takes on identity politics and how it impacts race as it is constantly being encountered by African-Americans under the shadow of white supremacy and how remaining true to one’s identity is a constant struggle in her own uniquely fluid environment. For her and her kith and kin, the question of identity is of supreme imperative for survival.

As encapsulated in Souwari’s works, Cleveland aptly captures it in her summation of what the body should be, a temple of sacredness: “If I`m to experience embodied sanctuary, I must become the priestess of my own body. I must practice inside life by first being authentic to myself, by beginning a loving dialogue with myself, and by telling myself my stories of beauty and devastation and strength and vulnerability.”

With ‘Insight, Practice, Research and Development’ as her essay title, Ochuba simply refers to Souwari`s works as ‘Spectacle’ deserving of open admiration, an art practice that benefited from over a decade of experience. She adds that Souwari`s ‘Recent body of works has exposed her tenacity for consistency, strength of character and unyieldedness to the winds of opposition. She explores the concealed dynamics of human experience and how they contribute to people`s receptiveness to others.”

Clearly, Souwari`s is a moving canvass of human emotions going by the outpouring of critical effusion by some of the best minds on art history and art criticism. Safe to say that Souwari is on a safe and sound artistic footing. The challenge now is for her to outdo herself in her next body of works, having been propped up on a high perch both by the success of ‘Now I Wear Myself’ and the critical attention these short but loaded essays these scholar-artists have written in admiration.

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