Emmanuel Osahor is no stranger to meditative gardenscapes: the bulk of his painted work takes place in familiar-feeling natural spaces that are often characterized by gentle, lush greenery, with a focus on evoking feelings of care and calm in the viewer. That said, his installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), entitled, These Days, feels different. The ceramic pieces and the photographic vinyl backdrop that are part of this exhibition create a world that feels softer, calmer, and more digestible than any single moment of being in the world as we experience it today. The reverent urgency in the brushwork on the main canvas in the installation, which is positioned in the far wall, uses an effectively calming colour palette. It’s feel-good art with excellent execution and benevolent intentions.
A 2021 graduate of the University of Guelph, Osahor was born in Nigeria and has focused his artistry firmly in the visual space, anchoring his practice in painting, printmaking, and photography. Within these realms he explains his own practice by saying he “engages with beauty as a necessity for survival, and a precursor to thriving in the midst of today’s marginalization and inequity.” This particular installation takes that ability to new heights, expanding and refining Osahor’s craft into a force of powerful, meditative calm.
Designed as a site-specific installation, Osahor takes the viewer out of the concrete monolith of the Tower Automotive Building where the MoCA has been located since 2018 and into a world of his own design. Built into the north wall of the lobby, the open space is wrapped floor up in a vinyl print of a daytime sky. Dotted along the floor are wooden “islands” of handmade ceramic birds, presenting a welcome visual break from the MoCA’s unfinished concrete. The centre point of the installation is a wall-mounted canvas painting, set against the vinyl sky.
The painting is one of Osahor’s signature gardenscape paintings but more emotional and evocative than anything I’ve seen on his website up to this point. His brushwork and muted colours are punctuated by small, energetic strokes of contrasting richer tones. The abstract scrawls and semi-translucent drip patterns pull you into the painting, becoming guides for the incredible depth presented. Osahor’s masterful control over these novel textures lead the viewer into a deep and enriching viewing experience. His more abstract choices also facilitate that emotional charge; this “charge” or energy does not exist in contrast to the calm of the painting, but in parallel – the work is not frantic or frenzied in the slightest. Instead it creates a world of deliberate calm and contemplation, a place that exists between Osahor’s vision and the viewer’s perception. It is a fertile common ground in which to plant the seeds of societal change, in tandem with the artist’s vision of beauty as necessity and rebellion against a world that is built on the pain and suffering of people of colour.
Surrounding the installation on the floor, and skirting the edge of the vinyl, are what the artist refers to as “wooden archipelagos” decorated with small, roughly handmade ceramic birds. These small palm-shaped pieces are abstract in form and dotted with colour to match the canvas, adding a careful harmony to the installation. Serving as visual metaphors for infinite possibility and limitless flight, they extend the world presented on the canvas further outwards and around the viewer, enriching and deepening the world Osahor has built. Should you choose to engage with it, the work becomes that much easier to step into because of the sheer attention and care paid to these small details. Osahor’s specific phrasing of “palm-shaping” in his artist statement is in reference to the hands of the artist – a reflection on mastery and the physicality of his chosen mediums.
The cloud and sky photographic vinyl on the walls expands the horizons of the exhibit even further, dropping us into something that is larger than life. Positioned so the sky is behind the painting, it gently disorients the viewer, placing us in a world that has been inverted. It’s all part of the familiar, but gently shifted world Osahor works to present as part of his mission for calm and beauty.
This calm and beauty, however, is slightly betrayed by the work’s installation location. Directly beside the rather buzzy and sometimes even outright loud Forno Cultura (a restaurant situated inside the MoCA), it proved for a rather distracted viewing experience, and one that could have been improved by more careful awareness on the curatorial end. Sound-dampening curtains that wrap around the space and continue the vinyl would have been an option. Or, if the museum didn’t want to close off Osahor’s space, closing in Forno Cultura a little more would have also been possible. However, I don’t feel that this is any one person’s fault, but rather the product of a few minor oversights at the MoCA that made it occasionally challenging to fully immerse myself in the work.
As the sum of its pieces, These days isn’t revolutionary like a molotov cocktail or a riot. It is not loud or bombastic in its call to action or for change. Instead, it’s a rose on a thorn, and an olive branch out to the world. It welcomes us into a world that Oshaor wants to live in, one of great peace and reflection, in harmony with nature and ourselves. It’s a quiet diversion away from chaos and into beauty, which we all need more of to survive. Work like These days has staying power because it wraps the viewer in feelings all of us crave – understanding, care, and love. It’s a gentle reminder of what the world can be if we allow ourselves to grow and change.
Emmanuel Osahor, These days was exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto from June 2, 202 to July 23, 2023
Eden Schwinghamer is a Toronto-based photographer who works in fine art and gallery spaces.
Eden is part of Centred’s Emerging Visual Arts Writers Mentorship Program. He was mentored by John Nyman in the writing of this review. Centred is grateful to the London Arts Council for the generous support of the Emerging Visual Arts Program.