Artist to Know: Ndidi Emefiele

Liz Catalano
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Leonard Auction to Present Mixed Media Painting from Rising Nigerian Artist

Among the leading voices of contemporary Nigerian art is Ndidi Emefiele, a painter in her early 30s who is working to subvert Western expectations of African art. The women shown in her paintings have wide eyes protected by colorful glasses and are dressed in rich fabric scraps. Emefiele’s work raises questions about gender, culture, and style.

“Physically and emotionally covered up, [the northern Nigerian woman] has to grow into a role that is already carved out for her from infancy. It was normal for a while but it didn’t take long before I began to feel a need to revolt using my work,” Emefiele has said about her art.

One of her paintings will be on offer in Leonard Auction’s upcoming online sale, held on August 16th, 2020, at 11:00 AM EDT. Get to know Ndidi Emefiele before the bidding starts.

Ndidi Emefiele. Image from New African Woman Magazine.
Ndidi Emefiele. Image from New African Woman Magazine.

Born in 1987, Emefiele spent the majority of her life in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. Her interest in art began at an early age but strengthened while she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Delta State University, Abraka. While still building a following in Nigeria, Emefiele traveled to London to pursue her master’s degree at the Slade School of Fine Art.

Her experience studying abroad not only provided professional opportunities but also threw light on the global lack of support for women artists. “In Nigeria, some would easily classify you as a mediocre for being female and inferior to your male counterparts, or spend more time looking for the bad in your work as they believe you are likely to spend less time making art,” Emefiele told Omenka, a Nigerian art gallery. The empowering nature of her paintings is designed to combat these beliefs.

Citing Frida Kahlo, Wangechi Mutu, and Nike Okundaye among her influences, Emefiele’s art plays with the proportions of women’s heads and shoulders. Placing sun or eyeglasses on her subjects’ faces, Emefiele creates a boundary between them and the viewer: “[The glasses are] that curtain, a veil, a mask behind which she masters the art of mobility… They have become a mark of identity, but also an element of style.” Recycled compact discs make frequent appearances in her portraits.

Ndidi Emefiele, Rainbow Brigade II, 2015. Image from Intense Art Magazine.
Ndidi Emefiele, Rainbow Brigade II, 2015. Image from Intense Art Magazine.

The Emefiele painting on offer in the upcoming sale deviates from the artist’s usual subject matter but maintains her signature style. An untitled 2017 mixed media work, it shows a brown leather couch with patterned pillows. A turquoise wall and the bottom corner of a chalkboard form the background. Despite the lack of a central figure, the painting alludes to Emefiele’s more regular themes: a pair of round glasses is positioned in the painting’s lower-right corner. This work has a presale estimate of USD 2,000 to $3,000, with bids starting at $1,000.

Emefiele’s entrance into the global art market came with several notable exhibitions, including at the 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair, the Cape Town Art Fair, and at gallery rosenfeld in London. Her work was most recently featured in rosenfeld’s collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts. The virtual show was held to celebrate Juneteenth 2020, as well as “… African Diasporan traditions of gathering, particularly ways of togetherness that maintain history, culture, and ritual through active participation.”

Ndidi Emefiele, untitled mixed media painting, 2017. Image from Leonard Auction.
Ndidi Emefiele, untitled mixed media painting, 2017. Image from Leonard Auction.

Emefiele’s paintings are also beginning to attract attention in the auction world. In 2014, one of her works titled Brown Rhapsody (2014) reached NGN 990,000 (USD 2,615) after an estimate of NGN 500,000 to ₦700,000 (USD 1,320 to $1,849). Another piece, titled Summer Time, sold for NGN 715,000 (USD 1,889) in 2015 with Arthouse Contemporary Limited, an international auction house specializing in West African art. Both of these pieces showed women with elaborate hairstyles and bold eyeglasses.

As work from contemporary African artists becomes more popular around the globe, Emefiele’s art is beginning to gather a larger audience both online and among collectors. Its visual celebration of Nigerian culture fits in particularly well on platforms such as Instagram. However, Emefiele hopes her paintings also serve as thought-provoking discussions on femininity and empowerment.

The auction of Emefiele’s painting, as well as over 580 other lots, will begin at 11:00 AM EDT on August 16th, 2020. Visit Bidsquare for further details. 

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