by Maria Porges
In No Lie, Ebitenyefa Baralaye presents viewers with a suite of accomplished, mostly ceramic sculptures made with a range of techniques. Their forms seem simultaneously familiar and eccentrically original, reflecting the meaning of the show’s title—a slang expression suggestive of a genuine truthfulness that may also be subjective and malleable.
Baralaye, raised in the Caribbean and the U.S. by Nigerian parents, draws on his diasporic identity in shaping pieces that frequently evoke familial relationships. Twins play a significant role in Nigerian culture, and several pieces come in pairs or larger sibling-like groups.
Like Martin Puryear, Baralaye uses abstraction as a three-dimensional language to describe or examine identity and culture. The biomorphic, embryo-like form of Dupp Dup —"Hello Ghost,” in Caribbean slang — invokes the older artist’s work, which itself reaches back towards not only folk and tribal traditions but nods to the organic inventions of modernists such as Jean Arp or Joan Miró. Baralaye’s own voice seems to speak more clearly in pieces like ConTaxts — ovals of coiled clay hung on the wall like ascending footprints—or the indescribably strange and beautiful No Lie, which seems to have grown out of the previous work (and given the exhibition its catchy name). Created with the same method—laying hand-rolled “snakes” of clay on top of each other in ascending layers—No Lie’s contrapposto twist makes it seem almost alive, arrested in a moment of hesitation. This is no mean feat; it suggests a vitally interesting direction in which to take the vessel-based forms that Baralaye seems comfortable making, but which are ultimately little more than stolidly handsome in comparison to this magnetic piece.
Another recent sculpture manages to combine quite a few of Baralaye’s diasporic influences. Fount is a softly curving, shell-like form, fashioned out of an accumulation of tiny bits of clay, resulting in something between a cowrie shell and Duchamp’s urinal. In the traditions and cultures of both West Africa and the Caribbean, vulva-shaped cowries are rich in meaning and value (they were once used as currency) as well as spiritual significance. Duchamp’s urinal—the title of which is Fountain, of course—is equally freighted with meaning in its role as a prime object of modern art. Baralaye’s Fount is enchantingly strange. It could be described as a creole object. That is, a visualization of the way in which a mother tongue is formed from the contact of two languages through an earlier pidgin stage.
Another recent work, Cassius, suggests forays into the pidgin of contemporary display strategies. It features four tiny enigmatic clay sculptures, hand-sized or smaller, displayed against a grid of rectangular slabs of plywood. Each is supported by the kind of hardware you’d see on a pegboard in a home shop — holding a hammer or a screwdriver, or hooked though something with a hole in its handle. The objects are a dark, rich, brownish black, and bear recognizable marks from having been squeezed into their abstract, possibly useful shapes. They look like art, and that is slightly to their detriment. Still, I looked at them for a long time, trying to figure out what they might be used for, as if whoever wielded them were asserting “No lie!”
# # #
Ebitenyefa Baralaye: “No Lie” @ Traywick Contemporary through January 19, 2019.
About the author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.