In the middle of last year, 23-year-old performance artist, painter and photographer Valerie Uche was watching a friend and fellow artist, Julius, at work. He, was making water colour portraits of women, and as Uche watched, she began to wonder, who would be the artist to paint him? “I’m an artist” she resolved. “I could paint him;” and paint him she did, producing an oil portrait of her friend barely a week later.
This was how one artist’s tribute to another morphed into her current artistic project, WHO WILL PAINT BOYS?, with Julius being just the starting point.
‘I painted my father afterwards,’ Uche adds ‘and before I knew it I was interested in rendering portraits of men that I have made special connections with at some point in my life. I began to send texts and emails requesting photos and permission.’
During the early stages of the project, Uche was simply focused on creating portraits using media ranging from oil and water colour, to digital drawings and paintings. This was before she noticed the limited contemporary artworks of nude males in comparison to those of females. Along with her epiphany came an added, sociopolitical layer to her project.
Uche essentially settled on using WHO WILL PAINT BOYS? as a conduit to explore the hypermasculine norms that deprive men of feeling and expressing the whole range of their emotions; particularly those that are supposedly feminine.
Such gender standards, Uche believes, are an offshoot of what she considers to be her society’s deification of men, perceiving the male as God-like, supreme and superior and thus, representing them in compromising positions being ‘akin to blasphemy.’
Some of the reactions to the project (so far) corroborate this. At home, her grandmother ‘nearly collapsed’ on seeing one of Uche’s nude paintings of a man with his penis full on. ‘She immediately exclaimed in Igbo “chineke’me aa,” (my God!), and pleaded with me not to paint the face of this ‘emasculated’ man, as that would be shameful.’
Also, in response to an instagram video of Uche talking about her motivations for the project, one affronted Instagrammer felt that “what makes men “MEN” is just manning up to whatever makes you emotional and that if you want to cry, cry in private. Scream into something… Ego makes a man…Every man must be strong.”
Uche’s attitude to these views is quite benign. ‘The reactions I get from people are usually my favorite part; hearing them confirm my initial thoughts and observations. Not everyone is going to agree with my ideologies, and I don’t blame them; it’s not easy to unlearn unhealthy behaviors. But then again, it’s no excuse for injustice to either sexes.’
There were also heartening remarks from friends, peers and senior art colleagues. ‘A lot of people didn’t understand the essence of the paintings until I made the video. They assumed it to be another nude painting; but on watching and listening, they realized that these were paintings made purposely in the nude to challenge social injustices pertaining to gender.’
Uche is aware of the potential for long term impact within a Nigerian context. ‘It’s really a bold thing for a young woman as myself to take up the project of painting ‘naked’ men, especially in such a judgmental society.’
Indeed, looking is a gendered activity. While men, with the male gaze, have normalised the objectification of women’s bodies as merely sites to project phallocentric masculine desires, women haven’t been accorded much agency in this. To take an example from Uche’s own Igbo culture: during traditional festivals, women are prohibited from looking at masquerades, who are notably and exclusively male.
Increasingly, women artists have ‘looked back’ with an oppositional gaze (to borrow bell hooks’ phrase), to invert patriarchal objectification of women’s bodies. Uche’s act of reflection, in the context of WHO WILL PAINT BOYS?, is of a slightly different nature. She is looking back not to necessarily contribute to repairing damaging representations of women under the male gaze, but with an interest in helping to make men realise the dehumanisation inherent in subscribing to the earlier mentioned hypermasculine norms. “Toxic masculinity is very lethal. I aim for these paintings to bring about a remembrance that we’re all human beings.” Ergo OBJECTIFY, which was the first offshoot of WHO WILL PAINT BOYS?.
That first stage of the ongoing series featured a number of of acrylic on canvas paintings of posed men whose limbs and heads are substituted for octopus tentacles and household objects. These appendages are analogous of the spirits of independence that octopuses are believed to be. ‘I coupled these symbolisms with my personal belief that we find strength in our so-called weaknesses’ Uche explains. ‘I’m trying to communicate something, to men, about the strength that lies in being vulnerable; to basically say that being naked – which is to say, open and vulnerable – allows us to wholly feel. And there is a real, healthy kind of strength in that.’
Since OBJECTIFY, Uche has been conceptualizing the next elements of the project, with the body, penis size and dysmorphia being her potential main focus.
‘I’m taking my time,’ she says. ‘I’d initially wanted to show what I had of it at a competition but that didn’t happen. I really wouldn’t want the message watered down or lost in the excitement of a showcase; so, for now, I’m just going to be exploring and creating.’
Once all the branches of WHO WILL PAINT BOYS? exists on canvas, and once a solo exhibition has taken place, Uche wishes to have the work available in schools and museums for art historical studies.
Perhaps then, it would be a good time to either create more personal performance art, or to work on her first major photographic project.
Images courtesy of Valerie Uche