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UNEARTHED: Revealing the Roots of Environmental art in Africa

 Presented by Jadesola Olaniyan

Revealing the Roots of Environmental art in Africa


James Lovelock proposed the “Gaia Hypothesis” which suggests that the earth and its inhabitants come together to produce a harmonious, self regulating, and life-sustaining system (Turney, 2003). This idea purports the notions that humans, animals, plants, rocks, water, soil and other components of the natural world rely on each other for collective survival. Presenting the natural world as something that holds essential value, this ecocentric worldview contributed to the emergence of what is known today as “environmental art” (Weintraub, 2012).

Emerging from the visual aspects of the “earth” as a material and cultural artifact, it is then essential to explore the process of burial and unearthing as a symbolic component of this exhibition, titled, UNEARTHED. UNEARTHED is a virtual exhibition that explores the use of photography, painting, sculpture, and performance to uncover a revived understanding of the earth as a sentient and active contributor to our shared existence. By exposing audiences to images and depictions of the natural world within the man-made, virtual exhibition space, the show will provide audiences with the opportunity to embrace the natural cycles of growth, death and rebirth that we witness throughout our natural lives.

With the objective of centering the natural world and drawing attention to ecological crises plaguing contemporary society, environmental art gives voice to the current generation of artists, advocates and youth, mourning the loss of ecosystems and sustainable traditions in the changing seasons of our postcolonial aftermath. The participating artists, Foluso Oguntoye, Michael Jackson Blebo, and Nothando Chiwanga, reflect a new approach to environmental art. Within each piece, the earth is represented in ways that are deeply rooted in culture, spirituality and identity. Collectively concerned with ideas that reflect feelings of nostalgia, reverence and nurture for our ecological systems, each artist expresses their own personal and intimate relationship with the earth. By exploring these collective narratives, we can begin to unearth a new sense of value, hence, reclaiming a new world for ourselves.

Artwork above: Nothando Chiwanga, Zvokudya 1 (Food), 2021, Self portrait photography on matte paper, 83,82 cm x 60,96 cm, Edition: 2 of 2, R9,594.00 ex. VAT, Unframed

Foluso Oguntoye

Foluso Oguntoye (b. 1994) is a Lagos based  visual artist. He graduated with a BA in Fine Arts at the Manchester school of Art, UK, in 2016. Oguntoye is drawn to exploring the land, nature and plants in his artworks and has had a close, experiential and working relationship with nature for over 6 years till now as a plantsman, which continues to deepen his curiosity for nature and inform his practice and desire to merge nature work with his artistic voice. He is particularly influenced by tropical, indigenous flora, fauna, forests and landscapes which he continues to explore and expand further in his current work.

His imaginative exploration of the forms, symbols, patterns, gestures and colours that are expressed and encoded in nature guide him as he delves deeper into the knowledge of the earth’s mysteries. In this way, he is able to further realize and communicate the natural connection between humanity and the natural world.

In a world that is increasingly alienated and disconnected from nature and life’s processes, Oguntoye contemplates and communicates ideas and themes of memory & identity, abundance & fertility, spirituality and the interconnectedness of nature.

His art serves to celebrate, mourn, remind, reclaim and reimagine human (natural), cultural and spiritual identities that have been discarded, lost, distorted and displaced, shifting our attention towards the abundance and new life that awaits us now and in the future.

Some of his recent exhibitions include:  The World Reimagined- Journey of Discovery Sculpture trail, London, UK (2022),  Art at Ouida ,  Pop-up art exhibition by JCAA, Lagos, Nigeria (2022), and Journey To The Greenprint I- (Independent Solo), Lagos, Nigeria (2021).

Foluso Oguntoye, Let Your Treasure be here with your heart, 2019, Not your trash and you will eat the good of the land, Acrylic on canvas, 91 cm x 55 cm, R23,461.00 ex. VAT, Unframed

Michael Jackson Blebo

Michael Jackson Blebo also known as MJ (b.1993) is a Ghanaian artist who resides and works in Ada-Accra and currently works as an artist (sculptor) and a griot at Nkyinkyim Museum. MJ got his Bachelor in Fine Arts (Sculpture) in 2018 from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi- Ghana. He has participated in local and international residencies such as Critlab and Rele Arts Foundation Bootcamp in 2020 and 2021 respectively.

MJ is fascinated by his environment as he draws inspiration wherever he finds himself from cities, urban centres, villages, markets, lorry stations etc. MJ has also participated in various local and international group exhibitions, including ‘‘Middle grounds’’ curated by MJ at Nuhalenya-Ada. In 2021, his works were featured in the group show ‘‘Young Contemporaries’’ curated by Adéoluwa Olúwajoba, at National Museum in Onikan-Lagos, Nigeria.’ He is also  the 2021, Absa L’atelier Ambassador.

MJ’s  approach to his art practice has been experimental as he makes colours from plants, charcoal, earth and other materials found in his environment, allowing him space to determine the materiality of his practice. He investigates nature, material memory, natural architecture and humankind’s relationship with the environment. Primarily working with drawing, painting, sculpture and installation as a point of entry, his exploration of geological formation and architecture raise important questions on how his artworks are viewed. The elements used in his works are usually welded or constructed together to create installations that reference kinetic sculpture and the aethetics of minimalist abstraction. MJ’s works employ materials such as charcoal, phyto (natural pigment), red ochre, steel and mirrors, while also utilising indigenous working techniques, methodologies and aesthetics which allow him to place his works in direct connection to historical context and tradition. The questions that guide MJ’s practice and process relate to the longevity of the materials used and the display or form of the artwork. This has led MJ to adopt techniques like encaustic and egg tempera which are ancient and contemporary techniques.

Michael Jackson Blebo, Asaase Yaa (Mother earth), 2023, Pastel on Kraft paper, 96,52 cm x 76,2 cm, R 43,173.00 ex. VAT

Nothando Chiwanga

Nothando Chiwanga (b. 1997) is a Zimbabwean visual and performance artist based in Harare. Working predominantly in the medium of performance art, photography and collage, she studied at Queen Elizabeth Girls School and eventually graduated from the National Gallery School of Visual Arts and Design in 2019.

Some of her recent exhibitions include the New Signatures, National Gallery of Zimbabwe (2019) and Green Shoots (2020) at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe; Notes for Tomorrow, a traveling exhibition by Independent Curatorial International (2021); Rele Young Contemporaries 2022 at National Museum, Onikan Lagos (2022) and the Madzimbawe Group Show at Akka Project Dubai (2022). Additionally, she has participated in artist residencies hosted by the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (2020) and Rele Arts Foundation (2022). She has also participated in various workshops such as The Realism with John Kotze, Performance Art with Sithembile Msezane, and Art and Ethics with Julius Mushambadope.

Nothando Chiwanga’s work is deeply influenced by her personal experiences. Her work seeks to  reinvent everyday life. Her approach to portraiture, image making and display, as well as her vivid elaborate use of light, pose, and environment, present acts that are expressionist and performative in nature.

Mostly relating to womanhood, she addresses themes relating to  education, food, bereavement, home tools and traditions. She uses her body as a medium of  memory and fiction to reveal the complex world of young women in a rapidly changing society where traditional values are hanging by a thread and changing as they become more relevant to the current times. Her works hold and undeniable sense of realism as they seek to  document and explore the perceptions and political positions of woman.

Nothando Chiwanga, Avo vasikana ve Blue (The Girls in Blue), 2022, Photography on matte paper, 83,82 cm x 60,96 cm, Edition: 2 of 3, R 9,594.00 ex. VAT


Jadesola Olaniyan (b. 1997) is a visual artist, independent curator and anthropologist born and based in Lagos, Nigeria. She completed her BA (Hons.) in Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, focusing on museum studies and visual culture (2016-2021).

Her career has been marked by projects completed with institutions and organizations such as ‘Failed State’ Collective, SMO Contemporary Art, UBC’s Laboratory of Archaeology, and The Museum of Anthropology (Vancouver). Her curatorial work has varied within the realms of collections-based research projects, and art and museum exhibitions of varying scales.

Olaniyan’s curatorial perspective is informed by theories of memory, consciousness and existentialism, especially in the context of how they relate to the tangible and intangible. Her main goal as a curator is to document the emergence of these themes through the mobilization of thought by extending her projects beyond the walls of gallery spaces and into the daily lives of artists and non-artists alike. This perspective calls on the implementation of experimental and collaborative approaches to find solutions to problems affecting the work of artists in her community.

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Further Reading In Articles

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