Emmanuel Osahor: I Made This Place For You


Stepping into Emmanuel Osahor’s exhibition, I made this place for you — on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton until May 5 — feels like being welcomed into a neighbour’s garden. You’re immediately transported into a lush, painted world, where huge canvases patterned with luminous foliage stretch across the walls and the faint sound of burbling water echoes just out of sight. 

Installation view, Emmanuel Osahor, “Sylvia's garden,” 2021, oil and acrylic on canvas, 90" x 144" (photo by Charles Cousins, courtesy of Art Gallery of Alberta)

Osahor, a Nigerian-Canadian artist based in Toronto, sees the garden as a space rich in metaphor, where ideas around care, labour, utopia, colonization and the process of construction and continual change all coincide. Although he has been making work about gardens for years, his ideas became more personal in 2021. 

“I started thinking about the garden as a space of care for oneself, and the labour involved in creating a space that can sort of serve as a fictional sanctuary or a fictional space of respite,” Osahor says.

“That’s where the title comes from: this idea that one could construct a garden space that becomes an offering to a community.”

Installation view, Emmanuel Osahor, “Lilacs (for Farah),” 2021, oil and acrylic on canvas, 72" x 90" (photo by Charles Cousins, courtesy of Art Gallery of Alberta)

The sheer, massive scale of these oil paintings immerses the viewer, enveloping them and inviting them to linger. As with many of the paintings in the exhibition, Sylvia’s garden is composed of two large panels. The painted space of the sky is almost hidden by trees, leaves and branches. Flat expanses of green and sketchy shapes of leaves and underbrush are layered with thicker dabs and spikes of paint, bordering on and slipping over each other. The bright underpainting, a mix of cadmium yellow and cadmium red, glimmers through gaps in the leaves, creating a sense of sparkling light. 

Lilacs (for Farah) is a riot of pinks — alizarin crimson and cadmium red mixed in a luscious pattern of swirls and blotches. The lilacs crowd out the sky, except for a pale blue swatch along the top edge of the canvas. A bench peeks out from the centre of the flowers, the bright yellow of the underpainting shining through its slats, inviting you into the dense pink wall of the work. 

The only painting in the show that hints at figuration is I have been afraid of my own shadow, where the artist’s shadow stretches onto the canvas, turning the work into a self-portrait. A lake shimmers with layered colour, and the yellow, fibrous marks of hanging leaves blot out the sky. The painting feels quiet, still and a bit lonely. 

In the second room of the exhibition, there are more paintings as well as two series of etchings, and Birdbath, a set of six life-size ceramic birdbaths — the source of the burbling water. Osahor worked with Toronto-based ceramicist Adam Williams to create these pieces. Williams threw the forms, and Osahor drew on them with his hands, moving the clay into floral patterns. The best part of this work is the sound, which fills the space and adds to the experience. 

“When you’re in a garden…you have these dual experiences,” says Osahor.

“You have a macro experience where you’re taking in everything as a whole and you also have these micro experiences where you’re sort of thrown into the specificity of one thing.”

Installation view, Emmanuel Osahor, “Birdbath,” 2023, ceramic, water, and electronic motor, 25" x 14" x 14" (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nicolas Robert; photo by Charles Cousins, courtesy of Art Gallery of Alberta)

The paintings play with this duality. Sitting on a bench in the exhibition, surrounded by huge painted gardens, you have the impression of being inside a lush, green, fictional world. When you stand up and look closer, you can see the quickness of the marks, the patterning, the drips of paint and the underpainting, all evidence of the time spent on the process of making. 

For Osahor, this making is a form of gardening itself. 

“You’re constantly adapting and changing, and you’re constantly dealing with failure, constantly ceding control and trying to wrestle control back,” he says. 

“For a number of years now, I’ve thought about my studio as the primary garden.” 

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