by J.P. Hyppolite and Len Lear
Omenihu Amachi was once a popular radio broadcaster in his homeland of Nigeria, but now he is an extraordinarily talented artist who reflects the pride in his Nigerian heritage in his eye-catching paintings, 30 of which were exhibited Sunday, April 22, in “The Art of Wellness” at Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill. Dr. Sheila Davis, Dr. Michelle Palos-Samsi and others at St Catherine Laboure Clinic, 5838 Germantown Ave., planned the event in conjunction with Morris Arboretum to support healthcare for the uninsured in Philadelphia.
“Some time ago,” said Omenihu, “the extremely caring and hard-working doctors at St Catherine talked with me about fundraising ideas for the clinic, and I was thrilled to participate.” Seven other artists also signed on to participate in the “Wellness” idea, to exhibit spiritual and uplifting art in a healthy, healing garden environment, to support the wellness of patients.
The one-day show went well. Although attendance goals were not reached because of the rain that fell all day on April 22, “it was better than I anticipated,” said Omenihu. “I am thankful that I sold two paintings out of the 30 works I showed at the exhibit.”
According to Bob Gutowski, Director of Public Programs for Morris Arboretum, “Amachi’s work certainly caught my attention with its bold color and forms, lively expression of peoples, community, place and the experience of symbol. The fun and the profound don’t often mix this well. I very much enjoyed his presence and his art.
“The event came about the way these things often do, by people helping people and creating partnerships to do so. An Arboretum volunteer who also supports the St.Catherine Laboure Medical Clinic inquired about holding a fund-raising event here. We felt there was an opportunity to try something new by linking the garden and art in the pursuit of wellness in our community.” Bob met with Dr. Sheila Davis from St. Catherine’s, and they worked out the details.
“The event was successful, in spite of the otherwise welcome rain. With about 100 participants, art sales were light, but the sense of community and spirits was strong. Through event promotion and the partnership, we were able to make more people aware of the Clinic and introduce a new audience to Morris Arboretum. Our partnership for wellness is continuing beyond the event. It was also successful as a pilot event that allowed us to explore a pop-up art exhibit in our visitors center during regular garden hours.”
Many visitors were clearly impressed by Amachi’s passionate narratives, expressed in vivid, colorful brushstrokes. His vibrant style incorporates the drumbeat rhythm and symbolism of his heritage. His work is in oil, acrylic and occasionally water color. “I like to do narrative work,” he explained, “sometimes symbolism. I look at my work to uplift the human condition.”
One of Omenihu’s favorite pieces is “Adam and Eve.” The beautiful acrylic painting portrays an African Adam and Eve and echoes the notion that there are moments in time when individuals do things they know they should not do. “We do things that are harmful to ourselves, in spite of the beauty and everything that surrounds us. We as humans like to go around and enjoy life, sometimes to the detriment of others around us. We should be careful because in the process we hurt ourselves and maybe hurt others. We want to be cautious while we enjoy ourselves.”
Amachi, who requested that his age not be mentioned, also highlighted a painting named “Restrictions on Beauty.” He described how beauty is expressed yet restricted in his tribal Igbo culture and how women all over the world “beautify” themselves. “Society puts restrictions on the young women so that they can focus their attention on doing what’s required by going to school, helping out their parents and the community, instead of focusing their attention on beauty, which is expensive and takes away time.”
“Female Right of Passage,” another acrylic painting, describes young girls being taken to a place that used to be called the “fattening room.” They were “fed properly” and taught how to become willing and useful to themselves, their family and society. The piece shows a period of celebration.
Anyone examining Omenihu’s work cannot help but notice the almost palpable pride in his homeland. Omenihu’s father was born in Aba, located in the state of Adia in Nigeria. As previously stated, Omenihu is of the Igbo people, most of whom inhabited what was known as Biafra (or The Republic of Biafra), Nigeria. Tragically, what was once The Republic of Biafra suffered horrifically during the Nigeria-Biafra War of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Igbo people make up much of the southeastern portion of Nigeria. Due to various ethnic conflicts, The Republic of Biafra was formed after the southeastern provinces broke away from Nigeria on May 30, 1967. War then broke out two months later between Biafra and the Nigerian government. The conflict and how it affected Igbo culture is a significant feature of the art of Omenihu, who “saw what was going on from a little boy’s eye or perspective.
“There has been a lot of persecution and marginalization of people from my area. We Igbo are hard working and progressive people by nature … I find ways to include that in my painting. It may not be overt in some instances, but there are also works that point to the war.” One example is a painting called “Mama Feeding Hungry Biafra Children of Women,” which depicts Omenihu’s mother feeding starving women and children.
The Nigerian native uses other platforms to showcase his art, such as producing and hosting a radio program called “Art Bearing Witness.” He does this through MjoTAtalks, which represents the voice of the Medical Journal of Therapeutic Africa. It is through this platform that Omenihu uses his art to “bear witness” to the condition of the Igbo people. On the radio Amachi interviews (Igbo) people about how they survived the Nigeria-Biafra war. The interviews also reveal how some of the survivors wound up in the U.S. and what they are doing today. (More information on Art Bearing Witness can be found at MjoTAtalks.org/artbearingwitness.)
Omenihu is very proud of his mother and of the drive and values instilled in him by his father. “The hard work ethic that my father always carried on with the family laid a path for me,” he declared. “I try to work as hard as I can to produce meaningful work. That work does not end. It goes from early in the morning to early in the next morning.”
When Omenihu moved to the U.S. in 1983, he settled in Philadelphia. He graduated from Cheney University in 2008 with degrees in Communications Arts and Fine Art. He currently lives in Olney with his wife, Patricia, and a daughter, Olunna.
“The joy and essence of life is so often overlooked,” said Omenihu, “so I paint to capture and preserve the essence of peace and beauty and to encourage you to pause, smell the roses and appreciate God’s awesome love.”