When thinking about how to start a conversation about death, Ameh Egwuh’s colorful paintings and animated figures are hardly what comes to mind. Symbolic images of balloons, doves, and flowers encapsulate each moment, embracing the idea that life, death, and everything in between is a transitory experience. On the surface, Egwuh’s vibrant technical skill is clear. Knowing that death is often depicted artistically as dark or somber, eliciting fear, Egwuh set out to appeal to our brightest ideas—our most innocent curiosities. He draws us in by appealing to what makes us feel big instead of small. And like most good conversations, each exchange is an invitation to lean in a little closer.
From the thick, playful stripes that prime the backdrop of each painting, to the energetic lines making up the otherwise featureless bodies in motion, the paintings in Life After Life at Rele Gallery in Los Angeles speak to the power of the human experience—but also something much more spiritually connected. Egwuh fell in love with the language of lines in college as he learned more about African art techniques and movement. In practicing and experimenting with this element he found a way to capture the uniqueness of his perspective on life. “When I started making pieces, I knew I could technically use lines to make the human figure,” Egwuh told me over a phone call in May. “But I realized that the human figure is far more than the facial features. I wondered: what makes this person more than the person? Their being. Their spirit. So the use of lines is me projecting what is real, not just the facial expression of a particular person, but what you actually feel; what the person is. I just want you to connect to the person and the presence.” As a viewer, I find Egwuh’s approach to presence expansive. Scouring the details of these figures, I can see that no two lines are the same. Each has its own bump, groove, and swivel. Individually, they carry the rhythm. Collectively, they make music. Without a single word, it is as if Egwuh is telling the full and intricate story of a person’s life. At the same time, there is a looming ancestral quality to these paintings. One that bears the question of where we begin and end, and of the interconnectedness of human life.
Though these figures may not explicitly symbolize the “Black bodies,” we have been hyper-aware of, especially in the past year, there are cultural relationships between Egwuh’s inspirational sources such as Indigenous scarification practices, diasporic ancestry, and the global outcry for the eradication of anti-Black systems of oppression and violence. When I asked Egwuh how it feels to show this work during a time of mass death and the simultaneous eruption of social justice actions across the diaspora, he said, “the reason for the exhibit was first off to find solace in death. I feel like the belief in life after life is that we know any person we lose at this point doesn’t cease to exist. They might not be physically with us, but they continue to exist within our own loss, in a metaphysical space. That knowledge alone reduces the grief that comes with death. For me, the realization was quite deep, but I try to make it something that anybody can engage with. When you get closer, you’re having a conversation about it, and it just gets deeper and deeper. I just want to give hope to people.” After pulling myself out of the depths of Egwuh’s meditations on life after life, and grounding in the present, I was intrigued by the process. How does one achieve a multi-layered conversation about a stigmatized and emotionally draining topic in a universal language?
Egwuh has always been curious about death. As a child he found himself preoccupied with the idea of living forever. As an adult, he’s come to believe that he can indeed live on through his creations, whether that be art, relationships, or experiences. When I asked Egwuh what he enjoyed most about creating this exhibit, he said it was the chance to immerse himself in the research and learn about his most genuine curiosities. Egwuh shared “I’ve always wanted to talk about it, but whenever I’m having conversations about it, most people shy away. I just wanted to know what happens when you walk out of this world. I’ve been a Christian my whole life. The idea of judgment makes life quite boring for me; thinking that when you die, you’re going to face a particular kind of judgment. I wanted to create this space that doesn’t lose that kind of fear, but makes me free when I’m living. I really just want to just live a free life. I came to understand that you can’t pick the one that will fit, like, ‘ok this is what the afterlife will look like.’ Every person has different ideas of the afterlife.”
Whether your idea of death and the afterlife looks similar to Egwuh’s or not, Life After Life is an opportunity to spend time confronting your mortality. In the words of the artist, “I believe the way we see the afterlife is the way we will live our life here on earth. If you perceive elements of judgment in the afterlife, then how do you see yourself? Where are you tied to? What are your influences? Let’s have conversations about that, so we can actually practice our lives in the particular way we want them to look. Live life to the fullest.” Egwuh is doing the work of the artist by challenging us to reframe death in new and creative ways that honor the wonder of human life and the power of the human spirit. By opening up the definition of death into timelessness, questions about the purpose of our very present living reflect back onto us. If life goes on, if life is all around us in ways we hadn’t imagined before, and if the impact of our lived experience sustains long after our bodies are put to rest, then how are we consciously using this gift?
Ameh Egwuh: Life After Life
Rele Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
April 10, 2021 – May, 2021
This interview is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in cultural critics of color cofounded by The Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Read more about Variable West’s Critical Minded Grant here.