Debut exhibit shows an artist with a foot in two worlds

A photo by Osaretin Ugiagbe from his one-artist show “Unbelonging.”

A new exhibit at the Bronx Documentary Center links one artist’s present as an adult living in the Bronx with his past as a boy growing up in one of Africa’s biggest cities.

Artist and painter Osaretin Ugiagbe’s first solo show, “Unbelonging,” opened on July 8, displaying 61 photos and paintings that help document the beauty and sorrows of the artist’s life on both continents during a nine-year period.

“At this time, I feel like a lot of people feel like they don’t belong, the way things are going politically. And this show’s my way of addressing that feeling,” said Ugiagbe at his opening.

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Ugiagbe, who is now 31, joined his father in the Bronx when he was 16. His connection with art at the time was through painting, he said. He hated photography until one day in 2013 when he attended an exhibit showing works by photographer Gaynes Park at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Ugiagbe admired the way the photos were shot because they reminded him of documentaries he had seen.

The artist traces his beginnings taking photos to a free class he took at the Documentary Center, while he was working a few blocks away at Lincoln Hospital. Soon after, he joined the Bronx Photo League, which provides Bronxites training in documentary photography.

“The show and the exhibition are very much about the changes that the artist is going through and also the changes that the Bronx is going through,” said the Bronx Documentary Center’s founder, Michael Kamber. “I think you can see some of the tensions in the Bronx in the photos and a Bronx that is changing right in front of our eyes. You see people taking their kids to school. You see people going to church. But you also see the chaos of new construction and new people.”

The photographs Ugiagbe took in Nigeria, which depict the artist’s family as well as snippets of the local culture, were taken during two visits, in 2014 and 2017. One captures his father coming out of the shower as the sun shines through an open window behind him. Another portrays a toddler, Ugiagbe’s cousin, her back towards the camera and hands covering her face.

One photo that caught the eye of many guests at the opening also happens to be one of the photographer’s favorites. The photo focuses on the Ugiagbe family TV set, with his father’s name engraved at the bottom, while his family is seen sitting together on a sofa in a reflection on the screen. Engraving one’s name on items is something Nigerians do to display ownership, the artist explained, but although the custom is common in West Africa, a guest from the other side of the world said it resonated.

“It reminds me of my country,” said Jose Mejia, 48, a Morris Park resident. “I’m from Mexico and this is almost the same. I relate to it.”

Photos taken in the artist’s adopted country take into account issues on the minds of many South Bronxites.

“Gentrification itself is anxiety. It’s like understanding that multiple changes are happening in your neighborhood, but not being able to do anything about it,” he said, pointing out that the Bronx Photo League “creates a body of people who come together to say, ‘look, we understand that this is a problem, but let’s see how we can try to at least tackle the topic of gentrification.’”

Ugiagbe’s works will be on view at the Bronx Documentary Center at 614 Courtlandt Avenue Thursdays through Sundays through August 13.

The artist’s next stop is London, where he was accepted to the Royal College of Art, to hone his craft for the next two years. For now, Ugiagbe says his ambition is to help make the Bronx a better place for its residents, primarily the borough’s children.

“I remember being a teenager here and wanting to run out, but I want kids to be able to be proud of coming from here,” he said, “and for them to understand that because you’re from the Bronx does not mean you cannot excel.”