In Nigerian artist Tonia Nneji’s Ji dé, two women painted in velvety indigos and midnight blues, and dressed in royal azure and amethyst purple undergarments, sit holding one another. Their upper bodies blend together, blurring the boundaries between arm and torso and shoulder. One woman leans in repose upon the other, but theirs is a mutual embrace of support and comfort as they sit on Ankara fabrics printed with the names of local Catholic organizations and churches. A bright yellow fabric hangs behind them on a parchment-colored wall.

The title means “hold” in Igbo, Nneji’s language, and the scene may seem like little more than a glimpse of an intimate moment, but viewed alongside the 15 other paintings in “You May Enter,” Nneji’s current exhibition at Rele Gallery in Lagos, Nigeria (on view through November 29), a larger narrative emerges. The show tells the story of how women in pain negotiate varying degrees of physical and emotional trauma and healing, all the while yearning for communal support and compassion. Searching for an overall title for her newest body of work, Nneji wanted something invitational, but that also referenced the intimate themes of endocrine disorders, women’s health, suffering, nontraditional treatment, solidarity, and compassion embedded in it.

A blend of oil and acrylic on canvas, Nneji’s blue-hued figures give the paintings a palpable air of melancholy, offset only by vibrantly colored African fabrics that drape and fold around bodies, walls and furniture. The men and women keeping vigil and bearing witness in these bright vignettes shed light on the physical and emotional pain of women living with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), an often traumatic and shame-inducing medical condition. PCOS is an endocrine disorder that, according to a 2010 WHO estimate, affects up to 116 million women of reproductive age worldwide, but for which, surprisingly, many women remain undiagnosed. The symptoms of PCOS are varied, including increased body and facial hair, irregular menstruation, subfertility, and hormonal imbalances. Nneji, a 28-year-old Lagos-based artist, was diagnosed with PCOS in 2014, at the age of 22. Her art reflects the pain and isolation of the condition, and the helplessness and frustration women often feel with the limited treatment options available, including from nontraditional sources. Over the last six years, Nneji herself has sought help from both local and international hospitals, consulted with herbalists, and prayed with members of religious houses of worship.

November 13, 2020