Saturday 19 November 2011


Creating enduring base for Ben Osawe's artistic legacy
By Tajudeen Sowole
(First published on Tuesday, July 22, 2008)
 THE first art exhibition organised in honour of the late renowned sculptor, Prof. Ben Osawe, one year after the death of the artist could pass for a quiet event, with uncommon mission.
  It's Ben Osawe in Our Heart, organised by Quintessence Gallery, Falomo, Ikoyi, Lagos, and the artist's family opened on Saturday, July 19, 2008 and scheduled to end in three weeks. Held at Quintessence Gallery, it featured 13 sculptures and 19 paper works of the artist.
   According to the organisers, the event was meant to flag off a base for Osawe's works. Quintessence, they said had been chosen as the sole gallery for the renowned sculptor's works.
  Whatever the event lost in low attendance due to the heavy rainfall on that day, it gained in the design of the curatorial look of the exhibition: balkanisation of the works into the two different medium and choice of white as background. Most attracting here was the parallel line-up of the sculptures, into two lanes.
   If people were familiar with Osawe's sculptures, his paper works, though as old as 46 years or a little bit less, presented at the show added a fresh flavour to the legacy of the artist.
   Shortly after his death last year, the plans for exhibitions, conferences, seminars, workshops, and a foundation in the name of the famous sculptor were announced by a Lagos-based group of promoters, Thought Pyramids, which claimed it was working with the family; the event never held.
   Few days before the opening of Ben Osawe in Our Hearts, son and spokesperson for the family, Osazee Ben Osawe, in response to the planned, but botched event said it could not hold then for quite a number of reasons. The organisers, he explained, were a group of promoters well known to the family, especially, the late sculptor. "Jeff Ajushie, leader of the team is well known as one of the agents of my father, and the intention - to immortalise the man - was okay. But I think the events could not hold probably because the logistics were not properly worked out"
   While assuring that a Ben Osawe Foundation is still in the plans of the family, he said the immediate concern of the family is to have a base for his works -a single outlet where collectors can get the works.
   "Keeping the legacy of my father alive depends on how his works are managed, and what they stand for. So, we don't want a situation where his works are scattered all over the galleries; rather a central gallery where anybody can get any of his works. We have found a partner in Quintessence in that regard," he said.
   The curator of Quintessence, Moses Ohiomokhare said the idea to have the works centralised is the best for the legacy of the man as "there would be proper monitoring and eliminate issues such as authenticity surrounding works of such big artists"
In a separate message sent in response to the on-going show, the eldest daughter of the artist, Elfrida Ikponmwonsa Osawe said: "When it comes to arts,
he was a real gem: a father of arts, a professor of professors. He touched so many lives such that most young and up and coming artists are still aspiring to be like him. For dad, life is not about noise making. He tells you that 'life is to quietly bring out the you in you.' I believe he will be celebrated in our hearts and the nation till eternity."
What manner of sculptor was Osawe? A revisit of his works revealed an artist who, at every point in time when he had to reproduce a famous work, attempted to re write history. No matter how well known such work is.
Such dynamism is found in one of Osawe's legacy in his home town, Benin, At the Benin High Court, stands the sculpture of that well known symbol of equity; a blindfolded woman called Ma'at and said to be an origin of the ancient Egyptians, but later adapted by the Greek. The image which later carries a scale and called Themis, courtesy of the Greek is here, further modified by Osawe.
The late artist's interpretation of that common image found in courtrooms across the world cannot be depicted in the weaker sex, so the metal work suggests. Introducing the African belief of male dominance, that well-known symbol, in the artist's thinking should have been a man. So, Osawe gives us a figure that is clearly masculine- a thinner waist line and muscular torso.
In place of the sword, the former lecturer at the Fine Art Department, University of Benin, UNIBEN, goes back to his Benin roots and places the native staff of office on the right hand of the figure, just as the scales too are African in outlook.
Arguably the most famous face in black African heritage, the FESTAC mask, in the opinion of Osawe should wear a bolder look. The work at his studio in Ogida Benin, made of cement has the eye-lids of Queen Idia sternly piercing at you, unlike the original FESTAC piece which has a slightly dropped eyelids.
Such quality of ingenuity is worth preserving, perhaps deserves such centralisation Quintessence hopes to achieve.
Since the 1960s, Osawe's works have been shown in many exhibitions in Europe, Africa and the US. In 1962, he took part in an exhibition of the Artists' International Association in London, and a year later some of his works were shown at the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh. Since then, he had taken part in exhibitions around the world; from Lagos to New York and New Delhi. Sculptures of his are to be seen in many public exhibitions and museums, including the National Gallery of Modern Art in Lagos and the cultural department of the Nigerian Ministry of Information.
Born on August 26, 1931 into the tradition of carving, Osawe took to the instruction from his father, who at that time was a craftsman under Oba Eweka II of Benin; went to London for 10 years, to study art. He started at the School of Graphic Art for a year programme and proceeded for a five-year study at the Camberwell School of Art at, all in the UK.
   He started making impact outside the shores of his motherland when he represented Nigeria as one of the five Commonwealth artists selected for the 1965 Commonwealth Exhibition in Glasgow, UK.
Osawe had major exhibitions at the Mbari Centre in Ibadan; and Mainland Hotel Lagos, between 1967 and 1969, after when he moved base from Lagos to Benin in 1979.
Before his death, he once said of his movement to Benin: "In 1976, I decided to leave Lagos, where I lived and maintained a studio for about 10 years, to settle down permanently in Benin city. This decision was brought about by my increasing inability to concentrate properly on my creative activity which was not unconnected to the hustle and bustle of Lagos."
And he never stopped researching until he released his last breath. "I must say that I am still experimenting with the results of my research," he was quoted as saying.
As one the nation's foremost sculptors, he would be remembered for his various researches including the production of bronze/brass figures.
   Died on Wednesday, June 24, 2007 at the age of 76 at his Benin residence, Osawe's sojourn as a renowned sculptor must have something to do with his beginning. The artist was quoted as explaining that the journey started in Onitsha.
He said: "For as long as I remember I have always tried my hands on sculpture. My earliest memory was modeling in mud at the bank of the river Niger, in Onitsha. My father was a carver who had his training under Oba Eweka II, 1914 - 1933, thus my love for woodcarving.
   "During my school days in London, 1956 - 1965, the hardwood medium which was very difficult to come by over there, was and is still my favourite medium today. Wood has its own distinctive character and for that reason I prefer carving wood in its natural form to carving a block of wood with regular shapes.
  "When working on wood in its pure state, I merely finish what nature has started, I eliminated that which is unnecessary while accentuating the high points, thereby arriving at very simplified forms. My favorite timbers are Ebony, Cam wood, Apa, Masonia and of course, Iroko. Each timber has its own beauty by the way of colour, grains and texture as well as its own peculiar carving technique."
     And between nature and his creativity, there appeared to be a synergy, which gives one an insight into the quality of paper works one saw at the on going exhibition. "Whenever I receive an inspiration to do a wood sculpture, I first of all sketch it on paper and then select a piece of timber whose shape corresponds with the form of the inspiration I have and then proceed to sculpt. My inspirations are from various sources. It can be triggered off by the sound of the waves breaking on the beach or the gentle sound of a small waterfall of a rocky stream. I walk on the streets at night, visit nightclubs, market places or go for a drive on a lonely country road. These constitute the various sources of my inspirations."

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