From the spirit world, Wewe reminisces in Footnotes
By Tajudeen Sowole
Over two decades of romance with the spirit world, now condensed into a body of work titled Footnotes marks a transition for the artist, Tola Wewe.
While the one week solo exhibition, which held at Nike Art Gallery, Lekki, Lagos reminded visitors of the form and themes that made Wewe’s signature one of the most popular in the 1990s, it was also meant to prepare the artist for a big come-back.
The artist, a pioneer member of the then university of Ile-Ife propelled art movement, Onaism, also explained his position on the controversy over the founding of the group.
Despite his appointment as Commissioner for Culture and Tourism, Ondo State, which, practically, took much of his attention from art, his work has not been missing in the ongoing rise in monetary value of Nigerian art. However, the rating of Wewe’s work appears not commiserate with the higher value it was known for in the past.
Shortly after the opening of Footnotes, he declared that the exhibition “is about revisiting all my past works; some kind of references.”
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Nearly all the works, he said were produced this year.
Although none of his past works, being referenced, was on display, their influences were not hidden. For example, in Seeing Is Believing (acrylic on canvas, 2011), comes the traces of the artist’s rendition of a similar piece Untitled (1998), sold at one of the auctions in Lagos: the similarities are in such areas as a sci-fi like extraterrestrial character, less in the expressive motifs of ona, yet still in the artist’s depiction of the spirit realm.
This, he explained, is all about “communicating with the spirits of the ancestors such as anjonu, emere and ebora (extraterrestrial beings in Yoruba mythology.)
Still in that realm, The First Dawn (2011) looks like an elaborate version of a collaged part of Fortune of Creation, a 1994 series. And in The Mist of Lost Villages (2011), comes a re-enactment of Pattern of Peace series (2005). The work, however, is a huge departure from the loud colour, which Wewe’s work is known for.
While the ona motifs have merely changed in tones and sizes, his thoughts in human figural has taken a bolder leap. From subtle rendition of feminine figure in his past works, Wewe’s canvas, in the last few years, has been covertly populated with elaborate nudity.
THE reminiscence value of Footnotes, perhaps, should offer the artist a space to evaluate the current rating of his art and compare it with the past. It would be recalled that Wewe, in the 1990s, was the blue-eyed boy of top art enthusiasts and collectors in Nigeria. That obviously has changed, so suggests the artist’s constant absence in the list of top sales at art auctions. And observers have traced the sudden dropped in his rating to what could be described as the artist’s penchant for “over populating the art market with his works,” in the past.
Responding to this assertion, Wewe recalled that “when my work was in high demand in the 1990s, I was encouraged to produce more. Some galleries did not like this, but I enjoyed doing that.”
Is Wewe now paying the prize for being prolific and inability to control the demand of his work? He argued that being in such high demand was just a coincidence and that he was not overwhelmed.
Being prolific, he explained, is a natural aspect of his skill. “I have always been very prolific, even as a kid. The same when I was in the university. So, when people started collecting my works, I just continued producing. I was not thinking of saturation, because I cared less about the commercial value; I do not value my work in monetary term.” He is not done yet: “I have not even done enough; my work is yet to go round every home.”
In August this year, Wewe and another founding member of ona, Moyo Okediji had a joint show, The Return of Our Mother, in which they showed a non-three dimensional, but sculptural-like work done in terracotta. With the clay work, the show marked another period in the artist’s careers. And in Footnotes, about 19 pieces of Wewe’s terra cotta were shown. The Return of Our Mother was a tribute to Wewe’s mother, who was kidnapped, but later released last year.
SHORTLY after the solidarity show, there emerged a controversy over the founding of ona movement. Okediji, in response, in an article titled Beyond Dispute: Origins, Travails of Ona, and published in some leading national dailies, claimed that he founded the movement and supported his argument with scholarly works of others who are non-ona members.. Another founding member, Kunle Filani in an article titled Ona Trajectory: The Disputable Claims of A Traducer, disagreed with Okediji.
For the first time since the issue was hotly debated, Wewe responded at the opening of Footnotes. He stated that the founding of Onaism was a group effort. In fact he stressed that “it has been established that five people formed the Ona group. My position has always been that it was a group thing. My theory is that no one person can form a group.”
Would this mean that no one among the pioneer members came up with the idea of ona movement, which led to the foundation of the group? Wewe argued that having an idea is not enough. “You may have been nursing an idea, but it may never succeed until you have people to agree with you. For example, you say you have an idea, and I say, oh I have been thinking about it as well. But for me, I would not want to arrogate anything to myself despite the role I played in the formation of Ona group.”
Wewe, however noted that the debate “was good for the art and the public in general. I am sure that they have been able to distil fiction from the fact.”
And after the storm comes reconciliation as Wewe stated that he is proposing a group show of all pioneer members of Ona group next year “to show that the movement is still together, no disagreement.”