Thursday 17 May 2012

Billy Omabegho … homecoming of the monument artist

By Tajudeen Sowole

 In minimalism, laced with African and western cosmology, renowned design-artist, Billy Omabhego who is in Nigeria from his U.S. base attempts to draw a thin line between science and art.

IT’s a body of work titled Billy Omabegho Recent Sculptures, showing from May 21 to 28, 2012 at The Wheatbaker, Ikoyi, Lagos. Aside the artist’s themes of ancient African cosmology and established scientific formula, his work may also reopen the debate over the difference between art and design.

  Omabhego is the sculptor of monuments such as the 30 ft abstract work, Zuma, at the United Nations Mission Plaza’s Nigeria House in New York, U.S. and the oval-shaped symbol of International Trade Fair, at the Lagos Badagry Expressway complex. When Omabhego’s exhibition opens to the public on Monday, visitors will not, however, encounter any difficulty in viewing the works as the returnee artist is not showing the monuments, but domestic and office space size works.

   Among the fascinating pieces of the works are those he tags Solar Series, and Palette of the Sun Series in which he graphically highlights the power of sun on the universe.

  For each of these works, either in the depiction of sunset and sunrise, the artist’s rendition of optical effect, which is enhanced through illusory movement of the ochre, will certainly attract attention.
Solar Series, by Billy Omabegho.
   He explained that the “bars of colours echoe the startling ever changing rays of the sun as the earth moves on its daily orbital journey around the sun.”

  For each of the colours, there is an interpretation, relative to human existence, yet universal, he argued. For example, “yellow signifies the life force of the sun, blue is resting time with creative re-energising of life.”  He described black as the inner energy of the sun and the “coalescence of all colours.” Perhaps the Omabegho’s interpretation of the universality of these colours is distilled from the purple, which he said, represents dawn or dusk, addings that “Yoruba call it alero-o; colour for celebration, war or peace.”

  The Solar Series, he disclosed, was inspired by an ancient graphic interpretation of solar energy at Blombos Cave, Cape Coast, South Africa. He argued that the seventy seven thousand years old work “is the first known depiction of sunrise and sunset.”   

AND just when one thought that the Solar Series themes are enough science spices for art content, Omabegho goes metaphysics in another work titled Exploring Mind. It’s, indeed, a very attractive piece, particularly for those who have passion for complex subjects such as the study of the minds. However, the work, which looks like a model for an architectural design, also engraves the warning that it could trouble the psyche of whoever attempts to have a mental trip round the complex shapes.

  He explained that the work, made of aluminum and 24 protruding shapes is man’s adventure, using the sun, stars, earth and seas to seek knowledge. In this work, the artist seems to have traced the origin of man’s adventure in seeking knowledge, perhaps to several million years back as he concluded that “man became aware of his creative ability, studied nature and the hostile environment, learned to work with the forces of nature and conquer fears.” 
Billy Omabegho’s sculpture Exploring Mind
   For the individual’s level of knowledge, he brings in another set of works, Homeage done in plexiglas, with stylized male and female figures on scaled discs. He explained,  “the graduated concentric discs represent levels of knowledge in the universe. The stylized man and woman are connected to each other and the cosmos.”

  What influences his work, he disclosed, include African motifs in carved Bida Tools, Ifa divination and Dagan figural sculpture. In fact, some of the borrowed motifs, he stressed, could be seen in such areas as gridding, radical patterning, parallel linear as well as using zigzag and spirals.

   The zigzag, for example, he used in one of his most notable public monuments, the Zuma sculpture. Revisiting the 2005 controversy over an alleged plan of the Federal Government to replace the work on the excuse that it was not African in theme, Omabegho argued that the zigzag snake-like form of the sculpture symbolises rebirth, renewal.   

  Bringing in cosmology, he explained that the upward and downward interpretation of the snake-like movement of the sculpture “suggests the relationship between air and water, heaven and earth.” And like a journey through the thick and thin, which every nation undergoes, Zuma also reflects this as the artist stressed, “the four diagonal elements repeatedly bisect each other, joining in a powerful union, then breaking away and finally coming together again at the summit and base.”

ARMED with the profile of Omabegho ahead of the preview created a sort of complexity in placing his work on either side of art or design. And the clarification has to come from the horse’s mouth. Is Omabegho an artist or a designer? “Am an artist,” he responded instantly. He however agreed that he was not surprise when people tend to place his work in the design genre.

  His background, he stated, could not be removed from his art. “I am a product of modern times and traditional Africa, hence, the influence of technological development on my art work as well as my background.”

  With so much scientific element in his theme, even presentation, is the artist not worried that the art content might be lost?  “The importance of art goes beyond artists, critics, collectors, and investors,” he argued. According to him, the most important thing is for art to have impact on the society as well as glorify “the emergence of the creative mind of mankind from earliest times.”

BORN in Nigeria in 1944, from an early age, Omabegho expressed himself in three dimensional forms. He later sought formal art training in the United States where contact with the latest technical resources was possible. He studied at Cornell University and New York University.

  Upon returning to Nigeria, Omabegho was able to apply new media and technical information to the wealth of African symbols from his cultural heritage. The Nigerian government commissioned him to create a number of major works including the towering sculpture memorial to the Late Head of State, Murtala Ramat Muhammed in Benin City, and the Lagos International Trade Fair Symbol. 
Billy Omabegho

Omabegho is acknowledged as the first Nigerian sculptor to design and execute modern large-scale monumental works for strategic public places in Nigeria. He was also commissioned to do the only sculpture in the garden of the State House, Marina, Lagos.

  The artist has shown in London, Brazil, New York, Washington D.C. as well as the Nigerian Museum in Lagos. Along with being represented in many international private collections, he has also been commissioned to do large-scale environmental sculpture in the United States.

  His 21-foot Corten Steel sculpture is prominently placed in front of Council House, the International Conference Center of the S.C. Johnson Company, Racine, Wisconsin.

  Two of his designs were featured in the Global Africa Project, a major exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York from November 2010 to May 2011.

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