By Tajudeen Sowole
From the increasing prospects at home and the attention in the Diaspora, contemporary Nigerian art is undoubtedly transiting into greater height. However, one of the leading artists from the middle-generation of masters, Abiodun Olaku alerts on certain imbalances to be corrected in preventing a fractured future
INDEED, Nigerian visual artists in the last couple of years have been in the best of mood as art appreciation is on the increase, with added value to the art market. It could have been bigger if the Nigerian factor of recurring infrastructural deficit had been addressed by government to assist professionals attain full potentials.
If Nigerian artists, despite the lack of support from government, had been able to up the game in the last five years, they might have achieved more and consolidated the feat.
But not exactly, Olaku cautions, saying “policy formation is still important.”
Olaku is a former Vice President of Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA) and a foundation member of one of Nigeria’s oldest group studios, Universal Studios of Art (USA) located within the National Theatre complex, Iganmu, Lagos. He is always bemoaning his dissatisfaction with the management and promotion of art, either at government or private level. Reason: he and his colleagues at the studios seem to have the advantage of an observatory post over the entire Nigerian art scene. And why would anyone doubt the argument of an artist with more than 28 years of studios practice?
The policy redirection of art, he explains recently, should start from the art schools. “The schools need serious policy review. For example, who and who can teach art? To an extent, it is theoretical, but largely practical. There is too much focus on paper qualification. Incidentally, some of us who have not amassed credentials have been doing teaching for many decades in our ad hoc way here at Universal Studios.”
It’s has been established that over the last two decades, quite a number of young artists, either from the higher institutions or the informal sector had passed through additional tutelage of Olaku and his colleagues at the Iganmu studios. He therefore argues that the input of the studios in this regard is incontrovertible.
“Based upon our experience, particularly when students are about to get their degrees, the quality of preparedness we see in the young ones is so watery. Glaringly, these are students on the edge of coming into the world, but largely unprepared. So, we think that art needs to be beefed up. It could be done with synergy between schools and the professionals on the field.”
Really, the essence of formal art school is not to produce artists overnight. It has been argued that the internship which Olaku and his colleagues offer students, for example, is still part of the process. So, what’s the issue about students not well prepared?
He insists that the assertion on low quality art products from schools in the recent years is not just coming from the Iganmu-based studios alone. Olaku discloses that collectors, gallery owners and other observers in the art market have been saying the same thing.
He explains, “If the potential is low, it is low; you can’t hide it. There is a limit at which you can support a student’s ability.” The disconnection, he asserts, starts from the process of admission into schools, with examinations usually being only theoretical. According to him, “you can’t identify an artist through theoretical process.” He however recommends a process of going through practical to offer admissions, “And thereafter, you can conduct intellectual ability in creativity.”
In specific terms, he faults most art schools on certain technical areas. Fine Art, he states, has two basic sacrosanct areas: “the designs and the philosophy. Every other thing such as style, materials, media and others are in between these two. During internship, artists pick either of the two or both.” In contrast to this school of thought, “the material aspect has been over-blown these days under the guise of experimentation,” Olaku notes.
Between materials, aesthetics (design) and theme or philosophy, it does appear that the dynamics seen in contemporary Nigerian art in recent times have a link with the radical approach in which artists are doing old things in new ways. And the emphasis on materials seems to be playing a major factor in the new vibrancy. Even artists who have established strong identity as traditional painters are now employing materials more widely.
He disagrees, insisting that material is being over-stressed. “So much noise about materials such that even works produced by animals could be celebrated in the public as produced by human beings, just because of the exploitation of materials.”
Still on the future and young artists from schools, perhaps sticking to practical in post-UTME process may result in lower admission, which is not good for a department. Maybe the school authority thinks it’s better to lay emphasis on potential interest in would-be-art students rather than existing talents. “A department of Fine Arts must not take in students just for the sake of filling the class,” the alumnus of Yaba College of Technology (Yabatech), Lagos, notes.
He reminisces, “When we were going to school, there was a particular set that graduated one sculptor, Tolu Filani. In fact, the students then were just two in the sculpture discipline. The truth is that the mass intake of today has not imparted positively on the industry.”
One of the most laudable aspects of the growing visual arts scene is a recent increase in books on artists and their works, but this is not without controversies. Some of the books, according to a section of the art industry, do not reflect what authors claimed they had set out to achieve.
Olaku reckons that such publications could be improved upon, saying, “Naturally, artists who are left out in some of the books would have some bad feelings. Even, some of us who were included in some of the recent books still have certain reservations about the objectivity of the authors. Despite the flaws, I think we need the documentation.
“However, when spelling errors and facts are being jumbled together, then you begin to doubt the intention or competence behind such books. For example, a book on contemporary art in Lagos left out some galleries; and more worrisome is that artists who have been in full time studio practice all their lives are also left out. I am still doubting if the Alfred Spinnier book on Contemporary Nigerian and Ghanaian Art, as well as the recently published Sammy Olagbaju-sponsored book, Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collections are truly what they claim to be. But if the books were presented as personal collections, fine. So, we should not have ambiguity about the mission of the authors or publishers.”
And more importantly, he spots a curious gap in documentation. Art historians, he says, are not being felt on the book publishing areas, noting, “Most of the documentations on contemporary Nigerian art have been coming from the media people. It’s worrisome that the higher institutions of learning churn out professionals who have BA, MA even PhDs in art history, but we don’t feel them in the public space. What do they do after school?”
As the stake in the visual arts is getting higher, art dealers, gallery owners and other promoters seem to have stepped up their games in setting the rules. If such development in the past was targeted at mostly young artists, older artists, particularly of Olaku’s generation, appear not insulated from the new rules.
It depends on a particular artist, he warns and argues that qualities in an artist such as good draughtsmanship, use of material, concept, message, etc, do not hide, particularly with consistency.
He however believes that “some collectors are interested in promoting a particular brand of art. But if you are well established, political forces don’t touch you; even your enemy would like to buy your work.”
He insists that government, through its agency, the National Gallery of Art (NGA), has a crucial role to play in the area of collection. He urges the NGA to redesign its mission, intent and purpose of which it was set up for better performance.
And with the absence of the physical structure (edifice), Olaku, a former staff of NGA, faults the motive on which the agency builds its collecting process.
He alerts that some of the best of Nigerian art are outside the country “because we got patronage from all and sundry, who have the right to take their works abroad.” He cites himself as a case study, disclosing that despite being among the set of masters that bridge the old masters and young artists, “I do not think the NGA has ever collected my work.”
His two works in the collections of NGA, he recalls, were acquired, sub-consciously “while I was a civil servant in the gallery in 1985 through my boss then, the late Shina Yusuf, who saw the work and noticed that I had the talent and the flair.”
Indeed, it’s curious that 23 years after he resigned from civil service and moved to full time studio practice, NGA is yet to have Olaku’s work in its collection. He is just one of several artists of his generation whose works the national gallery may not have had the foresight to acquire!
Published in The Guardian as Bridging studio and classroom practice of art for better result.
Published in The Guardian as Bridging studio and classroom practice of art for better result.