Saturday 15 June 2013

'Artists of Nigeria'… A new, bold leap into documentation

By Tajudeen Sowole
Spread across seven sections, one hundred and ten artists placed within one and half-century period refine the contents of modern and contemporary art of a nation, so suggests a new book titled Artists of Nigeria.
 Authored by artist, Onyema Offoedu-Okeke, the book, which was presented at The Wheatbaker Hotel, Lagos, recently surpass the numerical list of artists in most of the previous works of similar subject.
  And with 576 pages, including scholarly research as well as high quality reproduced images of artists’ works, the book thickens layers of interest, which has been emerging, recently in the documentation of art of Nigerian origin. Quite contrary to what observers described as long lull on the book shelves, about five works have been launched in the last one year. The last of such books, Conversation with Lamidi Fakeye, authored by Prince Yemisi Shyllon and Ohioma Pogoson was presented in March at Freedom Park, Lagos Island.
  Ahead of presenting Artists of Nigeria, the author states that his focus was not confined to Nigerian professionals, or those practicing at home, but include artists whose works have linked with the country’s space, thus recognizing expatriates and Diaspora artists. But there comes a kind of exclusion, which, conspicuously, leaves some note able artists out. In such case, it’s either that the copyright or enough materials of such artists were not available, Offoedu-Okeke explains.
 As voluminous as the book is, requiring quite a strength to lift it, the weight appears not strong enough to defend non-mentioning of a particular artist. Also, the criteria, such as year of graduation of artists used in categorisation undermine the periods, which such artists made strong impacts.

The artists are grouped in seven sections tagged: Colonial Era, 1851-1950; Pre Independence, 1950-1960; Independence and Pos-independence Eras, 1960-1970; Civil war Aftermath and oil boom, 1970-1980;The Structural Adjustment Programm {SAP} Era, 1980-1990; and Regeneration and The New Century, 1980-2010.  
  In the introductory pages of each section, the book offers quite a scholarly articulation of the subject, apart from separate Forewords by Representative of Ford Foundation in West Africa, Dr Adhiambo Odaga and, Professor of Global African Art History and Visual Culture at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Sylvester Ogbechi.
The author, Onyema Offoedu-Okeke {left}; art broker, Robert Mbonu; HRH, Obi of Onitsha, Nnaemeka Achebe; and art patron, Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi during the presentation of Artists of Nigeria in Lagos.

Under the-heading Modernist Aesthetics and Living Art, the author faults the existence of modernity that is confined within the frame line of European definition, leaving African art “mainly in ethnographic term”. African art, he stresses, has its own “agents of modernity”. Offoedu-Okeke supports his argument by using the aesthetics of renowned sculptor, Olowe of Ise {1875-1938} against the assertion of ‘neo-traditional’ art. Olowe’s sculpture, the author argues, exemplifies African artists “who appropriate or continue to produce forms of traditional art also combine traditional aesthetics with contemporary ideas”. Such works, he adds, “are no less complex as those produced by the Zarianists under the banner of Natural Synthesis”.
  Indeed, Olowe’s aesthetic existed ahead of his time, so suggests the revered status of his work. In fact, his work has been well acknowledged by the west as his sculptures such as doors and columns have become case studies at institutions of higher learning abroad.
  Despite the book’s recognition of Olowe’s work as an example of African modernity that protects traditional form, the sculptor is missing among the list of artists profiled under Colonial Era: 1851-1950. Artists profiled under this era include Aina Onabolu, Akiola Lasekan, Ben Enwonu, Susanne Wenger and Lamidi Fakeye.
   Deservedly, photography gets a fair share of space in the book with highlight on J.D Okhai Ojeikere, grouped under Pre-Independence Era. And the inactive years of photo artists showed clearly as no photographer surfaced until the ‘Regeneration and The New Century’, which features Deji Ajose, Kelechi Amadi Obi, Mudi Yahaya, George Osodi and Uche James Iroha. 
  As much as the author attempts to situate the growth of photography in Nigeria, the name, Jonathan Adagogo Green {1873-1905} is missing in Artists of Nigeria. The omission, again, stresses the reluctant of Nigerian art historians to accept the Ijaw-born photographer – known as J.A. Green – in the nation’s modern art space. Green, according to an American art historian, Lisa Aronson, was a British colonialists’ photographer whose works are documented in portraits and landscapes.    
  During the presentation of her research at Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, last year, the scholar extolled the creative content of Green’s work. Veteran photographer, Tam fiofori – also missing in Artists of Nigeria – has been a lone voice agitating for the inclusion of Green in Nigeria’s modernity. Over the decades, art historians, home and the Diaspora have taken it for granted that Onabolu is the founder of Nigerian modern art, hence the country’s modernity starts from the art teacher’s period of colonial era.
 As commendable as the boldness of Artists of Nigeria is, its categorization of artist like Abiodun Olaku, in separate sections from Olu Ajayi and Sam Ovraiti, for example, is debate able. The groupings of the book suggest that Olaku’s well known significant period of career predates that of Ajayi and Ovraiti.
With such groupings, it does appear that the book’s criteria, in grouping, is period of graduation or birth, rather than the time of career such artists started impacting on their environment. The Olaku example is a typical case study: though graduated earlier than the other two artists, he is best grouped in the SAP Era because his impacts, particularly in the area of inspiring full time studio practice came at this same period artists such as Ovraiti, Ajayi and others were also championing similar goals.
 Offoedu-Okeke’s Artists of Nigeria may have its minor errors such as misspelling of a name and “1987” instead of 1897, but whoever missed the opportunity of being documented in the highly voluminous work is left out of one of the most comprehensive and scholarly articulated works on artists from Nigeria.
  Odaga, in the Foreword says Ford Foundation was pleased to have supported the publishing of the book. Ford, adds, hopes that “Artists of Nigeria will deepen our collective knowledge and admiration of Nigerian and indeed, the revolution of Africa’s remarkable art history”.
  Ofr the author, Nigeria has its assess in “uniqueness- the ethnic  plurality” as a “strength garnered from cultural concord is exemplary of how a nation of more 200 ethnic languages can draw supreme strength from the composition of its various abilities and become a true technological and economic power”. 
He argues that art drives “any industrial revolution” especially in areas such as generating models in the creation of auto technology and construction. Therefore, the book, he explains, “is my gift to humanity. It is my wish that this book will increasingly stimulate discussions and initiatives to drive the economic revolution Nigeria needs”.
 Offoedu-Okeke had contributed articles to several art exhibitions such as an essay on Nigeria's modernism featured in the catalogue of U.K.-based artist, Yinka Shonibare's show Double Dutch held at Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
 After his debut art exhibition titled Spring Forever in 1997 at the Russian Cultural Centre, Lagos, Offoedu-Okeke had a solo exhibition in 2000, titled Idioms of Butterfly Kisses at Mydrim Art Gallery, Lagos Island.
 Some of his shows abroad include the tour event in 2000, 'Our World in the Year 2000, held at Mall Galleries, London, England; World Trade Centre, Stockholm, Sweden; United Nations Headquarters, New York, U.S.
Last year, some of the books presented by other authors that document Nigerian art and artists include Making History: The Femi Akinsanya African Art Collection, edited by Ogbechie; Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collections, by Jess Castellote.

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