Saturday 14 September 2013

Distinction… Defending ‘excellence’, basics of art

A landscape painting by Abiodun Olaku titled GRA Extension, from the art exhibition Distinction.

 Tajudeen Sowole
Having made impressive marks on the art landscape – individually - for over two to three decades, a group of artists, seven of them to be prcise, have come out boldly in what looks like a battle against “recent distortion” of contemporary Nigerian art content.

Perhaps, the gathering of the artists is the first formal response since the debate over content of contemporary art started in Nigeria some years ago. The debate over content and redefinition of contemporary art, it should be recalled, started changing perception from the well-known and long established regular painting and sculpture/mixed media to some radical expressions that challenges what could have been taken for granted as widely accepted art.

While it is a fact that the changing art landscape from ‘traditional’ content is not peculiar to Nigeria, the attempt by promoters of ‘21 century Avant-garde art’ to send the established art genres into ancient age so soon worries a section of the art’s community, artists and connoisseurs inclusive. In Nigeria, it appears that definition of contemporary art is becoming more complex: some artists who are practicing in this contemporary age are suddenly on red alert, rejecting being pushed back several centuries down history.

 Such artists represented by painters, Abiodun Olaku, Edosa Ogiugo, Duke Asidere, and Alex Nwokolo; sculptors Bunmi Babatunde, Rueben Ugbine and Fidelis Eze Odogwu are converging at a group art exhibition titled Distinction, showing from Sunday September 22 to 27, 2013 at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos. Specifically, they are setting out to confront what they suspect as a threat to the preservation of “excellence” in the country’s contemporary art.

  In other climes, the content of contemporary art is hardly an issue: painters, sculptors, mixed media as well as video, installation and conceptual artists exist in the same environment without blackmail or condemnation of one genre to favour the other. But in Nigeria, at several gatherings, the debates over contemporary art always generate mixed feelings and sometimes, unhealthy professional relationship.

On this Friday afternoon, at a moderate gathering inside the Artists’ Village, National Theatre, Annex Iganmu, Lagos, Distinction artists were very clear in defending their kind of art against the controversial ‘new contemporary age art’ prescribed by artists and critics from the  other side of the divide.. During the preview, one of the exhibiting artists and coordinator of the group, Olaku states that Distinction is crucial at a time that the Nigerian art scene is being “polluted” with all kind of activities under the ”guise of art”. In fact, he specifically boasts that the show is being sift “the grains from the shaft”. The exhibition, Olaku warns, is also to prove that even within the exhibiting artists’ kind of art they are frantically defending, “the theme is also about pushing for new concepts”.

 From Faces Series, a wood sculpture by Rueben Ugbine.

Every profession has its politics; the contemporary content issue seems to be dragging everyone into the ring. Is Distinction political? “No apology for being political”, Olaku insists. However, the show, he assures, is making a statement in a more engaging and civil way devoid of running down other artists’ belief. “We do not have time to run down other people’s idea if art”. He agrees with the common belief that the dynamics of art makes “best art” a relative expression. More specifically on the contemporary art issue, Olaku a well-known realism painter challenges critics of the traditional or established art genre: “The argument that a kind of art is outdated is unacceptable”.

Some of the works from the Distinction show viewed via soft copies include Babatunde’s wood Possibilities, which depicts a gymnastic display; Uggbine’s Faces, a convergence of the artist’s thoughts about nature’s diverse creativity in people’s looks; cubist, Asidere’s portraiture of ladies titled My Women III, stressing the artist’s ideal ladies, all in modest appearances; and Olaku’s realism  GRA Extension, a set of houses on stilts against the setting of the sun.

And if there is need to remind anyone about the essence of art or definition of creativity, Asidere has an argument.  Art, he explains, is “not as complex as many artists try to make it”. He says, personally, “I look at art from a very simplistic point: just get it done”.

On the gathering, he explains that Distinction is also to send a message that in the era of mediocrity across the sphere of Nigeria’s governance, “whoever you are, please do your job very well”.Asidere, one of the most consistent artists who keep their identity intact while roving over themes, in the past decades, stresses that he is not a trend kind of artist.. “I don't follow the flow, I make the flow”.

Supporting the school of thought that art should communicate easily and be self-explanatory, Ogiugo an impressionist warns against confining art to “volumes or 'sermon' an artist can write or say about a work”.

Last year, one of the Distinction artists, painter,  Nwokolo had a solo titled Authenticity of Thoughts, a show that attempted to move the artist into another period of his career, yet within his well-established identity. He practically took his painting into another form. And being part of the Distinction artists, he says, the experiment continues. “I am still unflinchingly committed to my adventure. Still seeking and re-configuring media for the dramatic and dynamic surprises they bring to my surfaces”.  He enthuses that being experimental and adventurous “thrills me” and by extension “helps to stabilize the art”. 

Duke Asidere’s My Women, also showing at Distinction.

  Unapologetically classic in rendition, Olaku describes his art as a “creative pendulum” swinging ceaselessly. “For, it is in that endeavour that I find the ultimate satisfaction and expression of gratitude to God for creating me as an artist”.
  Coming from an antecedence of a generation that bridges the old masters and young professionals, the exhibiting artists, Odogwu assures cannot afford not to meet expectation. The youngest of the group – with 21 years post-training practice – Odogwu says selection for the exhibition was not difficult as the artists, over the decades, were very familiar with each other’s work. “We are from the same background. And because people always expect so much from us, we cannot afford to disappoint the industry”.    
  Aside being around for two to three decades, mostly practising in Lagos, the artists are all members of the fledging Guild of Professional Artists of Nigeria {GFA}. Although Distinction is not a GFA show, the ideology and motives behind the gathering, Olaku says is not different from that of the guild.

 With Distinction, whatever the artists hope to prove in the on-going debate over contemporary art goes beyond the local environment: nearly, if not all the exhibiting artists have shown home and abroad, including having their works featured and made impressive sales at leading art auctions of African art overseas. However it would be of more interest to see the artists take the battle further into the terrain of their critics such as international art fair or biennale.

Participating as a group at artists, for example at international art fair could be very  complex as most artists  are featured by the galleries that represent them. And because galleries in Nigeria hardly represent artists in the real sense of promoting art, the best option is to look for a gallery that operate on the international scale. The perception of rating artists based on participation in international biennales or yearly art fair/expo cannot be dismissd within the context of contemporary practice.

Bunmi Babatunde’s wood, Possibilities III

But Distinction may not be exactly far from getting art galleries at home “do the right thing”, so suggests Asidere’s angst against a section of the art promoters. Beyond the issue of content of art, the show, he warns is a step “to put some galleries where they belong

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