Saturday 2 August 2014

Culture Awakening...American researcher's art via technology

By Tajudeen Sowole
AS the 13th Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF) scholar, American researcher, Prof Albert Lavergne interrogates a sculpture that celebrates African family value.

This slightly wet morning, at the OYASAF office, in Maryland, Lagos, during a lecture titled A Culture Awakening Through Technology, Lavergne shows the audience his process of arriving at a sculpture of Mother and Child, rendered in non-foundry mould.

The sculpture, Mother and Child by Prof Albert Lavergne

Before becoming OYASAF Fellow, Lavergne was in 2012 on a Fulbright scholarship at Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile Ife, Osun State. At the end of his research in Ile-Ife, Lavergne, an African-American produced a 14 ft steel statue of mother and child, which he gave the university on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.

Although he came to Ile-Ife with the mission of producing a sculpture out of his Fulbright Lecture/research Grant, the theme or subject, he explains to his Lagos audience, was not predetermined.  

Amid hilarious moments of his presentation, Lavergne, who until recently was a teacher/researcher at Western Michigan University, U.S shares his thoughts on family, particularly a bond between mother and child, he noticed in the people of Ile-Ife. He says it was so fascinating such that he concluded that "a gift of a child is the greatest from God." The visit, he discloses, was his "first to Africa." And despite a flood of negative news coming from the continent, particularly Nigeria, he came here with one weapon:  "only my enthusiasm" as a "guide" to separate perception from the reality.

Via slides presentation, Lavergne shows his process as the sculpture was built, starting from the feet of the mother.

From the upper knees to the torso of the sculpture, the artist's likeness for "erotic themes," appeared like a conflict with that of the school's community. In fact, he discloses that someone raised issue about nudity. Such issue should be expected, particularly as some institutions of higher learning across Nigeria, of recent, started reeling out code of dressings for students.  In the sculpture, Lavergne's raising of the 'mother's short gown far above the knees as she stretches her arms and lifts the child, indeed, crosses the red line of some schools' dress codes for female students.

Whatever issue the 14 ft sculpture germinates, now or in the future would not erase the family essence that, thematically, focuses the child as a great gift from God. This much Lavergne reflects on the face of the mother as he captures the essence in what he describes as the "moment of excitement on the mother's face."

Erecting a sculpture in public space abroad could be a challenge, particularly for an artist who comes from a different culture as Lavergne.  But the enthusiasm of the larger community at university in Ile Ife, he explains, was the energy he needed. "Once they realised its theirs, they make valuable suggestions that make it easier for me to work,"

His strength in steel fabrication as well as styles, he discloses dated back to growing up in a family of creative mother and father.  
He recalls growing up and watching his mother fabricate quilts with repurposed fabric pieces without traditional guide of a model. He also explains how her process fascinated him.  "I was intrigued at the process of how individual sections of clothes evolved into a large mosaic colorful design. She maintained the capacity to improvise circumstances as her imagination dictated.  The quilt’s design was developed in the moment."

Later, this background would shape his creative direction as a formally trained artist. In fabricating the Mother and Child statue, some of his self-discovery attributes add to whatever he gained in the formative period of his career. For example, he notes that every individual has imperfect features.  Lifting such gives him joy. "I celebrate the imperfections of human feature in my character."

Artists in general, sculptors, particularly are vulnerable to exposure from chemical emission of the materials used in the studio. Sharing his experience of 39 years, Lavergne warns that artists need to always wear protection while working. Quite a number of his colleagues, he recalls, have died of radiation-related caused by the materials used in the studio.

Participants, shortly after Lavergne's lecture.

On his choice of theme; mother and child, which could be argued as best relevant in a hospital environment and not a university space, the scholar stresses that it was inspired "by the value the people place on the family."

And as the issue of PhD or MFA as terminal degree for Nigerian art academic environment resurfaced during the OYASAF interactive session, Lavergne tells the gathering that in the U.S, professorial status is given based "on your studio work and not paper or PhD."

Last year, Nigerian artist based in the U.S, Victor Ekpuk was the eleventh beneficiary of the OYASAF fellowship. The founder, Prince Shyllon, while highlighting the gains of the fellowship argues that at a period that Nigeria is facing challenges in image on the international scene, attention could be shifted to the good things the people can offer the world.  "Fellowship like this brings Nigeria into the good light and promotes the image of the country despite all the negativity," Shyllon states. 

Debuted in 2010 with U.S researcher, Janine Systsma, the OYASAF Fellowship has received 13 art scholars. Others are Ian Bourland, Rachel Engmann, Andrea Bauer, Nomusa Makhubu, Kathleen Coates, Erica Agyeman, Amanda Hellman, Erin Rice, Amber Croyle Ekong, Kimberli Gant, Jessica Williams and Ekpuk  from countries such as the US, Austria, Switzerland, and South Africa.   

For Ekpuk, a former illustrator at the Daily Times Newspapers, his theme was based on the socio-economic landscape. In changes such as the tricycle or keke, another form of taxi, which is not as as unpleasant as commercial motor cycles known in local parlance as (Okada.  

Lavergne started his early experience in metal work when he accompanied his sharecropper father to a local blacksmith during the sharpening of the family's farming tools and equipment.  He recalls "being mesmerized by the process that the heat of the fire could transform the metal." 
But more importantly, he learnt the discipline of skills "in eye and hand coordination" from his father to help in keeping the family's farm alive.

That discipline would later serve as a navigator as he  "traveled towards discovering my personal conceptual identity." 

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