Saturday 18 October 2014

For Ogene's No Longer Anonymous, the future is 'talking art'

By Tajudeen Sowole

Between the emphasis on creation and theory of art, Associate Professor of Art History and Graphic Design at University of Benin, Edo State, John Ogene, has argued that talking art is ‘now’ more important for artists to get out of anonymity predicament.

During his lecture, book presentation and solo art exhibition titled No Longer Anonymous, held at Yusuf Grillo Auditorium and Gallery, Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, Ogene disclosed how the theme of his works was inspired by a former teacher, the late Solomon Wangboje's ideology on art. He recalled how Wangboje challenged his colleagues, saying, 'Now that we are no longer anonymous, let us see what we have done.' The exhibition aspect of Ogene's project is still showing at the gallery till October 20, 2014.

One of the works from Ogene’s ‘Telephone Photography’ during No Longer Anonymous, exhibition, lecture and book presentation at Yabatech, Lagos…recently
Shortly before the exhibition opened, Ogene explained to his audience the genesis of Wangboje's ideology. The late professor and his colleagues at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Ogene disclosed, "never knew they would become famous" after school. Wangboje, he said, had explained to him that in the years of struggle at Zaria "they were anonymous." The anonymity then was likened to the attitude of ‘traditional African artists of old’, who hid the value of the art profession based on the perception of the period in which they practiced.

While in sympathy with the generation of Wangboje as well as commending the visionary role of his late art teacher, based on the situation of the period, Ogene insisted, "to remain a lagbaja in the face of your endowment is a tragedy."

He, however, stressed, "The role of art or artists in this country is still obscure," despite the importance of art "in nearly all aspects of human endeavor in Nigeria." And for artists to get out of what he described as predicament, the emphasis should shift from creating art to "talking art." Talking art? Art, particularly in visual context of which Fine and Applied Arts epitomise speaks for itself, it has been argued and proven over the ages.

In fact, the ascendance of Nigerian artists in recent years on the art appreciation ladder, home and in the Diaspora, has been to the credit of creation of art. But Ogene argued that the rise in the art of Nigeria is commensurate with the abundant prospect that abounds within the community of artists. He insisted that the anonymity of the creative sector in Nigeria lay in its inability to keep pace with the dynamics of the changing world. Talking art, he stressed, was crucial, adding, "We have not only remained silent, we have also failed to realise that the profession has changed from what it used to be".

And just when one thought that Ogene was aligning with the contemporary appropriation of art, which appears to have brought the academia and curatorial aspect of mainstream art practice together, he took a sharp bend into the realm of science. Art, he argued, has, ‘gradually’, been progressing ‘towards science,’ thus ironically leaving artists in Nigeria stranded in what he described as lack of understanding of the art discipline.

Digital imaging aided by new technology, he warned, could take art from artists "if we do not own the technology." Specifically, Ogene singled out the academia, "regrettably" as the orchestrator of the wrong tune, which the visual artists have been listening to over the decades.

Citing an example, he said, "As I speak, many Departments of Fine and Applied Arts are either ignorant or afraid of the fact that we actually belong to Environmental Sciences."

He further alerted the audience on how a new technology in 3D printing has empowered artists to encroach into scientific terrain. The 3D printing, otherwise known as Additive Manufacturing (AM), starts with the artist’s impression of the end product, goes through computerisation and comes out in objects. Sculptors, Ogene argued, can use the 3D printer to aid their work "and not remain anonymous," in the sea of abundance.

HOWEVER, contrary to observers' argument that art schools in Nigeria placed too much emphasis on the theory of art, Ogene noted that for artists to meet the future now, creation of art should go with more articulation.

He argued, "The teaching of art in Nigeria has been dominated by the culture of practice with minimal theory, scarcely articulating what is being done. Although the practice of making art is as important as its articulation, what we find today in most institutions is the excessive emphasis on the psychomotor domain."

Beaming his searchlight on the academic terrain, Ogene summarises his argument thus, "We make what we see and we say what we make. It is insufficient to make what we see without talking about what we make." In driving his advocacy theory of reform, he brought in a triangle that explains the  "combination with a Post-Structuralist approach in establishing a new dawn for the visual arts in Nigeria where we not only make but also talk about art."

As debatable as Ogene’s talking art ideology may appear, the value in it for artists lies in the fact that contemporary art practice feeds so much on articulation for stronger appropriation of art. And whenever the vacuum of appropriation and articulation exists, so it seems, curatorial practice fills it. Gradually, curatorial discipline in the contemporary age is dragging visual arts into the shadow of feature filmmaking where the film director is the ‘lord’ behind the scene. In fact curatorial practice, which is basically about the theory and contextualisation of themes into art contents is a degree discipline in some art schools abroad.

Responses to Ogene’s presentation among the audience at the lecture cut across the sympathy for studio practice as well as slight defence for  ‘talking art.’ For example, Dr Kunle Adeyemi urged the academics who hold PhD in Visual Arts to produce more art “to enhance the integrity of art.”  Adeyemi who has been named as the first artist to hold a PhD in Production from a Nigerian University, however cautioned that writing, critiquing and all the ingredients of appropriating art were crucial in preparing for doctorate in visual arts. “”What we do to get PhD in production is mostly writing, critiquing and critical thinking,” Adeyemi who got his PhD in Production at Delta State University (DELSU), Abraka shared his experience with the audience. 

For Prof Osa Egonwa, art teacher at DELSU, came an appeal: “create art that can talk to the people so that you don’t remain anonymous.”

Contents of Ogene’s solo art exhibition included photography, drawing and painting, with emphasis on what he described as “telephone photography,” which consisted of snapshots from mobile telephone device. The images, largely, are scenes from Benin, including the documentation of the Airport Road, shortly before the bulldozers pulled down a structure to pave way for the rehabilitation work.  

Some of the other exhibits in the telephone photography category included works titled Abundance of Nothing, Agenebode Market Day, Arbitration, Ayemejevwe and Banjul Maidens.

Prof John Ogene (left) autographing a copy of his book    

Few days before the lecture, book presentation and exhibition, Ogene had shared his knowledge at a 2nd Telephone Photography Workshop. Held at Omenka Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos, the workshop was about alternative ways of making art. Digital camera was the star of the Telephone Photography Workshop where participants were engaged in utilising the device for making art.

The Telephone Workshop series by Ogene started July, 2008 at UNIBEN with the theme Phonography - acronym of telephone and photography.

Ogene obtained his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Fine and Applied Arts from the University of Nigeria Nsukka and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Graphics from the University of Benin. With an MA and a PhD in Art History from Delta State University Abraka, No Longer Anonymous is the 5th in the series of his Solo Exhibitions.

He had previously in 1999, 2004, 2005 and 2006 respectively held exhibitions with subtitles such as Holistic, Nomadism, the Making of Greens and Visual Dialectics, which were all in themselves an exposé of the “myth and might” of the photography and digital arts extraordinaire called John Ogene. John has also severally exhibited in numerous group exhibitions in and outside Nigeria.

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