Saturday 13 December 2014

Distinction 2... artists’ steady steps in self-validating

By Tajudeen Sowole
For the second time, a group of artists has brought onto the Nigerian contemporary art space a bold step in self-validating of art as Distinction 2 opened to the public few days ago and showing till December 15, 2014 at Terra Kulture, Victoria island, Lagos.

At the opening, the ambience of classic that radiated through the paintings and sculptures confirmed the status of the exhibiting artists as among the leading signatures of Nigeria’s generation sandwiched by the old masters and the young artists. At Distinction last year, Abiodun Olaku, Bunmi Babatunde, Edosa Ogiugo, Duke Asidere, Alex Nwokolo, Reuben Ugbine and Fidelis Odogwu showed mostly new body of work. For Distinction 2, Segun Adejumo joined the group of self-validating artists who, by trajectory of Nigerian art have made significant, sometimes controversial artistic statements.

Painter, Abiodun Olaku (left); Mrs Ifeoma Idigbe, member, BoT, Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA); and Abraham Uyovbisere, President of GFA during the opening of Distinction-2.

Whenever validation stops being contentious on the scale of appropriating art, the creative enterprise might just be on its way to losing value and gradual fade into extinction.
While critics, curators, art historians and others who are in the discipline of appropriating art, most often, confine the validity of a work of art within their exclusive license, artists, on the other side of the divide, have, over generations been so bottled to the state of total submission. In fact it has been argued and accepted, to a large extent, that artists have no business appropriating their work. Create the work and leave it for others to appropriate, so the trend has been. But artists, subconsciously, have been defending and appropriating their works by giving the rest of us such leads as common as titling, Artists Statement, Artist Talk and sometimes more pronounced when exhibition comes with voluminous texts authored by the artist. In other situations, works of art are accompanied with poetry. Covertly, the aforementioned medium are forms of appropriating, and perhaps validating art.

And as contemporaneity is raising the bar higher, it could be complacently suicidal for any artist to leave his work unguarded to critics' jaws. Within the context of contributing to the pool of appropriating and validating art, the artists of Distinction II are not scared of the cauldron space that art has found itself. In fact, they have thrown their hats into the ring, perhaps challenging the rest of us to the debate; whose birthright is it to appropriate art?

The second edition in one year asserts the artists' confidence in promoting excellence. Each of the exhibiting artists, has, on the landscape of contemporary African art, encrypted his signature boldly. Yes, African, not just Nigerian art! It will be unfair to detach the contributions of art from Nigeria or Nigerian artists from the unprecedented rise in value of African art on the continent and the Diaspora. Apart from the few old modernists masters such as Ben Enwwonwu, Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko, among others, the exhibiting artists of Distinction II belong to a generation and group of artists whose signatures have been consistent on the growing art market scenes. 

In 2008, I attempted to excavate a descriptive tense for the artists when I described them as middle generation of Nigerian masters. The artists, some of them in the Distinction gathering, have been living up to that accolade in coalescence as the providers of inspirations for young artists as well as agents that are currently replenishing tomorrow’s art. Coincidentally, all the artists in this show are members of Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA), a group whose activities in the last seven to eight years have been pushing Nigerian art out of a defeatist mentality in which most African artists have been confined over the decades.
 For the purpose of this critique - no disrespect to the collective choice of the exhibiting artists - I prefer to rephrase the title of this exhibition as Distinction: The Return of the Harbingers. Reason: I suspect that the Distinction series may continue in the Nigerian visual arts calendar, yearly or biennially. And I do not know how the numerical titling of each edition would withstand the test of creative ebullience which this and future exhibitions could bring. 

For coming out so boldly to self-score their art to such a peak of validity, I have a feeling that there could be a flood of similar themes coming from other artists across generations who would have been spurred into boldness by the Distinction artists' example. This, consequently, would also exhume true excellence in artists who may want to follow the steps of the Harbingers. As much as the dynamics of experimentation art keep pushing visual narrative endlessly, sometimes blackmailing art as a complex expression in the chase for broader contemporary contents, traditional rendition of art remains unshaken. One of the most consistent renditions of such resilience resides in Olaku's work. Olaku keeps reminding us that the essence of art has outlived trends and fads. For Distinction II, Olaku continues his invisible brushing journey towards perfection in works such as Lingerine Memories, His Presence and The Trade Delegation.

Jimi Disu, news analyst and Radio presenter (left); Olaku and Bunmi Babatunde.
But in Trade Delegation, the painter of undoubted master brushings shift his romanticism with landscape further by  populating a skyline with concentrated figures. The softness of Trade Delegation exudes quite a dramatisation; it combines fogging with depth in a composite that makes the sun, from horizon, a principal actor. For His Presence, a night capture of faith-based scene, the ambience of The Creator in celestial aura is energised by the movements around the darkened building, highlight by spots of lightings.   

Quite of recent, Nwokolo has added a bolder technique of distilling the science of gaze from the art of portraiture. He calls the portraits, mostly rendered in close ups Oju (Face) Series. In the Distinction II gathering, a piece titled Kojo challenges those who know the science or art of reading gaze to interpret a face that has so much highlighted features in incendiary penetration such that the textured surface of the canvas would not blur the 3-D effect that exists in the eyes, lips and ears.   And in Transition, a mixed media compartmented in triptych., Nwokolo continues lifting some of his past themes of painting onto a sculptural-like surface.

In an increasingly depressed socio-economic environment, an assurance of success expressed in creative space is more reliable than promises of politicians. Babatunde's wood works such as I Can and Possibilities appear like the inspirations anyone would not ignore. As art pieces, the work encode abstraction contents that engage you into intellectuality of appropriating art.
 It’s been quite an active identity for the artist on the mainstream art market, particularly the auction scene, in the last few years. Of recent, Babatunde's work seemed to have raised hope for wood sculpture in the art market as his works, arguably, is currently raising the bar - among 3-D wood works - within and outside the shores of Nigeria.  For example, at the last Africa Now Bonhams auction this year, one of the Possibilities series by Babatunde sold for a record sale of £31,250. Apart from being the artist’s auction record, it was most likely, a record sale for his generation of Nigerian artists.

His consistence and increasing success has intercepted the erroneous perception that 'contemporary sculpture' has moved to some kind of escapist forms devoid of depth.

As much as wood appears like the opposite of the soft side of creating art, Babatunde extricates carving from the notion of Stone Age or rock art, using his techniques that make chiseling more attractive and simplified.

To distill ‘Protest Art’ from Asidere's themes and concepts is perhaps a perfect sobriquet. The artist does not hide his dissatisfaction about the gross mismanagement of his country's resources such that the sound of funneling Asidere’s themes through the distiller is too loud to ignore. And as the female figures continue to be the carriers of Duke's venom against mediocre guillotine leaders, one of his works for this exhibition titled Not A Straight Country confirms that the artist is not done with his catharsis in highlighting Nigeria's worrisome decline.

From his Third Semester exhibition, a chide and satire on the then President, Olusegun Obasanjo’s alleged third term ambition to several shows after and recently setting up what he called Play Spot Studio, Asidere would keep warning policy makers that Nigerians should not be treated as vassals. Specifically, he always “the era of just art is gone.” Artists should get involved in the affairs of the country, he advises, more now that “never in the history of Nigeria have we been this badly governed.”.

Also, when he choses to express his thoughts in non figural, but abstraction contents as seen in The Syndrome II, a bold, perhaps eye-popping red subduing black colour, his palette raises an alarm. From spontaneity of creating art to restlessness over issues of his environment, Asidere the person is hardly different from his art.

With the well-established depth in Ogiugo's renditions of figures over the decades, one wonders if there is anything else to prove outside the painting medium. But his charcoal work titled Another Perspective, a study of a lady from the back and semi-profile view suggests that in drawing, Ogiugo's skill has the energy to exhale beyond the confine of the stereotype.

In another work, Edosa's strokes in equestrian subject, which has grown to the point of references in veterinary or animal anatomy, may not exactly be missing in this show despite not presenting any horse capture. But in a slightly high view on a darkened and barking dog against yellow ground, the artist's rendition of the thrills that some of these creatures, sometimes release, even at rage is sustained.

To understand deeply how Nigerians have been pushed to the limit of the survival syndrome, Edosa’s street scene of traders carrying wares on the head and others, who hawk some other services – mostly women – is well captured in Marketing Suave. It’s a typical of Lagos street scene of different kind of hustlers.         
Crystallisation, a metal work by Fidelis Odogwu

With Shine Your Eyes and Who Am I, Odogwu steps up his bold figural rendition in metal. Quite a consolidation on the great impressionistic seven figures he presented at Distinction last year. But in Crystallisation, a sea of cubes formed in coils and left to escape in flood form at one end stresses Odogwu's masterly energy of contextual form, in metal.

A full view figure of brief facial detail, suggestively a male figure titled Who Am I speaks to people who are subconsciously mired in cultural and identity crisis. A semi-topless figure in wrapper and a ring-like necklace, which suggests a male traditional outfit of the people of Niger Delta seems to be exuding some kind of messages about taking a clear a position on identity.

As an art piece, particularly coming from Odogwu, it appears like a deviation from most of his works in the past that usually come with clear abstraction and impressionism. When it comes to metal, Odogwu, arguably, maintain a puritan kind of style and technique that would not sacrifice basics and the excitement oin rough, natural metal surface on the altar of unrealistic aesthetics.

Forget which colours add up or not in art, fashion or interior decor: Adejumo  boldly expresses such unconventionality in Musing Twenty. Joining the group as the only new entrant into the family of Distinction artists, Adejumo, in the work that peeps into the thoughts of a young woman makes the best of two conflicting colours to deliver a resplendent composite. His application of light, by bouncing the rays of sun from the window onto the walls, actually diffuses the individual strength of the green and processed red into a common synergy that condenses the essence of the transitory theme: puberty to a growing woman.

Indeed, some sculptors, I must stress keep reminding the world that the essence of art should not be lost into the fog of contemporary art. Ugbine is one o such sculptors whose technique and style of wood work enthrall such that the features of either the portrait or mask are always alive. From burlesque depictions in unknown portraitures that Ugbine showed at the maiden edition of the event last year, the artist appeared to have dug back into his studio to bring into fore the essence of representational forms.
 A figural strength in gymnastic form he titles Athleticism brings the thrills of gymnasts close such that it appears as simple as stretching out of a slumber. And as if prescribing some physiotherapy alternatives for the body and soul in a stressful environment, Ugbine adds Ecstasy, a big wood populated with embossed identical figures to the Distinction II gathering.
 As art enthusiasts: connoisseurs, collectors, dealers and critics, among others view the second edition of the Distinction series, we must admit that here comes a broader perspective and flexible window with non-iron curtains into the space of art appreciation, appropriation and validation.

Morning Light, Oil on Textured Canvas by Alex Nwokolo
Art enthusiasts: connoisseurs, collectors, dealers and critics alike may just have another perspective to art as Distinction II,
sponsored by Trojan Estate may have set a new template in validating art. The sponsor appeared to have added to the inspiration that got the artists to regroup. "Our sponsors, Trojan Estate felt that the success of the show last year should be repaeted."

As he however cautioned that the show might not necessarily be a yearly affair, Olaku stressed that the exhibition "is not just a commercial gathering, but about intellectual venture to improve professional standard of art in Nigeria." Being members of the Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA), the participants are cautious of not creating another cell within the guild. "We don't want this to look like another movement or group formed within the GFA," Olaku said. He added that artists from across the board can be part of the show in future.

The return of the artists to the gallery after last year's success, according to Odogwu  was not just based on popular demand. A self-assessment of the first show "convinced us to come back, and with strong content than the first show." 
 For the new entrant, Adejumo, the attraction "is what Distinction stands for," particularly with the caliber of artists involved. "I feel honoured to be part of the exhibition."
 While the show may not necessarily be a yearly gathering of the artists, Nwokolo wished that it continues anyway. "We hope it will continue to be a regular affair."
Close to 50 works, representing an average of seven or more per artist were on display inside the moderate Terra Kulture gallery when the show opened for the two weeks duration. And as the artists are mostly known for richness of contents as against large sizes, the paintings and sculptures - despite the volume still enjoy enough breathing space.

On the support for the show, Olaku commended the management of Trojan Estate just as he traced the company's interest in promoting Distinction to many years in passionate corporate collection of Nigerian art. Also, the venue of the exhibition, Olaku disclosed contributed to the return of Distinction. After the first show, Terra Kulture, according to Olaku insisted that "we must come back.

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