Monday 20 July 2015

With ‘art as agent of change’, Ogunlaiye returns to studio

By Tajudeen Sowole
Quite an odd mix exists along one of Nigeria's signs of infrastructural deficit and decadence; the Airport Road, Lagos, particularly inward the Murtala Muhammed Int'l Airport, Mafoluku axis. From organised private sector of banks, hotel businesses, and middle class residential buildings, to eyesores such as roadside auto mechanics, unauthorised stations for commercial buses, tricyles, motorcycles (okadas) as well as sales of alcohol to transport workers, this axis is indeed a national embarrassment as a road leading in and out of Nigeria's most important international airport.

Totem of Unity, a plastograph sculpture by Tunde Ogunlaiye

Driving through the road almost daily never really provided an opportunity to see the depth of the eyesore and odd mix of businesses going on here, until this afternoon, when in search of a direction to the studio of artist, Tunde Ogunlaiye. "Seven / eight Bus Stop, Mafoluku," the artist stresses earlier, indicating the location of his studio. Few blocks away from Ogunlaiye's studio lies disorganised road side trading and transport activities as well as the accompany filthiness unimagined in a 'new Lagos.' Left of the house are banks and a hotel building that, if appropriated in visual art context with the other contrasting business activities, could pass as a master surreal piece on canvas.

Oddly, like few other neigbhours of the artist, the building that houses his studio sticks out with its clean entrance and a hidden lawn behind the gate. Ogunlaiye's studio is shared by the Int'l Airport Road and Airport Close, a serene residential layout shielded from the filth on the major road leading to Nigeria's busiest airport.

It's amazing that a residential building, and with green lawn for that matter exists off the bad road and illegal road side trading activities out there, the artist's guest exclaims, stepping into the premises. "You are not alone in your observation," Ogunlaiye replies as he ushers the guest into his studio. About two years ago, he moved from Ikeja to Airport Road. The change of location came ten years after he dumped the ad industry where he had sacrificed his skill in sculpture and painting on the alter of visualising for marketing communications, for over 24 years. But Ogunlaiye is gradually reviving his rested full-time studio career, even with an environment infested with neighbours whose kind of businesses are far from supporting intellectual production.

Stark of old paintings at the extreme end of his modest studio and sculptural pieces as well as other mixed media works competing for space suggest that the artist would need a bigger studio. "I have to squeeze  some of my works  here," he intercepts his guest's thoughts. "I used to have a studio in Ikeja as big as a small warehouse until the building was sold.

Ogunlaiye belongs to the generation of Nigerian artists who were, in the 1980s had the prospect of taking African art beyond the era of the modernists. Very early in his career, as a young graduate from University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Ile-Ife, Osun State, Ogunlaiye had his debut post-school solo art exhibition at National Theatre, in 1984. The exhibition was "made possible by Shina Yusuf under the then Minister for Information, Youth, Sport and Culture, Group Capt Emeka Omerua." Titled Paintings, Prints and Drawings by Henry Babatunde Ogunlaiye, and organised by National Gallery of Modern Art, the contents of the exhibition, according to a brochure seen at his Airport Road studio indicates an artist who was roundly prepared for the challenges of the dynamic art space of the future.

In addition to providing an opportunity for Ogunlaiye’s early start into the art exhibition circuit of Lagos, the landscape also appeared fertile and supportive enough to germinate a promising full-time studio career. Ogunlaiye recalls one of the regular art shows then that "holds every Thursday and widely patronised by Americans." The Thursday art exhibition, he says, continued till late 1980s.

Perhaps in search of broader expression, he rested the freedom of being an independent artist and took up several advertising jobs between 1984 and 1998. He was Creative Director at Insight Communication and also worked at Satchi and Satchi Nigeria as Executive Director.

And when the need for a broader space of independence was perceived, Ogunlaiye chose to be a founder of an advertising agency and employer of labour. "In 2000, I entered into a partnership with some colleagues to set up an Ad agency," The partnership suffered challenges that the young company could not survive, he explains.  But the vacuum created from the collapse of the partnership afforded him to settle for consultancy. "With my BA and MBA, I delved into marketing communication consultancy, generating idea for PR companies." The new freedom, he says, "allows me to go back to my full-time studio."

From 2013 Ogunlaiye started reviving his full-time studio practice. Sitting insude the artist's studio this afternoon, one does not need special eyes for art appreciation to know that Ogunlaiye is an artist whose skill cut across nearly all the basic medium of painting, sculpture and print. Among the works are sculpture-like totems rendered in plasto graph. Apart from the skill in articulating the motifs and other native signs and symbols that make up the sculptures, the inspiration behind the concept adds strength to the pieces. For example, Dignity of Labour, a totem of mixed media focuses the agrarian activities such as what the artist describes as "harvest time, at the palm trees" among others. The theme, he notes, is apt, more at the current period when "most young people don't place value in the dignity of hard-work; they are too much in a hurry to get rich." He cites "example, of the change that Nigerians are yawning for will only come when individual, particularly young people change their attitude." Specifically, he charges artists not to sit on the fence and implore art as a tool in the change mission. For art to be more effective as agent of change, "we need to have more art exhibitions." One of his prescribed strategy is to pick a particular theme or subject and keep working consistently on it for at leat five years." He however agrees that for some artists, "the challenge of economic survival might hinder such longtime commitment."
Tunde Ogunlaiye
Between loyalty to creative calling of an artist and commercial attraction, Ogunlaiye appeares to have chosen the former long ago. "I had always known I would not be a good commercial artist," he revisits the factor that led him to join the ad industry. However, much later in his career as executive creative professional, he realised that something was being taken away from him. "My creativity was not put to use the way I wanted; I missed the freedom of creative expression." And 12 years after he returned to full-time studio terrain, Ogunlaiye appears to have come to terms with the fact that he cannot eat his cake and have it. "Now as a studio artist, i have all the freedom to express myself, but then comes the challenge of paying the bills."

However, being among the leading young Turks of art in Lagos during the 1980s it has not been difficult coming back. One of the main platforms for reconnecting with the mainstream Lagos art landscape is the Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA). Although he was among the newly inducted members of GFA that joined the guild two years, Ogunlaiye was actually one of the early initiators of such a direction for artists who practised full-time. "In the 1980s I and Abiodun Olaku, Bunmi Babatunde and others had always talked about having a voice for studio artists." However, his commitment at ad agencies disconnected him from the mainstream studio practice.

And being back to where he thinks his destiny lies is a relief. "It's good to be back, particularly as a member of GFA."

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