Sunday 20 December 2015

Half A Century Of Brushing With Osogbo Master, Oyelami

By Tajudeen Sowole

Five decades of studio practice in the career of an artist is no doubt worth celebrating. And when the artist is a revered signature as Chief Muraina Oyelami, b. 1940, the celebration comes with special attention.

The Suitors, oil on board by Chief Muraina Oyelami.

However, it was a quiet and brief gathering on Thursday evening at an exhibition’s opening simply titled Muraina Oyelami, organised by Life House inside Constant Capital office, Ikoyi, Lagos. Not exactly a regular art space as the white walls were almost overran by the glass doors and windows.  
  Perhaps for the purpose of making art interact with non-regular space, the exhibition for Oyelami's 50 years in studio practice – ending January 28, 2016 - make a modest sense in expanding the horizon of art appreciation. 

 As the select guests of collectors, connoisseurs and aficionados trickled into Constant Capital, increasing in number with the pace of the disappearing mild harmattan daylight, the paintings of the celebrant glitter under the spotlights. In restricted three hours, the opening of the over one month exhibition provided an appetizer for further engagement with the paintings, most of which are less than one year old. One hoped that within the next month of the exhibition, the walls at Constant Capital would create space for few retrospection pieces that represent crucial periods of Oyelami's five decades in studio practice. An exhibition of such a landmark would be incomplete without, at least, few old works.

 Mostly in portraitures and streetscapes, Oyelami's work, over the decades, represent a great depth in native visual expression, which has also made incursion into international art lexicon across Europe and the U.S. For his 50th anniversary in studio practice, the artist's tradition as unshaken Nigerian modernist continues fearlessly, even in the surge of contemporaneity that is submerging and blurring the line of genuine creativity.

  Mounted like one piece, though "two separate works," The Suitor and Innocent, on the left side of the space’s entrance represent one of Oyelami's revered signatures in capturing emotions. In a more philosophical and spiritual context comes Cycle of Life, a two-figure piece radiating an aura of mysticism.

 For those who know the value of a master artist's periods in provenance, the works on display, apparently created for the 50 years celebration of Oyelami could make landmark collection. In fact, given the few number of the works and the landmark aura they radiated, whoever collect any of these pieces has something rare to treasure in Nigerian collection. 

 When life could be so short and unpredictable, hitting 50 years in a profession is like making a strong impact half way into a marathon. Very few artists have the boldness or opportunity to celebrate 50 years in studio practice. For Oyelami, did he envisage making the five decades mark when he chose to be an artist in his mid 20s?  "As a young artist, I didn't know I could make a profession out of art,"  Oyelami recalled during a three-minutes chat at the opening. "In fact, I didn't know I could sell a work of art until 1967 when my work was sold in London." Growing as a young artist, the upbringing then, he stressed, "was not to make art for sale; we were just enjoying the fun of creating art." 

  Oyelami is among the revered breed of Osogbo artists who stunned the west in the late 1960s through 1970s and consolidated their rise with the expanding space of African art later in the last decade of 20th century. As Chief Esa of his native home town, Iragbiji, in State of Osun, Oyelami has used his art to attract attention to his birth place.


Chief Muraina Oyelami.

Post-50 years of Oyelami's studio practice may not be as eventful in numerical context as the past.  But the artist is dreaming big towards a legacy that  ploughs back to the environment that has given him so much opportunity in life. "From now on, I have a project that is currently of priority to me," he disclosed. He was unable to explain details as the restricting hours of the event got closer .But a document sent later completesdetails of the project.

 It's an institution project called Abeni-Okin Institute Of Visual And Performing Arts (ABIVPA).

  Named after his mother’s oriki, ABIVPA, has as its  vision, according to the document: leaving a legacy in art and culture in Nigeria, creating a platform for training successors who can learn, understand, preserve and pass on our cultural heritage and on artistic work from drastic extinction. Goal: To help the young ones discover their various talents in visual and performing arts which include: acting, writing, chorography etc; promote tourism and languages. Mission:Promote policy and framework for development in Nigeria through sustained economic growth and transformation in arts and culture.

 Activities include: to admit and train the young ones especially those who have interest, as well as the talented ones in art and culture but are incapable of acquiring adequate training as a result of unavailability of fund. By this, they will be empowered to become independent, entrepreneurs, job creators and most importantly, become instrumental in the preservation of our Arts and culture.

  Some of the regular training workshops in ABIVPA include: workshop on Visual Arts that will make use of various media such as sculpture, pottery, painting, photography and textile dyeing; large statue, terracotta and textile collections will serve as teaching aids; making instruments and playing music

general objectives; contributing to people’s intellectual and artistic fulfillment; and enhancing the value of the cultural heritage and promoting cultural diversity.

Listed as “Specific objectives” include training educators and artists to teach art practices, promoting access to the arts for severely underprivileged youth, among others.

 Curator of the exhibition, Ugoma Adegoke noted the coincidence of Oyelami's 50 years studio practice celebration with quite a number of high profile art events of Nigerian art origin. "This was an extremely important year, filled with many milestones commemorating some of Nigeria's modern and contemporary masters," wrote Adegoke in the catalogue of the exhibition.  "Enwonwu in London, Grillo in Lagos, Anatsui in Venice... and now presenting a long-awaited solo exhibition of Oyelami after almost 20 years." 

 She saw the event as a  honour and opportunity for her "at this most important time in his career, and after nearly two years in conversation about collaborating." 

 Representative of Oba Rasheed Olabomi Odundun IV, Aragbiji of Iragbiji at the opening, Engr Yomi Taiwo recalled knowing Oyelami at University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, Osun State), since 1980. And still tracking the artist, Taiwo commended him for making Iragbiji a tourist attraction to the world. He however challenged Oyelami: "the challenge I am giving his is to ensure he internalise his works by making them domicile in Iragbiji, in a museum."

 If you were in elementary or secondary school in the 1970s with ambition of becoming an artist, it was most likely, you read about Oyelami, a Lagos-based artist Olu Ajayi narrated his tracking of the celebrant. "If you started reading about Oyelami only in higher institution, then you actually didn't prepare to be an artist; I have been reading about him much earlier as a kid," said Ajayi who saw three factors in in Oyelami. "In him are Muraina as an artist, Muraina the artist and Muraina the art."

  The revered spot of Oyelami, for example, was stressed in 2007 when a group exhibition titled Living Masters was shown at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos. Organised by Mydrim Gallery with sponsor from GTB, the exhibition also featured works of Yusuf Grillo, Abayomi Barber, Bruce Onabrakpeya, Bisi Fakeye, David Dale, Isiaka Osunde, Kolade Oshinowo and El Anatsui.

  Oyelami began his career in arts in 1964 as one of the members and the first generation of the famous Osogbo art school initiated by Professor Ulli Beier and his wife Georgina.

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