By Tajudeen Sowole
In the weeks when the art landscape of Lagos enjoys activities populated with contemporary contents, a body of sculpture by septuagenarian, Roland Udinyiwe Ogiamen stands out, providing traditional texture.
Ogiamen, 71, belongs in the second generation of Nigerian modernists whose works adorn public spaces across Nigeria, particularly defining Africa's rich traditional value in artistic context. Currently showing as Excellent Vision 2016, Ogiamen's themes are woven around the myths of African spirituality, rituals and philosophy.
Being of Benin, Edo State origin, the culture and value of his nativity, unavoidably, ooze in nearly all the 23 works on display. From figural to abstraction, either rendered in decorative or functional form - sometimes of dual purposes - Ogiamen brings into the Lagos art space, old, but resilient style and technique of traditional sculpture.
Quite of interest that Ogiamen's exhibition is being shown at a crucial period in the Benin royalty transition. For example, an oval design table piece titled Coronation of Oba of Benin comes with graphic details, in four compartmented relief images tells a visual story of the royal ritual. The narrative takes off from what the artist describes as the Oba's ritual journey through "war stage" and lastly to the "final point of crowning."
In Apa wood, the table further delves into the Benin philosophy and spirituality. The central part of the compartmented spread, Ogiamien explains, "is about the joyous people on earth and spirits in the other world." Though apart physically, the two worlds, he adds, "rejoice with the Oba" on the day of his coronation.
Still on the functional sculptures among the works, another table, Igue Festival depicts the Benin tradition of marking the end of a year. Though short of explaining what makes the content of ancient Benin Calendar, the work, a small centre table dated 1994 and done in Iroko wood further celebrates the artist's skill in details as regards traditional carving.
From the iconic image of Iyoba (Queen mother), replicated in sculptures, to the modern, perhaps contemporary Benin woman, elegance and elaborate paraphernalia have been established as fashion statements across generations of the people. This much Ogiamen depicts in an elongated figure titled Binin Princess, in which the Benin traditional female decorative accessories enhances the beauty of being a lady.
Irrespective of the themes created by the living and departed masters, the fact remains that their works that adorn public spaces across the country are endangered. For example, with the death of renowned artist, Lamidi Olonade Fakeye (1928-2009), modernist sculptors whose strengths are in the depiction of traditional and ancient themes are on the decline. More worrisome, there appears to be a foggy future in replenishing the genre; young Nigerian sculptors are clearly contemporary in contents. The shift in generational content is no doubt creating a vacuum such that in the future it could be difficult getting artists to restore the old works in case of damages.
Recall that some sets of frieze by artist, Erhabor Emokpae (1934-1984) that forms a ring round the facade at National Theatre Iganmu turned controversial some years ago, after it was allegedly "retouched." With such situation, what hope lies in future for works of Ogiamien that might require restoration by another artist. Restoration, he argues shouldn't be a problem for artists to fix, particularly when the original artist is dead. He recalls that among all the artists that worked with Emokpae during the installation of the National Theatre frieze, "I am the only living artist." And after the great artist's death in 1984, "I led the completion of his works," he discloses. Among other departed masters' works restored by him, he says were that of Ben Osawe.
As fragile as wood sculpture is, compared to metal or bronze, good care, he notes is the real antidote in avoiding any need for restoration. However, care, perhaps comes with passion for art, particularly sculptures that are wrongly demonised by non-native African religionists of Christianity and Islam, in Nigeria. The religious "fanatics," he argues, "killed the art market in Nigeria." But the orthodox church, like "the Catholic", he notes "always believe you decorate the alter of God beautifully."
Between sculpturing in wood and bronze, the Benin tradition in artistic expression, no doubt is more legendary in the latter medium. In fact, nearly all the iconic pieces of Benin art - within and outside Nigeria – are in bronze, with some in ivory. But in Nigeria’s modernism and post-modern periods, Ogiamen joins Emokpae and Osawe in projecting wood, perhaps, on equal pedestal with bronze. And that little is known of ancient Benin art of wood medium confirms the need for post-modern documentation of the people’s art. Perhaps, the Benin art needs similar documentation in the texture of Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Power and Identity, c. 1300, written by American scholar, Suzanne Preston Blier.
In appropriating Benin art through the sculpture of Ogiemien, another modernist, Yusuf Grillo notes that the people’s traditional art is “exemplified in Benin wood carvers’ romance with modern artistic concept of personal individual probe as against group or tribal philosophy, norms, form and style.”
Grillo, 82, whose work cuts across all the known genres of visual arts also recalls the professional relationship between Emoakpae and Ogiamen. The late master, Grillo, discloses, “was a very fruitful influence on Ogiamen, as Ogiamen himself acknowledges.” Grillo explains that Ogiamen’s years with Emokpae “were very beneficial; they helped to unleash the genius inside him and laid the solid foundation on which Ogiamen has continued tirelessly to build.”
Among other works on display at Excellent Vision 2016 include The Strange Spirit, Harmony, God of Music, Prince of the Forest, The Polygamist, Echo of The Forest (Spirit), Mother and Child and Erhonmwen.
A curatorial note from Moses Ohiomokhare of Quintessence Gallery describes Ogiamen work as an “exploit” that was generated in three periods. The curator group the artist’s periods: “In the early 60's was his period of apprenticeship and between 1969 and 1973 was his period of houseman ship under Emokpae who made a lot of beautiful designs for them to carve and work on, under his supervision.”
Ohiomokhare however adds how Ogiamen’s Christian faith changed his themes from 1979, with sculptures such as Blessed virgin Mary, Loving Couple, Mother and Child, Father and son, Night Romance, among others. “These pieces now reflect his new mood centering around love of fellow human being and joy, although some are also traditional sculptural pieces.”
Excerpts from Ogiamen’s bio: He was born into a family of educationists in 1945.
From being an apprentice to a sculptor, Mr Akpamwinda Omorege, when he moved to Lagos in 1962, Ogiamien houseman-ship under Emokpae between 1969 and 1973.
Ogiamen has over 20 art exhibitions, 12 of which are solo shows between 1973 and 2002. His last group exhibition, Celebration of Life was held at National Museum, Onikan, Lagos and last solo, Back to Roots at National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC), Iganmu, Lagos.