Friday 19 October 2018

Unearthing retrospective of 'forgotten' modernist, Osadebe

'Inner Light', (Conte crayon on board, 2013, 123 x 80-1.5cm) by Oseloka Osadebe.

When Nigerian modern art got its revered era in the 1960s, young artists who were then known as members of Zaria Art Society were among the shining stars. Between then and now, some of the young Turks of that era -- trained at Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University), Zaria --   living or departed still have their art active within the Nigerian trajectory, while others have vanished from historians' radar.

Oseloka Osadebe, 84, is one of such Nigerian modernists whose signature has disappeared for almost half a century from the Nigerian art space. Based in the U.S, Osadebe is now back In Nigeria with his art after being holed inside the academic environment of his host country. Artists from the NCAST of that era known as Zaria Art Society include Dr Bruce  Onobrakpeya, Yusuf Grillo, Uche Okeke (1933-2016), Demas Nwoko, Jimoh Akolo, Osadebe, Nwagbara and Emmanuel Okechukwu Odita, all seven of the eight early members of Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) that later became an umbrella body for artists in the country.

Courtesy of a Lagos-based curatorial organisation, SMO Contemporary, Osadebe will be exhibiting his works under the title, Inner Light, from October 20 - December 7, 2018, at National Museum, Onikan, Lagos. The works for exhibition include paintings, drawings and one sculpture. Also on display for the show are souvenirs as old as 1960 through the rest of the last century and works as fresh as last decade to even 2014. All 87 works are from the artist's colllection. 

After his sojourn as a member of Zaria Art Society and graduated in 1962 with specialisation in painting and sculpture. Osadebe proceeded to teach art at the University of Nigeria Nsukka from 1962 to 1965.  On an Aggrey Fellowship for African Students he studied in the U.S and graduated with a Master’s in Fine Arts degree from the Art Institute of Chicago, in 1967. He received a second master’s degree in 1973 from the Goodman School of Drama also in Chicago, specialising in scene design, lighting and directing. Osadebe did his doctoral work at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois in 1981, specialising in Western and African Theatre and Drama.    However, Osadebe, a second generation of Nigerian modernists spent his career teaching theatre and set design In the U.S  including institutions such as Jackson State University, Northeastern Illinois University, Tougaloo College, Spelman College, and Central State University. In fact, he has his membership of the Association of Theatre in Higher Education and the Mississippi Alliance for Arts Education to show for his career in stage design.

As an illustrator, his work deviates much from the traditional painting texture of most modernists of his generation. For example, a painting titled Inner Light depicts figurative that looks like some character from comic magazine or film. Osadebe's Inner Light derives its creative strength from the drawing, which emits life in animation form more than just an artistic  creation on paper. This painting and others are clear influence from the artist's decades of practice in illustration art and designs.

Others include two works on paper titled 'Iba', (1967), which articulates nucleus of a family unit in Igbo tradition, with some structural designs style; set of storyboards from Theatre performance, reflecting the  artist's background in illustration art; and 'Falling From Grace', angelic flight and perhaps tribute to his growing up in religious environment. Back to his roots comes 'Tree of Life', a depiction on his love for mother and the Virgin Mary perspective.

An artist with more strength in illustrations, Osadebe however displays quite profound depth in draughtsmanship. From academic and studio context, Osadebe has replendent skills in quite a number of studies, mostly of female and male nude forms in pencil and  charcoals. Interestingly,  some of his recent works include a drawing in full shading titled Ikemefuna (2013) and also 'Tree of Life' series, dated same year.

Pulled out from his sketch pad are the artist's flaunting of strong skills in using lines seen in an old drawing titled 'Piggly Wigglies' series. In curatorial context, the presentation adds to the strong provenance of the  collection, particularly with framing that exposes holes in the edges of the old sketch pad sheets.

Prof Oseloka Osadebe. Pic: by Sandra Mbanefo Obiago.

Sponsored and supported by Access Bank, Deutsche Bank, Louis Guntrum Wines, the Wheatbaker and Lagos State Government, with The Guardian as media partner, the exhibition has been in process for two years. Curator, Sandra Mbanefo Obiago disclosed that the journey to unearth Osadebe's forgotten signature started in 2016. She recalled how the Obi of Onitsha, HRH Igwe Alfred Nnaemeka Achebe, wanted her to consider a retrospective exhibition of Osadebe’s work. Over the years, efforts, she said, had been made by the monarch's family to get the artist show his work in Nigeria, but without Osadebe showing any interest. "But lately, the tide had turned, and the Octogenarian was starting to realize he needed to return to his roots and share his wealth of artistry experience".
Obiago described the works for the exhibition as "simply a snapshot of Osadebe’s life and vast oeuvre". She however cautioned that the exhibits "do not adequately reflect the entire breadth of his vision and work, which is still in full swing". The exhibition, she explained, "provides a wonderful re-introduction to an artist whose important contribution to contemporary art in Nigeria has almost been forgotten, except in the memory of his surviving classmates all in their eighties, and a few art historians".

In 2016; the curator had a retrospective exhibition for another Zaria artist and modernist, Onobrakpeya
"We presented over 300 works spanning Onobrakpeya’s career including works from some of Nigeria’s greatest artists, who had been mentored at Onobrakpeya’s Harmattan Workshops during an 18 year period".

Having been cut off from mainstream art appreciation at home for over half a century, the artist, Obiago assured was still hopeful of leaving a legacy. "It is Osadebe’s hope that this exhibition inspires other artists, both young and old, to continue creating their art". The  curator also hoped that "this exhibition inspires more work to document artists who are advanced in years, and whose legacy must not be lost".

Excerpt from Prof Osadebe's bio: He grew up in Onitsha, Anambra State. From an early age, he distinguished himself as a brilliant draughtsman, and eventually earned acceptance to the prestigious NCAST, Zaria.

He is a member of the Association of Theatre in Higher Education and the Mississippi Alliance for Arts Education.

Osadebe retired in 2007 and has spent the last eleven years reviving his passion for visual arts at his studio in Jackson, Mississippi.
 -Tajudeen Sowole.

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