Sunday 13 January 2019

Animal Anatomy Takes New Leap In Popoola's 'Synergetic' Metal Sculpture

Dotun Popooola and a young friend with one of his works. Pic: c/o of the artist.

Beyond aesthetics appreciation, art also has the value of being a strong resource in general knowledge. In fact, artists whose works, over the years, focused on specific themes, do possess some scientific knowledge of their subjects.

Such general knowledge value exists in animal subject, which is one of the most fascinating, and perhaps, widely depicted themes in fine art. Across painting, sculpture and general medium, equestrian and other cattle animals have enjoyed robust space in fine art.

However, one's experience interacting with many artists, over the years, suggest that very few of the creators of such art do research deep into the diverse species of these animals. But there is a delight in Dr Dotun Popoola's adventure in the art of animal anatomy. Chatting with sculptor Popoola exposed how his work in equestrian and bull are as profound as his findings on different species of the utility animals.

More interesting, his medium of sculptural expressions is avant-garde: he turns junks of metals into sculptures of breathing texture. Popoola works mostly in metal, sourcing some of the materials from discarded and waste outlets of mostly mechanical objects. From working in general themes, including human figures in Nigeria, Popoola's curiousity thirst in anatomy of animals got hydrated when he traveled to the U.S.
A resident artist at John Lopez studio, Lemmon, South Dakota, the Lagos-based artist, who has his first and second degree in sculpture and general art, here in Nigeria, no doubt posseses great depth in mastery of animal anatomy.

Beyond just creating the forms, he adds other values such as generating theatrics from discarded motor parts. In fact, some of his works appear like models being prepared for special-effect (EFX) set of a George Lucas' sci-fi movie. For examples, legs of a bull appropriated in engine crankshafts looks like those robotic legs in action-packed outer space fiction films. Also, from head to neck of a horse, Popoola loads clutch disc, shock absorbers of car, among other motor parts, creating narrative that exist in comics and fantasy world.
Before creating his sculptures, he had real life experience, studying the different breeds of animals. "After spending great time with cowboys, in U.S, I did a comprehensive study on anatomy of horses and  found out that most of our horses here in Africa are slimmer compared to the breeds they use for rodeo over there, which are huge", the sculptor noted. In researching horses, he had to take rides on them to feel the diversity of the species, which he would later depict in sculptures. His activities, he recalled, included branding of cows, using horses for as long as six to seven hours. "Few horse species that I have rode and studied are American Quater horse, thoroughbred stallion and Drafthorse".

Back home, there is something to also research in African breed of horses. "But for the polo horse that i am working on currently, they are mostly thoroughbred, in Africa". The difference in the animals' anatomy, he explained, is only glaring to "those who can actually study them critically".
His research included understanding the senses of the animals. "I have to understand the emotions of horses to avoid abuse by either myself or the horse; the language of the ears of the horse and where to touch to make it listen to me, among others". Basically, he concluded that "the body formation of each horse differs according to the breed".

A son of Agege, Lagos-based automotive technician, Popoola warned that his work is not just about assemblage of the discarded metal objects. Junk art, he argued, should come with other values. He traced his creative use of junks to "a friend in the U.S who trained me in metal sculpture". Described as "a hybrid welder", the friend, he disclosed, contributed so much to his career, perhaps in mentorship way.

In the last ten years, Popoola's works within and outside Nigeria include a statue of Oduduwa, done concrete cast, metal, and natural fired brick, 35ft high, produced in 2013, and mounted inside Oduduwa Groove,  ile-ife; OAU logo, metal fabrication of 15ft, at the right entrance of Obafemi Awolowo University, 2012; Grotto and Statue of Mary, assembled petrified wood/rock, with stone, embellishment, 9ft, at St Mary Catholic Church, New England, North Dakota, U.S, in 2016; Crucifix, concrete cast image on a granite stone carve, 8ft, 2016; and Boerboel, hybrid metal sculpture, 5.7ft, located at the private wing of the International Airport, Lagos, 2018.

As much as Popoola has derived joy and satisfaction, so far, mounting public space sculptures across cultures and locations, there was a moment of challenge, at home. One of his works in Nigeria was mutilated, strangely in the academic environment. He described the tragic experience as "a monumental assault on my intellectual property".

The sculpture, mounted at OAU, Ife, was a statue of Nobel Laureate, Prof Wole  Soyinka. Popoola had return from a residency abroad, and got the shocker: "beheading of Soyinka statue". He explained how the work was an experiment in using marble dust for carving. "The books on which the sculpture rested was removed and the head taken to another structure," he lamented. "When I was making the work, I met Prof Soyinka to do anatomical analysis". The portrait, he said, gave him the award of the Best Student at OAU, Ife. Produced in 2008, the period of production, he recalled, "cost me my youth corp year".
Given the time it takes to produce a piece of sculpture, being prolific is hardly in the art vocabulary of most artists, particularly of metal and wood medium. But in one year, Popoola has produced a numerical strength of what some other artists would do in ten years. "It just occured to me, like a surprise, that I have actually done 30 massive sculptures in 365 days", he noted of works that, "are all hit back to back; sold out".

As an artist and researcher, Popoola has also done research into objects and materials, bringing different metals to create forms. He described the coalescence of different objects as "synergetic metal". The artist's understanding of his materials also has scientific approach. "The combination of both ferrous and non ferrous metal, rust and alloys, industrial and manually fabricated metal", he explained, form his synergetic metal art, which sometimes include "sculpted bronze or aluminum pieces hidden within the junks". In fact, such combination, he said, "transpose the piece to be a form of hybrid art".
In his 2019 plan,  Popoola hoped to produce just one huge work as a lone piece. "i will be breaking new grounds with my massive monumental sculptures and at the end of the year, hope to have another solo exhibition of just one work made out of thousands of junks".

The Nigerian art space, specifically, Lagos is not unaware of Popoola's art stride. After showing at the last Art x Lagos, under the representation of Signature Beyond Gallery, Popoola is also the first artist of 2019 at Thought Pyramid's Mentoring Moments series. In the last week of January, Popoola will be sharing his success story with younger artists at the event.

For Popoola, a metal sculptor whose work transcends the Nigerian space, showing at Art X, under Signature Gallery, he said, was an extension of his past relationship with the Lagos-based gallery. The artist's stride in creative combination goes beyond metal. He also has quite a poetic moulding of words for his works. He once shared his thoughts on one of his works with the theme 'Irin Ajo' and 'Irin tI ajo', coined from two Yoruba identical vowels but of different meanings.
 Popoola had his family ancestry in Abeokuta, Ogun State, but was born in Agege, Lagos in 1981. He holds a National Diploma in painting and General Arts from Auchi Polytechnic, Edo State, where he graduated as the best student in painting and general arts in 2004. He had his first and second degree in Fine and Applied Arts with a specialization in sculpture and painting respectively at Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria. He has trained at many studios, and currently a certified hybrid metal sculptor as well as a resident artist in Lemmon South Dakota, at John Lopez studio. Popoola won the Director-General’s Award of Best Artist of the year at the maiden NYSC arts competition in 2009 and is a recipient of several awards.

"He has participated in over 25 group and three solo exhibitions. Considering his passion to touch lives with his art, he has coordinated many art workshop and seminars for orphanage homes and rehabilitation centres. He has also executed several monumental sculptures and large murals both in Nigeria and United States of America. Worked as a curator II with the National Gallery of Arts, Oshogbo outstation, Osun State Nigeria, between 2012 till 2018, and currently works as a full time studio experimentalist.

-Tajudeen Sowole.

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