Sunday 20 January 2019

Confronting provenance challenge of Ben Osawe's art

Dennis Ben Osawe.
Provenance of an artist's works is perhaps the most complex aspects of art appreciation. It becomes more complex and fragile when the situation    involves departed artists.

 For Ben Osawe (1931- 2007), there seems to be a Herculean task for the managers of his estate to rescue some of the artist's works from being devalued by unverified provenance.  About ten years after Osawe's death, his son, Dennis has taken the  responsibilty of tracking the late artist's works as well as document others still in the possession of the family.

Osawe, son of a nineteenth century sculptor at Benin palace of Oba Eweka, died as one of Nigeria's prolific modernists. The volume of Osawe's works in circulation -- exposed by the secondary art markets in Lagos and abroad -- is amazing. As revealing as such exposures are, some observers often suspect that there might be unverified provenance of some of the artist's works in circulation.

Also, critics would like to know the number of Osawes in his studio as at when he died, just as there could be other works  discovered outside his estate. Such inventory is indeed necessary to put the artist's works in proper circulation perspective. Like most departed big artists anywhere in the world, inventory and provenance of their works always generate controversy, most times, based on forgery or theft suspicion.

For Dennis who seemed very much aware of the vulnerability of his father's name, he leads the family's strategy to preserve Osawe's legacy.  He noted that clarifying the origin or authorship of his father’s works "has squarely come under the responsibility of the Ben Osawe Art Foundation". Specifically, he didn't think that the family would find it difficult in taking inventory. His father, Dennis disclosed, had made the job easier by taking photographs of the works before death came calling. He explained that "It is not squarely about the number of works", but of more importance is that  "we have photographs of my dad's artworks all archived by himself while he was alive".

Perhaps the father's efforts has been of help in tracking the works recently. "As of late, I had the capacity to recover a portion of my dad's extremely uncommon works from an exhibition in New York". The dealer in possesion of the said works (names not mentioned), Dennis recalled, claimed to be representing Osawe, but "in the interim, not paying anything to us since the death of my father".
Whatever complexity that may arise as regards provenance of his father's works can be sorted out by the foundation. "Regardless of the appearance of the artwork or the quality of workmanship, there is great importance in knowing whether the artwork is genuine or just a clever forgery". He alerted that those in the business of forgery have perfected what he described as "sharp imitation". However, the smartness of the forgers, he insisted, can be deflated by contacting the Foundation for verification.

Mostly in wood and  drawings, Osawe's works at art auctions were, sometimes, among top of the sales in the Lagos' secondary art market. For example, the early art auctions in Lagos between 2008 and 2010 had the artist's works grouped among the top sales. As much as every art market space has its challenge of plagiarism and provenance, so far, there seems to be no high profile issue involving any Osawe's works.

Among the objectives of the Osawe Art Foundation, according to Dennis, is to prevent possible case of unverified provenance or plagiarism  "The importance of the provenance of an artwork cannot be overemphasised; there are a lot of moving parts". He cites situations such as artworks changing hands multiple times among artist's, collector's and dealers. He argued that most times the  beneficiaries of an artist's estate "have to become detectives to uncover journey of their collections".
Exhibiting photographer Omeregie Osakpolor with Edo State Governor, Godwin Obaseki at Ben Osawe Art Foundation-organised exhibition titled Journey of An African Monarch... in Benin.

With five staff member of the Ben Osawe Art Foundation, Dennis has set out to lead the entire management of his father's estate. Explaining the challenges in provenance, particularly concerning Osawe, Dennis noted that as most of the works were created before info-tech age of the internet, "it is really hard to track what is no longer in your hands". He however assured that his family has been on top of the complexity of provenance. “We moved all of his works for inventory system to keep them organised"

One recall that less than a year after Osawe's death, the idea of setting up a foundation was actually announced in Lagos. Getting the foundation off the drawing and planning stage in ten years was actually a long time. "The timing for us was to ensure that there would be somebody that could viably lead the management of the project, just as I, Dennis now handles the full administration of the Foundation built in respect and remembrance of my father". The challenge ahead, not withstanding, Dennis is however excited to be "one of numerous people who have joined a family-owned enterprise basically for the posterity and legacy."

Apart from tracking provenance of his father’s works, other activities being engaged by Ben Osawe Art Foundation, he said, include "encouraging the highest standard of art in Nigeria". He boasted that the Foundation's works include playing a "critical role in creativity and artistry through arranging exhibitions, art presentations, celebrations and workshops with the point of uncovering and creating ability, making societal mindfulness, and providing a stage to express imagination".

In its short period of existence, the Osawe Art Foundation, according to Dennis has staged two exhibitons. "The photo exhibitions included: Journey of An African Monarch by Omeregie Osakpolor, held during the coronation of the Oba of Benin, and Re Birth by Emperor Aigbeoviosa". For Rebirth, the exhibition, Dennis recalled, captures what he noted as "the impact of the monetary circumstance on the regular basic man".

More of interest for the Osawe Art Foundation in the exhibitions was the fact that the two photographers are indigenes of Benin, though based on Lagos. Significantly, the exhibitions served as a "home-coming event to kick start the Ben Osawe Art Foundation, which has already lined up activities for this year 2019".

Dennis is not exactly known as an exhibited artist. He agreed that his father's shoes would be too big for him to step into. But with what he claimed as "many years working" with Osawe and "understudying" the late artist, he has enough knowledge to now manage his father's art business,

In his 20s, Osawe moved to London, U.K. to study at the School of Graphic Art (1956-59) and the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts (1960-65). Osawe's famous work include 'The African Maid',  shown during the FESTAC '77.

 Other activities of the Foundation include: giving help to proficient and developing artists in Nigeria and support to network and outreach programmes; commitment to a solid social scene in Nigeria as a transformative component in driving social change. "We do these through the showing of select thematic exhibitions often held for the private motivation behind advancing and moving of visual arts; Then again, open display for the most part the exhibition hall. The Foundation shows artworks of imaginative significance from famous artists and makes them accessible for open viewing either briefly or for all time".
-Tajudeen Sowole.

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