Saturday, 10 October 2020

Cast, welded metal art practice disparity in post-modern Nigeria

A welded metal sculpture titled Sunflower by Olu Amoda. Pic: c/o of the artist.

TRACKING art of sculpture, from ancient Africa to post-modern period, has exposed time disparity between the two basic sub-medium of cast and welded metal. While the cast medium made its formal entry during colonial period, welded metal didn't emerge into mainstream space until the late 1970 to early 1980s.

As a source from which the world's artistic and technological advancement emerged, metal was hardly missing among African craftsmen of ancient ages. Being the parent source that covers silver, bronze, tin, gold, lead and iron, metal had been used across ages in Africa. In modern and contemporary context, metal art is sub-divided into welded and cast medium, based on the above listed derivatives. However, works and practice in cast metal, particularly bronze, has dwarfed that of the welded medium in modern and contemporary Nigerian art environment. While casting and smithing, in Africa, have history rooted in ancient periods, the former appears to be more resilient despite the latter's advantage in welding technology. 

Apart from mentioning the Nubian civilization, quite a number of historical accounts, for example, on the Iron Age (1200-600 B.C.), has been recorded without specific reference to include Sub-saharan Africa in that period. But as the Iron Age appeared like an advancement, in tools, on the Stone and Bronze periods, Africa was not exactly left behind in that progressions, so suggest archaeological findings in cultural objects such as the Nok (sixth century B.C), Ife heads (circa 1000 A.D) and Benin bronzes (circa1300 A.D).

Either as a tool in fabrication or a finished object, it's been known that metal, over the Ages, connected diverse fields such as architecture, art and engineering. Facts abound that Africans, specifically, some tribes and nations that formed the nation state Nigeria of today were not left out in applying metal as tools and products of fabrication. For example, the Yoruba people of ancient period, in the city of Ilorin (now in present day Kwara State)  widely used metal as essential part of productivity.

Pronounced 'Eelorin', documented historical sources explained that the city of Ilorin was so named being a centre of attraction for artisans and  technicians who had their tools fabricated for various needs. Simplified English meaning of 'Ilo irin' is grinding iron. As a city, Ilorin was possibly so designated being a centre of crafts in iron, and the residence for the Kakanfo, the Generalisimo of the Oyo Empire. Ilorin was an extension of the Alafin of Oyo's monarchial power, from where the army commanders operate.

As all Yoruba towns of ancient periods derived their names from either environment or event inference origin, Ilorin, most likely had been so named before it became a vassal town of the then Oyo Empire. Examples of clearly expressive names of Yoruba towns are Eba-odan (near the of outskirt of town) now corrupted as Ibadan and Abeokuta (under the rock), among others. The inference for Ilo-rin (grinding iron) as the name of the ancient town is therefore not in doubt.

The trajectory of metal being applied in creating industrial and cultural objects, in what is today known as Nigeria, perhaps, predated even the Ilorin town of the old Oyo Empire. Working with metal in Yoruba language is expressed as agbede (smithing) while the artisan is known as alagbede (blacksmith). 

Adeola Balogun, working on a welded metal sculpture titled 'Towards Achieving Distinction', mounted inside University of Ibadan, Oyo State.

 Armaments of the ancient Yoruba such as ida (sword), ofa (bow and arrow), among others, were produced by the alagbede of that era. Also included in the works of alagbede were farm tools such as hoe, cutlass, among others for domestic utilities. Till date, the remnants of the alagbede, being a hereditary profession exists among some people who still retain 'Agbede' as their family name. In Yourubaland, it's customary then for family to be recognised and named by their profession, cultural or religious status.

Before the entry of Nigerian modern art era, dated from Aina Onabolu (1882-1963), creating metal into objects as art of the past were done by unknown artists. During the practice pattern of the alagbede of many centuries ago, which continued through the colonial Nigeria era, there were several generations of undocumented metal artists. And with the entry of Nigerian modernity, from the early 20th century till the eve of the country’s independence, quite some interest were shown by few artists in the cast metal area.  Ben Enwonwu (1917-1994), among his works, was the Queen Elizabeth II sculpture in bronze, dated 1957. The full size sculpture of the British monarch by Enwonwu, most likely, was the first major cast metal done by a Nigerian artist in modern era. Yes, the artists of bronze casting have been existing from one generation to another in Benin town, over the centuries, but they were mostly undocumented.

On the contrary, lack of interest in welded metal among Nigerian artists persisted during the colonial era. Art of welded metal, during colonial era was seen, largely, as work for street artisans popularly known as 'welders.' The formally trained artists from few art schools in existence then seemed not interested in welded metal works. In fact, there were no traces to suggest that formally trained artists had background in welded metal training during Nigeria's colonial period. The lack of interest in welded metal art has been confirmed by the fact that no single known welded metal work by any Nigerian modernists.

Generally, sculptors were less documented in pre-independence Nigeria, just as the tilted history towards painting continued, even till date. "Better put that the undocumented ones are sculptors while painters are well documented," Olu Amoda, a prominent welded metal artist agreed, few days ago. Amoda stressed that "the product define the person not the person defining the product."

Whoever is interested in the art and not the tilted documentation should change the perception that welded metal artists did not exist during pre-independence Nigeria. Amoda said "the black and gold smiths were the early pre-independence sculptors."

How the two pioneer art schools of the pre-independence era such as Nigeria College of Art, Science and Technology NCAST, Zaria (now Ahmadu Bello University) and Yaba Higher College, Lagos (changed to Yaba College of Technology, Yabatech), did not produce artists in welded metal medium is still a subject that requires more research. However, some undocumented works of welded metal, said to have been seen in the 1970s, at Yabatech, indicated attempt to train artists in the sub-medium. The works, a source said, were either produced by students or brought into the college from the street welders'  shops. Yes, records have it that artists were trained in welded metal sculpture, specifically at diploma levels in some of the schools of art in Nigeria, during  the 1970s, but there seemed to be lack of energy to drive the post-training into mainstream practice.

While the mainstream art environment of Nigeria was still keeping welded metal sculptors at a prejudiced distance as "artisan welders," a gradual shift emerged in the 1980s from artist, Fred Archibong (1959-2009). Archibong, a self-taught artist whose works of painting, mixed media and sculpture were produced, mostly in commercial appreciation, was also patronised by government. Archibong was among the first set of artists who blurred the line between street welders and professional artists by producing many iron gates of artistic contents, busts and full size statues, in welded metal, for both residential and corporate facilities. Between mid 1980s to late 1990s, Archibong whose studio was in Surulere and later moved to Victoria Island had successful career in welded metal by building iron gates and statues, for private and public spaces. It was speculated then that about six out of every ten public space art works, mostly in welded metal, across Nigeria, were produced from the studio of Archibong. Most of Archibong's public sculptures, in welded metal — though widely critiqued as poorly produced — seemed to have generated sudden energy for formally trained artists to take control of the professionalism space.

From the reluctant professional of the 1980s, to gathering of  gradual energy in the 1990s, the Nigerian artist of welded metal has come of age in the 21st century. Most renowned in the Nigerian art space of the 21st century as regards welded metal is Amoda. In 1986, artist and Head of Department, Fine Arts, at Yabatech, Kolade Oshinowo got Amoda to join the college as a lecturer. Oshinowo, few days ago recalled that the need to expand training of students in sculpture made him "brought Olu to Yabatech in 1986, specifically to teach students in welded metal."

What exactly was the state of welded metal training at Yabatech before Oshinowo join the college in 1974? There might have been "some experimental efforts,"

Oshinowo said during our chat. But he was however sure that at his alma mater, ABU, between 1968-1972, there were students in other fields of sculpture, but welded metal training, he was emphatic "didn't exist." 

A welded metal piece titled 'The Matron' (60 inch, 2017), by Fidelis Odogwu.

 While quite many artists in the welded metal space were busy on the commercial end, creating sculptures for mostly private collection, Amoda, in the past two decades, had exhibited his works in quite a number of critical appreciation spaces within Nigeria, US and the UK. Also making similar impact in both critical and commercial appreciation of welded metal art is Adeola Balogun, one of Amoda's former students. 

From Yabatech to Auchi Polytecnic, Obafemi Awolowo University, ABU, among others, quite an army of welded metal artists have been trained in the past 40 yeras. Among such artists who have been creating strong energy in the area of welded metal, in no specific order are Fidelis Odogwu, Dotun Popoola, Steve Ekpenisi, Dada Oluwaseun, Francis Denedo, Shola Kukoyi, Tonie Okpe, Akeem Muraina, Uwa Usen, Nwana Clifford, Okey Ikenegbu, Akinriola Samuel and Ken Okoli. 

 Among others include Idowu Sonaiya Tonie Emodi, Lamidi Lasisi, Benard Aina, Itohowo Inyang, Pius Eboreime, Ibrahim Afegbua, Omoloja Endurance,, Taiwo Sulayman,  Tnie Evbodagbe and Waiu Arowolo.

In the years ahead, going into the third decade of the 21st century,  the energies in welded metal sculpture could change the Nigerian art space forever.

(Excerpt from unpublished review titled 'Unearthing welded metal art link between Ajorin, pre-modernity' written by Tajudeen Sowole for the Ajorin exhibition catalogue.

 

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