Tuesday 8 December 2020

From 'Ajorin' artists, fresh metal lifts contemporary art

A section of the Ajorin; Dancemetalphor exhibition at Thought Pyramid. Pic: c/o of the gallery.

As the Nigerian art environment prepares to step into the third decade of the 21st century, the future beckons in a shift for metal art.

Against the tide of the over one century prejudice, in Nigerian art appreciation parlance, the new shift comes in a genre-specific gathering of artists set out to inject fresh narrative into the country’s contemporary history. It’s a group art exhibition of five artists titled Ajorin; Dancemetalphor, which opened to the public, on tickets, from Monday 7-Sunday 20, December, 2020 at Thought Pyramid Art Centre, Ikoyi, Lagos. The exhibition comes with focus on encouraging appreciation of sculpture, by beaming its spotlight on welded metal art.

Organised by Thought Pyramid Art Centre, the exhibition opened on Saturday, November 28, 2020 to select audience, continued with VIP show on Sunday, 29, and extended in virtual Reality from December 17-January 31, 2021.

Supported by Elegance Gallery, Nigeria Machine Tools and VBank,  Ajorin distills incendiary energy from an imbalance decades of Nigeria's art history, and builds a crucial spot in the country's 21st century visual culture space. More importantly, the exhibiting artists Adeola Balogun, Fidelis Eze Odogwu, Steve Ekpenisi, Abinoro Akporode Collins and Dotun Popoola would be recorded by posterity for their intumescing of welded metal art appreciation in Nigeria’s creative industry. 

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, brass, tin, gold, lead and iron, metal has 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 genre in modern and contemporary Nigerian art environment. While casting and and smithing, in Africa, have history rooted in ancient periods, the former has been 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 that formed the Nigerian nation 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) were among Africans to have widely used metal as essential aspects of productivity. 

A section of the on going art exhibition at Thought Pyramid. Pic: c/o the gallery.

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. Over the centuries, the name of the city has been slightly corrupted as Ilorin. As a city, Ilorin was possibly so designated as centre of crafts in iron, specifically, being the residence of the Kakanfo, the Generalisimo of the Oyo Empire, across generations during that eras. Ilorin was an extension of the Alaafin of Oyo's monarchical power, from where the army commanders coordinated their eso (troops).

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 outskirt of town), but now corrupted as Ibadan; Abeokuta (under the rock), traces history to hiding place for the early settlers during wars; and Ogbomoso, so named after the battle that led to beheading of a famous warrior, Elemoso by Ogunlola, among other ancient cities. It is therefore not in doubt that Ilorin derived its name from being an ancient city of technological hub, most likely pre-Oyo Empire era.

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).

Armaments of the ancient Yoruba such as ida (sword), ofa (bow and arrow) as well as ada (cutlass), among others, were produced by the alagbede of that era. Also included in the works of the alagbede were farm tools such as oko (hoe), pape (trap), 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.


Creating art from metal before the entry of Nigerian modern period dated from Aina Onabolu (1882-1963) were done by undocumented 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 modern era, from the early 20th century till the eve of the country’s independence, quite some interest were shown by artists in the cast metal genre. One of such sculptures came from Ben Enwonwu (1917-1994), whose Queen Elizabeth II statue in bronze, dated 1957, attracted international focus. The full size sculpture of the British monarch by Enwonwu, most likely, was the first major documented cast metal done by a Nigerian modernist.


On the contrary, lack of interest in welded metal art, among Nigerian artists, persisted during the colonial era. Art of welded metal, during colonial period 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, then, has been confirmed by the dearth of such works in public space. In fact, it is still unclear, if any of the pioneer Nigerian modernists had a single welded metal work. 

Generally, sculptors were less documented in pre-independence Nigeria, and the tilted history towards painting continued, even till date. But cast metal art such as bronze escaped from that net of appreciation prejudice, at least, from Nigeria's post-independence period. However, its sister genre, welded metal, has not been so free from that orphaned confinement, until the past 30-40 years, of which the Ajorin exhibiting artists, individually, connected directly or indirectly, in the resurgence.

In writing this review for exhibition catalogue of Ajorin; Dancemetalphor, I actually struggled to locate welded metal artists of colonial or modern era Nigeria. Few of such artists, documented or not, perhaps, actually existed, but none surfaced from all the sources of research I went through.


How the two pioneer art schools of such as Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST), Zaria and Yaba Higher College, Lagos (changed to Yaba College of Technology, Yabatech), seemed not to have produced artists in welded metal art in pre-independence era is a topic that requires more research. However, some undocumented works of welded metal, sighted in the 1980s, at Yabatech, indicated that there were attempt to train artists in the sub-medium. The works, a source said, were produced by students. Another source argued that some of the works were brought into the college from the street welders' workshops as parts of studies for the then students. 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, during the 1980s. 

A series titled Electrifying Rhythm', 1&2 (steel, electronic panels, stainless steel ball. 2020 ), by Dr Adeola Balogun. Pic: c/o the gallery.


Contemporary resurgence of welded metal art

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, Lagos, had prominent career in welded metal art by creating sculptures for private and public spaces. It was speculated then that about seven out of every ten public space art works, mostly of welded metal, across Nigeria, were produced from the studio of Archibong. Most of his works of 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 narratives of that period.

From the reluctant professional of the 1970s/80s, to gaining gradual energy in the 1990s, the Nigerian artist of welded metal has come of age in the 21st century. Most renowned in the Nigerian space of the 21st century welded metal art is Olu Amoda. His art has inspired a new generation of welded metal artists.

In 1986, artist and Head of Department, Fine Art, at Yabatech, Kolade Oshinowo contributed to the new beginning when he was instrumental in getting Amoda to join Yabatech as a lecturer. Before Amoda’s arrival, another lecturer of repute at Yabatech in metal art was late Godstime Nwaji.


From the seeds sowed then by Oshinowo, which germinated, later through mentorship from Amoda, there emerged one of Ajorin artists, Adeola Balogun (b.1966). He was not  among Amoda's students at Yabatech, where he graduated in 1993, specialising in Sculpture, but Balogun got inspiration and mentored by visiting the master's studio outside the college.

Still on connecting with the resurgence of welded metal art in Nigeria’s 21st century is another Ajorin artist, Fidelis Odogwu (b.1970). He graduated from Auchi Polytechnic, Edo State, in 1991, benefiting from one of the very early schools that started teaching welded metal art.

Swelling the new generation of welded metal artists is Steve Ekpenisi (b.1978). He graduated in Sculpture from Federal Polytechnic Auchi in the 2007/2008 academic session.

Asserting the new vigour in Nigeria's welded metal art space is Collins Akporode. Also trained in Auchi Polytechnic, Akporode (b.1978) graduated with a Higher Diploma (HND) in sculpture (2012).


Dotun Popoola is arguably creating a fresh direction in welded metal art, home and abroad. Popoola, (b.1981) graduated in sculpture and painting in 2008, from Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, Osun State.

As a group exhibition of rare gathering, Ajorin; Dancemetalphor is creating a bold path through the journey of welded metal art appreciation in Nigeria. The next decade of the 21st century wil not be the same again for welded metal art in Nigeria as a new dawn beckons.

-Tajudeen Sowole is a Lagos-based writer and Art Advisor.

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