Monday 27 December 2021

Abayomi Barber (1928-2021): Legacy of a modernist's studio mastery

Prof Abayomi Barber (1928-2021).

One of Nigeria's modernists, Prof Abayomi Barber (1928-2021), had his last strokes of life when his death was announced yesterday, leaving behind a profound legacy revered in art history as Abayomi Barber School. The art 'school' is known for its focus on the mastery of studio practice, outside the academia.

Barber had a grant in 1960, specifically for 18-month-studio training, in the U.K, sponsored by the scholarship board of the then Western Region of Nigeria. With the political crisis in Nigeria, Barber was unable to return after 18 months; he eventually stayed in England for ten years. Barber worked as assistant and artist, at different times, in such studios like that of artists "Frederick Macinni and Prof Oscar Nemon.

Barber returned to Nigeria, and in 1973 started an informal training in studio practice, which grew to become Abayomi Barber School. He was also involved in the Ori Olokun era of the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). Barber, a second generation Nigerian modernist retired as Associate Professor at University of Lagos (UNILAG), Akoka. 

At University of Lagos, in the early 1970s, he worked in the School of African and Asian Studies as an illustrator. However, his passion for studio practice led him to set up an informal section, outside the academia as such space was not available at UNILAG then. He took his first student, Muri Adejimi, and commenced training in 1973. Over the years, other students, listed in no particular order, like Olumuyiwa Spencer, Toyin Alade, Tayo Oguntoye, Busari Agbolade, Femi Atewolara, Kayode Lawal and Yemi Morolari swelled the school. Others include Bunmi Lasaki, Adeladan Adesina, Otori Olusola Fadipe, Mosunde Daramola and Adebayo Akinwole. 

In 2008, when Barber was 80 years old, 15 artists from the studio celebrated the master's legacy. The group exhibition titled Dance of the Minds, showed from October 24, through November 10, 2008 at Mydrim Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos. Some of the artists had words to describe the master: Daramola recalled that Barber taught them that the closer the artist is to nature, the more vibrant his blend of creativity with his environment. Patience, he adds, was another characteristic of the school as practical art- "learning by seeing rather than studying art" -was the bedrock on which the group is based.

Recalling how the foundation of the school was built on drawing and realism form, Alabi noted that their teacher never forced his views on his students, rather "he would advise, and paint his thoughts and leaves you to make up your mind."

One of the exhibited artists, Morolari said: "Because it's an informal school, drawing is so much emphasised, practically, using thumbnail. We also attempt to represent in 3 dimensional forms even in painting."

According to Fadipe, Barber means a lot to the artists. "He is a father, teacher, master, mentor, a godfather who paddled the canoe of our career. It is impossible not to be influenced by his ways, no matter how short the relationship one has with him."

Stressing on the informality of the training, Akinwole observed that "it was not just a school of thought in the art, but that of philosophy as well." In fact, the artists argued that "realism ideology" of the school reflect the identity and impact on individual skills and styles.

As far as public appreciation was concerned, the artists never lacked patronage, Alabi boasted. "One of the major reasons why most of us hardly organised exhibition was because our works were collected regularly, even before we got them out of the studios,"

Olatunde Barber, privileged to have the master as his biological father, stated that in any given situation, "the school attended does not sell the art, but an artist's prowess sells his art." And that quality, he stressed, as emphasised in realism and thought by Barber "is not just an ideology, but a spiritual commitment."

In mid 2021, the National Gallery of Art (NGA) celebrated Barber with an art exhibition titled An Artist Abayomi Barber: An Artist Born and Made, at  National Museum, Onikan, Lagos, when he was 93 years old.

-Tajudeen Sowole is a Lagos-based Art Advisor. 


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