Thursday 30 March 2023

Driving forward with a fixation on the rear-view mirror

'Irony of the Incorruptible Judge' (acrylic on canvas, 54.3 x 73 incnes, dated 2018) by Samuel Ajobiewe.

By Olu Amoda

MY contract/contact with Samuel Ajobiewe needs to be viewed through the lenses of the course expectation from students and instructors as enshrined in the art department guide syllabi:

The role of an instructor is to give instruction and guide willing participants towards an expected outcome or result. 

The syllabus serves as a guide and provides the student or other willing participants in the institution with information on the desired result. 

The instructor is expected to utilize innovative classroom techniques and methodologies that involve students in challenging learning opportunities.

It will be nice to highlight the learning environment from which Samuel Ajobiewe escaped into professionalism. Samuel was part of the 2004 painting graduating class of the Fine Art Department of the prestigious Yaba College of Technology. Most instructors employed between 1985 to 2005 were the third generation of post-colonial instructors entirely homegrown. They were primarily in their twenties, making the age difference between instructors and students about 5-8 years. Most visitors to the department often mistook these instructors for the students because of their built and dress code. The age difference created an atmosphere of healthy rivalry among instructors, with the students being the canvas or the ground on which these young and self-conscious instructors experimented. 

The demography of the instructors mirrored all the art schools in Nigeria at that time. This eclectic pool of instructors saw themselves as ambassadors of their respective art schools. They took pride in their background and claimed they had the best education. These egocentric instructors pushed the students to the breaking point. The students, on their part, always protested, demanding a change of instructors after the first class project due to the challenges presented by these young instructors, which included me. These young instructors pushed the students to fulfill the maximum course load and even aimed for a higher level of work beyond the full lecture load. The students could demand a change of instructors, but the instructors would not shed their skin to win the students' approval. After avoiding the 'too-strict' instructors in their lower levels, some of these protestants eventually met them at the specialized class. At this stage, the students had some clarity on the path to take in their quest to become artists. Most instructors were holders of First Degrees and Higher National Diplomas but maintained studio practice and had had several solo and group exhibitions. 

In that, the instructors only had first degrees or higher diplomas, and some students pictured themselves as their equals in waiting. It was just one certificate and the next graduation ceremony that separated them. Soon they would attain the same level of certification as their instructors. This attitude formed the basis of their assessment of their instructors and informed how they worked to influence the decision as to whom they would study under.

I joined the faculty in 1987, four years after graduating from Nigeria's most experimental polytechnic in Auchi, in the rural setting of the Kukuruku Hills of the Midwestern region of Nigeria, now Edo and the Delta States. It was a diverse faculty from different schools in Nigeria, Africa, and the world. Like in Yaba, most of the Auchi faculty had only their Higher National Diplomas or First Degrees, a few having a postgraduate degree or doctorate. The age difference between the faculty and students was seamless. Some of my classmates were older than, if not the same age as, the most senior faculty. In giving instructions, the faculty had more of a sense of 'we' than 'you'; this attitude endeared learning to us, students. We embraced failure from the get-go since we were encouraged to experiment. The general notion from the student's viewpoint was 'high risk or dropout'. The students who endured were the ones who were indeed teachable materials. The unspoken culture of Auchi Polytechnic saw the transmission of knowledge in the art as a journey of endless experimentation in which failure and success were conjoined twins that should not be separated. An artistic investigation exploring material and technique was more academically rewarding than a certificate. 

This philosophy was my guardrail when I joined the Fine Art Department at Yaba. But the notion of embracing failure as success was not well received at Yaba College of Technology. Failure and success were seen as incommensurable opposites; the establishment held the instructor responsible for what was viewed as a failure, which often hinged on a mere difference of opinion. As construed by the establishment, failure could be uncompleted work or work-in-progress. I believe a fundamental failure is a no-show (a situation where a student did not submit a project to assessment). Just as the students felt the tension of academic rigour, so did the young instructors, especially those trained outside Yaba College of Technology. As a young instructor, the only way to succeed if you did not have a godfather was to be good at what you did and never repeat your mistakes. 

I was teaching life drawing and general drawing at the 300 level and moved to the 400 level with the set. I was fortunate to mentor a combined drawing class of Painting and Sculpture students. 2003 was the election year that ushered in the second term of Obasanjo; he defeated the lousy loser Buhari. No matter the tension generated, one sure thing was that military intervention in politics was not fashionable, and a significant segment of the society, especially students, were politically engaged. In the tense political climate, Lagos and the campus were relatively calm since only instructors were on campus. All higher institutions were closed during the election. However, the student union still found a way to mobilize its body to protest over some matter to do with the election's outcome. The disconnect between instructors and artists resulted in a situation where very few artists and artworks paid some attention to what was happening in the country. After the unrest and the school reopened, I encountered the 2004 general and life drawing class of Painting and Sculpture students of the Fine Art Department. 2004 was when I met two students who were unique in the sense that they displayed an attitude of hunger for knowledge; they helped me renew my faith in the student/instructor exchange as one, which translates into rewards for both. The reward is mutual, not a graded index but deeper than awarding grades to students for turning in their projects. 

I used innovative classroom techniques and methodologies to engage students in challenging learning opportunities. Making art that hinged on a hands-on approach saw us taking apart the principles and elements scientifically to achieve optimal results by embracing failure and success simultaneously. From 2004, as we advanced, it became my wish to constantly encounter students that would make me reinvent myself even as I tried to challenge them to find and become their artistic selves.

Within a twinkling of an eye, I can undoubtedly enumerate a pool of students that made my thirty-two or more years of teaching a worthwhile career. These students were proof of the benchmark of the philosophy of teaching that holds that one's role is to use the student's strengths to shape their vision. In this pool of students are Batowe, Bren Inyang, Gbenga Orimoloye, Joy Ezeka, Oderinde, Dr. Chinyere Ndubuisi, Wallace Ejoh, Taiye Idahor, Emily Nelson, Dotun Alabi, Olusegun Mokayi, Peter Uka, and Samuel Ajobiewe. I know that this list is far longer than these few names, and the list is not in any order of merit; it is just a spontaneous enumeration for this moment. From this list, only two ended up being my colleagues and remained respectful till I retired in protest. The circumstances of my protest retirement are not to be recounted in this write-up. Protest against the establishment is not the exclusive right of students. However, let me just note that it is suitable for our students to know that we are all human, and, like lizards that crawl on their bellies, we present a constant challenge to the onlooker as to which one is pregnant or not.

Samuel was unique in that he made sure that he got, in return for his school fees, the best he could from all his instructors by being present in the class and location on time. Using him as an example, I can trace the trajectory that links product and process in my teaching philosophy. I recall that I engaged his 2004 set on tracking the sun on campus, which required students to use cast shadows to tell the time. The motivation for outdoor drawing was to capture the fleeting moments on our drawing sheets, just as art history informs us that the great European masters evidently did. We must consider that this was not the smartphone era, and having a photographer take pictures was not too expensive then. The challenge was for students to be at the location. Which invariably required the instructor to be there with the students. Some sites I compelled students to visit include the Yaba Tech staff living quarters, the railway compound, the University of Lagos, the international Airport, and other locations as informed by the art principle or topic enshrined in the syllabus. Each group of students covered different areas; sometimes, this was a way of raising the bar and ensuring that drawings were not recycled. 

At every graduation, the students seemed to be a mix of reluctance and relief as they headed for the college gates. As for the Instructors, goodbye was rarely exchanged with outgoing students partly because the incoming cohort was always adequately briefed by the outgoing one and somehow cast themselves in the mold of new-old students for those of us meeting them at their terminal or specializing year. Our job as instructors looked more straightforward initially because referencing the outgoing students helped the instructor set the terms of engagement fast for the academic year.

Every new generation experienced its share of the heat and was poised to escape the congested educational pots, and the circle continued. I can look back and see many flaws in how the establishment navigated the turbulent sea of academia, especially as it concerned the School of Art, Design, and Printing at the Yaba College of Technology. Students were like meat or other condiments in the cooking pot that constantly made way for air bubbles to escape from a steamy soup. The beef is unmoved by the heat; tenderizing the meat requires prolonged heat, making it well spiced and tasty. The meat moves as the heat intensify to give way to air bubbles, and some of the soup spills. The unmoved meat gets stuck at the bottom of the pot, exposed to the same heat as the cooking pan. Putting the heat off or reducing it does not prevent the air bubbles that appear to flee the heat. The instructions are like escaping air bubbles; not every student immediately comprehends the teaching; some are too stuck to the bottom of the pot and suffer burns from the hot pot and have to repeat the programme. While others are like the floating meat that makes way for the air bubbles from the hot pot; they endure the heat till they gracefully graduate.

I remember meeting only Samuel and maybe two others in the class when I returned to see how many students followed the observing instruction and visually recorded "Yaba Tech at Sun Set." He was calm, always managing a smile no matter the situation when I critiqued his work. One could not miss his smile because of his white teeth contrasting with his ebony skin.

Samuel Ajobiewe has matured both in his masterly execution of painting skills and the subject he explores. I must advise that Samuel should strive to paint from his comfort zone and not carry too much 'Nigerian burden' as he navigates his future. Many of his instructors and I are very proud of his achievements and the principled manner in which he upholds his integrity. This trait makes Samuel a compulsory member of the pool of students that gave me something in return for my instructions. Congratulations, Mr. Ajobiewe!

Published in the catalogue of 'The Indignant Eye', a solo art exhibition by Samuel Ajobiewe, which opens on March 31, ending April 7, 2023 at National Museum, Onikan, Lagos.

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