“Material Times”: Olu Amoda’s children and their poor cousins – Toni Kan

“Material Times”, an exhibition focusing on three-dimensional art forms; sculptural pieces executed in a variety of media opened on Sunday July 21, 2019 at Rele Gallery.

The exhibition which featured works by contemporary Nigerian Artists like Olu Amoda, Peju Alatise, Victor Ehikhamenor, Ato Arinze, Abdulrazaq Awofeso, Ngozi Omeje, Raqib Bashorun, Reuben Ugbine, Nathalie Djakoukassi, Enotie Ogbebor, Alimi Adewale, Abinoro Collins and Dotun Popoola was described as highlighting and “celebrating contemporary Nigerian artists who are at the forefront of the sculptural narrative, and displays how the energies of ground breaking forebears are revived and reinterpreted by contemporary generations of artists, exploring novel ways of capturing their subjects and themselves.”

The exhibition is timely as it shifts what has become a solid gaze from painting and photography and installations to forms that have had a longer history in Nigeria.

Pottery and bronze casting (dating as far back as the 12th century) as well as wood carving have a longer history than painting but have been relegated to the background by contemporary artists who have evinced a fondness and facility for painting.

How many young Nigerian artists are familiar with a name like Ladi Kwali, the Gwarii potter whose works have been celebrated worldwide for marrying traditional styles with more western techniques to produce works of enduring quality.

How many would recognize the name or relevance of Fred Archibong who was probably the first real Nigerian studio artist whose muscular and imposing works redefined the term sculpture.

What does the name Igun street or Olowe of Ise mean to the young and aspiring Nigerian artist?

It is for this very reason that Rele’s focus on sculpture is welcome because the question that has agitated the mind of this writer for years is what happened to the primacy of sculpture in Nigerian art? How did we make the transition from three dimensional art to what now has dominance?

Maybe the answer lies in the raison d’etre of sculpture. Originally meant to serve a utilitarian purpose as seen in sculptural pieces from Bini to Ife bronze works, wooden sculptures to pottery pieces were often celebratory objects produced to commemorate or document – busts of kings and queens as well as shrine pieces. It was the same for wood carvings most notable of those would be works by master wood sculptor, the Olowe of Ise.

Ladi Kwali might have produced pottery of magnificent quality but they were essentially water pots, receptacles for storing shea butter or decorative pieces and the provenance of her works can be traced to her Gwarii tradition stretching back centuries.

But contemporary Nigerian painting which is the most dominant art form has a shorter history dating back to the Murray school and we must repair to the master, Uche Okeke who notes that African painting, prior to the modern era, was utilitarian and often monochromatic a point he expands on in his seminal book, Uche Okeke Art In Development — A Nigerian Perspective

“There is also the traditional art of mural painting and decoration widely practised in the Igbo country. Motifs for this type of work are abstract, semi-abstract and geometric in conception. And the uninhibited employment of symbols of organic nature enrich this art form. The use of colour is restricted to white chalk, black or black-grey earth, yellow, yellow ochre, red earth and blue-grey. Mural decoration is essentially the duty of women in the Nigerian ethnic communities.”

Modern Nigerian painting, as we now know it ,began with the Murray school, advanced through Aina Onabolu then found its modernist apogee in Ben Enwonwu. And it was Enwonwu’s success, which in many ways, turned the tide in favour of painting against the unwieldy sculptural practice.

Many, however, forget that Ben Enwonwu also excelled as a sculptor – Anyanwu, Remi, Sango etc.

Now to return to Material Times, the exhibition, what comes across in considering the curator’s choices in this exhibition, is that pottery nay ceramics is getting short shrift. Ato Arinze continues to keep the conversation going with amazingly interesting pieces. His “Birth” is a delight wrought out of fired clay but even as the arrowhead of the contemporary school of Nigerian potters Mr. Arinze is speaking the language of pottery in the idiom of the metallic because it takes close study to notice that his works are glazed pottery and not copper.

Nathalie Djakoukassi’s ceramic pieces are small but powerful. Her piece, “The Strange Book”  is amazingly remarkable in its detailing. Realized in black, the technique in which the “edges of the strange book” and the corpulent figures in repose are highlighted is uncannily reminiscent of  Ladi Kwali’s works where an incision is made then inlaid with white kaolin before being glazed and then fed into the kiln. The end result is almost like an adire print but more intricate.

Djakoukassi, beyond her brilliant technique, seems to have on the level of form, appropriated and translated Othman Wahab’s signature corpulent drawings and paintings into three dimensional ceramic pieces.

Peju Alatise’s pieces are experimental and seem to straddle two worlds in being not pure installations and not purely sculpture. There is a fluidity in the works which show female forms lying in a recessed receptacle. Dark and monochromatic they demand a second and third look.

Enotie Ogbebor keeps it traditional with bronze works that pay tribute to Igun Street and his Bini provenance. The nod to royalty and the Oba’s court is unmistakable.

Victor Ehikhamenor, best known for his paintings and photography presents two pieces and in interpreting his artistic vision through the medium of bronze he returns to form with his signature concentric circles and stylized lines which appear like tattoos and cicatrices on the female forms.

Reuben Ugbine’s wood pieces are abstract representations of human forms which marry the traditional with modernist cubist forms.

Ngozi Umeje’s piece, which borrows the lingo of installation art to express a sculptural frame of mind is in a class all its own, intricate, fresh and detailed. She is clearly an artist to watch.

But it is the metallic pieces wrought out of iron and steel and found objects that predominate. Olu Amoda and his children are dominant when it comes to Nigerian sculpture and their works speak to the malleability and tactile strength of iron and steel. Their use of found objects and the assemblage that ensues is testament to their craft and ingenuity.

What comes across at the end of this sculptural excursion is that Nigerian art has been missing a critical element, sculpture has been relegated and Rele has opened up a critical conversation. Aside Olu Amoda, Reuben Ugbine and Ato Arinze, there are few Nigerian artists who are keeping the art of sculpting alive.

That state of affairs has to change.

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