Sunday, 5 July 2015

Kota Sculpture That ‘Inspired’ Cubism Tops Auction Sales In Paris

By Tajudeen Sowole
 A Kota wood piece, one of many African sculptures, which some art historians believe ‘inspired’ Cubism, has just led Christie’s auction of African, Oceanic, and American Indian art, held in Paris, France. The late June sales, according to Christie’s, recorded a total sales of €11,565,175 ($13.2 million).
                          Wood Sculpture from William Rubin Kota collection

About 78 percent of lots on offer, the auction house disclosed, were bought just as three lots sold above €1 million ($1.1 million) and seven auction records set. Leading the sales was a Kota from the collection of late American artist, William Rubin; the three-dimensional female figure was sold for €5,473,500 ($6.2 million), estimated at €6-9 million; $6.8-10.2 million). The work was said to have been put on sale for the second time in nearly 100 years. At the Paris sales, it recorded “the second highest price secured for an African work of art sold in France, and third in the world.”

Other record sales included the Grébo/Krou mask from the Côte d’Ivoire/Liberia region, making a record for a Grébo work when it sold for €1,321,500 ($1.5 million). It was estimated at €500,000-t0-€800,000 ($568-909,000).   

For the Oceanic works, represented by the rare Maori nephrite club - dating back to the 18th century - collectors bought for €85,500 ($96,600), nearly two times more than its pre-sale estimate (€40-60,000; $45-68,000). Impressive sales were also recorded for American Indian works exhibited by a Tlingit mask which more than tripled its €80,000 ($91,000) high estimate when it achieved €337,500 ($384,000).

Ahead of the sales, a lecture at the Musée Picasso in Paris focused on the links between the art from the Kota and Western Modern art. The Kota are a people in today’s Gabon, who, according to Robin Poynor’s History of Art in Africa, live in villages comprising two or more clans. Figures from the land are known as Kota mbulu ngulu, and were said to have been taken to Musee de l’Homme, France in the 1880s.

The kota people’s clans comprise several lineages or family groups that trace their descent from a common lineage ancestor. This is an important point related to their art, for like the Fang, the Kota revere the relics of ancestors.

“Ancestor worship formed the core of the family group’s religious and social life. At the death of a chief, the initiates would take from the body of the deceased various relics, which were then decorated with metal and rubbed with powders of multiple magical powers. The Kota have produced large quantity of statues of ancestors with the diamond-shaped lower part called mbulu-ngulu. These rather two-dimensional sculptures are in wood; symbolic metals were applied to the upper part in strips or sheets to add power. Copper in particular was identified with longevity and power. These statues stood guard in cylindrical bark boxes, on baskets or bundles called bwete that contained the skulls and bones of important ancestors. Bound into a packet and lashed to the base of a carved figure, the bones formed a stable base that allowed the image to stand more or less upright. Thanks to the diversity of the groups, scattered over a vast area, a great variety of different styles of figures has developed, some of them endogenous and some influenced by neighbouring styles.

 “Kota figures represent an extremely stylized human body, reduced to shoulders and “arms,” in emptied lozenge shape, surmounted by a large face framed by an ample coiffure with hanging tresses. The face, always oval, may be concave (female), convex (male) or concave-convex, with a forehead in quarter-sphere (also male). The reliquaries were kept outside the homes in huts at the edge of the village. Only the initiates of the lineage had access to this sacred place. At the time of initiation in the reliquary cult, the clans would meet to perform communal rituals. Each clan’s chief would dance holding the reliquary. Some reliquaries featured a large figure representing the lineage founder along with some smaller figures representing his successors. There are figures with two identical or different faces made on two opposite sides of the flat head.

“The bwete was called on in time of crisis to combat unseen agents of harm. Its intercession was sought in such vital matters as fertility, success in hunting, and in commercial ventures. A husband could use it to guard against his wife’s infidelity, for it was believed that if he placed pieces of her clothing in the reliquary, an unfaithful wife would be driven mad. Families took their bwete to ceremonies of neighbouring villages to strengthen the allied community. The display of the bundles and their shiny, visually riveting figures was accompanied by feasting, dancing, and the making of protective medicines. These bwete were kept for generations, but during the 20th century, when religious beliefs changed, they were abandoned or even destroyed.”

Pieces Of Me Explores A Mix Of Periods From Amenechi

By Tajudeen Sowole
Beyond the metal foil, beads, painting and pencil media that forms the content body of works by Joe Amenechi, there is a mix of traditional art texture with other periods, which seems to breathe fresh aura into the Lagos art exhibition circuit. Most artists across generations now sidestep what the west has stigmatised as ‘naïve’ or traditional art rendition, for obvious reason of fusing into modernism and contemporary periods.
                            A painting, Yoruba Women by Joe Amenechi

For Amenechi's Pieces of Me, his fourth art exhibition at newly opened Rele Gallery, Onikan, Lagos - currently showing till July 2015 - it's time to revisit traditional art with a blend of ‘natural synthesis’ and flavour of modernism. Amenechi is clearly not a new name in the Nigerian art space, but his signature appears to have been missing on the art scene for some time now.

In environment that is conservatively in favour of modernism, a rejuvenation of good old traditional art form brews fresh breath, as Amenechi's works in bead, metal foil and bronze radiate an aura of museum mystic. For example, a intensive bead sculpture on wood titled ‘Faces On A Totem’ as well as a metal foil version prepares viewer's mind for, perhaps, a show with energy full of periods and genres in visual arts parlance. Moving round the totem pieces and wishing they were kinetic, a wall hanging, ‘Garden of Eden’, takes over one's attention. In beads, the biblical piece confirms the depth of skill in Amenechi's bead setting technique, despite the graphically nude images of the human elements that threaten to weaken the concept.

As the totem pieces faintly expose the traditional art attachment of the artist, a series, ‘Faces and Strangers I’ and II, in metal foil and bronze, draws a thin line between Amaenechi's stylised faces or figures and the naivety associated with traditional form. Perhaps, the form of the masks is the artist's deliberate attempt to generate dialogue between the work and a viewer, and by extension throw critics off balance.

In fact, a bronze portrait ‘Untitled’ sandwiched between the totems and the set of ‘Faces and Strangers’ masks spread on the floor of the gallery as well as the metal foil series make Amenechi's eclectic features louder as one steps into the painting, pencil and lithographic sections of Pieces of Me. Paintings on canvas such as the portrait of three ‘Atilogwu Dancers,’ that are not actually dancing; common young male indulgence depicted in ‘Peeping Boy’, moment of truth for students at ‘Examination Headaches’; and portraits of Igbo chief, ‘Titled Men’ bring out the modernist in Amenechi.

However, in ‘Warrior Heroes’, a Nok image depiction in painting and ‘Yoruba Women’, there roves the artist's brushings over natural synthesis and traditional or tribal forms. These set of works, perhaps, expose the real depth of incendiary skills in Amenechi's art. For example, highly stylised, ‘Yoruba Women’ - a figural of four ladies - comes bold in excavating the complete dress-sense of women from southwest Nigeria. A three-piece ‘Buba’ (blouse), ‘Iro’ (wrapper) and ‘Ikpele’ (shawl) with gele complete the resilience of a fashion that has transcended its Yorubaland birthplace. Also, Amenechi's representational and compositional strength are not hidden in ‘Titled Men’.

And the contrast goes deeper, widening the difference among Amenechi's three set of Pieces of Me, so suggest the pencil and lithography works at the extreme end room. Some of the works, mostly of portraits and events and done in monochrome could pass for a semi-classic of the post-renaissance period.

As if the artist needs any further explanation on what the show is all about. "Pieces of Me encompasses all of my various artistic expressions in whatever medium I use," he explains in a text provided by Rele. "It is not one story line per se, but a combination of all of me."

 Confirming his long absence on the exhibition space of Lagos, he adds that the recent works in Pieces are to remind his followers about the strong depth of Amenechi signature. "What I want this exhibition to do is to make people aware of the recent works I’ve done; reawaken an awareness and appreciation for my works." He hopes that his "collectors, old and new, can be in touch with me and what I have to show." Indeed, the consequence of his long absence is not lost coming into this exhibition. "When people don’t hear that you have an exhibition, they probably think that you’re not making art anymore, " he concedes, but hopes that the show will refresh people's memory about his art.
For Rele, Amenechi's long absence and the eclectic characteristics of his works fall into the gallery's concept of showing something fresh. "Amenechi has many faces in him, which make his art align with our vision of showing new things," Aderenle Sonariwo, director at Rele states. 
Born in Lagos, but a native of Ila, in the old Mid-western Nigeria (now part of Delta State), Amenechi must have started his sojourn gradually and subconsciously too when he was a student of one of the founders of ‘natural synthesis’ form of art, Bruce Onobrakpeya at St Gregory’s College, Obalende, Lagos. Amenechi would later proceed to Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, where in majored in Painting under the tutelage of masters like Yusuf Grillo and Kolade Oshinowo.

However, the foundation of his art tutelage would not leave him; in 1985, he had his National Youth Service Corps at Onobrakpeya’s studio and also worked there for two years, coming out with the mastery of metal foil and plastocast – two main focus of his mentor and master printmaker, Onobrakpeya.  “Experimental printing techniques, prints drawn from engravings on epoxy built on zinc plates, printing in paper by intaglio methods, aluminum foil used to draw out the image from an engraved epoxy plate and painted metal foil embosses on low relief designs,” Amenechi explains in a conversation with the gallery.

Beads work titled The Royal Family by Joe menechi

In a curatorial note, Rele states that the artist also experiments with watercolor, oil, emulsion paints, sand, and beads. The gallery discloses that Pieces of Me, is an exhibition of works spanning over a period of years that encompasses several of his artistic expressions, in their various media and with their varying themes. On the thoughts of Amenechi, Rele explains: “Amenechi takes in his environment and addresses everyday issues in his works. His most recent drawings bring to light the activities of Nigeria’s political climate in the wake of her just concluded elections with works like ‘Endless Poll Queue’ and ‘Jubilant Party Supporters’.

Four art exhibitions in about six months of its short existence, is a commendable begging for Sonariwo-led Rele Gallery. For every exhibition, from My Street Economics on March 8 – 22; Lagos Hustle & Hope, March 28, which ran for 3 weeks; and Strip, held for over a month; and the current, Amenechi’s Pieces of Me, there has been a high depth of curatorial content. The last exhibition, Strip featured works of painters Ayoola Gbolahan, Ibeabuchi Anababa and Isaac Emokpae as well as photographers Kelechi Amadi-Obi, Reza Bonna, Toyosi Faridah Kekere Ekun and Luqor Oluwamuyiwa Adeyemi.
“Rele has been on the mission in different capacities via art salons, installations since 2010, all of which crystallized into the formation of a gallery in February 2015,” the gallery’s mission statement reads in parts. “Rele, the space is an unprecedented, unconventional, contemporary art space that marries two symbiotic purposes: to offer first-rate art for public consumption and nurture the creators of the art, bringing the world to their work, exposing a larger, global audience to African contemporary art.”

Documenting places, events in Osagie's Journey in Acrylic

                                       A painting by Osazuwa titled ‘The Beach Area View

By Tajudeen Sowole
Style, technique or medium, as focus of art exhibition's theme would hardly attract attention. But when such a central theme comes from an artist of nearly three decades practice as Osazuwa Osagie, the contents deserve a keen attention.

In this context, Osazuwa's nine years sojourn in alternative medium to oil painting is narrated as My Journey in Acrylic in a solo exhibition currently showing till August 30, 2015 at Quintessence Gallery, Lekki, Lagos. Perhaps, nine years of focus on a specific medium - in more than 30 years of an artist's career - is worth taking a look irrespective of the seemingly lightweight feel of the subject.

It is of note that Osazuwa is having his second solo exhibition in three years. Quite a departure from what used to be a long break for the Auchi Polytechnic-trained artist. His last solo titled Views In Colours held at National Museum, Onikan, Lagos, was in 2012 after a long pause. At a preview of the show, he disclosed that there would be a new period in his art. He called it ‘Objective’ period, which he described as “creating argument with images.”

Three years after, perhaps the expected objective’ period is being explained in how acrylic "serves his purpose of painting on site." It does appear there is more to the inspiration behind the gathering of collection that has been resting for almost nine years in his studio. His kind of plein-air-painting, he says, "is about documenting places and events." And because he always likes to complete the works right there at a given location, the acrylic paint, which dries faster, he insists, meets "my challenge."

Indeed, some of the works would be of interest to followers and historians of a new Lagos, which is chasing what appears as a difficult megacity status. Remember the old settlement of ‘illegal’ squatters off the waters along Osborne and Third Mainland Bridge? How changes came so fast; the spot is the same Ilubirin, which is currently a site for Lagos State Government’s housing project of 1,200 units to be known as Ilubirin Foreshore Estate. However, Osagie's brush strokes were fast enough to document the remains of the old settlement; he thus rescued history from being lost completely. The artist recalls how "I used to paint a lot of Ilubirin themes on the Ikoyi Peninsula. Today, Ilubirin as we knew it is no more."

Abuja Suburb-1 by Osazuwa Osagie

Osazuwa boasts that his works focus on documenting events and places, as well as stress their education content "and not necessarily aesthetics.” One of the works titled ‘Ikorodu Foreshore’, depicting a small riverside residential settlement off Ikorodu Road between Mile12 and Ikorodu town confirms Osazuwa's visual documenting claims. "In a couple of years, this settlement along the Ikorodu Road may just be no more when government comes in," Osazuwa predicts. "Now, I have it painted for the future to know what the place used to look like just in case the bulldozers roll over some day." Another work, ‘Royal Procession’, which captures traditional African leaders, reveals how far - beyond the shores of Nigeria - that the artist's brush strokes have gone in the field of documenting events and places. "It was a royal gathering of traditional rulers in Ghana," Osazua says, recalling how he captured the scene during his residence years in Ghana over a decade ago.

A clear identity either in style or technique is usually common to artists. For Osazuwa, the lack of a known style or technique in his work appears like the artist's strength. Being eclectic in texture, he argues, is the real worth of an artist.

According to him, “Artists should be versatile." He insists that being known for just one form of expression is dangerous. "In fact, artists should be able to sculpt. I do." Osazuwa, a native of Benin City, Edo State, appears to be nostalgic with regard to the direction of his art in the future. His next show, he discloses, "would include some bronze sculptures."

Proudly a portraitist, Osazuwa is currently a freelance cartoonist with The Nation newspaper.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

How Tantua's Afro Pop Art Blends With Contemporaneity

By Tajudeen Sowole
 The common phrase that suggests 'reinventing the wheel' as unnecessary adventure appears more salient in the field of creating art. Not even the energy of contemporaneity can make much difference in creating any 'never seen before art.'  However, the fear that some postmodernism styles or movements could, in the future, fade into the wind of contemporary contents cannot be dismissed. For pop art - a movement of postmodernism – which recently acquired a new African tone in Diseye Tantua's Afro Pop Art, the resilience is unshaken, the artist assures.

Diseye Tantua, in his studio, at Port Harcourt

Every artist has to create an identity, which clearly informs Tantua's Afro Pop Art style that surfaced on the Nigerian art scene some years ago. In less than a decade, Tantua's Afro Pop Art, a derivative from the mid-1950s movement of popular culture imagery in art, which was later made more famous by late American artist, Andy Warhol, has made quite a loud impact on the Lagos art space courtesy of the Port Harcourt, River State based-artist.

  Generally, every genre or period of art has a tradition – a widely known look or texture - of identity that exists for decades or centuries. But contemporaneity is changing the face of art across movements, genres or periods, particularly in the painting family, of which pop art belongs. How resilient is pop art in maintaining its tradition in contemporary African context? 

"Pop art is very much practised internationally and still gets attention because of its child-like simplicity and colours," Tantua says in a chat online. "What I have done with mine, which was coined 'Afro-Pop Art' by Tam Fiofori, back in 2008-2009 for my solo exhibition at Signature Gallery, was to fuse pop and urban art."

His work breaks visual arts tradition with ‘one-liner’ inscription in mostly Pidgin English, "giving what I do a unique presentation." He stresses that his kind of pop art is aimed at "uplifting urban art to a higher platform with technique, style and class, so that it stands out in international space."

With such a close gap, perhaps common defiance in breaking tradition, between his art and contemporary texture, the line of identity could be blurred. But resilience of pop art, particularly in his kind of African flavour, he says, is a goal, though not yet with a definite direction. "I can't currently say how far it will go but I am still on course with it."

He recalls starting experimental effort with pop art, saying, "My romance with pop art is just an experiment of moving our traditional/ urban art into a modern space - making it contemporary for the times we are in." He insists that the generation that is excited about contemporary content will also drive the future of pop art. "I believe it is fast growing in the minds of this generation and I hope for the ones to come." 

Apart from the fact that most art from Africa - in the post-Ancient era derive their philosophy from western ideals, the marketing and promotion platforms have also shifted to the west recently. In fact, Nigerian artists are increasingly seeking representation outside the country, particularly of art galleries based in U.S and Europe. Tantua, whose work in recent times has made quite some bold statements at art exhibition and auction spaces in Lagos, is one of the few artists from Nigeria who have secured foreign gallery representations.

As much as the prospect is high in taking a Nigerian artist onto the international art market space via foreign gallery representation, there are disadvantages that need to be factored into the partnership. Abroad, tracking works of foreign artists for future provenance may be difficult just as non-involvement of the local galleries in Nigeria in most of the international representation appears inadequate. The local galleries, it has been observed, have better information in provenance from which the foreigners can tap.

Indeed, the trend about gallery representation abroad goes beyond individual artists in Nigeria. A group like GFA is also seeking representation by galleries abroad. Why are the artists not taking local galleries along? Tantua urges galleries, curators, historians and art critics to play their roles in documenting, promoting and selling of art. But, his worries: "The local galleries are totally concerned with sells and profit! This is why professional bodies like the GFA came together to say: 'What we do should be given a higher platform." 

So far, Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA), of which Tantua became a member last year is, arguably, the only professional group that appears to be pushing for international representation via regular art exhibtions in Europe. However, ahead of his membership of GFA, Tantua had, three years ago shown in U.S and France, courtesy of foreign representation. The shows: Paris - Lagos -The Art Of Diseye Tantua at Galerie Teodora, Paris; and Beautiful House U.S. in North Carolina.” His experience as regards having gallery representation abroad is something to share, more importantly for an artist who spreads his identity between Nigeria and Ghana.  "My personal contracts as an artist represented by galleries in France and U.S gives me the opportunity to focus on what I want to do and experiment on things I wish to do in future." For him, it's not all about escaping the hostile economic situation at home. "I don't paint to sustain my bills; I work to satisfy my passion.”

One of his Afro Pop Art works.
With the land mines buried in the much hyped globalization - from which art and culture is tapping - the fear that African art or art from Africa is vulnerable to loosing its identity in efforts to compete at the global market deserves a concern. "African Art or art from Africa is not going to loose it's identity at all," Tantua is emphatic. "With the coming of new mediums and technique, African artists express themselves better; the same story in more familiar clothes. This does not change their message and uniqueness but attracts a wider audience."  

As Art from Africa is getting more spaces at international events, the excitement may just turn out to be a short-live experience.  For example, art from Nigeria had once gained some grounds in the west with Osogbo breed of artists. The remnants of that era are still strong back home, but currently, it appears not as strong at the international market. "Contemporary African art can still make impart at international events and sustain itself; more artists based in Africa are expressing themselves internationally with western mediums." He argues, "Even with traditional ideas, works are done using western techniques and presentation."
Tantua is one of the non-regular names or non-old masters who have benefitted from the secondary art market.  In his assessment of the auction art market in Nigeria after seven years of consistent sales and as regards the prospects of artists, he notes that the change brought to the country by the auctions has been extended overseas, and benefits African artists in general. The advantage, he says, is that "more artists are now recognised for what they do and are introduced to international markets through the exposure the auction houses bring."  The market, he explains, "also wakes the consciousness of art lovers, art collectors, artist and students alike."

As crucial as documenting art is to the uplifting of art from Africa, not much attention has been given to it, at least from the art historians, curators and others in the management of art. The growing vacuum drags artists into self-documentation. For Tantua, he is joining the train. "I am currently working on a coffee table book." Details, he says will becoming soon.
Six years after his last solo art exhibition, Look and Laugh at Signature Gallery, in Lagos, the next attempt, hopefully, comes before the end of 2015.