Saturday, 24 January 2015

Ojeikere, Shonibare, others in Staying Power of Black British

By Tajudeen Sowole
Late J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, Nigerian-born British artist, Yinka Shonibare and Neil Kenlock, Normski, Dennis Morris, Gavin Watson, Al Vandenberg, among 17 photographers,  are currently showing Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s at Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), U.K. The Museum is showing a collection of 118 works.

From Yinka Shonibare’s Diary of a Victorian Dandy series
The museum states on its website that the exhibition, which runs till June 2015 is a project to increase the number of black British photographers and images of black Britain in the V&A collection. The show, which holds at two sections of the museum, according to the organisers aims to raise awareness of the contribution of black Britons to British culture and society, as well as to the art of photography. The display includes 25 photographs, which opened at Black Cultural Archives on January 15, ending June 30, 2015 and at the V&A gallery from February 16 – May 24, 2015.

Ojeikere (1930-2014) is showing eight pieces from his iconic gele (headdress) and African hairstyle works on female fashion. Among the works are two pieces Untitled, 2005, from the series Headties and Pineapple, 1969, from the series Hairstyles. The works are courtesy of The Estate of J. D. 'Okhai Ojeikere and V&A.

Shonibare’s works include five pieces, all from his Diary of a Victorian Dandy series. The curatorial note says Shonibare’s work engages with his cross-cultural heritage, challenging definitions of national identity and history.

On the theme of the exhibition, the museum recalls its interest of over the last seven years working with Black Cultural Archives to acquire photographs by black photographers and origin in the U.K. The project, it was stated has been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The museum added: “To complement the photographs, Black Cultural Archives have collected oral histories from a range of subjects including the photographers themselves, their relatives, and the people depicted in the images.”

Founded in 1981, Black Cultural Archives’ mission is to collect, preserve and celebrate the heritage and history of Black people in Britain. They opened the UK’s first dedicated Black heritage centre in Brixton, London in July 2014, enabling greater access to the archive collection and providing dedicated learning spaces and an exciting programme of exhibitions and events that explore British history from a unique perspective. The archive collection offers insight into the history of people of African and Caribbean descent in Britain and includes personal papers, organisational records, rare books, ephemera, photographs, and a small collection of objects.

At 21, Ojeikere was one of the only few photographers in the old Western Region of Nigeria. He became a darkroom assistant at the Ministry of Information in Ibadan in 1954, where he worked until 1961. He later worked as a photographer for Africa’s first Television Station, The Western Nigerian Broadcasting Services, and for West African Publicity in Lagos from 1963-1975. Ojeikere became a member of the Nigeria Art Council in 1967. He travelled across Nigeria with the council and began to document Nigerian culture, beginning a series of photographs documenting Nigerian hairstyles in 1968. Over the course of his life Ojeikere recorded more than a thousand hairstyles, as well as traditional headties. The series of photographs, which includes both popular and ceremonial styles, is of historic and anthropological significance, as well as aesthetic value.

Shonibare (MBE) works across a range of artistic mediums including sculpture, painting, photography and film. Born in London in 1962, Shonibare spent the majority of his childhood in his parents’ birthplace of Lagos, Nigeria before returning to London at the age of seventeen. He attended Byam Shaw School of Art (now part of Central Saint Martins) and Goldsmiths College in the late 1980s, becoming part of the generation of Young British Artists (YBAs).

Aso-oke... Owolabi’s visual narratives of Africa's enduring fabric

By Tajudeen Sowole
 Painting, photography, video documentary, visual and sound installations of Tunde Owolabi for his solo art exhibition titled Aso Oke - The Woven Beauty, at Red Door Gallery, Victoria Island, Lagos stress the resilience of one of Africa's oldest native fabrics. The exhibition is arguably the most comprehensive on aso-oke in recent times on the Lagos art space.

Aso-Oke, a portrait by Tunde Owolabi
Indigenous to the Yoruba nation - a people spread across southwest Nigeria, part of Republic of Benin and Togo - aso oke is a cotton-woven fabric made from native textile loom and widely worn at social gatherings. It comes in awe (strips) from the looms and later pieced together according to the pattern or designs. Its origin is not exactly documented, but the popularity of the fabric, perhaps over the past 100 years or more has moved from elitist and royal use to the common people. In fact, it appears that aso-oke is the only surviving African native, perhaps ancient fabric in this part of the continent.

For Owolabi's Aso Oke The Woven Beauty, the story transcends fabric as the images exude fashion statements that are timeless yet native in content. In Yoruba fashion space, styles such as four-piece female of iro (wrapper), buba (blouse) and ipele (shawl) with the gele accessory (headgear) as well as the male agbada (robe), buba and, dansiki (baggy shirts), sokoto (trouser) and fila (cap accessory) are synonymous with aso-oke since the past century. And despite modern and contemporary fashion raves that brought imported fabrics such as lace and Dutch wax (ankara), aso-oke has remained resilient. This much a photography piece inside the immediate entrance at Red Door Gallery explains in a semi-monochrome, brown-toned portrait. In a combined oleku-styled aso-oke with lace as buba and aso-oke as gele, the brownish portrait complements the colour of the aso-oke in a composite that technically derives strength from the creative lighting. 

Processed images of portraits such as How Do I Look series and Oge emphasis the gele headdress in colour over monochrome skins of the models. Also, paintings such as Oloye Akintola, ‘To Match’, Flence and Sanyan bring onto the canvas some of the different names that the diverse textures of aso-oke fabric have been christened.

The strength of Owolabi's show lies in the documentary texture of the concept. For example, the atmospheric sound of weaving process from the wooden tools, captured as the looms replicate the ambience of a profession that has become an industry for some communities over several generations. Adding to the enactment of the loom atmosphere is a sculptural piece lifted from the site in Iseyin onto the floor at Red Door Gallery.

"Aso-oke is 100 percent Nigerian," Owolabi says to the only visitor during a chat at Red Door, a few days after the opening of the exhibition. His initial interest, he discloses, was the aso-ebi culture, which further took him to the Yoruba native female headdress fashion, gele. The gele, he says, "made me more curious and led to my research on aso-oke”. The video documentary shown on a TV screen inside the gallery explains the extensive work of Owolabi on aso-oke, as it features the main aso-oke weavers who are concentrated in Iseyin, a town in Oyo State, southwest Nigeria. 
  Owolabi motes, "The dynamism with which aso oke has evolved over time" from the native content and to the current stage. The weaving process, he adds,  "is an art that leaves no gender out of the fun and experience".

As much as aso-oke has become so popular across many other cultures outside its Yoruba origin, the threat of losing its originality have long been dismissed. For example, about 20 or more years ago, an attempt to modernise it with mass production, which came with the introduction of glittering materials was not so successful. The traditional weaving was later improved on with introduction of a wider awe. While the smaller awe is still very popular, the wider one is equally widely used for agbada and fila. In fact, the most popular fabric for couples at traditional weddings of Nigerian origin - home and in the Diaspora - is the wider awe.

 Owolabi was born in Lagos, and studied painting under the tutelage of Professor Abayomi Barber, a renowned Nigerian artist at the University of Lagos. He obtained a degree in Graphic Design from Yaba College of Technology. After his degree, Owolabi became a freelance artist, a journey that led him to develop a keen interest in photography. He went on to study photography and photo retouching at the University of the Arts, London. He worked as a designer at the research studios in London under Neville Brody, a respected English graphic designer, typographer and art director.

When Owolabi returned to Nigeria in 2009, he worked as an art director at Insight Communications, a Lagos-based advertising agency. He left advertising in 2012, to start StudioMO. He now has Tunde Owolabi Studios, and has since become a full time studio artist, specializing in photographer and designer. He has participated in group exhibitions, including Lines and Colours (2003), Inner Thoughts at Nimbus African Art Centre (2004), Working with Communities, a Guinness group exhibition (2004), and Gods of This Age at Didi Museum.

His first solo exhibition, African Elegance was at the Battersea Art Gallery, London (2009). His commissioned works can be found at the Hungarian Embassy and Nigerian Stock Exchange. AsoOke - The Woven Beauty is his second solo exhibition.  

Idigbe… When 'personal appeal' drives artistic collection

By Tajudeen Sowole
 As complex as it is to understand the behaviourial patterns and tastes of collectors in art appreciation, one glaring factor is that investment value is not exactly a consideration for some patrons. For Ifeoma Idigbe, a member of BoT, Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA), personal ‘appeal’ is the driving force.

Ifeoma Idigbe
Idigbe, a finance and human resource analyst, is the only female trustee, and has been on the board from the start of the guild. Idigbe said she was privileged to have been asked to be a trustee by GFA group of artists many of whom she has their works in her collection. And when Abraham Uyovbisere, President of GFA introduced her to a guest during the private viewing of Distinction-2, a non-GFA group art exhibition, held at Terra Kulture late last year, the inspiration to feel her texture of collection was irresistible.

Art connoisseurs at the event spurred the red tags appearing on the walls as fast as one could track who tags what. This, apparently, blocked any attempt to peep into Idigbe's kind of art and generate a chat. But a better window was proposed for it.

Perhaps, the tracks of every collector towards the point of developing a passion in art appreciation influence the texture of most patrons’ collection. "I have been interested in art for as long as I can remember," Idigbe disclosed via email chat. A few of her early stints with fine art that dated back to elementary school included scoring "high marks in art" in England and Nigeria.

At Corona, her work that won the best art piece, she recalled, was celebrated. "There was a glass panel on the door and the ‘best’ art was often pasted on that panel so you could see the art from the outside. I remember my work being pasted on that door."

Her creative potential in art also reflected in other subjects, as she said, "Even at secondary school, my biology drawings were always considered excellent.” And it goes further being a natural part of her. “I have never thought about art as something external for me." Such background clearly shaped her perception about art to the point of seeing art as "just an integral to life as breathing.”

Probing into Idigbe's taste and tone of collection, there appears to be a sharp contrast to the exposure she had - from being a young art enthusiast to growing up as a collector - she seems liberal. Idigbe's art collection lexicon, surprisingly, is not confined within the components of art such as styles, techniques or period.

She enthused, "I don’t buy art by style or period or whatever else. I simply buy what appeals to me; whatever I like, based on the subject or theme of the work, execution, colours … whatever takes my fancy at a given point in time."

From the collection of Idigbe, a painting by David Dale
However, the content has to communicate, adding, "I do not buy what I don’t understand."

Her collection cuts across generations of artists, some of whom are members of GFA; just as the taste is as eclectic in areas such as abstract, semi-abstract, realism and in diverse medium as paper and metal etchings, beadwork, pencil sketches, metal work, oils, watercolours, mixed media, wooden sculptures, clay/ceramic, among others. From core art, her taste for creativity has spilled into other domestic decors, as she noted, "Even the photo frames for my family photographs are purchased based on their artistic appeal."

As the artists in her collection cut across generation and schools so are they across nationalities, mostly within Africa. "I have quite a few Ghanaian artists in particular. I also have Egyptian, Ugandan and South African artists. I buy whatever interests me."

The worth of a nation's art says so much about the level of patronage that individual and corporate connoisseurs have shown in the creative sector. From the vantage view of a patron, particularly a member, BoT of GFA, how real is the ongoing rise in commercial value of Nigerian art?

 "Art is worth as much as a buyer is willing to pay for it,” she argued. “So if art connoisseurs have decided that Nigerian art represents the next art renaissance then that is great!"

Idigbe noted that the attention being given Nigerian art at home and in the Diaspora is well deserved, particularly considering what she described as the resilience of the artists over the decades, but who have not been adequately celebrated. She added, "It is refreshing to have this interest, this appreciation of the talent and work of artists in Nigeria."

Contributing to the growth of Nigerian art, according to Idigbe are corporate organisations that "are more involved in the promotion and preservation." Increasing number of art galleries, supported by the fledging secondary art market, she stressed have introduced "a social element," and the growth goes on. Indeed, the rise in the value of Nigerian art, she explained, appears natural, given the  "burgeoning population" of the country as it adds up to the "number of artists, and the desires of the nouveau riche."

While the creative ebullience of the artists are fundamental in the impressive development of Nigerian art, observers have noticed that professionalism is not yet exactly enshrined. Given Idigbe’s long relationship with artists - as a collector - perhaps, she has a better understanding of the areas of professionalism that needs to be corrected among Nigerian artists. Standard, Idigbe noted, is still missing. "My main observation is that sometimes, some artists are in such a hurry to present their work for sale that they do not execute them to sufficiently exacting standards." She argued that as subjective as art is, "standards expected of professional artists should be kept."   

Another area of concern for her is a bandwagon syndrome that, most times, lead to more artists doing repetitive themes.  Each artist, she stated "owes it to himself/herself to develop their own unique style, change it as they wish, but to stay true to their natural talent. No two artists are the same and while comparisons are often made, truthfully, I consider such comparisons to be intellectual exercises. What you have is yours. There may be points of similarity, but each talent is unique. Each artist should ‘find’ an identity and show that to the world in the best way possible."

GFA, a body of artists that emerged in January 2008 after its first convention held at Ovie Brumen Centre has been in the forefront of repositioning Nigerian art at home and the Diaspora. With several activities such as art exhibitions and inductions in Lagos as well as shows and art auctions abroad, the Nigerian art space through GFA members is getting more competitive.

For example, members of the guild have been featured at Bonhams auction, Africa Now's Special Section severally. In fact last year, a wood sculpture, Possibilities, (ebony wood, 255 x 16.5 x 42cm, 2014) sold for (£31,250), by a member of the guild, Bunmi Babatunde and was among the most valued art pieces at Africa Now, 2014 edition. The sale was Babatunde's world record.    
  Such feat should be music to the ears of the guild's trustees. Specifically, in what areas do the BoT contributes to the progress of GFA?

A painting by Muraina Oyelami
"The Board is largely advisory, providing support as required,” Idigbe explained. But at the formative stage, a little financial support, she disclosed "was given to set up the office." She however conceded, "The artists are very self-respecting and respectable people whose primary desire is to bring their art to the highest international standards and acceptability."
She argued that GFA members "are promoters of Nigeria’s talent and heritage."

At its formative years, artists were invited to join GFA. But over years ago, the process changed to open entry although the professionalism criteria have not changed. Last year over 20 new members were inducted just as full-time practice as one of the criteria remained.

For different reasons known to them, collectors hardly disclose the numerical strength of their collection. For Idigbe, a plea of "No comment" sealed such probing.