By Tajudeen Sowole
Although the founding members of Ona Art Movement now have reason to regroup, art historians may need to keep digging for the facts as the protracted issue of origin, which nearly tore the group apart last year, is given a blank space in the reunion.
HELD at two venues, Nike Art Gallery and Watersworth Gallery, both in Lekki, Lagos, The Return of Ona art exhibition aimed at bringing the founders back on track, featured the works of its founding members — Bolaji Campbell, Kunle Filani, Tunde Nasiru, Moyo Okediji and Tola Wewe. Ona is a Yoruba expression for creativity from which the group emerged in the mid-1980s.
But even as the issue of real founder of Ona art was conspicuously missing, and as well unresolved in the exhibition catalogue, the show however highlights the competitiveness between native and liberal themes in contemporary space. Some of the works on display, viewed via e-copy of the catalogue, stress the promotion of original Yoruba aesthetic, from which the group derives its essence.
Filani’s The World Is A Stage and Strips of Social Fabrics share similarity in emphasis on representations through motifs just as Egungun Ona, a depiction of the creativity in the costumes of masquerade. It underscores the essence of the group’s promotion of Yoruba traditional art.
Okediji, who recently had a solo outing at Watersworth Gallery stays with his soft metal or ‘can-art’ material. Some of his works on display at the Ona group show such as River Goddess, Reclining Lady and Dancing add contemporaneity flavour, particularly in design and themes.
Okediji shows his can-art technique for the first time in Nigeria in the solo exhibition, The New Modern: Explosive Imageries, Incendiary Times. With the soft metal, Okediji creates weaving technique, which he recalls was inspired by his research during “my graduate days at the University of Benin.”
For master of motifs, Wewe, visual language in native imagery gets strong as Women of the Sun and Protest, in stylised figural form indicate that the artist is still not done with visually communicating with the extraterrestrial beings. At his last solo show in Lagos titled Footnotes, he insisted that “communicating with the spirits of the ancestors such as anjonu, emere and ebora,” will remain part of his themes for a long time.
In Campbell’s Ori Series and motifs-filled frames of 16, the Associate Professor of the Arts of Africa and African Diaspora in History of Art and Visual Culture at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), US, flaunts his deep knowledge of the spirituality in native art contents.
Independent artist, Nosiru’s foil works go deeper in the spirituality of art, rendering images of combined divinity. One of his works at the Watersworth section of the show included Mythical Condescension.
THE commonality in the art of Ona members is more visible in contextual or philosophical terms, but specific imagery to stress the bonding is still unclear.
From The Return of Ona, Bolaji Campbell’s Ori Series
It should be recalled that mid last year, Filani and Okediji were drawn at the opposite sides of an issue about the origin of Ona. Responding to the issue of the group’s origin, Okediji, in his article titled Beyond Dispute: Origins, Travails of Ona had claimed that in 1986, he was inspired by renowned carver Lamidi Olonade Fakeye (1925-2009), who was then lecturer at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). In fact, the word Ona, he argued, was taken from the late artist’s middle name Olonade.
At the opening of his Footnotes late last year, Wewe responded to the question of the group’s origin, arguing that “it has been established that five people formed the Ona group. My position has always been that it was a group thing. My theory is that no one person can form a group.”
He, however, promised that a group exhibition of the founding members was being planned to reassure people that Ona movement remains one despite disagreements.
About a week before The Return of Ona opened at Nike Art Gallery, Filani, during a chat, stated that Ona pioneers “will not allow fleeting issues to blank their positive contributions to creative legacy of images and ideas that they have engendered over decades.” He stressed that agreement could not be reached without disagreement, but that “the beauty of the seeming altercation is that now we are moving forward.”
Also, Okediji via online conversation argued that members had traveled through the Ona history in diverse ways, he warned that the truth about origin of Ona group remained where it started.
Okediji said: “When the mouth is full of juicy pieces of meat, even the teeth may sometimes chew on the tongue, as the condiment is so palatable. So let it be so with Ona. “We have traveled along a highway with different forks, and our river has formed a myriad of tributaries. But the road is still the same, and the source of the river remains the Futa Jalons.”
He was delighted that over two decades after, Ona is no longer a local movement, but has moved into the international space.
But on the origin, there seemed to be another storm postponed as Okekeji insisted that “the facts of our origins remain where it started in the Futa Jalon mountains. But by the time you view the Niger from its delta landscape, where it mixes with crude oil along a web-work of tributaries and arteries feeding the sea, you have to retrace your step carefully to return to the Futa Jalon highlands.”
He, philosophically, stressed in a Yoruba idiom: “Gbenagbena ti gbena na, ise ku sowo awon gbenugbenu, meaning, ‘the wood-carver has crafted its trade; the rest lies in the hands of the wood peckers.”
Beyond the argument over the origin of Ona, there are other more important values in the movement. This much Chinaza Orji of Watersworth stated in her contribution to the catalogue: “African artists like the Ona group are commanding respect internationally as they continue to introduce African art to the world both in the academic quarters and social landscape. This has increased the worth of Africa art works all over.”
Some of the works on display at the Watersworth section include Filani’s Vote For Me, Lean On Me and Eko Re; Wewe’s Women of the Sun and Ibeji Series; Okediji’s Terranulius, Campbell’s Untitled and Nasiru’s Mythical Condescension.