By Tajudeen Sowole
About three decades of full-time studio practice comes with a vast experience to treasure, so suggests the fresh texture of painter, Toni Okujeni's canvas.
|Toni Okujeni working on his new style and technique|
History has been on the favoured-side of Okujeni's career. From being one of the pioneer artists at the rested Lagos-based African Guardian magazine in the mid 1980s, to joining the few courageous full-time studio artists later in the same decade, Okujeni had shown traces of an artist whose calling was clearly about leaving a strong imprint on the Nigerian art landscape.
This afternoon, the cloudy sky over Ojodu, Lagos-Ogun suburban conceals the sun from beaming onto Okujeni's studio, thus denying the canvases natural daylight required to enhance the market scene activities and streetscapes themes. However, the works, which exude the typical modernist trend in Lagos art scene, confirm the artist's experience, which condenses into mastery of the palette. But Okujeni has something fresh, more contemporary and "conceptual," in his palette knife.
To appreciate Okujeni's fresh canvas of contemporary form, one needs to have a brief on his sojourn in art. In the past one and half decade, and until recently, he has been on the quiet side of the Lagos art scene. But it took a research into how the professional art scene in Nigeria of the past three decades evolved to fish out the Auchi Polytechnic, Edo State-trained Okujeni.
Having read much about the nineteenth century Dutch legend, Vincent van Gosh, Nigerian great artist Erhabor Emokpae and master printmaker, Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya, Okujeni recalls how he was inspired to study art. Setting out at dawn, he had no doubt the path of "art was the right way to take." Architecture was also on his mind, he discloses to his guest. "I also liked architecture, but the passion for art," won his choice of my career." After his four years training at Auchi ended in 1983 - and the National Youth Corps Service followed - it took a while for him to get a steady job. And when it came, from 1986-89, Okujeni was employed as art illustrator and cartoonist at African Guardian magazine under the then Art Editor, Femi Jolaoso.
Pre-computerised newsroom and production sections of newspaper were not exactly a long time ago as technology makes it appear like it’s a kind of Dinosaurs period away. It's interesting to know that art, from Okujeni's perspective, was more practical then in pre-press context. In fact, what is now known as Graphics section, he recalls, "was Art Department," then. And whoever heads it was actually "the Art Editor," not to be confused with the current sectionalisation of most editorial units that have Arts Editor - the head of arts and culture reportorial/review pages.
After Okujeni left the African Guardian magazine job in. 1989, he stepped into self-employment and full-time studio practice circle. Why not another employment job, in a newspaper company or advertising agency? The evolving new face of art in Nigeria of the 1980s, he says, inspired him to attempt full-time studio. Prior to the emergence of a new generation of Nigerians such as Olu Ajayi, Sam Ovraiti, Bunmi Babatunde, Abiodun Olaku and Felix Osiemi who pioneered self-employment studio practice, artists, mostly, found job security working as art teachers at secondary schools and higher institutions of learning as well as being designers or visualisers at advertising agencies and publishing companies. Apart from artists like Ajayi and Babatunde who, most likely, never took up any employment job, Ovraiti, Abiodun Olaku and few others reversed the usual order by leaving 30-days make a pay jobs for studio practice. More often, artists would start from full-time studio and end up as art teachers. But the new generation of Nigerian artists of the 1980s through early 1990s brought a change.
|One of Toni Okijeni's crowded streetscape paintings|
"I thought that if the likes of Ajayi, Olaku, Ovraiti and Osiemi were paying their bills as full-time artists, I could do it too." It was not exactly a strange experience for him. He had, while working as illustrator at African Guardian magazine "exhibited with Ajayi, Olaku and others at a salon. The show titled Treasure House Salon, he says, was organised by Olasehinde Odimayo.
Art appreciation, he recalls, was not exactly as it is today, but relatively "encouraging enough for us artists then." It was the passion, and not the money, he notes, that kept the artists going. The late 1980s through early 1990s, Okujeni confirms, would remain one of the most important periods of Nigerian art in the area of art appreciation. "It was the period that the corporate groups, particularly the finance houses and regular banks started buying a lot of art." The monetary value was not exactly as it is today, but the period apparently inspired quite a number of individual collectors.
However, the political instability that followed the crisis of the annulled June 12 1993 presidential election brought a hostile economic environment that also affected artists. Quite a number of artists left Nigeria for the U.S and Europe. For Okujeini, it was not exactly a retreat; he attempted exploring few countries of the west coast and North Africa. Dakar, in Senegal was an attraction for him towards the end of the 1990s. "I went to Morocco and Dakar, but stayed behind for one year after the end of Dak'art of 1990," he explained a situation that led him to work "briefly" in Senegal.
Between the period of his return to Nigeria and lately, Okujeni has been on the quiet side of art. And the fact that he was, few months ago, among the new inductees of Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA) stresses the period of disconnect from his contemporaries who founded the professional body over a decade ago. However, Okujeini has not been static on the canvas. His trajectory is no doubt of modernism, specifically with passion for streetscape, market and other crowded themes.
But this Wednesday afternoon, inside his moderate studio, something more conceptual is creeping in, so suggests a new set of works waiting for finishing. Pointillism? "Something like that," he responds as he brings out the works from his inner studio room and mounts them among the higher number of traditional/ modern paintings. Not exactly the traditional painting as it include, largely the pasting of clothing buttons to render pointillism or what looks like spots painting.
Interestingly, the themes of the works tap from the streetscape, market and crowd scenes identity of Okujeni, but rendered in fresh medium and technique. Okujeni’s fresh canvas appears like the beginning of his using pointillism to render contemporary concept. For an artist who claims that “I was painting streetscapes before other artists picked the trend in the 1980s,” the identity would not be left out of the new contemporary look of his canvas.
He discloses how a recent visit to Dak'art has changed his art. "Sometimes it could be challenging showing paintings where other artists are presenting new concepts. I had always wanted to do something different from just painting, but my last visit to Dak'art fast tracked it."
His bio reads in parts: " Okujeni was born on January 24, 1962. He had his early inspiration from the work of Vincent Van Gogh and his works are among those with the richest palette from the school.
"His favorite subject are crowded market scenes and roof tops with lots of movement done in heavy impastos of the palette knife as a technique and style of painting which has made his works acceptanble to wide range of audience.
"He has participated in several group shows, some of includes Accenture Nigeria, Asilah forum foundation Morocco and gallery yacine-Dakar. His works are in many private and public collections."