With beads, Olafisoye interrogates spiritual art, craft

‘irukere’ (horse whisk) by Olafisoye

Art, in its functionality, design or craft, goes beyond creative application in the studio of Chief Robinson Olafisoye. There is a dual role of using his art and craft to promote tourism as well as African spirituality. And with the Lagos State government’s projection of turning Ikorodu into a tourism hub, Olafisoye, whose studio is located on Agric area of the town, appears well prepared for the future.

A ride through quite a number of rough roads, off the main Ikorodu Expressway, leads to the 63-year-old artist’s studio. Serving as home and studio, is a detached block of one of the two buildings inside the gated compound.

On the wall of his studio are art and craft works such as, bead pieces on board depicting traditional Yoruba religious icons, as well as royal paraphernalia. However, there is, spiritual attachment to Olafisoye’s design pieces, particularly fashion accessories like shoes, staff (walking stick), caps and others.

With over 40 years in practice, Olafisoye who was trained at Yaba College of Technology, Lagos – after being ‘self-taught’ for many years – now runs a craft production unit in Ipaja, while his art studio is at Ikorodu, where he resides.

“In line with the vision of the state to turn Ikorodu into a tourism hub, I am planning an art and craft centre here,” he tells his guest, with high enthusiasm.

For an artist and craftsman, who appears to have had the best of times on the job of over four decades, desire to further fuel a burning creative enterprise could not have come at a better time.

Olafisoye, after being formally trained at Yabatech, later studied ceramics and other art courses in The Netherlands and India.

“I have been doing art and crafts in ceramic sculpture. I am now into beads art, particularly traditional African heritage.”

From art pieces such as, ‘Oduduwa’, ‘Yemoja’, ‘Ere Ibeji’ as well as royal paraphernalia like shoes, ‘irukere’ (horse whisk), and others; Olafisoye flaunts his vast knowledge of the cultural and spiritual world of African tradition. And the fashion accessories are meant for traditional chiefs and kings based on categorisation.

“They are meant for different categories of chiefs as well as other accessories such as shoes for both male and female,” he reveals.

However, when it comes to fashion accessories for the obas, the artist knows his limitation. “I don’t produce crown for obas except on commission,” he explains. “I am not just an artist, but a spiritualist”.

The spiritual aspect of Olafisoye’s art and craft is very practical with the functionality of the fashion accessories. “In fact, there are some works I can do to ward off evil,” he boasts.

Is Olafisoye a traditional religion priest with art and craft as medium of expression?

“I am not an Ifa priest,” he clarifies. His knowledge about Yoruba traditional belief has been taken into his art and craft such that depictions as ‘Orunmila’ often come up in some of his works.

“Art like, Orunmila, ‘Oba nki e’ and ‘Oduduwa’, say so much about our culture,” he says.

But from craft such as, horse whisk, he warns, “they are sometimes not just ordinary. Those who know its worth and deep knowledge in traditional spiritual context,” he argues, “can use the horsewhisk for prayer, effectively.”

Still on his mix of craft with spiritual power, Olafisoye, a native of Ondo, discloses that some collectors of his crafts do request for spiritual protection, which he builds into the craft accessories. People who live in Lagos, but go home regularly, “patronise me for protections.” However, rather than make the spiritual powers obvious in physical appearance of “wearing charms all over your body, I give them something as simple as shoes to wear with coded-power in them.”

Olafisoye claims: “I am a metaphysician” whose skills, while doing something for traditionalists, “apply my own spiritual metaphysics to diffuse any evil”. Specifically, he discloses that “sometimes it gets complicated doing work for monarchs, but I always resolved it through my own spiritual solutions.”

At what point does he separate the traditional African belief from his art and craft?

“I combine the traditional African belief and metaphysics.”

A bead medium titled Peacock by Olafisoye

Being an artist and a craftsman, he adds, is for humanity in general. “I also do non-spiritual craft as well.”

Olafisoye’s command of unseen forces for mystic powers, he recalls, started as far back as his younger years. “As a child, I used to practice spirituality by moulding birds.”

The last child of his parents, Olafisoye claims that at seven years old, “the holy spirit in the form of three persons” would visit him. The spirits, he recalls, taught him how to create art. “They come and start using traditional chalk to draw on the wall and I would start copying them.”

His parents were not even aware of his spiritual encounters. “My father would be saying: ‘why don’t you come and sleep’, not knowing that some people were with me. I was seeing them physically and sometimes they would come and wake me up.”

And currently, the spirits’ are not done with him. “Till now, they still monitor me; being part of me from when I didn’t know there was anything called art.”

The artist and spiritualist of the future also communicated with birds. “I would catch a bird, put it down and start using clay to mould a bird. It won’t fly away till I finish what I’m moulding.”

As a full professional, he still keeps his relationship with the spirit realm. “I am still under the guidance of holy spirit, which is why I can design different unique beads works that stand out always.”

In 1979, Olafisoye left his hometown in Ondo to Lagos, armed artistically and spiritually. Having defied tradition back home by being a potter, even against his mother’s advice that “traditions don’t allow men make pot,” becoming a professional ceramist in Lagos was just a matter of time.

His early journey through the rudiment of art and craft started in an informal space in Shomolu, a suburb known for artisans in printing industry.

“I later went to Bombay to study art and craft. On coming back, I attended Yabatech as well as several workshops at National Museums, Onikan, Lagos.”

He must have found a kind of strength in art workshops. “I also went to the Netherlands for workshop.”

Currently, his love for beads remains stronger as seen on the walls of his Ikorodu studio. Even after he had a long break from art as a result of illness, 10 years ago that got him paralysed, beading was still the medium very close to his heart. “On recovery, I went back to bead work and ceramics.”

Two decades after his last show in The Netherlands, Olafisoye is looking forward to another outing before end of the year.

Again, beads are the preferred medium. “Coming back to exhibition, it is going to be strictly beads for one week,” he assures. “The exhibition is to relaunch my career into the art and craft scene.”

He explains that the show is “also to stress that beads are our heritage and for everybody, not just chiefs and royal people.” He hopes to take the exhibition on tour of select parts of Nigeria.

Having benefited immensely from informal art and craft training, Olafisoye has plans to empower youths of his immediate environment. “I hope to open art and craft training centre in Ikorodu, particularly for disabled people”. Already, his workshop in Ipaja, another Lagos suburb, produces shoes for mass production and customised clients. Already, as part of giving back to the society, Olafisoye says, he has “trained so many young artists in art an crafts within and outside Nigeria.”

He argues that art plays more significant role in culture than any other content. “More than anything, art serves to preserve our cultural heritage. It identifies us as a people.”

He supports his argument by citing examples of how a people are known with particular kind of art. “If anyone sees either the Igbo-Ukwu, the Ife or Benin carvings, you know immediately they are of Nigerian origin. Arts remind us of our past age old traditions and culture.”

Born on August 17,1955 in Ondo, old Western Region, Olafisoye attended St Ann’s Catholic Primary School and St. Ambrose’s Catholic Modern School, among others in Ondo.

His talent was discovered at St. Ambrose’s Catholic Modern, a secondary school. “It was a secondary modern school, but they didn’t teach art there.” Interestingly, at an Independence Day celebration art competition, young Olafisoye won the prize.

“Whereas I didn’t do art in my school, I still went ahead to represent my school and the Western Region and won awards,” he points out.

Another wind of fate would take him to one teacher that later became Africa’s topmost printmaker. “Later, I was introduced to the art teacher at Ondo Boys High School, Bruce Onobrakpeya,” Olafisoye narrates his first encounter with any art teacher.

“After we close at school, I would go to him at Ondo Boys High School where he taught us. When he was transferred from the school, I started doing things myself. I had developed an interest in ceramics. I could mould pots, even though my mother would say, ‘men don’t make pots’.”

The young crafts’ boy then also started making little money from his works. “I would mould a lot of items and other children would come and buy it. That was how I started making money.”

And when he came to Lagos, enrolling at Progressive College, his craft of moulding didn’t stop.

Some of Olafisoye’s past exhibitions include, Group Exhibition, Holland (1983); Art exhibition at United States of America (1987); and Arts and Crafts show in Warsaw, Poland (1988) and others.

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