Excitement as Celebration of Legacies unite Onobrakpeya, Grillo, Nwoko, Okeke, others
It was another historic gathering in Lagos for artists famously referred to as ‘Zaria Rebels’ in the Nigerian art parlance. Titled Zaria Art Society: Celebration of Legacies, the art exhibition, shown by Arthouse Contemporary, from October 27 through November 15, 2019 at Kia Showroom, Victoria Island, Lagos, came 59 years after some of the artists had their first group art show in Lagos.
The exhibited artists who were members of Zaria Art Society from Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology (NCAST), include Yusuf Grillo, Demas Nwoko, Emmanuel Odita, Simon Okeke (1937-1969), Uche Okeke (1933-2016), Bruce Onobrakpeya and Oseloka Osadebe. In 1960, the first group show, for some of the artists, was made possible by the then Art Council, under the leadership of its chairman, Babatunde Majekodunmi and secretary, Michael Crowther.
The show was held at the Art Pavilion of Trade Fair, Victoria Island, Lagos, and organised to mark Nigeria’s Independence in October 1960. As final year students of NCAST then, the select young artists were asked to decorate the cover ways for the fair and were also given opportunity to exhibit their works with the founder of modern Nigerian art, Aina Onabolu and other modernists such as, Ben Enwonwu and Akinola Lasekan . Also in 1998, the National Gallery of Art (NGA) showed these Zaria-tained artists in a tour exhibition held in Zaria, Abuja, and Lagos.
For the 2019 show, curated by Prof. Jerry Buhari, history beckoned again for these revered artists whose works and careers have become reference points across modern and contemporary periods of Nigerian art. The artists have earned themselves quite a number of epithets such as ‘Zarianists’, ‘Zaria Rebels’, among others, from the nation’s art historians. Most iconic for the artists’ identity is the ‘natural synthesis’ art ideology — a deviation from the western form — on which they earned the ‘rebel’ tag.
More of great significance, the artists, coincidentally, started their post-training practice in the 1960s, a period that could be calibrated as the transit from modern to contemporary in Nigerian art lexicon. Apparently, the Zaria Artists were among those captured as young Turks that bridged the modern-contemporary Nigerian art periods.
However, in a country where modern and contemporary art museum never existed in the real context of it – until the emergence this year of the Shyllon Museum at Pan Atlantic University, Ajah, Lagos, the commercial windows such as art auctions and exhibitions have been the only outlets of displaying most of Nigeria’s masters’ works. Regrouping artists, whose careers linked Nigeria’s modern and contemporary periods, no doubt, recorded another landmark in the country’s art history.
On display inside the non-art gallery space at Kia Motors were paintings, sculptures and installation that covered nearly six decades. Despite the challenges of creative light control in the car showroom space, most of the exhibits on display still emitted some depth of dialogue with visitors. Perhaps one’s visit to the exhibition two days after the opening ceremony generated a strong depth of appreciation.
A seated Nwoko wood, titled ‘The Wise Man,’ mounted on the left of the pathway into the exhibition space, no doubt, is a familiar sculpture. Though exposed to heavy illumination from the ray of natural daylight, which diffused, completely, any presence of creative spotlighting, the sculpture still confirmed its popular spot in Nigeria’s critical and commercial art appreciation environment.
Almost sandwiching the sculpture were paintings titled ‘The Combatant Soja (1),’ ‘Night Club in Dakar,’ ‘Ogboni Chief’ and ‘Senegalese Woman,’ all from the same artist. The paintings offer quite a rich trajectory into the artist’s vast journey in choice of themes.
While one was recovering from the reverie created by the familiar works of Nwoko, a few steps inside the space brought another perspective into the era of ‘natural synthesis’ in the drawings of Osadebe. All drawings dated 1965 are classic studies in expressionism. With the perforations on the edges of the papers, suggesting that the works were pulled out of the artist’s drawing pad, provenance of the series get stronger. The visual contents of the drawing depict the figures’ facial and anatomy, rendered in stylised exaggerated forms, but are nearly identical. However, the artist’s emphasis on subjectivity of creative expression is still striking. Titled ‘Piggy Wigglies,’ the works in a series of eight from the artist’s collection, struck a familiar chord. They were shown during his solo exhibition Inner Light, at National Museum, Onikan, Lagos last year, and curated by Sandra Mbanefo Obiago.
Among his other works at the Zaria Artists’ gathering came ‘Folklore Bird’ and ‘The Man’ series (acrylic on canvas 1968 and 1973), in which he subtly takes his expressionism skill into the painting realm. The black bold highlights in each of the paintings radiate strong perennial fluidity and illustrative characteristic of the artist.
In 11 years of Nigeria’s fledging secondary art market, some pieces of art have become iconic. Among such works is Grillo’s ‘Blue Moon’ on display at the extreme end of the exhibition space. Enjoying the creative spotlighting, ‘Blue Moon,’ oil on board and dated 1960, is rendered in cubism style that depicts the portrait of an unidentified woman with moon in the background. Observers would not forget so soon, for example, how Grillo’s ‘Blue Moon’ started with bidding value of N5.8m and ended at hammer price of N8.8m during Arthouse’s second auction in November 2008.
Other paintings by Grillo at the exhibition were dated between 2014-2018. For these paintings, the Grillo identity, no doubt remains despite the sharp contrast in composition and shades of colours compared to most of his older works.
Whatever art aficionados in Lagos have been missing in Odita’s works, particularly on the commercial space, the exhibition recovered such by a window into some of the artist’s rarely seen-in-public art. Nearly, if not, all his works shown here were from the artist’s collection.
His works on the show include paper pieces in pastel as well as oil on canvas. zuch include ‘It Survived,’ ‘Coconut,’ ‘The Church’ and ‘Love Saver,’ all dated 1964.
Simon Okeke created a special space in the Nigerian art lexicon with his application of colour and stylised figures, particularly in watercolour. Whatever known complex that exists in using the watercolour medium to achieve textured surface, Okeke made leisure of it. In fact, his works of watercolour medium for the exhibition come with pen and ink combined and demystify the slippery paper medium. For example, ‘Girl with Urn’ (watercolour on paper (circa 1951) articulates the contrasting light and shades over the figure to generate a grieving mood.
Similarly in ‘Mother and Child,’ a 1966 watercolour, pen and ink on paper, Okeke’s smooth brush movements assert an artist’s ability to tell a story even with the most complex of medium. And when the artist’s work comes in monochrome such as ‘Lady’ and ‘Untitled’ (1965, 1966, respectively), his skills in generating texturized surface with watercolour blossoms.
An artist whose work emits and celebrates the avant-garde, Onobrakpeya brings depth of visual culture into the exhibition. Again, Onobrakpeya was privileged to be among the artists of NCAST who showed at the 2019 historic exhibition. When he celebrated his 80th anniversary in 2012, he disclosed in an interview how some final year students of the school were selected to show their works in a group art exhibition in Lagos during Nigeria’s independence day of 1960.
From his coined ‘plastocast’ to etching, painting and installations, the timelessness of his work was loud in the just held show.
While the plastocast and deep etching identity of the artist takes diverse combinations with additive, or painted surface, quite a number of his strictly painting works revisit a trajectory. Among such are paintings titled ‘Hunter’s Secret,’ oil on board 1961 and ‘Maria,’ oil on board 1961.
Though Onobrakpeya’s well-known signature has been widely celebrated in the printmaking genre, his works in painting and installation assert the artist’s virility in expression across genres and medium. For example, his Recomposed Installation titled ‘Return to Farming III’ 2012-2018 and mounted at the extreme end of the showroom radiates contemporaneity even in the native components of the theme.
Apart from being among the revered artists of the modern-contemporary Nigerian transit period, Uche Okeke was a front liner in lifting Uli, a native form of Igbo art. On the Lagos art scene, the artist, a few years before his death, had a major appearance when he was celebrated at the fourth edition of Rasheed Gbadamosi-led Yusuf Grillo Pavilion in 2012.
For the Zaria Artists regrouping show, Uche Okeke’s bold outline in drawing with ink on paper seen in ‘Mother of Christ Joseph’ and ‘Untitled’ celebrate his revered signatures. Quite a number of the works on display, in either drawings or paintings, lean towards religious themes, suggesting the artist’s deep spiritual expressions.
From ‘Stations of the Cross’ series to ‘Mother of Christ and Joseph,’ the artist brings illustrative skill in drawings as well as expressionism style in paintings to contributing to the Nigerian modern-contemporary visual narratives.
As the thought of a commensurate space for the status of artists being exhibited would generate a debate, founder and CEO of Arthouse Contemporary Limited and Arthouse Foundation, Kavita Chellaram, explained the choice between searching endlessly for an ideal space and not showing the artists.
“We note that the space is certainly not the best for the profile of a show like this, but its availability and the gracious offering of its owners helped us to make the best use of what we have,” Chellaram stated in the ‘Foreword’ of the exhibition catalogue. “A proper art exhibition space continues to challenge our cultural institutions. I hope that soon we should be able to address this problem head-on.”
She argued that there was yet to be known any group of artists whose works and career generated so much attention as the Zaria artists.
“These artists have been subject of scholarly interest, professional curiosity and collectors’ delight,” Chellaram wrote. “They stand as pillars in the cultural landscape of Nigeria’s visual arts and tower above the horizon. Their cultural significance, influence, and inspiration cast fascinating shadows across the globe today.”
Sharing her experience in regrouping the artists in such a landmark exhibition, Chellaram recalled how the project had gone through stages of date changes and other adjustments. In fact, she had confessed, “Sometimes we have paused to wonder if ever we could pull this exhibition through.”
She listed as challenges and constraints such as the right space, finding the works, the fragility of the works, securing sponsors, among others.
In a curatorial note, Buhari, who is of the Fine Arts Department, Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, explained the choice of the exhibition’s title: “The idea of using the concept of legacy to frame this exhibition is borne out of the inspiration, influence, and awe these artists, as a group and as individuals, have brought onto contemporary art in Nigeria,” adding that the concept was meant “to celebrate the impact of their lives, their work and the ideas they have bequeathed on our cultural history.”
In enriching the exhibition, art scholars and artists, home and from the diaspora, contributed essays to the catalogue. Such contributions came from Prof. Osa Egonwa (Department of Fine and Applied Arts, Delta State University, Abraka, Delta State, Nigeria), Prof. Jacob Jari (Department of Fine Arts, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria), Rebecca Wolff (PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, University of California, USA), Kolade Oshinowo (former National President, Society of Nigerian Artists), Prof. Gambo Giles Duniya (Department of Fine Arts, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; Emeritus Professor Ola Oloidi (Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria), Olu Amoda (Yaba College of Science and Technology, Yaba, Lagos, Nigeria); Krydz Ikwuemesi (Associate Professor of Fine Art, Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka,); Prof D. O. Babalola (Former Professor of Art History, Department of Fine Arts, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria), and dele jegede (PhD. Professor Emeritus, Art & Art History, Miami University Oxford, OH, USA).
Other contributors include Dr. Mike Omoighe (Yaba College of Science and Technology, Yaba, Lagos), Dr. Kunle Filani (Federal College of Education, Technical Akoka Lagos, Nigeria), Ozioma Onuzulike (Professor of Ceramic Art and Art History, University of Nigeria Nsukka), Prof. Frank Ogiomoh (Independent scholar), Ijeoma Ucheke-Okeke (Asele Institute Foundation Nimo, Anambra State, Nigeria), and Chika Okeke-Agulu (Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Art and Archaeology, and Department of African American Studies, Princeton University, USA).
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