In the beginning of the nineties, when a group of young – perhaps fresh from school -- fine artists stepped out to the public in an exhibition titled Young Masters, they created more than a stir. They unsettled some seated posturing. Audaciously, they not only proclaimed that they were poised to offer fresh coating to the features of the gallery, which as co-notated in the subtext of their show, had grown stale; they also conferred status of ‘master on themselves’. Of course, they did not get away so easily with the audacity; they were named, labeled and critically pummeled, even as it was clear that since many of them were fresh from art school, they were driven in this mission, by the exuberant resourcefulness, enterprise and energy conventional to their age; and were merely responding to the dynamics of shifting paradigm in global art discourse at the time – this era was in the throe of post modernism debate, remember.
The ‘freshers’ as they were described in one particular critique, made efforts to engage the probe from the cynics and critics but their voices were mostly muffled in the haze of screaming from their elders and even people of their age bracket, who however had been practising before them. Voices muffled yes, but their statement remained poignant for a long while; it became the focus of debates and public intellectualizing that were preponderant in those talky 90s days when Nigerians were already contemplating return to democratic rule and confronting the disconcerting cheeky games of the ‘militicians’ (military politicians led by Ibrahim Babangida).
These ‘rebelling’ artists who preached a stylistic attitude called ‘Colour Particularization’ were mostly graduates of the Auchi Polytechnic, otherwise christened Auchi School -- which itself had blazed to attention on the wing of boisterousness (or boastfulness if you like). A few months earlier, a cerebral but somewhat perceptibly cantankerous artist known as Edwin DeBebbs had marched out a collection of his colleagues and students from same Auchi Polytechnic to announce the birth of a new art movement, Colour Synthesis. The members named themselves Colour Masters.
The fruiting of this group was more intense between 1991 and 1992. And their manifested interrogation of what was, was in symmetry with the general mood of revolt in the socio-political clime.
The Young Masters were supposed to be derivatives of the Colour Masters. As a matter of fact, the one was the progenitor of the other, and some members of the DeBebbs movement were also part of the Young Masters. The difference was that whereas DeBebbs and his colleagues were ever ready to defend their positions, the Young Masters did their show and left the public to continue the debate from there on.
The debate has not ebbed since then. And it has manifested not really in terms of tons of words on the pages of papers or seminar rooms but rather in terms of the tenacity of the members of that Young Master group: in terms of their productivity, and adherence to the vision that drove them to the self-declarations as masters in the making. Today the galleries brim with the works of many of the members of that group. The exhibition today, FAITHFUL MIRROR featuring the recent works of Ben Osaghae and Heymann Ogbe, is an extension of the colour synthesis and the Young Masters prognosis. The aesthetic propositions and stylistic contentions in the works of the two artists are testimonies to the resonance of that movement that was almost still-birthed by the seemly notorious reluctance of Nigeria practice to easily yield to new ideas, even if it is to appropriate same for the refinement of its own survival stratagem.
Much thanks is indeed due to that group of ambitious young men; ever since their coming on the scene, there has been a resurgence of fresh dreams in the gallery; and their consistency as well as resonance has helped to shift paradigm of art productions and discourse. Perhaps the fact that many of them were/are teachers or always returned to the Auchi school to teach -- has helped to lengthen the chain of the so-called school of the colourists. Again they have helped to embolden other young people to step out more daringly. As happened to them, other experimentalists have faced similar knocks from the usually prevaricating art community, which seems to revel in its ambitiously moderate character. A case in point is Krydz Ikwuemesi- championed Pan African Congress of Artists, PACA with its active production and debate feature as well as Mufu Onifade’s Araism, which in spite of grunt from certain quarters, has remained vocal and eloquent in terms of production, even if less in theoretical affirmation. Yet the question will remain ever poignant to the Nigerian art circuit: what is wrong with artists who are driven by new theoretical motifs, stylistic convictions, and creative instincts or even creative forming into movements or production groupings and evangelizing their vision? Part of the answer is lodged deep in the hideous but ubiquitous dictatorship of the art-training institutions and the anxiety of individual artist to perpetuate his/her inclusion in the pool of camaraderie by the community of comrades.
Nevertheless the Young Masters has manifested as an icon of progressive visioning for the arts. The clan has remained fruitful, even if there is not much of defence of the thesis coming from the circle.
A particularly resonant member of that group is Ben Osaghae. The trajectory of Osaghae’s practice since his 1992 outing with the Young Masters Art Trust exhibition, has shown a progressively productive faculty, with a strict sense of commitment to a self-imposed mission of defending one’s vision. Though usually taciturn, his works over the past 16 years of practice have helped in no small measure to sustain the conceptual contestations of both the colourists as well as the interrogators of the old painting traditions. Though he has not been as frequent in the exhibition circuit, the presence of his works in major galleries and the few shows he has held or participated in, have ensured that his clan of artistic fellowship remains in the face of discourse of contemporary art practice. Now with Ogbemi, he is reaffirming his control of his contentions.
As far back as 1992, while still a student Osaghae had etched out on the canvas of art debate when he came up with the idea of Dematrialization, which he sums up as the painting tradition that emphasizes the superiority of form over content. An extension of this is the stress that the less details you give the more the depth of the statement, the more the volume of representation of the object. His works in deed exemplifies the negation of details in the painting. It is impressionism alright just like the works of the Colour Particularisationists, but Osaghae has a unique technical contention in the manner he accomplishes his composition and aesthetic logic.
Just as the Young Masters were criticized for placing so much emphasis on colour representations at the essence of the draughtsman-ship that the vocation of painting demands, Osaghae in the courts of critics in the past decade and half has remained an interesting subject. His works are provocative of the debate about the functionality or appropriateness of the abstract form in the context of the character of so-named African art.
Remarkably, Osaghae cannot be straightened into the class of those preponderant painters whose draughtsman-ship is suspect. His drawings are competenly realized, but he seems to work in reverse order to the norms of painting – he seems first to draw his objects and then proceed to sketch it out, blurring out the sharp details as he works! This produces the effect of his figures appearing more like apparitions on the canvas; or better still the object often appear as intrusions in his otherwise prosperously colourful boards. And there is always the colour patches depicting poetic fantasies on the face of the composition.
Osaghae’s main feature is the blurred, almost silhouette character of his figures, which objectifies the colour scheme, in utter contrast to the norm.
African painting, some have argued, is successful when it represents the facts of geometric forms and figural representation; after all its tradition is rooted in the realistic sculptural module. Thus to contemplate abstraction as the soul of a painting character is to negate its authenticity as a work depicting shared experience with the material environment and psychological philosophy that produced it. The argument is still being dissected in the laboratory of art historians, but particulars of abstraction have become strong contents of most African painting. Here is where Osaghae has remained a fascinating subject in the visual arts-scape here. For him, artistic expression is a matter of personal conviction, un-propelled by any external factors. The artist must be able to project his inner vision as pure and sincere as possible; he must be truthful to his inspiration and the psychological intuitions that birth the art in the first place. In other words, the inspiration must remain pure and unaffected by extraneous considerations. This view he shares with his exhibiting mate in the current offering Faithful Mirror, Heymann Ogbemi, a much younger fellow who only made his debut in 2002, a decade after Osaghae entered with his experimentalist fellows.
Here is their thought jointly expressed as preface to this show: ‘True’ art is defined and characterized by fidelity to artistic conscience to which art owes its birth and for which posterity and generations unborn will remain beholden. To this end, it is binding on the artist to express his sensibilities as sincerely as possible without prostituting his genius by allowing himself to become a means through which non-artists and sycophants express themselves, thus usurping the role of the artist."
The choice of ‘mirrors’ as an operative word in the theme of the exhibition, say the artists, is to further elucidate on the concept of artistic sincerity and honesty of vision as the driving force behind their creativity. Mirror is "an epitome of truth and sincerity", say the artiste. "Without compromise, the mirror brings the truth to light. We decided to predicate our work on the same premise which is defined by the mirror’s fidelity". And coming from a tradition of interrogators of seated concepts, the artists delineated their conviction from what they perceived as existing paradigm. They see themselves as deliberately departing from the motive of the general painting community: that which for acceptability or other pecuniary means tend to shape its production to fit in the general scope of expectations. And in any case, the art market over the years, in the absence of a more ambitious curatorial clime, has become more attuned to dictation of commerce".
The two painters are individually rebellious of the scripted norms of so-called African at, in that they challenge forms and technical limitations that painting teachers would have insisted on.
From the flow of his poetic lines, which inter-courses with his bold expressive colour schemes, the painter’s competence is never in doubt. But why does he proceed to blur out the details of the object – usually human figures? This is the heart of the dematrialization. It would seem that to Osaghae, too much realistic details is a visual bribery to the viewer, as it does not allow for his mental mating with the work in search of the soul of the painting. In Apprienticeship for instance, the painter scratched the silhouette of a motor mechanic on the rich textured canvas. His point of emphasis seems the figure, but that is deceptive, as the more prominent feature seems the interplay of the movement of lines and the colour. Smartly he always leaves a symbol to elucidate his prime motive in the work; here it is the spanner; in the Clientele’s Service, which again enjoys the Osaghae’ deeply affective colour sensitivity, it is the scissors in the tailor’s shop. Remarkable also is the play between bright colour and that curious looking mass of dark shadows in the centre of the work. The work is sensuous in its colour scheme but engaging in its almost scratched to meaninglessness figure.
Sometimes, a hasty look at the work could create the impression that what Osaghae does in terms of drawing is a doodling, but the technical schemes he creates around the figure provokes deeper, prolonged visual engagement with the entire composition so that the meaning would begin to climb out of the surface of the canvas. Juvenile Education, The Economics of Survival and Work Ethics better exemplify this somewhat hideous technical finesse. The three share compositional features including the images appearing like blot of stains on the bright, luminescent background, but each shows a distinct theme of common human existence realized through a fluid movement of lines and prosperous filial interconnection between space and plane. Here too another strong virtue of Osaghae’s painting is sign-posted – the ability to keep the canvas surface busy and at the same time so light that there is enough room for visual rest. Remarkably, each of his works, has a landscape motif aside from the real images depicted but the landscape is left to the imaginative creation of the viewer on the parts of the canvas where the artist celebrates yet another of his aesthetic appeal – gradient colour scheme. This is a good stead of the Osaghae technique.
However, perhaps most sophisticated in terms of composition, spatial finesse and as well colour scheme is The Golden Car, which shows a lone figure in the foreground in a sweeping motion towards the depth of he canvas. In his pathway it seems are several motifs, which suggest the objects of his desire. Much of the motifs are dropped around the surface of the canvas as mere colour patches but these are hints of the full intentions of the artist. And Osaghae’s predilection for incandescent, celebratory colour and poetic engagement of space is well enunciated here. Plus, of course, his near trademark engagement of the viewer in a game of participatory dialogue with the painting. Of course, Osaghae’s sometimes figural representation through that patch of shadowy paints is susceptible to misinterpretation, which is why the artist must at all times be on guard that dematerialization thus not suggest a tardiness in handling of the brush to accomplish artistic objective. Even at that however, the symmetry between his colours and his object are often, in fact always, so technically accomplished that the competence in all the vital departments of painting are undoubtful.
Unlike Osaghae, Ogbemi lingers on the canvas with his brush; he tills the surface like a farmer desirous of cultivating all the possibilities; he enrobes the entire plain in beautiful apparels of colour. There is no space that is left unoccupied. He abhors plain surfaces and thus would always engage it in a dialogue that ends up yielding a flurry of motifs even after the main artistic intention has been articulated by the central images in the picture. There is the robust pointillist predilection in Ogbemi’s brush motion but rather than appear as mere aesthetic choices the geometric colour patches serve as the artist’s own poetry in motion. They help to background his usually naturalist images; they entertain the senses in their romantic frills; and at the same time function as inseparable part of the entire painting. Yet, if the patches are eliminated, Ogbemi’s competent drawing will still radiate, especially his well-nurtured brush movements. An Illusion of a Booming Economy is deeply reflective of the sensitivity of the artist to his environment, does not throw the viewer into a fit of agitation as the theme ought to have done, but in its subtlety impinges on the subconscious the artist’s suppressed contemplation of the failure of policy that has kept the citizens at the draconian mercy of market forces. Contrast this to A Shop Keeper’s Delight, where the artist wins soul with his propensity for detailing, the tension of the An Illusion… comes out clearly.
Ogbemi’s painterly virtue, is perhaps the fact that he is wide in artistic taste; he combines for instance naturalism with surrealism just as his works are impressionistic and expressionistic at the same time; even as he uses lines to break the flat surface and create design patterns that are somewhat rebellious of the usual three-dimensional painting module. However, Investigation, a rather simple linear work shows Ogbemi’s fullness as a painter. He adores lines especially when deploy into poetic motion; that is what he achieved in his drawing of the mound of papers that overwhelm a lone figure. The laborious task of the investigator is shown through composition, drawing empathy of the viewer but the artist also subtly sermonises about dignity in labour. Without a title, The Truth Lies Within would appear like a part two of Investigation, but a keener engagement of the work further endears the artist as a painter from the deep of the soul. He is a romantic with colour and lines. Same feeling can be gleaned from Common Goal, where he shares this ubiquitous three-some figure with Osaghae. The task is hard, but the point of emphasis is on the synergy of colour and design, where form and technique symmetrically help to project the calm, pure artistic temperament of the painter.
Art to Ogbe is a mirror of truth; as he says in the statement to an earlier show: ‘Art is the mirror with which I view life. My experience in life and art share great similarities that make it difficult to separate both. In life, every new day creates a challenge, though my experiences of yesterday and hope for tomorrow, mould me to make better today. The same goes for art, only this time, life provides the fuel with which my artistic vehicle is driven. Good or bad as the road may be, the journey has always been fun to evaluate, because the results leave me with endless possibilities to explore in life’.
Remarkably, his work does enough justice to his self-conviction not just in terms of his touchy themes as in Self-Evaluation and Marginal Meal, but also in the texture and tenor of his composition as in Work Revival (could read Ethics) one and two where the artist seemingly descended on the canvas plain and took over its whole soul with his furious line movements yet keeping the viewer mentally thrilled with his gradient colour scheming.
With Osaghae and Ogbe, art is a self-conviction exhumed from the depth of the individual’s inner being but expressed in a language that is also strictly personal and unencumbered by the expectation of an extraneous party. Art is a beauty expressed from within. That is where its sincerity and integrity must be protected through honesty of vision and pureness of intentions.
o Prepared as an Intro to the exhibition, FAITHFUL MIRROR but it never made it….
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