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By Olu Amoda. Critique from the catalogue of the exhibition, Iwa, Lagos 2011

Since the last time I contributed to Gbenga Orimoloye’s first solo exhibition “Vivid Impressions”, in 1992 much water has passed under the bridge, especially in Lagos State of Nigeria. But asking me again to write a foreword to his July 2011 show titled “Iwa”, a collection of works produced in his studio in Essex UK, gives me a feeling of lost and found, a certain heart-warming reconnection with an artist whose work I so much admire and an artist with whom I have had an endearing relationship dating back to our days together in the midnineties at Yaba College of Technology.

My relationship with Gbenga has been a dynamic ride from student to colleague as faculty in the department of fine art, school of art design and print, Yaba College of Technology and now, as a friend. Indeed, the only thing that has not changed in our relationship is the close tie that has kept us going even when distance has proved difficult for us to see face to face.

Gbenga Orimoloye, like most Nigerians in Diaspora, spent his idle time online reading and following the happenings in his native country Nigeria. I can say that for certain because I know it for a fact that most Nigerians of his intellectual pedigree, including this writer, also spend their time online following events around the world despite the high cost and epileptic nature of internet and of course what with the incessant power outage. Mounting one of these monitoring gadgets via the internet in Essex, Gbenga was able to track me down in Lagos and was excited to ask me to do what I did for his first solo exhibition when he just graduated from the fine art department of Yaba Tech.

I accepted without hesitation. For me it was another opportunity for another visual feast such as I had with his first solo exhibition in Lagos many years back in 1992. But the situation when I wrote the foreword to his first solo exhibition was far different from what it is now. This difference is not just due to calendar but to the fact that boys are now men. With a click of the button and an entry in most keyboards, one can enter into the cyber space and follow things more easily.

Now Gbenga has taken advantage of the new media to present his works making it possible for his audience to follow his progress: physical exhibition, website(s), blog(s), and auctions are the platforms at his disposal. But more importantly, then my foreword was only bearing witness to a young artist trying to find his voice, an effort that drew some of the fiercest criticism by those who were in fact merely indulging in self-gratification. This was evident at faculty meeting where individual student’s effort tabled for discussion with a view to addressing the problems of students’ work ethic/outcome. Those who were taken aback by his boldness in defying traditional approach to painting of a palette that comprises of a careful spread of mid tones of secondary and tertiary colors were upset by his palette knife spread of raw primary colors on a canvas covered in rich grey regardless of the composition. This was exactly what the fauve artists experienced in the early nineteenth century. Gbenga was the wild beast [employing the strategy of fauve artists] of his class, except that his paintings were completely covered and less detailed.

Gbenga a Yoruba from South Western Nigeria draws his inspiration from parties popularly, referred to as “Owanbe” where peers dress in the same fabulous attires that are truncated by very bright head ties of mostly primary colors. It was his attempt in those days to discover his voice, a style not readily accepted as a painting style in the classroom. In the painting section of the fine art department, in the early and up to late nineties, when I used to frequent the painting studio, students had two portfolios, one for the teacher and the other for the individual student which was shown only to outsiders. Funny enough, it was that freshness some of us, outsiders, saw in his works in the painting section where he had subliminal influence on some who were of his fiercest critics but who themselves reflected that influence in their own paintings later. The egg has certainly come before the chick! The artist before the student! That was my position then, stressing that what was expected of teachers was to build confidence in their students through guidance in line with course guideline so as to ensure an outcome that was uniquely the student’s. Teachers are facilitators who through catalystic reaction benefit from symbiotic relationship with their students. Teaching is an exchange and teachers should be bold to acknowledge this because they are facilitators in the classroom or workshop to cause things happen. This scenario stirs up another issue regarding this current body of work, which was made in Essex for Nigerian audience.

There are bound to be some hunhunhuns like what greeted the appointment of Bianca Ojukwu as ambassador on Diaspora matters. The title of this foreword is in consonance with the appointment of Bianca Ojukwu as the Special Assistant in the Presidency on Diaspora matters. These reactions about her appointment were based on the fact that she resides in Nigeria. Some will say the same about Gbenga’s works but my response is the same, that physically, the body may be away from Nigeria but the mind hardly leaves. Besides, Gbenga Orimoloye left these shores as a full adult. So away from Nigeria and from skeptics, his voice can only grow louder and his palette knife application bolder. To enable me do the foreword to this exhibition, Gbenga had to set up a blog to his recent exploits on canvas which are some of the works that will grace the July show.

Gbenga Orimoloye the risk taker who quit teaching for self-employment when most practicing painters were seeking refuge in paid jobs is again doing something that looks like swimming against the tide. He is at a period presumed to be off season in gallery business because the bulk of patrons who are mainly expatriates will be on their summer vacation. Artists in Diaspora who venture to come to Nigeria at this time take the double risks of walking away from the peak of gallery businesses in Europe and America to another presumed off season in Nigeria. With all the months of the peak seasons already booked by local artists, artists in Diaspora are left with no other options but to take their gamble in the off seasons for galleries in Lagos. Apart from the fact of local artists crowding the early part of the season’s calendar, galleries in Lagos generally operate like the python that waits for its bait to wander into its den.

The body of works in this show titled “Iwa” provides a valuable insight into the working of the mind of the average artist/scholar in Diaspora. Distance is no longer a hindrance to articulating issues that are of interest to anybody regardless his or her locus. Gbenga utilized the magic of modern day means of communications and the oral traditional method to collate ideas that are irresistible to his canvas. The lack of details in his figures in most of his subjects becomes the mirror through which his audience views his world. It was thus not surprising when a viewer at one of his exhibitions in Canada identified a parent in one of the women in the “Owanbe” series. The women in his paintings lack any recognizable features of contemporary Nigeria and even his general world of fashion has successfully dismantled such profiles that cast women in categories or classifications based on ethnicity or nationality. As they say, fashion has gone fully ballistic, and now women wear extensions made of hair from horses or synthetic or simulated material from women outside their own cultures. These appropriations are not different from what Gbenga Orimoloye is doing with scanty detailed features of his women, dissolving the mask of complexities arising from their make-up, and making the new character simply assume trends that are still associated with the locality but not exclusively ethnic.

It was because this strategy proved so effective that the woman in Canada whom we referred to earlier was able to make connections with one of the characters in Gbenga’s works during an exhibition there.

“Once at an exhibition in Canada, a woman approached me and made a very persuasive case that a figure in one of my paintings on display at that show, looked very much like her mum. Incidentally, I completely leave out facial details in most of my life compositions, including the one she was talking about. Listening to her, I began to realize that in each viewer exists disposition for detail; hence, interaction between viewer and artwork engages them somewhat, in the creation process.

Needless to say, I was fascinated with how she was able to connect with the painting in a rather personal way. I understood then that she saw her mum’s character in the ‘faceless’ figure in the painting.”

Beneath the mask of “no tribal marks” is a fashion trend which is characterized by vagueness in the body of works “Iwa”, which in Yoruba means “character”.

In this body of works, “Iwa”, Gbenga explores not only the party spirit and the fun-loving nature of the Yorubas he also captures from memory what the landscape of Lagos was before the coming of BRF (Babatunde Raji Fashola) as governor of Lagos State. Most Nigerians in Diaspora are constantly confronted with news of infrastructural changes in Lagos since the coming of BRF. “Iwa” artistically presents a complete diary of socio-economic and socio-cultural changes that have taken place in Lagos since his first solo exhibition, “Vivid Impressions” in 1992. Infact, one only has to look at a painting of the harbor series, a subject that is dear to the hearts of most Lagos state based artists. A juxtaposition of “canoes” (the habour series, oil done in 1991) and “canoes on the creek {(1) (2)} oil (2011) leaves one with the impression that time has infact stood still. This of course is contrary to all the news that go round in Diaspora of tremendous changes in Lagos under Fashola. What Gbenga unintentionally speaks to is thus the deceit involved in the window dressing of infrastructure that has little or no impact on the quality of life of people that BRF governs. The canoes are still driven by paddles, not outboard engines; the fish catch are fewer or not there at all while the mouths are becoming more plentiful. Gbenga again uses the “Elo ni tatase” 2011 – oil on board 123 x 81 cm, “Market composition” 2011 – oil on board 86 x 61 cm and “Onidiri on a rustic doorstep” 2010 – oil on board 123 x 50 cm” to draw our attention to the lack of trade expos in Nigeria where indigenous products can be show-cased to show the level of innovation.

True, the burden of survival rests on the individual’s shoulder not on the program initiated by government; this he again draws to our attention with his painting “Eleru” 2010 – gouache. The only strange thing in this painting is the fact that this street vendor, the “Eleru”, is completely oblivious of the uncertainty that envelopes street merchandising in Lagos. There are the men in olive green shirts and black pants called KAI (Kick Against Indiscipline) whose prime target seems to be street traders and the order is to arrest them, seize their goods and try them in the mobile courts. The convict who cannot pay the fine gets jailed. One questions the moral justification here, the bike riders who never obey traffic lights, hardly use the crash helmet, are involved in series of auto accidents and break all the rules of traffic get away scot free. They are rewarded with a new hospital ward designated solely for accidents related to bikes locally known as “Okada”. The conflict between urban and rural attitudes is brought to the fore by his series, “At home” (1) and (2). In “At home” (2), trees remain part of the dwelling space, people plant trees because their life is directly linked to the forest and the land. In contrast “At home (1) exposes the disregard for environment. Trees are felled and replaced with concrete buildings set on collision course with nature. Steps are erected to access homes not as architectural style but in response to erosion caused as a result of wrong attitudes.

To further emphasize this disregard for environment, Gbenga’s “Girl, mother and umbrella” draws one’s attention to the consequence of the time bomb. The Umbrella symbolizes the weather effect on environment while mother and girl pitch the dialogue on time scale of binary relationship of age. The “beach” is without its characteristic sand; instead, what one sees is dirt and fifth and no life guards, thus making rescuers to suffer the same fate as the swimmers that they are supposed to safe-guard or protect from drowning. It is of course not all gloomy; the government is embarking on several park projects around the state which promote the notion of transformation that is widely touted in the print and electronic media. Each of these projects, the government excitedly brands with the slogan, “Eko o ni baje”, meaning Lagos cannot be left to go bad. This slogan may be in reaction to the street slogan, “Egunje spoil Lagos” meaning, “The downfall of Lagos is caused by corruption”. Those who benefit from “Egunje” throw endless street parties known as “Owanbe, meaning “it is there”. Such people often hold the view that “Egunje Spoils nothing”, that it is only those who slack that lack.

Gbenga in “Iwa” uses his palette knife like Japanese Samurai warrior using a sharp-edged sword to dissect his various subjects. In “Vivid Impressions” exhibition, as a young painter then residing in Lagos, he could not resist the temptation to engage its subject matter which was life and events in Western Nigeria. “Vivid” may not coherently address any theme which compels Professor Dele Jegede to use his capacity as the president of the Society of Nigeria Artists (SNA) the professional body of the contemporary Nigerian artists, to write a letter to the founding father of contemporary Nigerian art intimating him on the state of affairs in the nineties. This letter was published as a foreword to “Vivid Impressions”.

“Dear Chief Aina Onabolu, As the current president of the society of Nigerian Artists, an organization which took roots in the year you graciously excused yourself from Nigeria. I am indeed very proud to inform you that the creative seeds which you planted five decades ago have since grown into formidable artistic oaks… The boy is, in my estimation, above average although I must confess to you that he needs to temper his creative license with some thematic consciousness…”

Jegede’s concerns then have not been fully addressed in “Iwa” but I am sure if the professor were to give same attention to “Iwa” as he did to “Vivid Impressions” he will still caution Gbenga to temper his creative license with some thematic consciousness but he might himself temper his own criticism considering the two different eras in which Gbenga is working. Gbenga like many urban artists does not cut through his subject matter in a logical sequence but rather allows existential uncertainties to prevail in order to take advantage of what results by chance. This certainly was not the case with Chief Aina Onabolu in his days; in his days most of the subject matter are predetermined, that is, before they set palette knife to canvass.

Gbenga in “Iwa” invites us all, like the lady at his Canada show, to identify with his subjects and reflect upon them for a positive change in our lives for posterity. “Iwa” resonates the rustic Lagos life, areas that hardly are reflected upon in government policy. For Lagosians in Diaspora, “Iwa” offers them a glimpse on some areas especially lives that are often neglected and sorrows that are danced away at Owanbes. From the “Landscape in Texture” to the “Street in Ilaje” and beneath “Roofscape” are faces, parties, street trading, sun and rain that will engage all who encounter “Iwa”.

Happy viewing.
Olu Amoda
Lagos, Thursday, March 31, 2011

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