By Moyo Okediji. Critique from the catalogue of the exhibition, Ona, Lagos 2012.
In July of 2011, the Nike Gallery in Lagos hosted an exhibition of recent painting by Gbenga Orimoloye, a Nigerian artist resident in the United Kingdom. Prior to seeing the display, I learned from gallery officials that the title of the exhibition was, “Iwa.” I did not know Orimoloye at that time, but I went to see the show all the same because the title was sufficiently eloquent to pique my curiosity for two significant reasons. First, the economy of the mono-verbal title insinuated that the artist has probably cultivated the sensibility of an author who wastes no forms, but cuts directly to the core of the content. Second, the linguistic references and axiomatic ramifications informing the title suggest a hybrid vision that grounds its sources in an indigenous African aesthetic idiom. When I saw the paintings, my hunch was confirmed on both grounds. Orimoloye, unlike the legendary Twin Seven-Seven, does not lavish extensive phrases that are as lengthy as a London municipal railroad on his compositions. Neither does he mince words on his canvas. He does not draw his content from the esoteric world of the Oshogbo school, in which artists like Jimoh Buraimoh and Muraina Oyelami excavate images and figures from the mythological realm of fantasy and the open-ended world of unbridled dreams.
To compound his penchant for a formalist aesthetics, Orimoloye, from the onset, asserts his belief that the art of painting is not chained to the vision of an unmitigated dose of reality. His painting relentlessly explores the architecture of “paint.” This implies that his work leaves viewers in no doubt that a painting is in fact an article produced with pigments in such a manner that the medium of fabrication is not masked or faked to trick the eye. His style is unapologetically antithetical to the “trompe-l’oeil” tradition of painting that ruled Western art from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. Neither does Orimoloye work in the life-imitating palette of Abayomi Barber, whose paintings ally with Erhabor Emokpae’s mimetic expressions of painterly copies from verifiable reality.
In other words, Orimoloye does not construe the painting of a person, place, or thing with the subject or model of representation. His work convinces viewers that the painting of a person is not a person, but merely a personal translation that informs reality without copying nature. He truthfully displays the tactile quality of patterned surfaces, in a manner that encourages the audience to interact with the complex process of creativity, within the allowance of simple tools and narrow range of hues available to the painter.
Orimoloye, in his latest work, explores the meanings of the city of Lagos. What becomes fascinating, therefore, is Orimoloye’s ability to reveal a radiant range of truths about the quality and substance of Lagos reality, without enslaving himself to the colors and textures inherent in the mundane manifestation of urban life.
The pursuit and rendering of Lagos realities on Orimoloye’s canvases therefore transcend what lies before the eye of the beholder. There is an extraordinary layer of truth hiding behind the ordinary appearances that interests Orimoloye, a truth that invests Lagos life with meaning outside the material veneers of surface interactions. A major pursuit of his work, therefore, lies in excavating the buried truth behind the curtain of Lagos life, in a world that has become a stage on which characters act different roles and play several parts according to the shifting demands of momentary cues.
When life in Lagos becomes pretentious, especially in an era that is increasingly secular, time loses the authentic essence of its ticking hours, and what remains is a mutual exchange of banal deception. Even when people prefer to dwell on the physical body of matter, within that frame of existence is the substance that forms the core of a Lagos reality that Orimoloye draws upon. Orimoloye’ work convinces the viewer that only the visionary eye of the artist, the prophet, and the seer retains the courage to locate and map the distance between fact and fiction in the exploding city of Lagos.
It is therefore not surprising that Orimoloye has packaged his recent study of Lagos under the title of “Ona.” Meaning the road, “Ona” is a Yoruba bi-syllabic term that is loaded with metaphysical, poetic, and factual condiments. If the world is a journey or a sojourn (as Yoruba people are fond of saying), then life itself is the highway along which people in Lagos must travel. When idiomatically configured as a passage, life in Lagos is paved and illuminated with varying moral and ethical convictions, without which the traveler is lost. In addition to the metaphoric light, the traveler along the way of life needs milestones, traffic directions, good bridges, and clement weather to move safely through the passages of existence. But equally important are the qualities of the road and the pleasures of traveling companions, when voyagers journey through life, in a trip without a beginning, toward an uncertain eternity.
Using Lagos as the point of departure, Orimoloye takes viewers along an allegorical journey with the large vehicle of his artistic and philosophical palettes. The conviction of his painterly argument lies in the ease with which he wields his palette knife to empower viewers to remain inside the emotional world that he maps, while providing them the tools to navigate the landscape within and outside the vistas that unreel as the journey progresses from one milestone to another.
Along the “Ona” that Orimoloye travels, he maintains a commanding control of the artistic vehicle that conveys his audiences as passengers who see through the open windows of his patient vessels. He simultaneously allows the passengers to enjoy the unfolding views with the rational and emotional lenses of their own eyes and minds. The avenues along which he carries his audiences are mostly familiar terrains.
The journeys therefore become potentially boring without the innovative forms and the poetic phrasing with which Orimoloye introduces materials which fellow travelers have seen countless of times. The subjects and objects are so familiar that they run the risk of being jejune. But the commanding presence of Orimoloye’s masterly conviction elevates the prosaic properties to proverbial proportions.
What are these prosaic references that Orimoloye translates into timeless experiences? The subjects are simple, and the titles are accessible to anyone who has visited an African city: “Girl reading,” 2011; “McNeil Road, Yaba,” 2012; Groundnut seller,” 2012; “African women,” 2011; “Figure studies,” 2011 and 2012; and “Market women,” 2012. Sometimes he titles his work in the Yoruba language: “Aje a wa o,” 2012 (May fortune call); Awon meji lori ona, 2012 (Two travelers on the road); “Eti okun,” 2012 (Beach); “Onigele pupa,” 2012 (Woman with vermilion headgear); “Onidiri meta,” 2012 (Three women plaiting hair); “Olororo,” 2012 (Vegetable oil seller.) These are subjects and titles lifted from the mundane lives and urban dwellers of Lagos.
But what elevates these ordinary events and scenes to extraordinary experiences are the colors that Orimoloye combines to render them, the painterly movements of his hands, the buttery application of his palette, and the detailed keenness of his eyes. His work is not silent. There is a musical component that borrows from the voluminous voice of Lagos in Orimoloye’s work. He projects Lagos as a percussive city. But the auditory experience is not merely noisy. It is a persistent voice that highlights the simplicity of the people within the complexity of their Lagos.
The elegance of Lagos women comes through in their portraits, especially in “Onidiri Meta,” where three standing women arrange themselves around a seated figure that allows them to demonstrate their hair-plaiting craft on her head. In “Olororo,” he depicts a seller of vegetable oil as she pours the liquid from one container to another. In these and other paintings, Orimoloye convinces the viewer that he fluently understands the body language that Lagos speaks with somatic eloquence. In other paintings including “McNeil Road, Yaba,” and “Eti Okun,” he displays his familiarity with the minute details of street life in Lagos, where one frequently encounters the fulvous municipal buses that seem to constantly break down (see “Pit stop,” 2011), even as the rhythm of the city keeps its beat in the worst of unpredictable weathers (see “Ona—I, II, and III”).
But nobody has more convincingly enunciated the intrinsic nature of Lagos with fewer colors than Orimoloye. He insists on the unity of a few hues, which he infinitely stretches with tints and shades that are layered with generous endowment on the canvas. Orimoloye’s work theorizes painting as a medium that transcends the optic dimension. He has discovered a style that elevates ordinary life to the rhythm of a painter’s palette in his desire to bring dignity to the humdrum of daily existence, as the highlights the humanity of ordinary people in Lagos.
Moyo Okediji, Ph.D.
Professor of Art and Art History. Director, Center for the Art of Africa and its Diasporas University of Texas at Austin