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Ben Osaghae (1962-2017)

It is less than four months since we mourned the death of Sammy Olagbaju, less than two since Rasheed Gbadamosi passed away and now, we are confronted with the death of Ben Osaghae.  Rasheed, I knew him well, but Sammy and Ben were personal friends. In 2012, with the help of Sammy, I published a book: “Nigerian Contemporary Art in Lagos Private Collections”. Just a couple of years ago, Akinyemi Adetunji and I wrote “Ben Osaghae. Visual Chronicles of a society in flux”, a book monograph on Ben.

jess-osaghaeWorking on these books, I spent countless hours with both of them. I enjoyed their company, I learnt from them and they offered me access to their artworks. It was a privilege to have Sammy telling me stories about when, how and where he acquired some artworks. It was also a great fortune to let Ben talk at length, as he usually did when he was at ease, about the why and how on his works. He was a witty person and his conversations were always sprinkled with proverbs, words in pidgin and ordinary expressions. Though, frequently, he tended to be ponderous and philosophical, he could also be poetic and light. Chatting with him was never dull.

osaghae-the-food-leagueOsaghae was probably the most gifted draughtsman Nigeria has had in recent times, but, above all, he was a storyteller. He was the artist-seer and the artist-prophet of his society. Usually, there was a “narrative” in his works, but one that is not at all linear, unequivocal or direct. In his works, there is always an ambiguity of meaning that challenges the viewer to interpret metaphors and discover subtle references. He was not one to belabour his paintings with precise or accurate details in an attempt to get his message across; he merely suggested. Some could read his works as lazy, or even incomplete, but it is this quality that lends itself to multiple interpretations.

img_4991-1Ben Osaghae was, without doubt, one of the most prominent figures of a generation of Nigerian artists born in the years around the country’s independence in 1960. For three intense decades, Osaghae chronicled the adventures and misadventures of his land and people; he, like few of his colleagues and contemporaries, remained attentive to social and cultural developments in his environment. For the abstract expressionists of the middle part of last century, there was the art work and the viewer. Mark Rothko refers to “the consummated experience between picture and onlooker. Nothing should stand between my painting and the viewer.” For Osaghae there was another element: social reality; and the painting was a medium between the onlooker and that reality. Through his works, he communicated; he commented on what was happening around him. He straddled the thin divide between the artist as a creator of self-referential objects and the artist as a communicator.

img_4346He was always on the lookout for societal or personal miseries and joys, with a full awareness of the limitations and weakness of human nature. Osaghae captured them sometimes with the cool detachment of a historian and other times with the fire of a social reformer. I remember well how, when showing me in his studio a painting on NEPA, he exclaimed in his usual forceful manner: “how can somebody continue painting landscapes when we do not have electricity for days?” Osaghae’s works are inextricably linked to the society in which they were produced. They are “political”, not because they propose specific, partisan, solutions to the organization and government of society but because they always refer to the “polis”.

prison-choir-oil-on-canvasben-osaghae2003-aw-0543-aSammy and Ben were a special collector and a special artist. Sammy, genuinely, cared about art and artists. He did not put together a wonderful collection as an investment or as vehicle to proclaim his status and feed his ego. Ben cared about art and he cared about his fellow citizens. Few Nigerian contemporary artists have been so independent from the dictates of the art market as he was. Trying to please the market was not a motivation for him. At times, he was a chronicler, telling us a story; at other times, he was a voyeur. His paintings were, most frequently, an instrument of social critique. He painted with a “photographic perspective.” He did not describe in detail; he merely suggested. There is great empathy in the way he looked at the people represented in his works. He documented their struggles, and offered a social commentary. In his animal series, for example, he satirizes corrupt politicians that use their positions for personal enrichment. His figures are always close to the viewer, like snapshots at close range. He gives great attention to expressions, feelings and dramatic gestures, drawing inspiration from the events of daily life. Frequently, his figures are in movement, and he repeatedly looks at children at play.

img_5803As he matured artistically -especially in his best period, 2000-2010-, his human figures became more and more emotionally charged. In trying to make meaning of the cluster of forms, lines and splashes of colours on the canvas, I was tempted to tilt the painting, flip it on its sides, rotate it or, at the least, cock the head and angle of vision. A recurrent preoccupation with the human condition pervades his works. For years, there were always groups in his paintings. Only later, does the solitary human figure appear.

100_0929In Ben Osaghae’s works, the “psychological distance” between the viewer and the scene is collapsed. The viewer finds himself immersed inside the scene. Osaghae told me many times how he painted from memory. He was able to do this because he was an excellent draughtsman with an uncanny gift for portraying the human figure even in the most contorted positions or from the most unusual angles. After his first, formative years, Ben never painted a landscape, a self-portrait. He did not paint out-doors. He preferred to work in his studio, to sketch some ideas from memory and develop them on the canvas. His works sometimes are humorous, playful and light-hearted, but they are never trivial. Osaghae’s passionate and intense personality does not leave much room for shallow artworks reduced to mere decoration. With every painting he wanted to say something. He wanted to compel the viewer to confront a situation and take a position. There was no room for neutrality. That is why a formal analysis of his paintings is never enough to understand and fully appreciate them.

Ben OSAGHAEIn his works there is no horror vacui ‒ the fear of emptiness ‒ that seems to grip many contemporary Nigerian artists of more “decorative” inclinations. He is not afraid to leave large areas of the canvas covered with a single background colour. For this reason his human figures frequently seem to be “floating” in an indeterminate context, detached from their surroundings. Colour plays a central part in all his works, but drawing is the anchor that keeps them in place. His lines become outline, sign, sketch, contour, text, graffiti or boundary. In his best works, the line remains clear underneath the ragged edges of the colour masses. Because of the flat backgrounds the characters of his paintings are brought to the foreground. He painted with sweeping brushstrokes and great gestural intensity. Undoubtedly, this way of painting helped him transmit the emotional intensity of the subjects.

sam_6243Art historians will need some time to write about Osaghae’s legacy, his place in contemporary Nigerian art, his influence on other artists and his contribution to the Nigeria art discourse. But, undoubtedly, in his three decades of artistic production, he left a mark. No other Nigerian artist was able to portray so vividly the liveliness, complexity and vibrancy of Lagos life. Sometimes this was done just through a small “vignette” with one of two characters; other times it is a whole tableau of the city’s inhabitants. But it was always done with the confidence and self-assurance of a visual chronicler that happened to be an extraordinary draughtsman.

tricycleI visited him with a couple of friends just a few days before Christmas. Though, clearly, he was not perfectly well, he remained the cantankerous and argumentative person I have known since 2004, when I organized in LBS an exhibition titled “Without Borders” with four artists not so well-known as they are today: Ben Osaghae, Kainebi Osahenye, Rom Isichei and Wole Lagunju.

hpim1138Nigeria has lost a good man and an excellent artist. We will miss him. I have lost a friend. I will miss him.

This is the link to the post I wrote in 2010 on Ben. Ben OSAGHAE. The untiring chronicler

Omenka interview

I transcribe the recent interview at Omenka, the arts magazine. It is now available online at http://www.omenkaonline.com/jess-castelotte-on-collecting-nigerian-art/.

JESS CASTELLOTE ON

COLLECTING NIGERIAN ART

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Lagos-based Spanish architect Jess Castellote started out in Nigeria as a project manager as early as 1984. He has since then combined his professional work with an intense involvement in the Nigerian art scene, also organizing significant exhibitions including Without Borders, a group show featuring leading contemporary artists Kainebi Osahenye, Wole Lagunju, Ben Osaghae and Rom Isichei (2004).

Castellote has also maintained a widely accessed blog on contemporary art in Nigeria since 2008, “A View from My Corner”, written two books; Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collection: New Trees in an Old Forest and Oshinowo, as well as published several papers focused on developing the Nigerian art scene. He has also acted as an independent art advisor to several private and corporate bodies. He is presently the Director of the Virtual Museum of Modern Nigerian Art, an online educational resource he initiated at the Pan-African University, Lagos. In this interview with Omenka magazine, he provides more insight on his role as an art collector and critic. 

You are a Spanish-born architect who relocated to Lagos in 1994. Was your coming to Lagos and getting involved in the growing art scene in Lagos by chance or an accident?

In my school and university years in Spain, I was very fortunate to grow in an environment where the humanities were given great attention. My interest in the arts started early and my architectural studies reinforced this interest. Naturally, when I came to Nigeria, I tried to learn about the artistic expressions of the country. Initially, my attention was directed to traditional art forms, but soon I focused on contemporary art. For the past twenty years I have been in regular contact with Nigerian artists, collectors, gallerists and scholars. More recently, I have tried to expand my attention to other areas of the continent.

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Accra. Ghana. August 2016. In the background, artwork by the Ghanaian artist Elolo Bosoka

What prompted your interest in collecting art, and how would you describe the typical Nigerian collector

For years, scholars have been pointing out that art is a social product, a collective enterprise. Artists and their works, are not enough to create and sustain an art world. There is need for a great variety of mediators, interpreters and consumers. Without historians, dealers, curators, collectors and cultural agents, artists would be left in a vacuum and their works would remain in their studios. My interest in the visual arts goes beyond the works of artI try to follow the artists, but also the institutions that introduce them into the art world: the galleries, dealers, auction houses and art fairs that make them visible to the rest of us; whether as spectators or as collectors, in the art world, we are all consumers and beneficiaries of their works. I think it is possible to enjoy thoroughly what the visual arts have to offer, without owning the artworks. I have known collectors who enjoyed the fact of owning art, while I have also come in contact with person who enjoyed artworks regularly without actually owning them. That is one of the reasons why, for years, I have devoted a great deal of time to visiting studios, exhibitions, galleries, art events and collectors. The experience is worthwhile. In any active art world there are many interesting persons from whom to learn. This interaction with people has been in many cases even more rewarding than the experience of the artworks themselves.

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With El Anatsui at AKAA art fair, Paris. November 2016

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Lagos, 2013. With Bruce Onobrakpeya

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 With Sammy Olagbaju and artist Gary Stephens at his studio in Johannesburg, 2014

Your blog, A View From My Corner is a reference point on contemporary art in Nigeria. You have also written several scholarly articles and books on Nigerian artists. How important have these interventions been

Following Howard Becker and other sociologists of art, I see the production and distribution of art as an activity not totally different from other forms of work. Artists can render a service to society through their work. The idea of the artist as a “creative genius”, only responsible to his or her own inspiration, perhaps needs to be balanced by a vision of the artist as a “worker” who, though his or her artistic production, contributes to make a better and more humane society. Art as service is an idea that deserves more attention. I also hope my contribution is a small service to the society. William Blake said He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: general Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer, for Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars.” I like this expression: “minute particulars.” I am not in a position and I do not have the capacity or the ambition to have a big influence on Nigerian art, but I hope my small contribution, my “minute particulars” become useful. A couple of books or a few articles in academic journals are not going to change the course of Nigerian art, but the accumulation of efforts from diverse perspectives can do that.

Alongside Tayo Fagbule, you wrote an incisive report on the Nigerian art market. What major trends can you infer, and how can you compare these to other parts of Africa, and indeed the international market for African art

Working with Tayo on the research and publication of the 2014 and 2015 Nigerian Art Market Report allowed us to learn a lot about the art market, an indispensable component of the art world. Unfortunately, the academic and institutional elements of the Nigerian art world are not as strong as they should ideally be and this situation has created, in my opinion an imbalance that is not healthy for the Nigerian art ecosystemThe “market” (art buyers and art sellers) has a tremendous power in the Nigerian art world. The situation is not the same across Africa. For instance, in Senegal, institutional support for the arts clearly surpasses the influence of the market and collectors. In other African countries, contemporary art production is so closely linked to the production of crafts and decorative objects that local artworlds are barely existent. Fortunately, there is great vitality on the continent and numerous focuses of relevant artistic activity have sprung up in recent years. Early in the year, I was fortunate to see first-hand the Kenyan artworld growing far beyond the production of trite and corny products for the tourist market. My meetings with artists, gallerists and cultural agents helped me experience what was for me, an unexpected dynamic art environment. A couple of months ago, I had a similar experience in Accra. Just a few days ago, I visited the AKAA art fair for contemporary African art in Paris and I could see the rising number of artists from the continent and the diaspora who are already part of global art discourses. Lagos Photo Festival and ArtX are two good examples of the growing internationalization of the Nigerian art scene. Their influence goes beyond Nigeria.

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Please tell us more about your forthcoming projects on developing art in Nigeria. 

Almost thirty years after I finished my studies; I am embarking now on a major project to strengthen my understanding and my competence in this field. Last year, I completed a Masters degree in Art History and I am working already towards a doctorate. Now, when somebody asks me about what I do, I tell them that I used to be an architect and project manager, but I have become a student. And a happy student, for that matter… Having to read, study and articulate ideas in a clear and coherent way, is forcing me to rethink some of my preconceptions and beliefs. As it happens in all fields, the effort of going deeper brings to me the reward of the discovery of new things, new perspectives, practices and theories necessary. I am thoroughly enjoying being a student. I believe documentation and basic information necessary are crucial at this stage in the development of the visual arts in the country. For this reason, a couple of years ago, Yinka Fisher and I started a foundation whose primary focus is the documentation of Nigerian art: the Foundation for Contemporary and Modern Visual Arts (FCMVA). In addition to video documentaries, recently, we have published a large book on the works of Kolade Oshinowo. It is already in the bookshops. I am working now on two other book projects: a Manual for Collectors and a monograph on a well-known, though younger artist. It is clear to me that Nigerian art needs many more people looking at it and promoting, documenting and curating it from different perspectives and for different audiences. Art is a tremendously rich and complex reality that has great things to offer for everybody. I am a very fortunate person, to be part of this growing Nigerian art world. 

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Ben Osaghae

NIGERIA ART MARKET REPORT 2014

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Tayo Fagbule and I have produced for the Foundation for Contemporary and Modern Visual Arts (FCMVA) a Nigeria Art Market Report for the year 2014.
It is available for downloading here or at the website of the Foundation: NAMR 2014

I hope you find it useful.

We are already working on the one for 2015.

Uchay Joel CHIMA

THE EARTH AND THE PEOPLE THAT LIVE IN IT
A few weeks ago Ugoma Adegoke asked me whether I could write a brief introduction for the catalogue of Uchay Joel Chima’s new exhibtion. Uchay is an old friend and an artist I respect, so, I agreed happily.

Blokes, strings on canvas, 42inches by 42inches, 2015Crafts and ordinary objects, no matter how skilfully executed, are rarely able to communicate with the viewer or user. Instead, with good works of art, it is possible to connect. If the viewer looks and listens attentively to them, she can discover what they quietly say. The more complex and richer the work, the greater its capacity to permit different levels of interpretation and allow multiple readings.

Yellow Sisi Dey For Corner, mixed media, 36inches by 36inches, 2013.Uchay Joel Chima’s works on canvas might look simple enough at a first glance. Probably, some viewers will be happy with it and not go beyond a superficial reading of them. Those conversant with Uchay’s experimentation over the last 15 years know that there is in them more than a cursory look will tell.

The Earth and the People that live in it, mixed media, 61inches by 61inches, 2013-2015.

I Thought As Much iii, mixed media, 35inches by 35inches, 2015Uchay Chima continues in this exhibition with his untiring effort to explore the possibilities of materials. This has been a constant in his works since he came out of the Institute of Management and Technology in Enugu in 1997 as a fresh graduate. For years, Uchay has used paper, newsprint, ropes, strings, cloth, charcoal, sand and other ordinary materials to look for ways of conveying meaning through his works. His main concerns move around two axes: issues and materials.

Sound of Abundance ii, mixed media, 36inches by 36inches, 2015Uchay sees his work as a commentary and a vehicle for action on the land and her peoples. As if to prove it, one of the works on display in this exhibition is titled “The Earth and the People that live in it”. This is an apt title for his approach to art creation. Societal and environmental issues pervade and give meaning to his artistic production. These works have a strong formal presence and character, but at the same time, they are rich in embedded narratives.

Leaving The Past Behind, strings on canvas, 44inches by 42inches, 2015In this exhibition Uchay presents works of three main types: the “string” paintings, the mixed media, high-relief works and the “string” line drawings. The first two groups of works are familiar territory for him and have been frequently incorporated in the past in Uchay’s oeuvre. The works of the third group, the large size line drawings using strings and threads, are new.

Sidon Look, mixed media, 36inches by 36inches, 2015  On A Second Thought, mixed media, 36inches by 36inches, 2015 Though in the past he had experimented with small size works –what he calls miniatures- using this medium, it is only with this exhibition that Uchay shows his excellent draughtsmanship and his capacity to create highly expressive works while using such a meagre vehicle as a plain canvas and some yards of string and thread. These works are much lighter in meaning than the other ones but they have a playfulness and freshness that –in their simplicity and economy of means- makes them particularly successful.

Pinging, mixed media, 36inches by 36inches, 2015For a good numbers of years, Uchay has used strings as a metaphor and a medium for expressing connections, links and ties. As he said referring to them: “I have elected to work with materials that I believe are synonymous with the notions of bonding, togetherness, intimacy and entanglement: strings, ropes and knitting wool. In an era where global upheaval; whether natural, economic or social are the issues of the day – in terms of survival, there is a desperate need for people who can and want to make a positive difference to others”.

You Break Down My Walls ii, mixed media, 36inches by 36inches, 2015 You Break Down My Walls i, mixed media, 2015 These are ambitious aims for anybody, let alone for an artist striving to make artworks that embody some meaning and armed only with his creativity, a canvas, some pigments and a few ordinary materials. This is a truly worthwhile endeavour, and one to which Uchay is applying his not few abilities and talents. It is good to have him back, reminding us that we all play our role in caring for “the Earth and the people that live in it”.

Jess Castellote

With Uchay

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Ike Francis OKORONKWO

Nsukka’s influence is unmistakable. The best of those who have passed by that Fine Arts Department show a confidence, a focus and an understanding of art within contemporary discourses rarely seen in graduates from other institutions.
A few days ago I had the chance of expending some time with one of them: Ikechukwu Francis Okoronkwo, or Ike Francis, as he prefers to be called. We have known for a good number of years and, when we meet, we always have a good chat. Though he did his first degree in art at Port-Harcourt (1995), the years of his Masters (2001) at Nsukka had a determining influence on his approach to art making and his understanding of the role and place of the artist in society.

Geekscape

Geekscape

Like many others who had the opportunity of listening to and learning from El Anatsui, Chike Aniakor, Ola Oloidi and the rest at Nsukka, his work has been, for years, centred on issues, materials and society. Like a good number of his contemporaries at Nsukka he interested in the use of waste as material for his artistic experimentation. He is now working on a series of works that have as their focal point the Internet and the relations it generates. For almost a decade, he has been using motherboards, circuits and pieces from discarded computers and other electronic devices, incorporating them into two dimensional “pictorial” compositions or -more recently- using them as building blocks for fully three dimensional pieces.

There is big difference between his recent works and the ones I saw at Dak’Art four years ago. Painting on canvas has gradually disappeared and mixed media has almost completely taken over. But his four-piece work, “universal man” still uses pigments, lines and shapes that work as a pictorial vehicle for his concerns about man and society.

UNIVERSAL MAN 2

Universal man

Since 2008 Ike is a lecturer at the Fine Arts and Design Department of the University of Port-Harcourt. Presently, he teaches three subjects: painting, drawing and mixed media. Being a lecturer and confronting students on a regular bases forces him to vocalize ideas and articulate thoughts. He is, definitely, quite adept at “explaining” his works, even if, at times, they do not fully succeed in embodying concepts.I say that, at times, they do not succeed, but it is remarkable that, often, they do.Ike Francis_Blank Mails

His use of stencilled letters is not as sharp and punchy as in Christopher Wool’s works, but they are able to communicate quite effectively. Few other artists in Nigeria can match him in this approach to art.

Two pieces attracted particularly my attention: “Of Black Mail and Black Boxes”, a work made of three square panels and nine hanging cubes, mostly black with some silvery hues and, especially, his installation titled “Power Tale” made of three polycarbonate boxes containing high relief idealized representations of three cities: New York, Dakar and Lagos.

While the work “Blank mails”, with its references to spam messages and unwanted mails marketing the unmarketable, is a clear and obvious piece, “Of Black Mails and Black Boxes” is a dark one, and not only because of the colour covering the reliefs; the chunks of coal, the barely legible references to fraud emails, the computer circuitry succeed in bringing to mind how technology can also be an instrument for dehumanizing activities. Ike Francis had tried the black charcoal before, but the results had not been so successful. The symbols of letters and numbers –with their rigidity and rationality- have a dominant presence that balances the organic and casual character of the coal, the randomly scattered electronic parts and the other small blocks that fill the piece; and all this, within the constricted confines of small square panels (just 60 x 60 cm). Even without the addition of the hanging cubes, the three panels successfully tell a story.

Of black Mail and Black Boxes

Of black Mail and Black Boxes

Of Black Mail and Black Boxes (I)

Of Black Mail and Black Boxes (I)

I asked Ike to tell me more about his interest on the internet and its impact of the lives of peoples the world over. He referred me to something he had written recently: My work is primarily inspired by the changes spurred by computer centered information technologies. Today, the Internet is a cultural tool that has had great impact in the mobility of our global culture. New breakthroughs in information technology have precipitated an unprecedented chain of events. Among these is the mass participation of people in an emerging global culture as mediated through information technology, primarily the Internet. New technologies have generally affected human expressions, including art. Artists seizing the inexhaustible possibilities available in new media continue to create new works reflecting the attitudinal change and shifting paradigms. The world-wide-web and the information disseminating from it have become common sources of inspiration and central agents of change, resulting in the re-negotiation of our global futures. My work sets out to shed light on the appropriations and re contextualizations of used and discarded information technology materials, as metaphor for the fluxes of our present global culture.

Power Tale

Power Tale

The work on which Ike Francis has invested a greater deal of time and emotional input is his installation “Power Tale”. Three glass cubes containing idealized representations of three cities. Each of them with anonymous, repetitive building blocks made of circuitry and each of them with an emblematic building or monument that identifies them: The Statue of Liberty in New York, the Monument to the African Renaissance in Dakar and the National Theatre in Lagos. The three icons stand out among the amorphous city layouts. They work as markers and they have a clear historical and cultural significance within their locations. This is not just pretty formalism. These works talk to the eye, but above all, they talk to the mind. They interpellate the viewer.

Power Tale (detail - NYC)

Power Tale (detail – NYC)

Ike explains how the Statue of Liberty and the Renaissance monument point upwards, towards the future, while the National Theatre in Lagos, is horizontal, static. The introduction of tiny LED lights adds a new dimension to the work. Those in New York are densely distributed reaching all corners of the box; in Dakar they are more thinly present. In Lagos there are only a few of them and, unlike in the boxes for New York and Dakar, the lights go on and off. This treatment of the problem of unsteady power supply in Lagos might be a little oversimplified, clichéd and literal, but definitely, it works well in this installation as a device to convey meaning without words.

Power Tale (detail - Lagos)

Power Tale (detail – Lagos)

The fact that the works are encased in highly reflective glass boxes multiplies the visual effect and de-materializes the physical components of the piece. In the darkness, the motherboards, circuit panels and electronic junk become something else: skyscrapers, massive building blocks, densely stacked apartment buildings. There is a pervading illusion of perspective and distance. This is a piece that could equally be understood and enjoyed by an untutored child or a detached intellectual. It shows as a toy or a metaphor depending on the onlooker. It admits a multiplicity of readings.

Power Tale (detail - Dakar)

Power Tale (detail – Dakar)

These works will form part of his coming exhibition in Lagos. I am already looking forward to it.

With Ike

With Ike

Raoul Olawale DA SILVA’s world

Seven years ago, I was invited for an exhibition at the National Museum, Onikan by an artist unknown to me at that time: Raoul Olawale da Silva. It was a good thing I decided to “risk” and visit the show. Surely, I was not the only one among the visitors that felt excited in front of Raoul’s works. The exhibition goer in Lagos –and there are a few regulars, out there- is rarely confronted with works of such intensity and character. Without knowing the artist, his background or his artistic trajectory I was immediately struck by the works before my eyes.

Mixed media, 200 x 200 cm, 2012

Mixed media, 200 x 200 cm, 2012

Just two years ago, when I was exploring some contemporary art collections in Lagos, I visited Agatha da Silva –Raoul’s mother- and was able to see in her house a good number of works left behind by Raoul. This time the experience was more intimate, deeper. These works -some of them uncompleted- were challenging me. I could not remain indifferent in front of them. A couple of months ago, thanks to the good efforts of Sandra Obiago and –of course- Agatha da Silva, we were fortunate to have him back in Lagos -the city he left in 1981, when he was just 12 years old- for another exhibition.

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Raoul is a complex and intensely independent artist. His rich personal history is, no doubt, marked by the fact of having a Nigerian father (a Neurosurgeon from a well known Brazilian-Lagosian family) and a Swiss mother. His is a multifaceted creativity finding expression through different media: painting, photography, craftsmanship, music. Perhaps, I should add skateboarding, an activity he considers a true –though ephemeral- form of art. He is passionate about it: “I am street skater for more than 20 years now. Skateboards, boarding is an art and an art form always crossing borders and boundaries, influencing and being influenced, always developing and staying young for the young state of mind. Maybe just like dance or Asian martial arts, it is a most direct and sincere forms of expression.

It is difficult to fit Raoul’s works into a neat, clearly defined artistic pigeon hole, to associate them to a recognizable name or qualifier. But, perhaps this search for “sincere forms of expression” provides the key to access the paintings, drawings and installations in this exhibition. His works appear as an externalization, an “expression” of a many-sided personal world. And in this process of expressing -of bringing out- inner realities, spontaneity plays a central role. This is the way he explains how he starts a new work: “I start from somewhere deep within almost on a subconscious level letting the canvas or working surface to get stained or “randomly” marked, trusting that there is enough material inside me to work with that will come to show an idea or at least a route I can follow…  This process is being repeated over and over till I feel I have something that can evolve into meaning for me. Then I try to transport/transform that aesthetic to a plane where I now sharply observe and act and react to what is going on on the surface and around it. Taking off, scratching off, peeling off paint and then putting on, slapping on, dripping on, brushing on paint till a harmony or dissonance starts to create tension which is a sign that I am on the right path”.

ROdS - September 2012 - Untitled oil on wood A

More than 60 years ago, the critic Harold Rosenberg coined the expression “action painting”. He wrote in his well known essay of 1952, “The American action painters”: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act — rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyse or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event. The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter”. Rosenberg’s expression “an arena in which to paint”, seems particularly apt to refer to most of Raoul da Silva’s works.  

Untitled 130 x 93 cm Mixed media on paper a

In this exhibition Raoul juxtaposes works produced over a span of ten years (2003-2013). This allows the viewer appreciate the continuity and evolution of his oeuvre. Two formal elements call immediately our attention. First, there has been a progressive increase in the size of the works. The use of larger canvases (some of them over 2.00 meters wide) shows a much more self-confident artist, not afraid to face increasingly challenging works. Second, the “painterly” works of ten years ago, with their blurred contours, broken shapes and overlaid colours, have evolved into pieces in which lines and boundaries are more defined and prominent than in earlier works, when gestural brushstrokes had pre-eminence. The organic, fluid, dream-like creatures have given way to more defined shapes taken from the real world. While some of these older works brought to mind references to Osogbo artists (specially, Twins Seven Seven), or to de Kooning and Pollock, the recent ones are more akin to the explorations of Basquiat, Bacon or Ritcher.

ROdSoil on canvas 1,72m x 1,63m - September 2012 - 03 a

In addition, there is a more subtle development: these new works engage the outside world in a much more distinct and direct way than the older ones. For instance, the insertion of four telephone handsets in one of the 2013 works would have been totally out of place in the ones produced ten years earlier. It seems there is a gradual shift from works emerging from an “inner”, self-referential universe to a messier, more real world.

ROdS, oil on canvas 1,68m x 1,97m  - September 2012 - 01 a

But despite the development of his artistic identity, Raoul’s works still grow from inside out. Their strength -and they are undoubtedly, strong- continues coming from within. Perhaps, that is the reason why they are so intensely personal. Like with good music, or with dance, the viewer is not encumbered by the demands of meaning, rationality and context. His works need not to be “understood”, but to be enjoyed, letting them tell each of us a different story.

ROdS oil on canvas 1,85m x 1,85m - September 2012 - 07 A

This is an exhibition to enjoy quietly. Raoul da Silva is allowing us a view of a personal, intimate, suggestive world of great formal beauty. This is a privilege rarely available. I am glad not to have missed the opening. The works are on display till August, 15. I might go to see them again.

ROdS - September 2012 - 02 A

ROdS  oil on canvas 1,86m 1,75m - September 2012 - 04 A

Oil on canvas, 175 x 186 cm, 2012

ROdS oil on canvas 1,95m x 2,90m - September 2012 - 05 a

Raoul & I

His web site is www.rods.ch/home.html

OMENKA Art Magazine

    The Nigerian art world continues gathering strength and growing in depth.

A vibrant art scene needs many actors: artists, private and institutional collectors, scholars, galleries, art schools, art critics, art historians, curators, auction houses, dealers, Museums and art institutions, publishers, art educators, sponsors, tourists, interior designers, investors… One more piece in this complex structure has just been put in place. A new art magazine, called Omenka, is already available on the stands.

SAM_5410Published by Revilo in association with The Ben Enwonwu Foundation, it is described by its editor as a magazine with “focus on contemporary African art, business and lifestyle… Written for the serious collector, Omenka will provide the latest news and insider intelligence on the African art market including auction reports and art transactions. It will investigate key trends and showcase the artists who drive the industry”. The scope of the project is ambitious –perhaps, over ambitious- for a new publication: it aims at covering not only the Nigerian art scene but to look as well at continental art markets and developments. That’s a tall task. On the other hand, making it initially a quarterly publication will facilitate its sustainability.

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Looking at the magazine, the first thing that calls attention is its material quality and great visual appeal. The design, layout and printing are surprisingly good. But the worth of a publication of this type is measured not simply by the glossiness of the paper, the readability of the text, or the sharpness of the images. What differentiates the best from the others is the quality and relevance of the content and the competence and prestige of the contributors. Here, this first issue, also scores high.

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The 75 pages of the magazine are organized around seven sections: Editor’s letter, Antennae (art trends and events), Focus (interviews and profiles), Lifestyle, Feature, Market file (art business: auctions, galleries, art as investment), and Reports (reviews, studio visits). The scope is ambitious. Despite the unmistakable focus on the business side of art, the magazine tries to cover a broad ground. Definitely, this is not an academic art journal with heavy historic-critical articles, but this not a shallow publication with news and gossip about art celebrities either.

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There is an aspect of Omenka that might worry some readers. By including a section on “lifestyle” and giving it prominence throughout the magazine, there is always a risk of presenting art as one more piece in a “luxury lifestyle”. The generous inclusion of luxury brand adverts does not help in assailing this danger. Perhaps, this is the price a financially viable art magazine for the general public has to pay to remain in business, but the peril of the “commoditisation of art” remains there: portraying art as the ultimate “commodity” to posses in an affluent lifestyle.

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Generally, art magazines have one of two main possible focuses: either they are centred on art or they look primarily at the business of art (the art “industry”). Depending on what side readers are, they will be interested on a type of art related magazine or another. A university professor in a department of fine arts will be interested primarily on academic journals and learned peer-review publications. A collector/investor will be more interested on publications that provide in depth information on the art market trends and results. In this respect, Omenka succeeds in having something of interest for a broad spectrum of readers. It is significant that the first issue of the magazine includes, on the one hand, interviews with two serious players in the Nigeria art market, Robert Mbonu, founder of The Art Exchange, a venture set-up to promote art as an alternative asset class and with Giles Peppiat, director of sales for African Contemporary Art at Bonhams. On the other, the magazine includes articles on three artists: Nnenna Okore, Yusuf Grillo and Kelani Abass. In the middle, there are a good number of titbits of useful information.

All in all, Omenka is a valuable and promising contribution to the development and deepening of the Nigerian art world. The challenge is now for the publishers to sustain the initial high level achieved in presentation and content. Taking into account the calibre of those involved in the project, it is not difficult to guess that the next issue, devoted to photography, will maintain the quality of this first one. This, will undoubtedly, benefit the whole art sector in the country and beyond.

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