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The Nigerian metal sculptor Olu Amoda is a central fixture of Art Twenty-One Gallery, the largest art space in Lagos, the country’s main city, which celebrated its 10th Year Anniversary at the end of 2023.

At an Art Talk I moderated in the course of CARTE BLANCHE, the artist’s last exhibition at the gallery, I had the opportunity of engaging both Caline Chagoury, owner of the space and Olu Amoda himself.

The panelists at the session included the iconic printmaker Bruce Onobrakpeya, who is also the patriarch of all of contemporary Nigerian arts; the art collector Jide Bello and the critic Bisi Arije.

In the first of a three part series I christen the Olu Amoda Chronicles, published here in bookartville.com, I herewith present excerpts of the conversation, especially highlighting Chagoury and Amoda’s  notions of what Art Twenty One Gallery means to the city’s increasingly vibrant art scene and providing snippets of Amoda’s art making process and Caline’s insights as a culture entreprenueur…

The centrepiece in CARTE BLANCHE-‘The material leads and you follow’

Toyin Akinosho: In the last 15 years, there has been a very vigorous debate about visual art not being allowed to breathe properly in Lagos art spaces. There has been a charged conversation about people setting up galleries in, you know, one wing of a duplex and cramping art pieces together such that people who really wanted to express themselves in large visuals, couldn’t. And then, you showed up and you’ve delivered on mitigating those challenges. But you’ve only shown Olu and a few artists…I mean, you’ve exhibited Olu Amoda more recurringly than any other artist. in fact, this place has turned out to be an Olu Amoda gallery, why?

Caline Chagoury: Well, um…I opened the space with someone like Olu Amoda in mind because when I moved back, I noticed that exhibitions were lasting a week, sometimes three days. I spoke to artists and they had to rent the spaces they used and they had to take care of transport and to keep hanging and take care of everything. And I thought that was not the way, it should be for artists. They (the artists) should be taken care of and then I stumbled upon the space (in Eko Hotel) completely by mistake.

You think they had other plants for it, and I claimed it, I said it’s needed for art and it will be a space for the artist and for curators, and it’s really just a space for them. Um…and I noticed immediately when I started working with them (artists), they were almost like, please don’t take advantage of us, and please, how much is rent? That’s how it started for the first year until everybody got their hang of things: no, we will be taking care of you and we’ll handle everything and we will treat your artwork like, it’s your children and all that. And I started with Olu because I love Olu’s work[applause][giggles].

‘’Cécile Fakhoury,  owner of Gallerie Cécile Fakhoury  in Abidjan, is my childhood friend… Yes Cécile was my maid of honour. It’s great that we get to do this to promote African art, to promote more than African arts. I opened, the Art Twenty One for the artists and for Lagos. My goal is not to go to Paris, or New York. My goal is for all of them to come here. Honestly, I grew up here and I’m in love with the city’’

Much earlier, before I started the gallery, Olu’s  was the first artwork I bought for myself and I asked a friend to find a way to introduce me to Olu and it was at Bogobiri (a hang out for the art house crowd) and he said, Olu’s here. And I jumped on Olu. And I said, I have a space, I have to show it to you and I’m only opening it if you accept to open it with me. So if you can call it the Olu gallery, I don’t mind.

CARTE BLANCHE: Some are circular, others are standing guards

But yeah, it’s just someone like Olu needs space to express himself and it’s always worth it. This is exhibition number four in almost nine years but also Prof (Bruce Onobrakpeya) said that it took him a long time to show here. He might not remember that every time I bumped into him, I’d be like “hi, the space is yours. whenever you want it, red carpet” it’s completely up to you because there are certain artists that deserve this. So, I would literally have moved my entire programme for Prof (Onobrakpeya). So, I was very, very honoured to host him last year and for a long period of time, which means a lot more people. And Kenny (Ekundayo), thank you for making sure it was gonna happen here. Um, so yeah, we have to plan ahead. It’s a big space.

We plan far ahead [you can ask the artists] we plan. For this exhibition, Olu booked this like two years ago. We planned this exhibition, two years ago. We plan in advance because of the size of the space. So don’t say, I say no to other artists. It’s a time issue as well. So, but Olu Amoda gallery I don’t mind[laughs].

Olu Amoda: I just want to attest to what she said, in the sense that it’s not made up, you know, we’ve had several exhibitions before, and prior to this because Toyin talked about scale. I remember when I graduated from Auchi (Polytechnic), the idea of sculpture was scale, for us. And I came to Lagos with that vision in mind and each time you go to that your so-called one wing duplex or one-bedroom galleries, they never show your work in the context in which it was conceived. And this is the only place where you say you want your work to be on the wall, the work Is on the wall. In those early outings, I was very notorious for pulling my work out of exhibition. I never get involved installations because I think, it’s when you say you’re a curator, you are a manager, then you should play your own part. Of course, the technical aspect, we always learn that support; this piece, for example, was created without us designing the hook that would support it, so you’ll hand over all those things to them.

Caline Chagoury gave me the opportunity to say, well if I want to go big, go big, if you want to go small. And of course, if you are living in the same city, as the gallery, then you’re not involved in the cost of freighting, only involved in human capital who will help to lift the work you know. So we are all still trying to build a pyramid in this place. You know we still have to do things by hand and carry things and that is because Lagos offers it, the only thing about it is that, you spend longer time to move from one part to the other, but you’re going to get there.

Caline Chagoury, right, with Yinka Sonibare

I think after I exhibited the body of work involving the one she (Chaline) owns, I asked the gallery or the art people who sold it: “May I know who bought this work, for my record?”. They thought, okay. You want to go behind and start doing business, perhaps. They refused to let me know, so I just said: well, okay. the work is in one collection. Then one evening I was in Bogobiri, just drinking palm wine and then one lady came,  and said: “I bought that work”[laughs]

Since then we’ve been close, so that’s it. I just wanted to give credence to her story, It was not made up, she’s as pure as she said, and this is the only space that offers you exhibition time that runs for one year, six months, you know.

”The circle will continue, don’t get tired of it. You know, I cannot say this is going to be the end, because I’m not the one directing.”

I did my last show here straight for one year and I don’t know how anybody else there would do that. It’s not a museum but it has  character, you know, the timing because as hotel people come in and stay three nights and then leave, you know, some people are lucky, in fact I met an old friend who came to the hotel for something else and just stumbled into the gallery, that’s how we reconnected. If you don’t have exhibitions that run for, at least a month or two months, it makes little sense of your three years of producing the pieces. Some people say well I’m traveling I want to come back, but by the time they come back, the exhibition is over. So, the whole lot of disservice and I think we have to encourage one another to say, well, look, three years of planning deserve at least three months of showing. If you want to use the dog years or say one month is three years, okay, It deserves three months for that. But three days. Five days for an exhibition, for anything you’ve done. You know, because if we look at the trauma which you go through in trying to create some pieces, its not worth having the show for five days at all even if it’s one room bedroom, you should not do that to anybody.

Bruce Onobrakpeya-‘I learn from my students’

Toyin Akinosho – Olu, I want us to explore this idea of you creating art inside of a circle. Why the circle? when we first saw you doing the circle thing, those of us who see visual art from the surface of things, chorused: “all these pieces are looking alike”. And then you asked us to look closer and we found out the range of experimentation was wide. The sunflower theme, for example has several colour tone variations. You call the circle experiment CEQUEL. What stage are you now in this Cequel experience?

 Olu Amoda –It’s still a continuous exploration. Well, to the person who is encountering them you probably would think that, it’s a decision that the artist made. But no, I try very hard to centre this conversation on the process of making art. If you look at the process of making art, there are two ways, you know, for sculptures there is the subtractive method, which means you take a block of wood and you carve and go inside and then you have the additive method which is, that you accumulate things. And because one lives in an era where there’s a lot of waste. And because of the strategies that I also try to put in my consciousness when I’m creating, I have to deal with accumulation of things, you know. So when you see that you take the techniques of reproduction which is through casting and you create a mold so you can make maybe copies -Baba Bruce can speak about copies, but what I’m doing here is to look at how one objects connects the other so you can see continuity and so erm..because there’s a constant and conscious, dialogue with the materials and stuff happens. Then the artist would humble himself enough to allow the material lead and then he follows.

In effect, If your vocation, or part of your habit is to climb a particular mountain now and again, you invariably become an expert on climbing that mountain such that, should there be any accident or anything on that hill, people are going to come and consult you. Now, if you climb several mountains, you are going to be the last person that they’re going to consult. So, but what you gain, in climbing several mountains, then they say you’re versatile. So sometimes people, you know, I’m not saying this with disrespect, are allergic to associate, what is seen or something that reminds them as a repetition but as a matter of fact, it’s not. In my own case, it’s still ongoing, I cannot speak as if this is the end of it, but I know that each time you do any of this stuff, it opens you to different possibilities.

And if you have a cache of material, then you have to exhaust it. I work with two assistants, one of whom, ordinarily, I would have loved to share the spotlight with; he has speech impediment but his concentration is very high.. So, one of the things I cast out of my consciousness is that there are no errors, it’s not a commissioned work, it’s an exploration, sometimes, like baba Bruce will to say “you go into the bush, you know, you concentrate on the leaves that are moving and you miss sighting the elephant that is passing by” you know. So it’s a constant rush for time, time to accumulate things as much as possible. But erm…that’s what I could say, In terms of this work, you know, the other aspect of scale, which you mentioned is that again, if you have the space you know then it allows you to explore. And so, the circle will continue, don’t get tired of it. I cannot say this is going to be the end, because I’m not the one directing, it is the object, that is there. I don’t know what will come out of it but certainly. We are doing the thing on concave now, we’re reversing the converse, we now even look at how we dissect it, to see. And then there was a period also, I started looking at the forgotten corners in homes because people tend to look at the corners of the home as if it does not invite art. So, I will explore that. And the key element in this is chance. You’ll find that after knowing everything about techniques and process, the key element in creation that keeps you going is chance. Because what happens is that every now and then things will come. How prepared are you, to use chance as a strategy for art? That’s where I am now. And so, you know, I don’t know when it’s going to end. 

‘Sango will get you’-Amoda creates stories with single sculptural portraits

Toyin Akinosho: I’m going to come to Caline. There’s a gallery that has a name that rhymes with your surname. They have several branches, as it were. So, are we going to soon have Art Twenty One, number two? It seems like artists are working more on scale nowadays. They want spaces and it doesn’t look like they are getting it. The annual ARTX has to go to Federal Palace, you know. That’s how few the spaces in Lagos are. So are we looking forward to some other, you know, gallery of yours as number two, or number three, that provide this kind of spaces. Are you expanding?

Caline Chagoury Yes I know the gallery you’re talking about. Yes, Fakhoury that rhymes with Chagoury. The gallery is named Galerie Cécile Fakhoury. It opened in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in September 2012 (and now has branches in Dakar and Paris). The owner is my childhood friend.. Yes Cécile was my maid of honour. It’s great that we get to do this to promote African art, to promote more than African arts. To promote the cities we lived in and we loved. I opened, the Art Twenty One for the artists and for Lagos. So, my goal is not to go to Paris, or to go to New York. My goal is for all of them to come here. Honestly, I grew up here and I’m in love with the city and I want everybody to fall in love with the city. Um,..my plan is not to open a second one yet, but you never know. I know it’s needed, you know, so you never know. But if there’s another branch it’s gonna stay Nigeria. My goal is to develop here. And for people to come.

”When I graduated from Auchi (Polyechnic), the idea of sculpture was scale, for us. And I came to Lagos with that vision in mind and each time you go to that your so-called one wing duplex or one-bedroom galleries, they never show your work in the context in which it was conceived”

Toyin Akinosho-Let’s explore Olu more and the and let me come to Uncle Bruce. Uncle Bruce sir you know your 70 -year career didn’t start with discarded materials but your works are both popular (in the sense that people find them arresting) and highbrow (in the sense that they are intellectually stimulating). Now that you have moved to using discarded materials, using what Olu calls “a lot of waste” in your work, there’s no doubt that you will grab the market. The question is, now that you have descended onto the discarded materials space, should artists like Olu be worried?  Any collector who thinks in terms of one artist doing discarded materials will automatically come to you …. Should Olu be worried sir?

Bruce Onobrakpeya- Thank you Akinosho. You don’t know this but I should say that em..Olu was actually my teacher, he came to the Harmattan workshop and introduced me to welding, metal to metal. At that time, he was welding spoons together. He said that, “if a visitor visits any country at least, he will use the spoon to eat the food that is produced in that country. So he will make pillars and then put spoons there but apart from putting spoons there. he will also put nails as well. And so I started putting nails on the pillars as well and that’s how I reached this point. The other teacher I have again, is another young man, John Adiele who came to the Harmattan workshop and found these plastic materials, which are condemned from cars and started using them. Now, I’m stuck with that material. I am moving away from the nails now, and am now using plastic and other metals to create sculptures. But the message here, is that I continue to learn from my students. I started to learn from my students in St, Gregory’s College. I started to learn from people who are facilitators in the Harmattan workshop. But I want to end this by saying that the formal educational setup in which Olu, as well as people like Professor Layiwola and the rest of them were facilitators or teachers or directors, have been playing tremendous role in the development of art in our dear Nigeria.

 

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