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By Toyin Akinosho

At an Artist Talk in the course of CARTE BLANCHE, his last major solo exhibition in Lagos, I asked Olu Amoda, the notable Nigerian metal sculptor, what his coming to Lagos, Africa’s most dynamic, most  populated city, had done to his 40 year artistic career. The interview took place in Art Twenty One Gallery, in Eko Hotel, located less than 600 metres from the southern Atlantic Ocean.

Excerpts from the engagement: the second of a three part ‘The OLU AMODA Chronicles’…

TOYIN AKINOSHO: So in the very last year of the British colonial administration (1959) you were born in Warri, which is the top commercial city In the western Niger Delta basin, Nigeria’s sole oil producing region. Your father was a goldsmith. How did the environment in such a boisterous city in the 60s shape your imagination? How much is your father being a goldsmith influence your predilection for making abstract sculptures, you know, out of discarded materials?

OLU AMODA: Warri was and still is, a very competitive city. if you are an athlete you had people who compete keenly with you.  If you’re an artist, there are people who will prepare the ground for you to draw. The only contest in which, there’s always a tie, is in art and our template then was the floor, which we drew on. The Ministry of Information used to send people around town to exhibit muted films, which showed only actions. It was always about cowboys, you know, so we were very good at drawing cowboys. The posters for cinemas were done by graphic designers. Of course you use the color chalk on the blackboard, so, when it rains, that’s the end of the posters but they always constantly come back.

These were my early experiences. We were only two growing up at that time, and we always tied and I just admired the boy’s drawing, he admired mine. But I think I’m the only one who ended up as a career artist. He became an armed robber and In fact, he went to rob the court house where his father was the guard. He and his fellow robbers tied up the father and escaped. In the morning, when the police came the father said do not bother investigating, I know one of them. They said what do you mean, you know, one of them? He said my son. So he turned in his son in and the boy was sentenced, I don’t know what happened after that.

Work in progress, these iron pieces are in the process of becoming a large sculptural feature

About my dad being a goldsmith, I didn’t meet him practicing. He had already retired but he had a lot of apprentices who always saw you as the, oh..this is “master pikin[ the boss’s child] master pikin[the boss’s child]” and I was attracted to them from the sound of the anvil. If you knew Warri then, we always found a way to bring music into our life. Prisoners, in prison with hard labour they asked them to go out to either cut grass, and they would have about 20 machetes to 20 prisoners to do the work and the warders were standing there. These prisoners would allocate  three or four machetes for drumming and then they arranged themselves in a way that some of them drummed and others synchronized and they kept the drumming going on. So, music was an integral part of all our lives in the Warri of the 1960s As for the goldsmiths working for my father, they didn’t just, you know, flatten the gold by just banging, there was always a rhythm “kpan kpan kpan”. So, you knew, as a kid you always saw this stuff so you’re attracted. On my way home from school I stopped by there because as master pikin,  they allowed me to play with the anvil. And I just kept making the noise like that. Warri was such a great energy city, even in football. Fela came there to perform once and he never returned to the city because usually if you know Fela, he would say, it’s starting 10 pm, he will not appear on stage until 5am or there about and play for one hour and says he’s leaving. The warri says, “no” we didn’t come to see those people, those ones are supporting bout, we want you. So Fela was compelled to play till about 10am the following day and he says…[chuckle’s], and that’s warri for you.

TOYIN AKINOSHO: Who taught you art? How did you happen?

OLU AMODA –I won’t say I had an art teacher in secondary school, but I did have a very active art instructor, who was also the English teacher, also the mathematics teacher in primary school and art was the only thing I scored 10 over 10 because we were never graded over 100 at that time. Something happened in class and I turned out noisy. As punishment, I was asked to do the portrait of our teacher, Mrs. Ukoli , who happened to live in the same neighbourhood as my family. And so, not only did I get punished in school, I also got punished at home. That’s Warri for you  in the 60s. But after that portrait, you know, it dawned on everybody that I could do art, you know.

I attended  a Catholic school for my secondary studies and we had the first white, you know, missionaries that came, and they didn’t spend up to one semester, one trimester, we were doing the trimester, then they left. From that point on, it was all by yourself, you know so, if you are lucky enough to find an art teacher in your school, then it pushes it. But of course the little you know as an artist growing up stays with you, once you can do that.

And I honestly rejected, I didn’t want to be an artist because when people say” oh you can draw” you want to prove them wrong. So I kept resisting it, but of course, deep inside me, I’m an artist, I couldn’t run away from it. It was only when I tried to get into other programmes and I failed that I told myself ”look, why go around because everybody growing up with you, already started moving up into, you know, University, into the Polytechnic, and because you are resisting being an artist you are going nowhere”. In the event, the only time I’ve decided that I wanted to study art, I got admission. Of course, I got admissions to several places. In those days (1970s) you could apply to several tertiary education places and you’d be interviewed.  I got into Auchi Polytechnic based on that. So to come back to your question, I didn’t have any special relationship with any teacher who mentored me…but what I had the entire, you know, community my Mom in particular who would do anything, “Oh come and see wetin[what] my pikin[Child] do”. For my Dad, you know…well, he…

TOYIN AKINOSHO: By the mid 80s, you had arrived Lagos, which is a more significant city than your semi-rural Warri, and that’s the Nigerian city of dreams, you know. A number of people say that, at the time you came I mean, in the mid to late 80s, there was a certain ferment in the visual art scene in Lagos. Did you feel this ferment or you don’t agree? Do you agree, that there was a visual art boom, between the late 1980s, and say early 1990s and that it determined what is going on today (in the 2020s? Do you agree to that and why do you think so?

OLU AMODA: My coming to Lagos was more to bond with my brother and my introduction to Lagos was a false one, because I was living in University of Lagos. Although, I did have the privilege to serve in UNILAG, in a cultural centre with Abayomi Barber who was the head in the Visual Art unit at the time, Dele Jegede and Susanna Aradeon. As a youth corper, I was made to be the secretary to these three giants. It was like a continuation of studies; I was not really getting involved in the art scene. Although University of Lagos Visual Art Unit was quite busy at that time because every convocation, they held exhibitions. I was also involved in research, you know, assisting Susan Aradeon, who was an architectural historian and was very interested in the buildings in Lagos. So that took me to the National Theatre archive to see the photography from the Nigerian magazine. And the wrong person you will send for such assignment is an artist who admires every negative of every photograph. So, what I was supposed to do in three hours, I spent almost nine hours; while I was looking for them for the research, I was fascinated with the images for myself so there was this conflict there. I also remember that, as the secretary, every meeting that we attended, I ended up writing rubbish, because, well, it was not my strength. So, they  always ended up saying, this is not how to write it. I said well look, that’s not my strength you know.

One thing I remember about my Youth Service in UNILAG  centre for cultural studies was that I was doing a portrait of my grandmother and Abayomi Barber was very, very passionate about his mom too. So, the moment he knew that I was doing a portrait of my mom, he took things in his hands and I had to go through the learning process again.

In effect, my three bosses:  Barber, Jegede (both of whom were fine artists, and painters in particular) and Aradeon, made me to feel that I didn’t learn anything in school because it was a fresh learning for me. Barber had this feeling that those who were formally trained, they didn’t teach them anything. And then he had apprentices working with him (some of whom have become quite distinguished artists in their own right today), and his approach was “look and learn”. So when he was painting, every one of those apprentices stood behind him and looked at what he was doing. I wasn’t inclined   to do that because I am not a conformist and of course against his claim that my four years in art school was useless, I was trying to defend it, because every morning we had a drawing session and then I started excelling in the drawing. Jegede (the same Professor Dele Jegede the Nigerian-American painter, art historian, cartoonist, curator, art critic, art administrator, and teacher). came and saw my drawings and said “Okay, there’s something here”. So I have actually had to fight for recognition there and one of my very close friends is Muri Adejimi, (then an apprentice to Barber), an up coming artist, who, like me, was finding his way in the world. Then again I remember, for you to function effectively in the Barber Studio, you have to learn how to play music. One instrument at least, two, you have to dress like him and for someone coming from Warri, of course, we don’t do that at all. You know, you just fight your way through everything. That helped me to navigate that spirit.

So yes, I came in the Lagos scene, yes, there were a whole lot of buzz. But when you attended an exhibition, you didn’t do so and think that you‘d accomplished anything, you went there to say, “well I have not done anything, I want to learn”. One interesting thing happened at the time: Frank Aig- Imoukhuede , then Director General of the National Council for Arts and Culture, started this project of looking at “art schools”, curating the significant work that the teachers, students,  and accomplices of these schools had done; their history, their evolution, their milestones,  and exhibiting them in large, grand shows. It was an important epoch in the art exhibition scene in Lagos of the 1980s. So we went to see the exhibition of The Ife School; then we went to the exhibition of the Nsukka school. Mr. Imoukuede used to come to the UNILAG Centre for Cultural Studies and he would see me doing welding. He didn’t see any potential in the process. You remember that in his book on contemporary art, he described metal sculptures, as burglary proof, I don’t know if you ever saw that publication, that was illustration he used, you know. So I was working on my peacock, which I started from school, you know, and I started doing a restudy of that on a larger scale which is now in the collection of Yemisi Shyllon.

Imokhuede would visit and say, well “are you not hungry?” And in my sarcastic way, I’ll respond, “you can see my stomach is close to the back”, because he was saying that if you continued doing this stuff, you’re not likely to earn any living but I was passionate about it because, you know, of the way I love metal work. So I kept going on but he also could not resist this attraction. So, he gave me a group show at the National Council but prior to that, I’d seen Obiora Anidi’s exhibition in the same space where he was using aluminum and copper wire, using glue on it. Then I said well, you know, if they can show this guy there, why can’t I show?. So you have to look at your peers out there to say well, if they give him that platform, I will get it too.

Arttwentyone-olu-amoda-alajesheku-2020

This was also a time where some important FOREIGN art spaces will not give you a solo show until you had shown in a respectable, government owned gallery like the NCAC. So it was still a struggle. The Italian Cultural Institute (run by Gabielle Tombini) won’t give you any space, Italian was the place where you go for more validation. So, once you show in Italian, you think, okay? There were several places, you know, but when I had exhibited at the National Council, I think I made that criteria, but before I could apply to Italian, Tombini  had left (and the place simply died with his leaving).

Now you talk of the art boom. I wasn’t really drawn into the success of the boom, you know.  I was not a fan of what you journalists describe as “The Biggest Things”, like “Oh, he has created a niche for himself” you know, what niche, you know, and all that cliche…Some of those buzz words, rather put me off. I was later made a chairman of Society of Nigeria Artits (SNA)Lagos. My fight with Toyin now started. you know, every Sunday Toyin picked on of me, in his column, you know. And so we started and then eventually when we get to meet he realized he was fed with all kinds of rubbish because when I was handing over after my two years as chairman, I said, it was impossible to run their affairs of SNA Lagos State without stepping on toes. My regret that I did not step hard on those toes because in a way they are there to create problem for you, you know. So that’s the point. 

Coming after this: Annexing Atlanta to Lagos.

 

 

 

 

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