By Toyin Akinosho
Rom Isichei is competing head-to-head with the late icon Ben Enwonwu and the living legend Bruce Onobrakpeya, for the highest takings, at the ongoing online auction organized by Arthouse Contemporary.
The painter’s Reality Check and Isioma, done in acrylic and oil on canvas, are going for close to the estimated prices of Onobrakpeya’s Sahelian Masquerade, a set of drawings on silk screen, and Enwonwu’s The Leaf, a wooden sculpture which is the auction’s drawing card.
The reserved prices of the 81 works for bidding in this event, the 26th in Arthouse Contemporary’s 13-year history of auctioneering, range from $1,000 to $30,000.
Reality Check (2009) and Isioma (2014) are simple portraits of female figures, done in impasto style, in mostly monochrome. They are going for between $13,000 and $18,000 for Isioma and between $14,000 and $20,000 for Reality Check.
Reality Check is the more contemplative of the two; it’s a close-up facial feature of a pretty lady in a blank stare, hand under her chin, in an expression that suggests a lot of worry.
Isioma is a sit-down female posture; it could easily be construed that the subject simply sat down for a portrait. The careful red monochrome is a nod to 1990s’ Kolade Oshinowo.
Enwonwu’s The Leaf (undated) is going for between $20,000 and $30,000 as is Onobrakpeya’s Sahelian Masquerade (1988). So Isichei’s estimated prices come a distant third to Enwonwu’s and Onabrakpeya’s; but he is a solid Number 3 and, depending on how the auction goes, he has a chance of beating the two masters.
Indeed, Isichei’s works have been consistently in the top 10 price range at Nigerian auctions in the last seven years. He has a good chance to be the top seller at this auction, if only for the fact that, Peju Alatise and Abdoulaiye Konate, two other artists whose works regularly command high prices below Enwonwu’s, are not at the show.
Still, a walk-through of the pieces on view makes it difficult for me not to interrogate why the market has anointed Isichei, a 55-year-old, graduate of both Yaba College of Technology (Nigeria) and Chelsea College of Art and Design (England), who has had a (commercially) successful art practice for at least the last decade.
If I had the opportunity to pick any work at this auction, it would be Duke Asidere’s House Escape (2012), an oil on canvas piece painted in glorious yellow on the foreground, topped up with sky blue colours which create the effect of an idyllic distance; a far-out place where the viewer can pick out the odd canoe and boat.
On ‘land’, sketches of green, blue, and yellow coloured palm trees seem to be in conversation with the yellow environment. This work is clearly a testament on escapism: it fills the viewer’s mind with loads of questions and it’s the kind of refreshing piece you keep coming back to.
Abiodun Olaku’s EXPRESSION (2009) Oil on canvas 72 x 62 cm. (28 1/4 x 24 3/8 in.)
Another work that leaps at you in this online auction is Abiodun Olaku’s Expression (2009), featuring a bunch of shadowy dancing figures, who are all backing the viewer, and focused intensely on some kind of bonfire, which pierces the enveloping darkness. It’s one of Olaku’s series of works with deliberate focus on light and shadow. The artist keeps returning to this seductive, visual narrative.
Of the sculptures on view, two pieces remind me of both Enwonwu’s famous Africa Dances (1980) and his series of paintings of dancers. One is Reuben Ugbine’s Athleticism 5 (2020), a work in wood that clearly pays a lot of respect to Africa Dances. My preference, however is Bunmi Babatunde’s Synergy, wrought in bronze, which evinces, in an abstract sense, a set of dancers in a highly choreographed motion.
The auction is ongoing in Invaluable, an online auction platform and market place with a bidding console that simulates all of the aspects of being at the auction house. “Invaluable bidding is user friendly, safe and secure”, Arthouse contemporary says. “Bidders bid with ease and confidence with tools like language translation, currency conversion, and a real-time message centre.