Friday, April 8, 2011

Ben Osawe: Enigma of Modern Nigerian Art

by Mr. Sammy O. Olagbaju 2001

Sam Olagbaju is a pioneer indigenous collector of Contemporary Nigerian Art. He started collecting in the summer of 1967. His collection in terms of breadth and quality of pieces collected in the post independence years of 60's, 70's and 80's, is unrivaled in Nigerian art.

"While I was a student at Trinity University of Dublin, I got to know a carefully guarded secret. I had gone to visit a friend in College in rooms that he shared with he another student. Together, they had been able to borrow from the College Art Lending Library, enough art works to brighten their room and make them really different and distinguished. The draw for particular paintings was done once a year, but I was determined to participate in the next opportunity. This was a picture lending library and my art acquisition instincts had been awakened, regardless of the fact that the library only had only reproductions.

I first set sight on Ben Osawe in the early part of 1966. We lived in the same close in the Suru-Lere part of Lagos and we soon got talking, first about his art, which was very visible at the back of his studio where he had all sorts of uncompleted works scattered around the place. Over the years, I soon found an object of fascination. I remember one day, walking over to Ben’s corner of the close, determined to urge him to work on a wooden sculpture, which I thought would look really magnificent when completed. I got it in the end and still have it to this day, a proud possession.
Ben took a strange interest in what I did for a living, which was stock broking, at that time, a rather esoteric profession. Ben was always asking what he will get in return, if he gave me say 500 pounds to invest. He also wanted to know where I would invest his money. I drew up an investment schedule for him one day with bits and pieces from Nkalagu Cement, Dunlop, daily Times and Nigerian Tobacco Company shares. These were the darlings of the stock exchange in those days and an investment portfolio will be incomplete without them.
I cannot quite remember if Ben actually bought and sold shares. This is no time to ask as Ben is quite likely to ask me to invest what is due to him from me and quadruples same instantly, if only to confirm my faith in the stock market.
I was always struck by the fact that Ben worked with his assistants relentlessly on his big works and small mainly wooden pieces, if my memory serves me right. It was fascinating to see him carving away, now chiselling, then running his hands over the work and finally giving up to have a beer with me.

In the sixties and seventies in Lagos, the art life rotated around the Goethe institute, then on broad street , on e of the best kept buildings at time, with regular exhibitions of works by Nigerian artists. It was at the Goethe that Twins Seven Seven, Jimoh Buraimoh and I think Muraino Oyelami had their first exhibition. I had to translate to English Twins Seven Seven Peroration about the importance and relevance of the Oshogbo artistic endeavours to Yoruba Culture.

But Ben is of another mould, trained in the western art traditions and idioms of the first order – just keep the beer cold and flowing for good results. We agreed about the little I knew about art, and I always had to remember that art was for Ben, his life and pleasure not merely a subject of conjecture or speculation. He knew what he was about and craved the opportunity to show his exceptional talents, his regards for tradition and his insights into the human condition. This last virtue has enriched his works and makes them to stand out.
The instability which our country has experienced in the last 35 years, has deprived us all of much of that a wonderful sculptor such as Ben will have given us
Most of the opportunities for commissioning memorable public works of art has been missed there are hardly any city in Nigeria that can boast of a wonderful to behold sculptures. Ben is still alive, thank God and has continued to dazzle us with is fascinating beautiful works. Give me the right today, and I will ask Ben to devote 10 years to creating monuments in our towns. Beautiful pieces to grace this glass and motar structures a in our cities, and incomplete without the art of Ben Osawe. It will be those sculptural monuments that we are going to steady our gaze, before we enter those crowded office blocks.

It is easy as a collector to be a smug. After all, I have several of Ben’s works and all of them, absolutely beautiful pieces, in my judgement! I have in fact recently been collecting some of Ben’s drawings and sketches – those he did between 1961 and 1964, all of them showing what an eye for detail he had. I am sure Ben will not mind me saying so, his sketches were like preparation for the sculptures he had in mind!

I don’t feel like a smug, I feel discontented that such a creative artist is amongst us and we have not paid him as much attention as he deserves. We did not as much as honour those illustrious artists that lived and passed on as eminent Nigerians Our memories are always short and our artistic heroes hard to find. Soon we will have to queue at the galleries in London, Paris Amsterdam, New York and Darwin to see works bequeathed to us by Ben Osawe.
To his credit Ben has trained many artists and they all adore him and thank their lucky stars for the chance to watch him work and to, learn from him. I am given a chance to see only some of Ben’s output. He does me the honour of letting me admire his past and present creations. I am for ever grateful to him for his never ending understanding and courtesy."