As Mavua Jonathan Lessor braces for his next landmark solo outing in October, Okechukwu Uwaezuoke revisits his progress so far from modest beginnings
Exhibitions mark the milestones of Mavua Jonathan Lessor’s thriving artistic career. “Every exhibition marks the beginning of greater things to come,” he once said in an interview. “So, my vision for my studio practice is great...No matter what I do [in future], I see myself practising one way or the other.”
Art, indeed, has been good to the amiable 1986 Auchi Polytechnic graduate. Who would have thought that he would, from his modest beginnings, end up as one of Lagos Exhibition Circuit’s frontrunners! Then, there is the fact that the self-effacing artist, whose career as a full-time studio artist started in 1993, was already mentoring a handful of younger colleagues.
This was sometime in August, 2008. His next solo exhibition, which eventually held from October 11 to 22 at Didi Museum in the upscale Victoria Island neighbourhood of Lagos, was looming. By then, he had also relocated from a relatively modest three-bedroom flat in the Ogun State community of Ota to his recently completed sprawling mansion in the same area.
True: that Didi Museum exhibition, titled The Stages of Time, was only the fifth in the series of solo exhibitions he had held so far. But it was a bold first step in continuing a biennial outing, which he had flagged off in 2006 with Art on the Rooftops held at the Shell Towers in September 2006.
Some of the thirty-something works he featured at that 2008 solo show, he said, were discovered in a dusty old folio bag in his studio. Among these were works dating as far back as 1994 and produced relatively recently in 2003 and 2005. The artist was particularly struck by the strength of these works as well as by their “freshness and relevance”.
Stages of Time, thus, not only offered him a unique opportunity to bring to the public’s attention these recently-discovered acrylic on paper works but also unveiled another side of him to his new collectors. In the artist’s own words, they revealed “an insight into my emotions, inspiration and experiments over a period of time spanning about a decade.”
More experimental works are meanwhile gradually edging themselves into the hotchpotch of the regular Lessor fare, consisting urban rooftops, chaotic Lagos street scenes, urban and rural landscape paintings, colourful northern Nigerian durbar scenes as well as idyllic market scenes.
Egged on by his guiding life-principles, the artist balances his social commentaries and criticisms with his attempt to wring spiritual coherence from out of the gloominess of the present-day happenings. Paintings like “Mr Governor and His Entourage”, “Oil and the Mangrove”, “Okada to the Rescue”, “Population Explosion” and “Bad Governance is Bad News”, among others, may belong to his social commentary works. But he renders them with so much depth hinting at his spiritual insight.
Sometimes, the artist lapses into colourful spiritual musings as evident in the works “Elements in Harmony”, “Corrals”, “Crossroads” and Colour Circus”, among others.
Right back in 1987 – after his NYSC (National Youth Service Corps) year at the Federal Polytechnic of Education, Abeokuta – Lessor had as a freelance artist experimented with metals and other materials for design purposes.
He zeroed into painting, which he had specialised in as a student, when he flagged off his full-time studio practice in 1993. For 14 years – that is from 1993 to 2007 – he exhibited and marketed his works exclusively from the Signature Art Gallery in Lagos, Abuja and London.
By the time he held his first solo exhibition, a Consciousness of Form, at the Signature Art Gallery in December 1998, he was already well known to a large number of predominantly expatriate collectors. Buoyed by his acceptance, he took a shot at another solo outing in the Lagos-based Obi’s Gallery in 2001 which he titled, Colour Amidst Squalor. Tones of Light, another solo show at the Lagos Signature Art Gallery, followed about three years in November 2005.
The biennial shows have besides helping to etch Lessor into the consciousness of the Lagos art community also emboldened him to reach out other beyond the Nigerian borders. Last year – a year after his 2010 solo exhibition, Bonds Across, he held another in Fort Worth, Texas (USA).
That exhibition, titled Glimpses, opened doors of opportunities for the artist. Besides hopes for future artistic collaborations in the US, the artist also became the first Nigerian so far to be listed and published in the annual publication, International Contemporary Artists (Volume iii).
Keen aficionados of his works are looking forward to his next solo exhibition, titled Vitality in Diversity, which holds at the Nike Art Centre along Lekki Expressway from October 20 to 27. The exhibition, which promises to feature 100 works, is a defining moment of his artistic career.