One of Okediji’s recent works
By Moyo Okediji
“Did you meet one Bashorun, a Yabatech teacher, very recently?” Tola Wewe asked me in a Facebook message around 3 am, August 9, 2012. “This Bashorun has a work on display at the BOI exhibition at the London Olympics,” Wewe continued. “It was like a copy of your ‘can’ works.” Wewe was in London for the art exhibition displaying his work and selections from more than two hundred other star artists drawn from all over world. Organised as part of the 2012 Olympics, the exhibition was sponsored and presented by official Chinese organisations.
“Bashorun? I don’t recollect knowing him,” I responded. “What is the BOI exhibition? And what does Bashorun do? Collage on canvas, or woven cans?” I was referring to techniques that I used in the work that I produced in the rainy season of 2012.
Before he responded, I googled BOI. What came up was “Bank of Industry.” What I saw there was a number of Nigerian artists listed as participating in an exhibition in London till August 12. A Raqib Bashorun was one of them. “Does the Bashorun guy do collage cans on canvas, or can weaving?” I asked.
“They are woven like you do,” Wewe responded, “and some of the strands are left dangling on the woven strips like you also do. Bashorun glues the whole mat on board. I am sure he must have seen the one you made in Austin.”
This was exciting stuff. I instantly sent him my telephone number in Austin, and he called me from London. He was breathless. There had to be something seriously wrong. Wewe is the least excitable fellow—unless when talking about art, and his eyes pop as he theorises.
When he called, sometime around 3 am here in Austin, I was wide-awake, working on a large piece of canvas on which I arranged a collage of aluminium cans. It felt exciting to imagine the infinite possibilities derivable from the can material, as I worked. I hesitated to take the call because of the gratification I was deriving from the piece. But I had to because I needed to follow up on the exciting news from Wewe.
“What is it?” I growled. “At this ungodly hour?”
“I know you’re not asleep!” he shot back. “You won’t believe what I saw today at the Olympic exhibition of Nigerian art in London.”
“Do you know a guy called Raqib Bashorun?” Tola asked.
“No, I don’t,” I answered. “I just googled up his name.”
“Well, he showed a work that looks like exactly a copy of yours. Has he seen your work before?” Wewe asked.
“I wouldn’t know.”
I was not expecting this sort of call from Wewe. I assumed he would call much later after returning to Nigeria.
“I was at a separate venue from the BOI exhibition in which Bashorun showed,” Wewe explained on the phone, “but I was invited to the BOI exhibition too. I went to see the show. Well, this similarity between the works by both of you is by far more than a coincidence. His work is too similar to yours. This resemblance couldn’t possibly be a coincidence. He must have seen your work before somewhere.”
I could not imagine how. My work with the can was placed on an internet site in 2008. Wewe knows the history of my work with the can, both as a form of collage, and as a woven fabric, using the indigenous techniques. And this year, I did the entire body of the work with the can right before his eyes, in his house and studio.
We worked side by side throughout the heavy rains and sporadic floods of 2012. Wewe also witnessed the specific direction of my production, and served as the first and fiercest critic of the technical choices that I made, every step of the way. Ultimately, he facilitated the exhibition of my body of work from the project at the Watersworth Art gallery, which he assisted in founding, with Chichi Orji as the director.
The opening day of the exhibition was fabulous. A piano performance by Duro Kujenyo, with a solo conga drum accompaniment, serenaded the air throughout the event. Prince Yemisi Shyllon was the guest of honour and Peju Alatise, the guest speaker. They both spoke highly of the innovative energy radiated in the gallery full of work produced with cans as the medium of expression.
For the internet, I presented a selection of work on Facebook pages, and the reception was mostly encouraging. Visitors who were present at the Watersworth Gallery made a wide variety of positive remarks about the application of imagination on popular culture materials and techniques. We were quite pleased with the results.
With those lingering impression, Wewe departed to the London Olympics on July 31. I left for Austin a couple of days later, happy that the purposes of our exhibition were mostly fulfilled. Wewe was therefore surprised and shocked to see Mr. Bashorun’s work in London. From the beginning, all the way to the point of arranging the work on the walls of Watersworth Gallery, Wewe was involved in my project, and witnessed the organic growth that the work has experienced, from concept to execution. We both felt it was best to simply not raise an issue.
I decided to ignore the entire matter, and continued with my work. But on August 14, my daughter, Olatoun Alaake Okediji sent me an email. “And lest I forget,” wrote my darling daughter Alaake, “Raqib Bashorun came to the gallery yesterday and started ranting. He said a lot of things about you stealing his style—the can works. He claimed you must have seen the works on his Facebook page, blah, blah, blah. He was very shocked I guess, to see the cans on a very large scale.”
Instanty, I responded with, “http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~crlab/2008_09_faculty/okediji.html. Honey, check out this link. It is a link to the Creative Art Laboratory’s 2008 fall exhibition of the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin. The exhibition shows me in 2008 using the can. I first exhibited the use of the can in 2008 at a documented faculty show. I began working on the can in 2007 but exhibited it first in 2008.
“Splendid!” wrote my daughter, “because he claimed he started 2010.”
Then I wondered, could this mysterious Mr. Bashorun be a Facebook friend? I checked, and it turned out to be true. I flashed Mr. Bashorun a long letter on Facebook (a medium that submits itself to easy application of passion), beginning with,
“I understand that you went to the Watersworth Gallery yesterday and created a scene. You accused me of stealing your idea because you saw the work in which I used the can as the medium of expression. And you said I must have seen your use of the can on your Facebook….. Please check out the link to verify the date of the exhibition in which my work was shown…in a documented website by the Creative Research Laboratory, University of Texas, Austin, Texas, USA.”
Then, afterwards, it hit me: this matter was degenerating into a mud slug. But so far I have not heard directly from Mr. Bashorun. Neither have I seen the work in contention. But from Tola Wewe and my daughter (two people in whom I solidly repose confidence), I gather that the works look similar; and that Mr. Bashorun is upset about it, and is publicly accusing me of stealing the can idea from him.
But would I be drawn this year into a controversy over the origin of can art in Nigeria? I have not yet resolved the matter of the origin of the ONA art group, which I raised during the raining season of 2011.
I may move in the other direction instead, and advocate for the theory of simultaneous and multi-generic origins for the can medium. I know for sure that Alozie Chibuike Onyirioha also uses cans for his impressive sculptural work. Alozie thinks the entire idea of finding the first can user is silly and unproductive.
This moment presents the opportunity to come together to form a group, Can Art Network (CAN). Members may hold national, continental, and group exhibitions, or conduct technical and aesthetic workshops, to promote the use of the colourful medium as an art material. A somewhat decent school of can artists doing different experiments is gradually emerging. The pioneers are fiercely shaping its growth, with the inevitable challenges associated with trailblazing. Yet, the question may still linger at the back of researchers’ minds: as we compare and contrast Bashorun’s and Okediji’s can works, does the factor of first author matter? Some will answer yes, just to throw a cuff.
• Professor Okediji writes from the University of Texas in Austin, Texas (USA)