Out of The Box...

24 Feb 2013

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Pita Ohiwerei

Every painting in Pita Ohiwerei’s forthcoming solo show in Lagos strains to assert its uniqueness. None is a masterpiece, the artist tells Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

No, this is not just about scratchee. Or scrapee. Back in 2001, when his solo exhibition The Return of the Prodigal held at the Nimbus Art Centre in Lagos, Pita Ohiwerei had regaled his interviewer with anecdotes of how he had stumbled upon the techniques. In one of the anecdotes, he was displeased with a particular painting of his. Then, an attempt at defacing it, by scratching up the canvas with his palette-knife, had yielded a contrary result. What he saw afterwards had pleased him. And – voilà! –a new technique was born...

Obviously, the memories of this experience had lingered decades after, sinking its talons deep into his consciousness.  Each painting, he understood, must be allowed to dictate its technique.  And, of course, decide when it should be deemed concluded. “Now, I no longer have a picture of what my paintings should look like,” he explained. “If I started a painting with a particular colour, say red, it could end with another colour, say blue.”

But this surely goes against the school rules’ book. Indeed, while still a student of Auchi Polytechnic he was taught to adhere to certain conventions. Now, years into his studio practice, new rules are asserting themselves. His paintings keep urging him to “allow” them to happen...This, he told his interviewer recently at Sam Ovraiti’s studio in the Ojodu-Berger area of Lagos, was how he came about his forthcoming solo exhibition’s title, Allow.   

“I wish to allow the technique to assert itself,” he added. He pointed at one of the oil on canvas paintings resting on one of the studio walls. “That painting over there, I titled the ‘Seated Woman’. I would previously have considered it an uncompleted work. Now, it is not so.”

To the two already existing techniques, he has added a third. Brushee, he called it. These techniques proclaim what they are all about with or without their common suffixes (ee) – scratch, scrape and brush. “Boredom sets in when you see the same thing every day.”
After a prolonged cross-fertilisation of ideas with kindred artistic comrades at the Curio Studios in the Surulere neighbourhood of Lagos, Ohiwerei had affirmed his presence in the Lagos art scene long enough to be deemed a front-liner.  Even his relocation to the United States since September 15, 1999 has yet to erase the imprints he had left behind in the local scene.

His first exhibition in the US– held two months after at the Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – turned out to be a morale-dampener. After spending $2800 to organise the show, he could only sell an 8X10 black-and-white miniature painting for $300.  “It was very disappointing. I didn’t even have enough money to buy gas for my car. The lady who bought the black-and-white miniature painting encouraged me to continue.”

And this was the US he had always wanted to visit before the opportunity came knocking with the visa lottery!
Meanwhile, his 13-monthlong stint as a factory hand continued to assure him of daily subsistence.  There was also his supportive wife, whose banking job complemented his earnings.

The next show – an art festival held in Atlanta, Georgia in the summer of 2000 – was equally disappointing. This time, not one work was sold! “After that show, I was so disappointed that I longed to return to Nigeria. After all, as I told my wife, that was where people really appreciated my art.”

Distraught, he literally returned to the drawing board in the studio. This time, his wife began to fund his exhibitions from her earnings as a banker.

The 2001 Nimbus Art Centre solo show buoyed his waning enthusiasm with its heart-warming sales. Besides making enough money to tide over, he made a lot of prints out of his originals. But the actual breakthrough came on the wings of the 2002 Pan-African Art Festival in Chicago, which was declared opened by the current US President Barack Obama.

“It was at this show that I met a Haitian-American woman, who owns Nicole Gallery. She tripled the price I was selling my works and started paying me monthly stipends.”

Subsequently, he paid regular visits to New York with a few forays into Ontario, Canada and Rhodes Island. By the time he had wormed his way into the hearts of a few aficionados, whose patronage has continued to sustain his passion for his artistic calling.
Since 2006, his biennial slipping in and out of Nigeria has become de rigueur. These visits, which have become virtual pilgrimages, have so far helped him reconnect to his creative roots. “The artists here are very good,” he said about his Nigerian-based colleagues. “They can compare favourably with artists everywhere.”

His frequent returns also facilitated his getting a few commissioned works from the crème de la crème of the Nigerian political class.  Besides his scratchee painting for the then President Olusegun Obasanjo, he recalled other works for Present Goodluck Jonathan (while he was still a vice president), the Coordinating Minister for the Economy Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former House of Representatives Speaker Dimeji Bankole and several senators.

Back in the US, his success story continued. In 2008, at an outdoor show at the Memorial Park in Houston, Texas, he spectacularly sold 11 works out of the 15 he had displayed.  It had started with two women who after buying his paintings brought their friends the next day. One of the works sold that day – a painting of the Oshodi Bus Stop open-air market – was bought by a former Chevron staff in Nigeria, who recognised the notorious Lagos neighbourhood from the painting.

On his forthcoming solo exhibition – opening on March 7 at Terra Kulture in Victoria Island, Lagos – he said it was about painting out of the box. For him, every work must be allowed to assert its uniqueness. None is a masterpiece....

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