Roland Ogiamien: Return of a Virtuoso

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The octogenarian sculptor, with firm roots in the Benin Kingdom returns to Lagos with his latest body of works that reflect Benin cultural heritage, says Yinka Olatunbosun

“I gracefully aging sculptor, Roland Ogiamien as he sat with a posse of art journalists at the Quintessence gallery, Ikoyi where his solo exhibition is currently taking place.
It was actually a preview of his latest works that brought the writers’ collective together and “amazing” is the least of the words that best describe his artistic effort. With the help of his son and an assistant, he assembled a few of the works outside the gallery some minutes before the arrival of his guests.

Quite captivating is the towering piece and the specially designed royal-like table titled, “The Coronation of the Oba of Benin”. How timely! The widely reported coronation ceremony for the new Oba of Benin has inspired a visual art narrative that Ogiamien freely recounted in verbal and non-verbal form as he took some retrospective glances at his past career life to explain the present.
For him, wood-carving is God-given, an art he’d practised as soon as he left the government job which he peddled at the completion of his secondary school education. He is arguably the only surviving artist of his time with some of his murals at National Theatre, Iganmu. He left Lagos to Benin about 14 years ago and has since practised quietly and privately.

This show titled Excellent Vision would be his first since his departure from Lagos. And his return is a surprise treat for collectors who crave organic creative pieces from a respected artist. He thinks that art is a staple, irrespective of the economic situation. That’s why he never stopped his wood carving even after the National Council for Arts and Culture threw a send-off party for him in 2002. He knew it was a send-off from Lagos, not from carving.

“After working in Lagos for 40 years, I relocated to Benin,” he explained. “When I got there, I still worked but I had never had an exhibition since I left Lagos. For that reason I decided that my product must be excellent just like my vision. Lagos has been the base of my collectors. Many of them are still in contact with me even though I had left Lagos. I also want to inspire the new generation of artists with my pieces.”

No doubt, Ogiamien enjoys wood-carving and convinces the keen eyes that he had radically changed his style over the years in line with the current reality. But then, he remains a pro-cultural artist; insisting that his family house is the oldest in the Benin Kingdom, having been built some eleven centuries ago. He appropriates his works in documenting history and culture.

He momentarily paused to acknowledge the arrival of Okechukwu Uwaezuoke, the Editor, Arts and Review, THISDAY who was just in time to see the master sculptor and engage him in strong intellectual banter.
“My old friend!” Ogiamien hailed in recognition of how long ago he had known the editor, who had taken a seat beside him.

Afterwards, Ogiamien turned his attention back to this reporter to finish the response to the thought on how his works are so steeped in culture. “I dwell in culture and I research the culture. If you look at how I started, I started as a traditional artist. I worked with Emokpae full time and part time. Even when I started to work on my own, I was still working with him. He taught me carving, the relationship with light, and other artists. That is why I have been able to retain my clients since 1974.

“Benin art is known for the wood and bronze. Bronze is restricting to certain families but now things are changing. My father was a teacher and he had very little regard for wood carving. He thought it was a profession for the destitute. He wanted me to be a teacher. But by the time he saw me growing in the art, he began to take interest in it. I became his best friend.”
One of the highlights of his career was his Jamaican experience. Under the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, he had a rare privilege of teaching art in Jamaican under the special request of the Jamaican Prime Minister. The Jamaican artists wanted to know much about the world famous Benin Art and Ogiamien was their man.

“The Jamaicans have many artists but their artworks have no African relationship,” he opined. “They were doing European art. The whole Caribbean had only one type of art. It is well known that Benin people are the best wood carvers. That was how I got the invitation to go to Jamaica. When I got there, I found that their works needed to have that African identity. That was the major reason for the programme. I went with my tools and some of my works and I was given an assistant to go with me.”

He spent four months in the country moving from one region to another. Each region is called a parish and he went round all the 14 of them to teach art.

“After the four months, we had an exhibition of my works and those of my students and one other benefit they got from my visit was to get the artist some tools,” he continued. “In two weeks of my arrival, they got the tools they needed. Meanwhile they said they had requested for the tools or years and they were not given. Some of them wanted to come to Nigeria to learn but Jamaica is far and not all of the artists can afford to come here.

They love Nigerian art and they saw the difference between theirs and ours. All their work is dedicated to whatever you can find in the river; fish and other aquatic creatures. Then you see their Rastafarian hair in their works. I taught them how to produce African faces. And they are black. Some of them even behave like Nigerians. Some of them have been to Nigeria or married to Nigerians.”

Back to his admirable works at the gallery, he demonstrated again that culture never goes out of vogue but metamorphoses in pieces such as “The Coronation of the Oba of Benin”, “The African Mother”, “The Ritual Dancer” and more.

He considers art works as spiritual objects; because of the way they impact on an artist’s psyche. Sometimes he wakes up to an idea that he wants to execute using wood. At other times, he could spend six years on a composition.
When the subject of restoring old and failing works was broached by him, he argued that every good piece will stand the test of time.

“When Emokpae died, I spearheaded the finish of his uncompleted works in 1984. An artist never makes any arrangement for his work to be restored. It is the buyer that will call for someone to restore it. I spent more than three weeks in Lagos to restore a work three years ago. A work can only deteriorate if the owner doesn’t keep it well. Art work has no expiry date. The only thing that can destroy it is fire.”

He blamed the deterioration of art works on some collectors’ poor maintenance culture.
“That is why when I visit some churches, I shake my head. The Catholic Church at Ikeja had an American reverend father as at the time I did the door carving for them. He asked him to tell him how to maintain the doors and I wrote it down for him and that door has been maintained by succeeding Reverend fathers.

“Meanwhile, I visited a friend in Lagos some years ago who had bought my work. He was using it as a door stopper. It was a beautiful work and the colour had changed. I was offered a drink but my attention was still in the work. I told him to sell the work back to me. He asked why. I said, “You are tired of it’’. He glared at me and the wife concurred. He then picked it up and asked me to restore it for him. I asked for him to pay for the service. I told him that with the condition that I found the work, he has insulted me. This work is Ogiamien. What I asked from him was more than what he paid to buy it. He paid it. He then made a small table to place it in his living room.”

He further explained that in the 70s, when Pentecostal fanatics had not been popular, African art always had spiritual innovation with many church doors carved by artists. But since new generation of Pentecostalism has no place for art works the way the Catholics do, wood carving is not as popular but still very desirable.

“Some years ago, I read Awake! . I saw an article of a carved door during the time of Jesus Christ. And that door is still preserved till tomorrow and it is made of mahogany. I believe that an art work is documentation. The Benin people couldn’t write in those days but they use their artefacts to document every event.” His view was mirrored by art editor who chipped in that art from a milieu tells you how advanced those people are at that time in history.
Ogiamien’s current show which opened on October 22 runs for three weeks.
pix: Bini Princess.jpg and African Mother.jpg