Roland Ogiamien, the great Benin traditional arts proponent, recently returned to the Lagos art scene after a very long absence. This over 70-year-old highly regarded sculptor whose works have been exhibited in galleries in Nigeria and the world, made a re-entry with ‘Excellence Vision 2016’, the title of his just concluded exhibition at the Quintessence Art Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos. He tells Mary Ekah why he went on a sabbatical and what prompted his comeback
When was your last exhibition before the just concluded Excellence Vision?
My last exhibition in Nigeria was in 2002, and it was my send off exhibition from Lagos titled, ‘Back to Roots’. The exhibition was organised by the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC) to send me off when I decided to relocate to Benin and that was about 14 years ago.
So when you moved to Benin, you no longer exhibited your artworks?
There was no exhibition in Benin but in 2007, I was sent to Jamaica by the federal government of Nigeria for cultural assistance. I was sent there to teach the young Jamaican artists the art of Nigerian woodcarving. It was a sort of cultural assistance to the Jamaican wood carvers. I was there for four months and at the end of the four months; I conducted workshops in eight centres in Jamaica. At the end of the whole exercise there was a 10-day exhibition of selected works of my works and those of my trainees. And as I left Nigeria for Jamaica, I packaged some of my finished works along with me and each centre I conducted the workshop l displayed them so that the trainees will have something to look upon. So at end of it all, that was my next major exhibition till this very one, ‘Excellence Vision 2016’.
What was your experience like with your Jamaican trainee?
For the Jamaicans it was a different experience for them because they have been hearing of Nigerian art and then they had the opportunity to see a Nigerian artist and his works. My works were entirely different from what they practice over there. The Jamaicans have not gotten identity for their artworks, the Caribbean do the same type of works as theirs. So seeing a Nigerian artist in their domain opened their eyes to many things about the African arts.
What would you say were major differences between your artworks and those from Jamaica?
It was a different thing entirely. They have no relationship at all. African art works can always be identified but you cannot distinguish their works from the European works. They specialised in carving animals from the sea like turtle, fish, sea snake and every other animal from the sea. And what they carve is like the European carving and so before I left, many of them were able to adjust from their traditional carving to our kind of carving.
You were absent from the art scene for so long before your recent exhibition. Why did it take so long for you to come up with another major exhibition?
I relocated to Benin for two purposes. One was to go on a recess. And so when I got to Benin, I had to relax a bit. The way I worked in Lagos is not the way I work in Benin. In Benin, I only work when I feel like working and I didn’t just take the work as full time job anymore because I wanted to really rest. At my age now, many of my friends are no longer working. I am 70 plus at the moment and apart from that, I had in mind that at a certain time of my life, I will host an exhibition that people will know that I am still alive. Therefore, within the last 13 years, I have been accumulating works. So all I did in Benin was that I will do an artwork and keep it in reserve and gradually I was able do a lot of works. I only sold a very few of my artworks. And in addition to that, since 2012 till date I have been a facilitator at Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation’s annual Agbarha-Otor Harmattan Workshop in Delta State. And that has kept me busy all through the years
So let’s assume that at a point you retired but as an artist that you were, you could not take your hands off your arts and so you continually do them bit-by-bit. I suppose?
As a matter of fact, I could not take my mind off the art even though I needed so much rest at my age. It’s like I would say, ‘once an artist, always an artist’.
How would you describe your kind of works?
I work on woods only and I find working on woods very amazing. In fact, it gives me joy and makes me strong. Working with woods is not for a lazy man. It is for those who have energy, strength, patience and determination. I have been carving woods for about 55 years and it has continued to give me joy.
You are above 70 years, so how do you still get strength to do those tedious jobs?
I don’t work every day since I moved to Benin. Any day I want to work, by 6am I have started work because I have a workshop and studio within my compound in Benin. It is like leaving the sitting room to the balcony, so it is within my reach. And when I wake in the morning and I feel like working, I go to the workshop and work from 6am to 11 am and then retire. By the time it’s evening again, if I still feel like working I will go back to work for few hours.
I don’t work every day and that is why it takes me so many days to finish a work. And when you talk about energy, I know my work entails me working with strong woods, that is why I have employed a studio assistant who helps me to motif some of the woods. He will chisel out and chisel in and then leave them for me, so by the time the tedious aspect is gone, I know how to deal with the rest.
How many works have you been able to gather since your relocation to Benin?
I had 23 works for this exhibition and out of these 23, three of them were the works I did in Lagos. Two of them were actually finished in Lagos before I left while the third one was completed in Benin this year. And I had abandoned same work in Lagos up to five years before I left for Benin, which makes it like about 28 years that I have worked on that particular work titled, ‘Female Ritual Dancers’.
So why did it take over 18 years for you to finish one particular work?
The inspiration was no longer there and by the time I came back to it, I had a different inspiration.
You mean after you might have lost focus on a particular work, you still come back to it with new inspiration?
Yes, it happens, sometimes I deliberately do it and not that I lost focus. For example, the work titled, ‘Coronation of Benin Oba and Ekiagbado Treaty’, is a work I stated in 1980. You know the coronation of Oba Erediauwa was in 1979 and I started the work on “Coronation of Benin Oba and Ekiagbado Treaty” in 1980 and I did not finish it till 1985. I never even knew I was going to witness the coronation of another Oba of Benin, which was done recently and that is the time that this work is coming out for exhibition after so many years.
What inspires your works?
There are many things that give me inspiration. First, when I put a piece of wood down, the nature of that wood is one of the things that inspires what will come out of the wood. If I have a piece of wood that is bent, then I will be inspired to design an object that has curve of something. Other times, I am inspired by meditation. Every artist has his own way of meditating. That is why people often say that artists are spiritually inclined. There is a spirit that controls each artist and I know the spirit that controls me. I know where it belongs.
What spirit is that Sir?
That is left for me. And any artist that does not know where the spirit that controls his work belongs to does not know where he is going. At times, my spirit will push me to somewhere and then I will realise that if I go to far, I will get into trouble. My works can be divided into four categories: My works in the early 60s, my works in the 70s/80s, my works in the 80s/90s and then my works from the 20s till date. Even my collector can identify these categories. That means that the more an artist grew older, the more his inspiration advances and the less his outputs.
So what inspired you to hold this particular exhibition at this time?
This exhibition was never in my mind when I decided to pay a visit to my son in Lagos in May this year. My son and I had come to Quintessence Art Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos to see the Curator, Mr. Moses Ohiomokhare for something entirely different, when he started a discussion that it was high time I brought my works to Lagos. I gave it a thought because I felt that a lot of my collectors were growing older and were also anxious to see what I have been doing in Benin all these years. So I decided to use this exhibition to tell them that I am still alive, still an artist and still producing. I am so glad I did.
Why the title Excellence Vision 2016?
If you look at the works yourself, you know the works are excellent. The works are excellent and they are as a result of the vision I had. And they manifested from the spirit inspired vision and that is why it is Excellence Vision.