Yinka Olatunbosun
This is about a five-year-old synergy between art and hospitality. In Lagos, The Wheatbaker Hotel since 2011 threw its doors open to accommodate artists and their visual creations. The hotel has been known for its commitment to promoting the best of Nigerian art, playing host to world-class art exhibitions. Some of these had featured Duke Asidere, Kelechi Amadi-Obi and Yetunde Ayeni-Babaeko in the Collectors’ Series.

To mark its fifth year anniversary, The Wheatbaker was the meeting point with an array of guests, who came just in time to share the cocktails, cakes and more importantly, the eclectic body of works by a leading contemporary artist, Gbenga Offo featured in an exhibition titled, Freedom.

Curated by Sandra Mbanefo Obiago, Offo’s collection features splash paintings, sketches and sculptures. The opening of the show was quite exciting as it marked the first time that the artist would present his first collection of metal sculptures in bronze, wrought iron and stainless steel.

The inquisitive mind usually likes to find a justification for an exhibition theme. And the reference to freedom can relive memories of slavery, imagery of independence and universal suffrage. But for Offo, the freedom he implies by his works originates within himself as an artist.

“Freedom allows a person to be true to himself,’’ he explained. “It allows the artist to be true to his art. It is freedom that drives the urge to experiment. This has led me to the creation of a body of work using Splash technique.

“The fluidity of the splashed paint and lines create an illusion that appears controlled. The seemingly uncontrolled lines and colours create a piece that allows the viewer the rare opportunity to be co-creator of the artwork.’’

His sculptures convey good spirit with titles such as “Hope’’, “Mutual Respect’’, “Good Conversation’’ and “Happy People”. Initially, Offo was largely influenced by the traditional African sculpture pieces and also cubism. But he has evolved from figural expressionism to abstract expressionism. One of his splash paintings at the show, “People Power’’ is a protest work that interprets the popular chant, “We shall Overcome’’.

“I believe you have the power to change things,” he explained. “We can’t afford to be docile. Your collective power to vote and protest and to disagree is very important. You can change things if you come together and speak with one voice.”

One work he didn’t need to explain was the mixed media painting with an overwhelming splash of red painting titled, “Still Missing”. It captures the tragedy and trauma of the missing Chibok girls in Bornu state and how insurgence has interrupted their lives.
“Still Missing shows the division and encroachment of chaos on the peaceful nature of society. The red may represent blood but what I actually intended was to show encroachment. I stuck books on the work, things that Boko Haram doesn’t approve of. The slippers represent the things that are left behind when you run for your lives,’’ he said.

The red-soaked school uniform is a haunting article of history that documents the inhumanity that had ravaged the North-eastern part of the country.
The curator for the show, Obiago, pointed to the global implications of the thematic thrust in the works of Offo.

“The artist’s recurring theme of flight and migration is also expressed through numerous works that depict refugees in flight, Offo’s response to the effects of war on innocent populations across the globe, from Syria to Central Africa, from Northern Nigeria to Southern Africa,’’ she stated.

Offo’s interest in painting began as a young child in Yaba who was always attracted to the brownish water stains on the ceiling. By the time he was in secondary school, this fascination had grown into appreciating images seen through blurred vision. With influences from great artists such as Bruce Onobrakpeya, Yusuf Grillo, El Anatsui, Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Picasso, he refined his artistry at the Yaba College of Technology, developing his own unique expressions while graduating as the Best Graphic Art student and Best Overall Art Student.

“When I developed the style that I do, it was to connect with African traditional sculpture. A lot of traditional African sculptures have bulging eyes, which I opened up. You don’t see the eyeballs in a lot of traditional African sculptural pieces so I decided to open mine and that’s what a lot of my work has been noted for,” he said.

He has profound interest in music, though his dream of studying music was not realized. Since he can’t play music, he decidedly draws it. And that explains why musical symbolism runs through some of his works. Since retiring into full-time studio practice in 1996, Offo has five solo exhibitions and seven group shows to his credit, both in Nigeria and in diaspora.
Offo’s works in the Freedom exhibition, which in itself is a dialectics of human behaviour, remain on The Wheatbaker’s walls till January 15, 2017 when the show ends. This show is sponsored by the prestigious champagne house, Veuve Clicquot.