Yinka Olatunbosun

The news of an evening of tribute to one of Nigeria’s finest artists Ben Osaghae came in late that Thursday. Still, the number of artists who thronged to the National Museum in Onikan was more than just impressive. Collectors of the works of Osaghae travelled far and wide to be at the solemn gathering which was given some life with Olu Ajayi’s humorous accounts of the lives and times of Osaghae, who trained at the Federal Polytechnic, Auchi and died on January 17.

Olu Ajayi, the event’s emcee, extolled Osaghae for his legacies, stating that he lived a fulfilled life. He revealed that the late artist had been documented in film and books which are indicators of his impact on the art world.

“As an artist, your wealth is not in cash but in the hearts and homes of people. I don’t know how much Ben Osaghae’s net worth was but I think it means a lot for us to have the Obi of Onitsha here,” he said.

The gathering was organised by the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) which is a professional guild for artists. The SNA President, Olusegun Adejumo said the various artists organisations are training grounds for artists in spite of their educational backgrounds adding that Osaghae had been a beneficiary of the association as well.

A prominent collector, Jess Castellote remarked that Osaghae played an important role in the development of art in Nigeria and is probably the best draftsman of his generation.

“His works are something else,” he said. “He was telling us stories, giving us visual chronicles of our society. He tells us something in the way of drawing. He was always looking at the problems in the society. He was quite independent, which is an interesting feature of his practice. He didn’t care about the trend or how much he’d sell. He was a natural. He worked from memory and his sketches are worth more than his paintings.”

Castellote, who had been a follower of the works of Osaghae, observed that the artist’s figures are not static compositions but very vivid, communicating emotions. His comments were mirrored by Ajayi’s who also recalled how Osaghae loved to gesticulate. That sense of animation is transported involuntarily to his works.

Another important collector, Nse Edewor described the artist as a brilliant mind, an intellectual and social commentator who used colours impressively.

“I run an interior design showroom and restaurant,” she disclosed. “I met Osaghae first in 1992 through Rahman Akar. Then I met him again in 1996 when he walked into my showroom with some of his works. He was to have an exhibition but some of his works were rejected. They thought some of the women in his works looked like prostitutes. They didn’t see the art in the nude. I bought the works and later I introduced him to my husband who also collected some of his works.”

Also in attendance was a former teacher to Osaghae, Sam Ovraiti who lectured at the Federal Polytechnic, Auchi and by the way, is only a year older than the late artist. He declared himself as Osaghae’s first collector who took a personal interest in how his artistry had evolved over the years. He recalled how Osaghae used to be apprehensive of his own works and how they were different from his contemporaries. Ovraiti said he assured him that some collectors would actually pay for that difference that he saw in his works as compared to those of his colleagues. Osaghae would draw on different materials such as newspapers, cartoons, as well as the back of exercise books.

“ He is very polemical and he often talks about the society and our culture,” he remarked.