Even as he dons the colourist toga, Sam Ovraiti asserts himself simply as an artist and shuns all attempts to stick a label on him. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
It stuck rather too easily, the word “colourists”. And, strange enough, hardly anyone among the local cognoscenti seemed to question its provenance or appropriateness. Instead, it has been accepted as a fact – or, even as a dogma – when alluding to graduates of Auchi Polytechnic’s art department. But then, who cares if its mastermind failed to delve deeply enough into the concept?
Nonetheless, Sam Ovraiti – as an alumnus and a former lecturer of the institution – proudly bears the “colourist” label as a badge of honour. This is even when his legendary predilection for pastel colours proclaims the contrary.
“The use of colours has become the primary intent for my painting,” he enthused that sunny and somnolent New Year Day afternoon in his studio in the Ojodu-Berger area of Lagos.
Even so, the 56-year-old has become a captive of the very stereotype he had been trying so hard to stave off. A decade ago at this same venue, the artist had vehemently shrugged off the “water-colourist” label. For prior to that encounter, local art writers had lapped it up as a favourite byword for the artist. “I’m an artist, not a water-colourist,” he had emphasised.
Whatever he calls himself now seems tangential to the main issue. This is since the spotlight falls on his technique, which appears to have lapsed into a comfort-zone.
“Essentially, when you develop to a point that your work can be recognisable, it always remains the same. The difference is in the mood in which you find yourself.”
This should justify the blur of sameness which pervade the paintings adorning the studio walls, shouldn’t it? After all, Ovraiti’s patented figurative – and sometimes stylised – paintings have earned him a seat of honour among the leading lights of the contemporary Nigerian art scene.
His creative moods, he added, are formed by a gamut of new experiences. These new experiences are in turn called forth by sights, sounds, interactions and new materials, among others. As for his overall creative activity, it is no longer based on what has been said or on what the society has imagined for him. It is now based on what he has decided or come to know as the truth.
“I’m a colourist.” That c-word again! “My colours have remained the same.” The focus is on the colours themselves and not on the mediums – watercolour, acrylic, oil, pastel and tempera etc. Ultimately, he sees colours as the eloquent heralds of the Source of all existence.
Colours also cooperate with his forms, which could be intelligibly figurative, playfully stylised or esoterically abstracted. As an unapologetic purveyor of beauty, he manipulates these forms to suit his purpose which is to spread happiness.
“As children, our art practice is total abstraction. As we begin to grow, we are educated to begin to understand perspective. Education teaches us the way and we gradually begin to imbibe the symbols of the Western world…”
The artist evolves as he imbibes newer trends and experiences. Soon, he begins to grapple an identity-crisis. Who, or what really, is he? “I’m not an impressionist. Yet, I am. I’m not a fauvist. Yet, I am. I’m not a cubist. Yet, I am…”
From out of the furnace of these influences, the artist forges a new identity for himself. Thus, he explained what he called “selective presentation” in his paintings: “Certain informations were not necessary for my message to be passed.”
Displaying three large-sized paintings in his Women of Honour series, he added: “I didn’t need [to show] the hands, fingers … to create a picture [in these paintings].”
“The idea [behind these paintings] is to represent the collective oneness of women,” he further explained. “In the Women of Honour series, I look at togetherness. Essentially, we are one. The differences are the expressions of our oneness.”
More works soon emerged from one of the studio’s inner rooms. Among them were works, whose forms have receded into hardly decipherable smudges. Forms which could pass for figures. Some were hazy, lucid and intense…depending on the artist’s prevailing mood. “I work according to the present,” he said.
Two works, titled “Paradox of Indecision” I and II, looked different from the others. They had none of the numbing predictable features his works have been renowned for. In each of the works, separate old drawings of his were superimposed on mixed-media materials on a canvas. These mixed-media materials not only enhanced them but also added layers of texture to their backdrop. They were, for this reason, dated 2005 -2017.
“I don’t want to be boxed up into a stereotype. I’m not a water-colourist. I am an artist and possibly something else.”
The widely-exhibited and collected artist wakes up each morning with a to-do list tugging away at his consciousness. “I have a programme for myself,” he said.
The to-do list, which serves as a prompter, are posted behind his studio’s entrance door.
“Do two pastel figure drawings daily,” says one.
“Work TWO, Start TWO, Finish Two, Stretch TWO daily,” urges another.
“Write three pages on each of your five titles daily,” adds yet another.
“Use the time you use for gisting (talking),” advises the final one.
Of course, these are mere prompters meant to get him into the mood to paint. Curiously, he needs no prompter to get him to read. For reading, he explained, comes naturally to him. The book-stuffed shelves occupying his studio’s wall spaces are eloquent testimonials of this.
“As you wake up with each of these before your eyes, you get inspired,” he said.
As a postscript to these prompters, he reminds himself of his target, which is to “SELL, SELL, SELL 10 [works] WEEKLY”.
Art, Ovraiti declared, is good for the soul. So, whoever contemplates an art work feeds his soul. Yet, he added: “The artist must make plans to sell his works.”
“Artists can create for the enjoyment of people, but they must also create what is useful,” he continued. “Art must render some kind of service and move beyond being a mere decoration on the wall. It must be something people should look upon to be inspired and educated.”
In this increasingly commercialised world, the artist cannot afford not to be concerned about the business aspect of his work. “As an artist, you are the producer of your product and any producer who does not protect his product is short-changed.”
Among his planned projects for the year is a training programme for younger artists, which he hopes would equip them for more rewarding career as artists.