As activities marking his 60th birthday rev up, Mike Omoighe shares his thoughts on the visual arts with Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
For Mike Akhaine Osebhajimete Omoighe, the visual arts has been a lifelong passion. Back in his childhood years, he recalled being embedded in an artistic environment. First, there was his father, who was a sculptor. Then, there was this uncle of his, who was a photographer, while another was an architect. Thus, he became convinced about the fact that the purpose of his earthly existence had a lot to do with art.
Even so, his actual formal art training began a little later in his life. This was while he was a student at St Gregory’s College in Obalende, Lagos. There, he had the uncommon privilege of being taught art by the revered art icon Bruce Onobrakpeya. A subsequent mentoring by Onobrakpeya’s Zaria Art Society comrade, Yusuf Grillo, further bolstered his confidence. “Yusuf Grillo was the HOD (Head of Department),” he explained. “Other lecturers were Kolade Oshinowo, Paul Igbanugo, Vivian Osemwegie, YAG Lawal and several others. Needless to say, Onobrakpeya, Grillo, Oshinowo, Igbanugo and Ademola Adejumo influenced me and my artwork a lot.”
Omoighe, who stomped into his 60th year on July 11, also considers his students at the Yaba College of Technology’s School of Art, Design and Printing as “great influences”. “I have learnt a lot as I was also teaching other beautiful souls,” he said. “I learnt so much from my students, colleagues and the enabling environment provided by Yaba College of Technology Lagos. Hence, my students influenced me as I may have influenced them too.”
Growing up in the Lafiaji area of Lagos Island admittedly had its excitements and influences. But, the artist is fascinated by the rich African traditional cultures, proverbs, music and dance performance, philosophy and, recently, the culture of Esan people of his native Edo State. “I’m currently exploring the age long tradition of extracting dyes from plants for making the Esan cloth and Igbabonelimi Masqueraders’ costumes,” he explained.
About two years ago, he held a solo exhibition of drawings and paintings at The Wheatbaker Hotel in Ikoyi, Lagos, which was titled in his native Esan language, Equal Rights: Unule, Unuile, Ozese. That exhibition, Omoighe said, offered what he called “two viewpoints from my sketches and jotting diary”.
The first of these viewpoints alluded to the implication of military rule in Nigeria, which then was a matter of indifference to him until he revisited the jottings, sketches and paintings exhibited, which were in 2005 in a show he titled, Survival Romance. Secondly, the exhibition focussed on the Ukpo-Esan-Fibre art in the Igbabonelimi masquerader’s costumes, which were recreated and documented in the contemporary medium of paintings on canvas. This, he added, was “to communicate a visual poetry and metaphor as an activist’s social commentary.”
Perhaps, the “June 12” riots needed to happen before Omoighe could be roused from his initial apolitical disposition. The outcome of the annulment of that 1993 presidential election, believed to have been won by the late businessman Moshood Kasimawo Abiola, left indelible impressions in his consciousness. A curfew was imposed in Lagos, armoured tanks rolled into the streets, as bonfires and protests added to the pandemonium. According to the artist, he had resorted to adopting what he called “a view point of a ‘child in the wilderness’ in a series of drawings, watercolours, acrylics and oils paintings”. This was while the civil society and both the print and electronic media were feasting on the events.
Some of these impressions, which he called “visual narratives” were not only featured at an exhibition he held the National Gallery of Art in 2005, but also at the more recent one he held at The Wheatbaker Hotel exhibition. They also reinforced his belief that artists, as humans, are not immune to politics. “Artists are also Nigerians too. Why not politics if the artist has the muscle to play the game?”
After all, one of the surviving Zaria Art Society members, Demas Nwoko, also ran for the office of the president in Nigeria.
Omoighe has since 1986 till date been constantly seeking the happy medium between his job as a chief lecturer at the Yaba College of Technology and his studio practice as well as a slew of other responsibilities. He had on the way to the top held several positions. He has, for instance, been a member of the Academic Board, the HOS Painting, the HOD Fine Art, the Dean School school of Art, Design and Printing, later the Dean, Student Affairs and, currently, the director of the tertiary institution’s Academic Planning Unit.
But, his path to reckoning had exactly been strewn with roses. “Life in itself is a major challenge, hence the title of my first solo exhibition at the National Arts Theatre, Lagos in 1982 was Growth and Fear. That’s why I love to teach what I know out to others.”
He was the president of AICA (International Association of Art Critics) at a time the association was abandoned, making the Nigerian chapter dormant. Nonetheless, he remains grateful to the Almighty that he was privileged to be involved in a lot of artistic activities. “In 1980, I curated the first NYSC artists show in [the Ondo State capital] Akure. Curatorial works weren’t even known by most people then.”
Since then, a lot of water has passed under the bridge. “Talking about the evolution of art in Nigeria, would be a voluminous book on its own,” he said. “If we create the graph to represent the growth of art and artists in Nigeria, we’ll be amazed at the geometrical leap from independence era and beyond.”
But, it has not all been a fairy-tale success. For even as Omoighe affirms that art administration befits the consciousness of the people, he holds a cynical view of the endeavour. “Many Artists come to Nigeria yearly from abroad to exhibit because they have a market here. Sophisticated art administration puts few artists up and the rest in abject poverty. When they die of boredom and hunger, the art administrator go for the art and make them museum pieces. I like the way we are going on without any structure yet. It will grow someday!”
On the recent controversy swirling around the Lagos State’s public art projects, he said: “They are trending because they were done at all. If they were not done, we won’t have anything to talk about. Public sculptures all over the world have always received comments, positive or negative. The mural paintings that are washed away after one rainy season are not receiving as much comments. Why? Because they are not portraits of notable figures. My only worry is that it is public funds that are being used for the statues. People are yet to grow up to the stage when they will be bold enough to hold their leaders accountable. If the works were done with sincerity, I’m sure it would have been a different matter. The I-don’t-care attitude of both the contractors and Lagos State Government is very worrisome.”
Still on controversies, conservatives elements in the local art scene were recently leery of the conceptual art forms. But, Omoighe argued that the art form is African. “It is completely at home with us. African art is holistic and solid. It is all encompassing of music, dance, performance, painting, sculpture, textile and all other related components.”
He lauded the recently introduced ArtX Lagos and the Lagos Biennial breathing “hope and optimism” into the art scene, adding that they were major catalysts for the creative mind and the entire art community. ArtX, especially, he thought was good for the art market and Lagos. “It was like bringing any art fair to Lagos so that those who have not seen any before can benefit. Great outing. But security around the immediate environment was not too good.”
At 60, the artist still sees the future stretched out before him. There can be no question of retirements, for artists don’t retire. “Artists work in their studios till their last day when they drop the body.”