Oseloka Osadebe, a lesser-known member of the legendary Zaria Art Society, returns to Nigeria for a retrospective solo exhibition at the National Museum in Onikan, Lagos. The exhibition’s offerings, which are engaging, are signposts to the artist’s dialectical orbit, Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
For decades now, the Zaria Art Society still lingers tenaciously to the industry’s consciousness. Indeed, the exploits of this now-defunct group – whose members were once curiously tagged “rebels” by a Ghanaian-born critic – still sustains the spotlight in the contemporary Nigerian art scene. This explains why the aura of masterhood still surrounds its surviving members like Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Demas Nwoko almost six decades after. And it is one good reason why Oseloka Osadebe deserves a seat of honour among his former schoolmates despite his long absence from the scene.
But for a freak ghastly train accident in Lokoja, Osadebe would not have been a year behind Demas Nwoko, Yusuf Grillo, and Uche Okeke, who were pioneer members of the Zaria Art Society. Indeed, he was believed to have died in that accident, in which so many young people lost their lives. Also, his church minister father had begun to hope that his Bible-reading son was divinely-ordained to replace him after his retirement. But, his hopes were soon dashed when it dawned on him that his son was intent on studying art.
Thus, the younger Osadebe arrived the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria the following year, which was 1958 and graduated in 1962. Now based in Jackson, Mississippi (US), this lesser-known “rebel” is in Nigeria for the first time in over 50 years for a four-month-long retrospective exhibition, titled Inner Light. The exhibition, which is named after one of his series of works, features 85 rare works – consisting of paintings, sketches, drawings and a sculpture he produced from 1960 to 2014 – and opens on Saturday, October 20 at the National Museum in Onikan, Lagos.
If Inner Light is a journey, it responds more thematic impulses rather than follows a linear progression. This is evidenced by the fact that it first reaches out into the reminiscences of the artist’s early years in his native Onitsha in the 1930s and 1940s before on to moving on to his student years in the northern Nigerian town of Zaria from 1958 to 1962 and, finally, concluding with his years in the US. This explains the exhibition’s fluid segmentation into periods and thematic signposts in the octogenarian’s creative paths.
Thus, the viewer is first acquainted with a set of works Osadebe produced while he was a student at the Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology in Zaria as well as works produced while he was studying painting and sculpture at the Art Institute in Chicago, where he eventually graduated with an MFA in 1967.
The exhibition experience kicks in with a teaser: a display of the exhibition’s only sculpture, titled “Father & Son”. This work, created by the artist while he was in Chicago, lifts a corner of the veil on his large bronze sculptures, which like his drawings reference the uli linear aesthetics.
In the same segment, the viewer is enthralled by Osadebe’s depictions of the famed mother and child line drawings and sketches of the Nsukka and Zaria landscapes. Then, there are the drawings of traditional Igbo dance and headdress and his master’s thesis work on “Iba”, which in traditional Igbo architecture alludes to a family home’s innermost recess.
Another segment offers glimpses of Osadebe’s sanguine experimentations with forms. First, there are his “piggly-wigglies”, which are hybrid figures with pig snouts depicting his family, apparently influenced Pablo Picasso’s line drawings. And talking about Picasso, the viewer draws parallels between his five small experimental paintings of a coffee pot with cubism. “On the surface there is a caricature of the pig’s face which is used, but it is also a mask for every member of the family,” Osadebe tells the exhibition’s curator , Sandra Mbanefo Obiago. “They all have a long snout. So there is a full family just as Picasso had a family of hybrids. You have a son, daughter, grandfather and grandmother. I came across this idea and it was so good. It was as if something was moving my hand. I have never done anything in all my artistic life which was so quick and so good and all about the same size.”
Then, a glance at his realistic depictions of human forms first leads the viewer back to the early 1960s, then on to his drawing classes studio sketches under the tutelage of Mr Keane, who was one of the teachers at the Chicago Art Institute. Subsequently, the viewer begins to savour his masterly abstract strokes.
It is a known fact that Osadebe extended his creative passions beyond the realms of the visual arts soon after his MFA degree. Hence, his enrolment for another master’s degree in theatre from 1968 to 1973 at the Goodman School of Drama, in Chicago. This, he followed up with a doctoral programme at Northwestern University on West African Theatre, which ended successfully in 1981.
So, the segment of the exhibition featuring both his African- and western-inspired set designs were fallouts of his years of studying and teaching theatre. His sketches infuses non-physical aspects of the drama into the physical stage movement. The posters on display – created while he was teaching theatre at the historic Atlanta-based black university for women, Spelman College – reflect his interpretations of the African-American experience.
The exhibition’s fourth and final segment beams the spotlight on the artist’s core philosophical works like “Inner Light”, “Tree of Life”, “Fallen from Grace” and “Ikemefuna”. Through them, the artist, who believes himself Divinely-instructed to practise art, explores the eternal conflict between man’s higher spiritual aspirations and his baser instincts in his quest for his higher calling.
Take the pencil and conte works on paper and board, titled “Inner Light”, for instance. Osadebe in the series tries to capture a flurry of movements, which suggest the inner man’s struggles against earthly temptations seeking to draw him downwards into the clutches of the darkness. In the drawings, dated from 1965 to 2013, the viewer discerns two multi-faceted entities – one lighter, the other dark – entangled in their fight for supremacy. In the 2013 version of the work, a face peers out from beneath the peeled-back layers of forms while clawing hands and feet seem to suggest a fierce combat between the two figures, one seeking to edge out the other.
Then, there is “Ikemefuna”, the pencil drawing of a blind minstrel strumming away on a local Sahelian-type thumb piano. The topless man, whose head tilts backwards as he belts out a song, sports a cross round his neck and a modest loin-cloth. Behind him, a hooded figure and a woman look on in admiration. His physical challenges are obviously no hindrances to fulfilling his life’s purpose.
For this work, the artist draws his inspiration from the two renowned blind African-American singers, Ray Charles Jr and Stevie Wonder. Thus, Osadebe urges the viewer to remain steadfast in his quest for perfection and never give up.
This exhibition, it is hoped, will not only engrave the artist’s name in the local aficionado’s consciousness, but will also reunite him with Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko and Yusuf Grillo, among others. For the artist, it is a platform to share his opinions on the concept of reincarnation, “fact that God created humans, however we have to learn to perfect ourselves.” Hence, it can be called the legacy he wishes to bequeath on posterity.