Surviving as a young artist in a talent-glutted Lagos art scene could be a daunting experience, self-taught artist Odiabhebor Odibo soon discovers. Yet, as one of the promising names of the contemporary Nigerian art, he remains resilient in his practice. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes
It’s not just the title, “Sacred Blackness”. Something else makes the acrylic on canvas painting hard to ignore. The Afro-haired, doe-eyed coffee-complexioned black male in the painting grips the viewer’s attention. The figure clad in a buckskin-coloured jacket and a cream-coloured turtle neck stands against the backdrop of a stained-glass window. True, this is an apparent allusion to the concept of worship. Yet, lurking beneath the obvious is a subtext of a personality at a cultural crossroads.
But, the artist Odiabhebor Odibo has other ideas about his painting. It’s all about the appreciation of the dark skin, he explains. It “shows the darkest a skin can get, yet it’s so beautiful.” It’s also about “accepting and appreciating one’s root, one’s identity, one’s nature… and loving oneself. We all are beautiful in our own unique individual ways.”
Talking about black being beautiful, here is one reason to romanticise the Afro hair, which he likens to a crown that defies gravity. And the deep black skin? It attests to the fact that the sun loves the African so much that it had to “kiss him multiple times”. “Our culture… directly links us to our spirituality,” he waxes. “Our full lips that the whole human race yearn to have. We are beautiful even with our dark skin.”
Above all, the Edo State-born artist uses the stained-glass backdrop as a metaphor to italicise the dignity of a human spirit. Irrespective of age, colour, gender or social standing, a human spirit deserves to be respected as such. “We should first see people for who they are: human beings with souls.”
In another version of this painting, the artist superimposes an Afro-haired black female on a stained-glass backdrop. This version is also titled “Sacred Blackness”, because it expresses the same concept. It is unclear why he deems it necessary to re-emphasise the same theme using another gender.
Before the emergence of these two paintings from the inner recesses of his thought-processes, the grief-stricken artist was busy churning out paintings that seem intent on aestheticising death. Having lost his sister sometime in mid-2017, he was rather too obvious in the expression of his sense of loss.
“I was overwhelmed by sadness, grief, and maybe, depression,” he recalls. “At that point, I realised that life was too short and too uncertain for one to postpone things, so I started to paint. I wouldn’t say art necessarily removed my sadness, or made me happy, but it sure distracted me from my sadness in an immeasurable positive way.
“Art on its own has the power to change moods, perceptions, ideology and power in itself through lines, colours, forms, sounds, textures etc… And at that point, I realised that art is therapeutic.”
Before his sister’s death, the 2014 University of Benin accountancy graduate was sketching, studying art materials and journals and doing anything else but actually painting. It seemed, therefore, that his mourning period was the impetus he needed to take that bold step. “I did art to show that death in itself wasn’t the end, that sometimes from death life could sprout.”
His other previous works consist mainly of stylised portraits of overdressed mulattos, among other dandified subjects. All of a sudden, it was as though these portraits edged away his visual coronachs from the limelight. As though justifying his penchant for portraiture, he posits that portraiture as the closest form of art to humanity, because everyone can relate to it. “My particular style of portraiture shows the viewer the inner essence of the subjects from my point of view. I love reading novels, and poems, and I do admire how writers don’t just vaguely include subjects in their stories but also describe the looks, tastes, ideologies, body stature, temperaments of the characters they write about.
Likewise, Odibo attempts in his portraits to make the viewer see more than just the subject’s face or body. He expects the viewer to see or sense everything else about the subject. These would naturally also include the inner dispositions. The eyes of the subjects are so positioned to stare back at the viewer from wherever he looks at it from.
“Good art cuts across cultures, and time… So, I believe it’s reasonable that my art too cuts across culture and time. After all, all humans are the same flesh and bones, souls.”
Art for Odibo started as a childhood pastime. Then, he used to be fascinated by colours, forms and beautiful things in general. Besides, pictures which he found in comics, newspapers and on the walls stalked his impressionable mind.
“I just couldn’t help myself,” he says. “I’d say that as a child, I was more interested in what I saw than on what I tasted.
You can imagine that this was a period when most kids of my age would be interested in candies and anything sweet. For me, seeing colours was more interesting. There was also this predilection for colour-combination, especially since my mum always asked me to select outfits for her while she dressed up. Back then, I remember always admiring the design patterns on her Ankara, George, lace fabrics. I would wonder about a particular design and what the designer was thinking when he/she made it. I also remember the impressions the colourful illustrations in children’s edition of the Bible. The combination of all these and more sparked off the art in me. Also, truth be told, before a child learns to write, he/she first learns how to draw.”
Like virtually every child of primary school age, he was exposed early to art. “I do remember when I was about 6 or 7 years old, my primary school art teacher taught us the art of tie and dye and how to make objects using papier mâché. It was an unforgettable experience.”
Later in secondary school, art was one of the subjects he chose even as a commercial student. All along the way, his parents were supportive. Indeed, among his first art works were the birthday cards he made for his parents and sisters. They had, after all, tolerated his childhood fancies and helped to nurture his artistic talents. Above all, they helped, and still help, to promote his works among their friends. Nonetheless, they had good reasons to be sceptical about the future of an artist in this philistinic environment. “One thing we all should know and understand is that most times our parents out of love want what’s best for us their children,” he adds.
Without any formal art training from a tertiary institution, he had joined the young talents of the Lagos art scene in a handful of group exhibitions. Working as the personal assistant of the late renowned art collector Sammy Olagbaju was the added inspiration he needed to begin to take art more seriously.
“It was then I realised that I could move from being an art hobbyist to an art professional,” he adds.
Combining art with his actual course of study, he says, is all about balance. This, he explains, is how the average individual is expected to balance everything else in his life.
Yet, his attempt to depend exclusively on art for his subsistence has expectedly encountered obstacles. Even while explaining all away as the “ups and downs of life”, he has been compelled by circumstances to seek alternative sources of income.
“To survive as an artist, one needs to find the individuals in a market that appreciate and relate to his type of art. By this, I mean a market that has the purchasing will and the purchasing power to acquire his works, and support him as an artist.”
He had soon found himself multitasking as his own own producer, promoter, marketer, distributor and after sales service representative.
Meanwhile, he looks up to George Edozie, under whom he had been training, as his major influence. He specifically admires Edozie’s use of vibrant colours and strong messages. He also admires Ben Enwonwu, Duke Asidere, Abraham Uyovbisere, Alex Nwokolo and Segun Aiyesan. On the international scene, he reels out names like Egon Schiele, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Wassily Kandinsky.
As for adhering to any artistic trends or movements, he says: “Currently I just do me. And in this era of contemporary art, there are no rules. Everything to anything inspires me, sometimes it could be things I see, hear, smell… I do not only just directly or indirectly depict them in my works per say, rather I depict how these inspirations make me feel. In summary, its more like a visual representation of my feelings and thoughts.”