Shunning the Western-coloured perceptions of African art, the nonagenarian artist Abayomi Barber asserts his artistic independence in naturalism and blazes a trail in the contemporary Nigerian art scene. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Boredom was inevitable under the circumstances. Being confined to a palace was not what Abayomi Barber had expected when he intimated his uncle about his plans to travel to England. But, to his maternal uncle, Oba Adesoji Aderemi (the then Ooni of Ife) confining him there was the right punishment for his audacious scheme to sail to England as a stowaway. The Ooni had gone further to instruct Barber’s elder brother, Ladepo, who was then living in the palace, to ensure he was kept there for another five years.
But, the younger Barber had no plans of spending five years in detention. Hence, he was already plotting his eventual escape. Fate, in any case, had better ideas. About two and half months later, a festival to commemorate the Ooni’s ascension to the throne held. This was sometime in 1957. In attendance at that festive occasion, among other dignitaries, was the revered iconic nationalist Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
Barber did a portrait of Chief Awolowo and another of the then Minister of Education in the defunct Western Region, Stephen Awokoya. He first presented them to his uncle, the Ooni, who passed on the portraits to both Chief Awolowo and the minister. Impressed with his gift, Chief Awolowo requested to see the young artist.
This was how he got a scholarship from the Western Regional Government to study at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, UK from 1960 to 1962. While in England, he studied the preservation and restoration of antiquities and moulded a statue of Chief Awolowo. Unfortunately, a crisis, which engulfed the region, led to his scholarship being abruptly terminated. Nonetheless, he went on to study casting and moulding at Mancini and Tozer Studios in London and also worked as an art assistant at a studio owned by the Irish sculptor Edward Delaney. Later, he would work with the Croatian sculptor Oscar Nemon on five sculptors of British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill at St James studio.
Even long before his departure for England, Barber had proven his proficiency in the visual arts early in his life. As a primary school pupil, he was taken to the local shrines with his classmates as part of his history education lessons. It was at these shrines, that he not only learnt to identify the deities by their names, but also began to develop an uncommon interest in sculptures. Not long afterwards, he taught himself the art of sculpting and in no time became a full-fledged artist because of his drawing skills.
Back then, he recalled, he used to draw portraits of his uncle, the Ooni. These he would present to the monarch each time he came visiting his parental home in Ile-Ife. Impressed, the Ooni would reward him with some money even when he chose to leave the portraits with the young artist.
At the instance of his uncle, he left his mother and relocated to Ilesa, where he opened his first studio. He was able to acquire this studio, which was a warehouse, thanks to his supportive uncle. Here, he produced sculptures of the town’s influential people.
From his new base, he frequently visited Lagos, which even then was already the country’s hub of artistic activities. There, he attended several art exhibitions.
When he was compelled by unsavoury circumstances to leave Ilesa, Lagos became his next natural destination. It was in this Nigeria’s most vibrant city that he enrolled for a programme in sculpture at the Yaba College of Technology, where he trained under the tutelage of the renowned British sculptor, Paul Mount.
The artist recalled Mount requesting to see his students’ portfolios with a view to assessing the level of their proficiency. The British art teacher was very impressed when he saw Barber’s portfolio, which featured his self-portrait in oil and a piece of sculpture he had cast with papier-mâché.
Shaking his head in an obvious admiration, the art teacher said the works were better than anything he would have done. Buoyed by the compliment, Barber thought there was little or nothing he needed to learn from art schools. Dropping out of school, he continued to buy books that he would read. After all, he had reasoned, schooling was all about books. His reading regiment included comics, novels and philosophy books. And with so much time at his disposal, he concentrated on honing his artistic skills.
But then, there was also his other passion, which obtruded into his visual arts practice. And that was his love for music. He soon discovered a band owned by one Dele Bamgbose and with a friend, Kunle Sijuade, requested to join the band. Choosing his preferred instrument tenor saxophone was no problem since he could already play the cornet back when he was still in primary school.
He was soon so engrossed in music that he soon neglected his visual arts practice.
Among his other activities while he was in Lagos was his stint in an advertising firm, doing the sketches for comic books such as Awo Rerin and spending some time at the Yoruba Historical society before his travelling to England on a scholarship.
Fast-forward to 1971, when he returned from England 11 years later. He became an arts fellow at the University of Lagos’s School of African and Asian Studies, which is now known as the Centre for Cultural Studies.
The following year, he was commissioned to produce a portrait of the visiting Ethiopian leader, Haile Selassie. Among his many works that have engraved themselves in the industry’s consciousness are his famous Yemoja paintings, his Ali Maigoro sculptures and his surrealistic landscapes, which are displayed at the National Gallery of Modern Art.
An unapologetic stickler for naturalism, he was displeased with the Western-instigated and sanctioned notions of what African art should be.
Not so long afterwards, a coterie of devotees began to adhere to his artistic credo and cluster around him. Thus, he started his renowned informal art school in 1973 at his studio the university with the likes of Muri Adejimi and Olu Spenser as his best-known students. The products of his school, which eschewed “naïve” and “primitive” expressions of the Osogbo Art School, became accomplished artists by their own rights.
Strangely, his first ever solo exhibition, which he titled Abayomi Barber: A Retrospective, held in 1989. Nonetheless, in more recent years, the artist is recognised as one of the leading lights of the contemporary Nigerian art scene. Indeed, his over seven decades of art practice distinguishes him among his peers. This is despite the fact that his naturalistic paintings refuse pander to the Western notions of African art.