Nothing forewarned Mike Omoighe’s associates about his imminent passage at the early hours of Sunday, January 24. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke relieves his recent interventions in the local art scene.
A sense of detachment – or was it numbness? – was definitely not the rational reaction that early Sunday, January 24 morning’s WhatsApp message – announcing that “Mike Omoighe passed on yesterday” – should have elicited. But then, not even words, or even emotions, could lend themselves to coherent expression under the circumstances. Just silence – of words, of thoughts and emotions – reigned…
Strangely, it felt as though someone had pressed the pause button on these gross material forms of expressions. For, credible stock phrases of condolence suddenly took flight, refusing to adhere to the dictates of this apparent non sequitur. Then, resignation to its inevitability began to assert itself.
Omoighe, a Yaba College of Technology’s School of Art, Design and Printing lecturer until his passage on Saturday, January 23, once matter-of-factly proclaimed: “Artists work… till the last day when they drop the body.” This during an online interview while the activities swirling around his 60th birthday were revving up.
Well, how self-fulfilling! At 62, the artist could not have been contemplating retirement from his studio practice. Art, he had disclosed in that interview, had been the theme song of his life. Having a father, who was a sculptor, an uncle who was a photographer and another who was an architect did not only ensure his growing up in an artistic environment but also convinced him that the purpose of his earthly existence had a lot to do with art.
It was years later that he would begin his real formal training in art as a secondary school student at St Gregory’s College in Obalende, Lagos, where he was tutored by the art legend Bruce Onobrakpeya. Onobrakpeya’s contemporary and Zaria Art Society comrade, Yusuf Grillo, took over the mentorship baton when Omoighe enrolled at the Yaba College of Technology, where he eventually obtained a national diploma in 1978. Besides Grillo, who was then the Head of the Art Department, he was also taught by other lecturers like Kolade Oshinowo, Paul Igboanugo, Vivian Osemwegie and YAG Lawal, among others. To Onobrakpeya, Grillo, Oshinowo, Igbanugo and Ademola Adejumo, he said, he owed a lot of influences. “I have learnt a lot as I was also teaching other beautiful souls,” he added, alluding to his students at the tertiary institutions. “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.”
Omoighe also trained at the Auchi Polytechnic, Auchi, where he graduated with a higher national diploma in 1980 and subsequently at the University of Lagos for a certificate in polytechnic management in 1987 as well as at the University of Ibadan, where he obtained a Master’s degree in visual arts communication.
In between his academic responsibilities and his studio practice, he had been seeking a happy medium since 1986 till he gave up the ghost on Sunday, January 24. The late chief lecturer at the Yaba College of Technology had, among other things, been a member of its Academic Board, the head of the tertiary institution’s fine arts department, the Dean of the School of Art, Design and Printing, later the Dean, Student Affairs and, subsequently, the director of the tertiary institution’s Academic Planning Unit.
He, of course, had to pay his dues before getting this far. “Life…itself is a major challenge,” he said during that interview. This explained why he titled his first solo exhibition (at the National Arts Theatre, Lagos) in 1982 Growth and Fear.
As an art critic, he held the reins as the AICA (International Association of Art Critics) president at a time when the association’s Nigerian chapter was dormant. Already as far back as sometime in 1980, he curated the first NYSC artists show in the Ondo State capital, Akure. “Curatorial works weren’t even known by most people then.”
Even as Omoighe had acknowledged the progress (which he called a geometrical leap) the local art scene had made over the years, he believed that there was still much room for improvement. One of such areas that he believed was in dire need of improvement was art administration, which in his opinion “puts a few artists up and [leaves] the rest in abject poverty. When they die of boredom and hunger, the art administrators go for the art and make them museum pieces.”
Nonetheless, the Edo State-born artist held the view that the existing art administration befitted the people’s consciousness and seemed comfortable with the way things were progressing without structure, adding that the art scene would grow someday.
For the records, Omoighe might not have declared himself a committed artist. Yet, he was politically conscious enough to find a lot of things wrong with his society, which he expressed in his art. On the controversy that swirled around the former Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode’s administration’s public art projects, he said they were trending because they were done at all. If they were not done, there wouldn’t have been anything to talk about. Then, he wondered about some of the mural paintings that he alleged were washed away after one rainy season and were not eliciting as many comments. This, he thought, was because they were not portraits of notable figures. “My only worry is that it is public funds that are being used for the statues,” he lamented. “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.”
Omoighe still had a lot of good things to say about the local art scene despite the controversies. He was full of praises for the annual ArtX and the Lagos Biennial, which he hailed for breathing “hope and optimism” into the art scene, adding that they were major catalysts for the creative mind and the entire art community.”
Still on his political views, he owed them to the “June 12” riots, which roused from his initial apolitical disposition. The events that trailed 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. He recalled the curfew that was imposed in Lagos as well as the armoured tanks that rolled into the streets, as bonfires and protests added to the pandemonium.
Some of these impressions, which he called “visual narratives” and reinforced his belief that artists, as humans, are not immune to politics, were evident in the works featured at an exhibition he held the National Gallery of Art in 2005 and a more recent one he held at The Wheatbaker Hotel exhibition in Ikoyi, Lagos.