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Abayomi Barber… An artists born, made in the street

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Recently, the National Gallery of Art (NGA) hosted an art show at the premises of the National Commission for Museums and Monument, Onikan, Lagos.

An artistic impression of Barber


The show, themed, Abayomi Barber: An Artist Born And Made was part of the gallery’s effort to document the life of Barber, one of Nigeria’s contemporary artists, who have contributed immensely to the development of visual arts in the country. He is also the mentor of the Abayomi Barber Art School in Lagos.

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The two-in-one event was designed by NGA to honour Barber, a sculptor and an accomplished saxophonist, whose life has been dedicated to the development of talents, refinement of skills and imparting of knowledge to younger people across generations for about 50 years. Ten of his old students and disciples — Muri Adejimi, Olumuyiwa Spencer, Adebisi Alade, Olubunmi Lasaki, Archibald Etikenrentse, Adebayo Akinwole, Femi Adewolara, Ato Arinze, Olatunde Barber and Conrad Decker — celebrated his 92nd birthday with a group show featuring 24 sculptures and 44 paintings.

Dr. Simon Ikpakronyi curated the exhibition, which ran for two weeks.

Though not well known in the Western world, Barber was “distinctly a part of the surrealist movement in Europe, an attribute that has its signature in his works,” says Ben Tomoloju, in a paper delivered at the opening of the show. “The motive-force of surrealism is to allow the artist’s or writer’s unconscious to be expressed with complete creative freedom. With such freedom at the subliminal level of the human faculty, the Barber School legatees will tend to branch out for air in diverse directions even as it is obvious that they shoot out from the same stem.”

Barber’s monumental body of work represents a microcosm of collective memory. They also visually encapsulating a broad range of cultural, literary and philosophical allusions. The works are known for the application of naturalism and surrealism methods.

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Some of his signature works include life-sized busts of former Nigerian president, Murtala Mohammed and the former Oba of Ile-Ife, Adesoji Aderemi, Ali Maigoro and Yemoja. Another famous work is an oil painting of Shehu Shagari.

BORN in Ile-Ife October 23, 1928, to the family of Samuel Bamidele and Victoria Waleola Barber, Abayomi Barber started his education at St Peter’s Anglican School, Iremo, Ife. He finished his education at St Stephen’s School, Modakeke, Ife in 1948.

“As a precocious child, he grew up in Ile-Ife, the ancestral home of the Yoruba. At that very tender age, he fancied and was attracted by the ancient Ife sculptures, most especially, the royal bronze and terra-cottas in the palace of his uncle, the late Ooni of Ile-Ife, Oba Adesoji Aderemi, who was also the Governor of the old Western Region of Nigeria,” revealed Tomoloju.

He added, “A combination of traditional, royal and political exposure provided the springboard by which Barber developed a taste for the sublime in his artistry as well as boundless ingenuity in creative practicality. As early as his teenage years, Barber had started to produce his own pastel from coloured chalk and charcoal with which he created works of art that distinguished him at that age as a prodigy.”

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In 1949, he produced a carving on a wooden box and then participated in various art competitions during the same year. He gained recognition in Lagos when he won the Elder Dempster sponsored Lines Silver Cup for the best painting exhibited at the All Nigeria Festival of the Arts in 1952. After the prize, he was commissioned to create a portrait of Harold Cooper, the outgoing Ikoyi Club president.

He later got employed in Lagos in the early 1950s as a graphic artist producing book and advertisement illustrations and comic drawings for the Nigerian advertiser located in Yaba, Lagos.

In 1955, he briefly enrolled in a sculptor programme at Yaba College of Technology under the direction of British sculptor Paul Mount.

In 1957, he was introduced to Awolowo, then the premier of the Western Nigeria region by his uncle, Oba Adesoji Aderemi; with Awolowo’s contacts, he joined the Yoruba Historical Research Scheme on a research project tracing the origin of the Yoruba people.

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His work as a project assistant in the research scheme gave him the opportunity to work with notable scholars such as Saburi Biobaku, William Fagg, Frank Willet and Dr. Bradburty.

Tomoloju reveals that his study of art in the United Kingdom has been documented, “but in a rather synoptic manner which requires greater elaboration.”

According to the media and culture consultant and former Deputy Editor of The Guardian, “A point to note, however, is that contrary to what the biographical document refers to as ‘cultural assimilation, one would rather prefer to use the term ‘cultural synthesis’ to qualify Barber’s artistic experience and enterprise during his sojourn in the United Kingdom between 1960 and 1971. He already had a bastion of creative motivational force in his Yoruba cultural environment, which could not have been extirpated by sheer exposure to the western mode of artistic expression. Barber will not, for instance, be compared with his francophone counterpart who, subject to the French policy of assimilation, divests himself of much of his original culture to take on more of the culture of the coloniser.”

He was not only exposed to but was actively involved in the modernist styles, movements and experimental techniques of the metropolitan culture capitals of the post-2nd World War era right up to the 1960s.

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Barber practised in the studio of renowned surrealist, Oscar Nemon, who was reputed as the official biographer of the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. It is, therefore, to Barber’s credit that he also created a bust of Winston Churchill like his principal, Nemon.

“He is in the league of great Nigerian artists who garnered fame in the international realm in the 50s and 60s like Ben Enwonwu for whom Queen Elizabeth II modelled for her portrait and Bruce Onobrakpeya whom two of his paintings were acquired by the recently deceased Duke of Edinburg at an exhibition in London in 1965,” Tomooju said.

From 1960 to 1962, with a scholarship from the regional government, he studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London. He went to London to study the preservation and restoration of antiquities and to work on developing the stature of Obafemi Awolowo.

However, a regional crisis engulfed the region and his scholarship was terminated. While in England, he continued to develop his craft, he studied casting and moulding at Mancini and Tozer studios, London, he also worked as an assistant at an art studio owned by Edward Delaney and later at Oscar Nemon’s studio in St James studio in London.

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He worked with Nemon on five sculptors of Winston Churchill. He was also an assistant at the British Museum.

Barber did not only win the admiration of the nobility and gentry in the UK, he returned to Nigeria in 1971 and continued in the same spirit. He produced the bust of Chief Obafemi Awolowo for the government of the old Western Region as well as that of the highly revered monarch, Oba Adesoji Aderemi, the Ooni of Ife.

Tomoloju explained: “Upon his return to Nigeria in 1971, he had several options for his professional engagement. He eventually opted for an appointment at the University of Lagos School of African and Asian Studies.”

Though calm and unobtrusive in demeanour, Barber is very strict when it comes to upholding standards. As an art educationist, he is a gatekeeper of sorts, particularly concerned with the rule of excellence.

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In Tomoloju’s words, “Against the infiltration of low quality works in the public space. Barber attributed this unwholesome development to lack of quality control. He expected the Nigerian art circle to borrow a leaf, for instance, from the kind of situation he witnessed during his practice in the UK where, at a certain point, ‘ a lot of mundane works were removed from public places by the Royal Academy of Art’ – the body that controls the practice of art.”

He said, “What is particularly crucial in this discourse is that the creative outputs of the numerous clansmen and women of the Barber tribe exhibiting now will not necessarily be prototypes of the original model and manner of artistic expression of the master himself. The fundamental traits will remain in terms of aesthetic principles, philosophy and elements of style. Yet there are bound to be some measures of departures owed to the dynamics of the individual talent, which will always assert itself. What I am saying in essence is that there can only be one Abayomi Barber. The rest are influences, bold or feeble.”

ALSO speaking at the event, Director-General NGA, Mr. Ebeten William Ivara, disclosed that his administration has resolved to make NGA a revenue-generating agency that will make artists gainfully engaged.

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He added that he would soon inaugurate a joint committee of NGA and the Society of Nigerian Artists to harmonise the Establishment Act with a view to re-presenting it to National Assembly for repeal and re-enactment. He urged Nigerian artists to be part of this new vision for the betterment of visual art and artists.

“We actually held a stakeholders’ Meeting in December to chart a way forward for visual arts in Nigeria. A major takeaway from that meeting was the resolve to make NGA revenue-generating and fine artists gainfully engaged. I want to announce that my next assignment in Lagos will be to inaugurate a joint committee of NGA and the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) to harmonise our Establishment Act with a view to re-presenting it to the National Assembly for Repeal and Re-enactment. I enjoin you all to be part of this new vision for the betterment of visual arts and the practitioners,” he noted.

Founder OYASAF, Omooba Yemisi Shyllon who declared the exhibition open urged the management of NGA to look beyond holding an exhibition and arrange residency for artists in order to expose and enrich their practice.

“It is not enough to host art exhibitions. Organising art residency by NGA will go a long way to empower the Nigerian artists, many of who are in dire need of opportunities to be exposed. Artists need to be trained and learn from the masters such as the legendary Abayomi Barber, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Kolade Oshinowo and lots more. OYASAF has held residencies for over 30 Nigerian and non-Nigerian artists. The NGA is more empowered to do it. And it is more meaningful for NGA to run such programme,” he said.

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