‘I stand with those who point to right path, criticise society’
SAM OVRAITI is a visual artist of repute. He is among the masters of watercolour art show,The Content at Adam and Eve, Ikeja GRA, Lagos. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, he speaks about how ancient African art has morphed into contemporary trends, his artistic trajectory and what art should be doing in modernising society generally
When you look at the artifacts our forefathers created hundreds of years ago in a book like African Man, you just wonder at their ingenuity. And you ask, what are their offspring, modern-day artists, doing? Why is that art not being created today? How did it disappear? What happened?
Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word will remain unchanged!’ It means and methods will fade away, but principle will remain. What I mean is, the way you used to know would both pass away, but there will be both. There would be changes in both due to new revelation. There were things they called printing in those days, where you have to make blocks. Now, technology is coming, with new revelation, better means of doing things. So these days, you do not need to set anything anymore. You just need to type something on some keyboard and you print it out. You know, there were things we used to use like typewriter, and after a while something came and they say it is computer. Some people refused to move ahead and things changed them and they were affected by change and they could not even survive to even feed. Because they refused to obey the simple rule that says that ‘old things are passed away,’ that the elders shall give way to the younger.
I am trying to be a little bit religious (laughs) because in Nigeria, we understand more of religious matters. Old things have passed away, now all things have become new; the elders shall serve the younger, that is, old things shall give way to more relevant, more modern things. So if you take it to the African man, he must know that the human being is dynamic, and our knowledge should also be dynamic. And people create things based on what is happening in their time. Every generation will have their own kings, princes and princesses, but the powerful will be changing from time to time, due to the needs of the time.
So, when we got to know about African Man, we didn’t get to know about them because we wanted to know about them. It was part of us in Africa. But the knowledge of African Man that comes from the people, who encountered African Man were the first to start writing about it. Writing about it means that they started thinking of how they were made, and the reasons for which they were made. And you will now discover that there were certain specific people who created them. Those people were not called ‘ape;’ they were called cannibal. They are the people who named them. But the Africans did not call them as cannibals or anything; they called them as people who created the gods. But your question says, how come or is the art still with us? I will say yes. They are still with us. But the false light that they have given to it keeps changing. Sometimes, we look at them in place and in time of history.
Right now, it doesn’t mean that they are not still creating them, because what we see as ape then, which was African Man, they have resolve from spiritual, ritual purpose. It is no longer the same way we are looking at it these days. Most of what we create now has now changed form and meaning to be for decoration. But some festivals still survive.
Last year, Nigeria lost one of its prominent carvers, Bisi Fakeye, and you would notice that not very many artists of this generation are going into that side of art – carving. We have more painters than carvers. Is it a dying genre of art in Africa?
What I will like to say in my personal point of view is that there has been some level of indoctrination, some level of influences from outside in our art. And there has also been some level of direction, as some flow based on what art is right now. Before now, woodcarving was a predominant art form, because we had the wood in Africa, we had the means for the job and everything to be a carver at that time. And it was an expression that was famous, more famous than wall painting at that time. You know, we had wall paintings when they used clay at that time. Now, if you really want to come back to Africa, when they were creating those masks at that time, you know, the religion helped it. The predominant religion, that is, the African traditional religion, helped it because it was easy for them to carve the wood, to give them to what god they want to give them to. It was only in a few cultures that they had more permanent materials like stone carving and bronze casting in Ile-Ife and Benin City. This is more permanent than wood. But wood was faster to carve and easier to carve. Is it indented in the psyche of African man at that time, what they see as a god, it was easy to use wood to carve it, easy to mould things with it. It was predominant at that time. Whether it is a dying art, I will not use the word ‘dying art.’
As I told you before, some things are popular at one time, not so popular at other times. But the thing is that even getting the wood to carve these days is very difficult because there have been some kind of restrictions on cutting or felling of trees and all those things. And the families that used to be the craftsmen, of producing new generations of artists, education has come in, religion, especially Christianity and Islam have come in, although some of these carvers are Christians and Muslims. But in those days, the people who carved these things were the custodians of the religious art and the rites. So, the families were the people, who were carving and also creating the gods. It was not possible for you to go and buy the woodcarving and create your own god.
So, with civilization and education, and you need to send these people now to school to learn art and everything. You know, the classical presentation that came from the organised form of education that we got from the British also affected the popularity of these cultures. And even the way the British and the Portuguese classified them as fetish objects, those who were coming up did not want to have anything to do with them. So, it reduced to a great extent and the number of people who could come out openly to do these things became fewer. And of course, if you also look at the cultures that were available during these things, they have also been affected by modernization. So, their forms have been affected. What we are doing now is not necessarily a copy of what it used to be. You find out that there has been an advancement, either through the kind of carving tools or art machines that we are now using. So, I can tell you that fewer and fewer people are now carving the way it used to be.
But essentially, the influence is still on everything that we do, because we cannot run away from the cosmos, from the individual cosmos, from the energy, the dark, creative spot that an African has, that has to do with the basic way that we do things. We do things on virtue. So, if the woodcarver is carving, he carves the head to be very big, bigger than the body; that thing affects us. So even in our painting, we still do those things without even knowing it. So an African of 1911 is not really different from an African of 2017. The difference is in the means. That of 1911 will trek from Warri to Lagos carrying the king on his shoulders. But 2017 will fly from Osubi, Warri, to Ghana, sitting in one place, just one seat. The plane will just come down there. The principle remains, the essence remains, but the means changed.
You are a well-known water colourist. Let’s look at your journey from 10 or 15 years ago and today 2017, what has changed in your art? What has remained, what is changing and where exactly are you going?
Yeah! I will like to modify it. Let me just start from the beginning because 10 years ago is far. Yesterday is past; tomorrow, we are going to get into it. Now is what I know. So, anything that is outside today is history. But I am going to break down history. When I started art, I didn’t start art because I thought I was going to become an artist. I started art thinking of art as the ability to draw. That was 48 years ago. I was still in primary school, when I said, ‘okay, let me just be drawing.’ I loved to draw. But it really didn’t happen because I wanted to draw. My mom was a seamstress and we could see her create clothing and everything, sew some things and she got us into doing part of it. So, I could see her draw flowers and use groceries to do it, and I started helping to draw flowers. I didn’t know there was one course called art or something like that. But then in secondary school, in 1972 and 1973, I started seeing that there is a course called fine art. I said, ‘that is very good.’ I know how to draw so I will be drawing, too. I didn’t do it because I wanted to become an artist. I was just doing it because I was just good at it. I did that till I left school.
When I left school, of course, I didn’t know what to read, because at that time, there was no direction. Nobody told you anything. We were just told to read art. I was good in mathematics and everything and I passed all my subjects very well. Good as it was, distinctions in mathematics, geography, biology, including fine art. But I wanted to read fine art because I really loved it, because at that time, I had already picked up interest in music. I was already playing the guitar. So, it was a problem for me because my parents didn’t want it.
Where exactly were you at this time?
Warri. I just finished secondary school In Warri. I had already picked up interest in playing musical instruments, the guitar, which my mom bought for me. I now wanted to read fine art, but nobody liked it, but I just wanted to do it. Then, it was when I got into art school that I discovered that there is a difference between sculpture, painting, ceramics, etc. So, I didn’t even know what to specialise in. So during my final year, I decided, ‘okay, let me read sculpture.’ The painting lecturer came and said, ‘why will you read this course? You are the best in painting’. I said, ‘okay, let me do panting.’ I changed my course here and there, up and down, till I finally said, ‘let me just do painting.’ So, I went into painting and I graduated as a painter then without really knowing what to do.
Until I just discovered that something had happened. I had won the National Art Competition in watercolour that I took part in. I was asked, ‘do you know why you won this competition?’ I said ‘no.’ He said, ‘ah, shebi you said you are a watercolourist? And you are really sure? How are you able to arrive at it? I said, ‘well, I don’t even know’ (laughs) because I wasn’t doing it to be the best. So I now told them that we had a special course in my school, where we use only watercolours and because I wanted to be the best in anything I am doing, so I learnt it well and it became part of me. I now discovered that every other person at that competition used either oil or any other painting substance. I was the only person who used watercolour, which means that it is a virgin area or somewhere I am really good at. So that was how I started painting in watercolour alone, because the medium was easy for me to do on my table, anywhere. You can carry it everywhere; it was easy, just some pieces of paper. You don’t have to carry loads and all those things. I didn’t really know it was anything spectacular because I was just painting for myself (laughs).
That is why I believe that it is good to be pure in whatever you are doing. When you are doing these things, just do it because it is life. Life does not require any definition and many people are not living life because they are living life: if I do this, I will do this; if I don’t do this. But then I was just painting without thinking of anything beyond painting. Suddenly, I discovered that people loved what I was doing. And I didn’t think I was a watercolourist. I have never been a watercolourist. I have never seen myself as a watercolourist. I have only seen myself as an artist. I have always been an artist and I have never painted more watercolours than any other medium.
Now that you are here in this studio, how many watercolours do you see here? How many? These five have always been. But because it was easy for me to carry my watercolours at that time, I had no car; I had no money to chatter vehicle to carry my oil paintings. I started lecturing immediately I graduated from school. So, I would just put my paper works in my portfolio. I could travel easily to Abuja, travel to Lagos from Auchi, holding the portfolio. I couldn’t carry this other forms of painting like that. So that was the idea, especially the places I used to go to, Abuja and Lagos; it was not easy for me to traverse these places easily. So, watercolour became the major thing that I could show and it represented what my paintings really looked like. But even so, I didn’t really see myself as a watercolourist. Even as an artist, I only saw myself as a painter, using colour as a primary tool for painting; using colour as a primary extension for painting.
So, if you look at my painting, it is all about colour. So, when they started saying watercolour, it all started with the newspaper people, the press people. They just came to say only watercolour works win National Art competitions. That was what brought the watercolour thing. I know the press has a way of holding you ransom (laughs). I can tell you that I am the first Nigerian to make watercolour a medium of choice in the sense that there were greater watercolourist, greater artists, who used watercolours. But they used watercolours as ‘clean and wash.’ It was not watercolour par se. They printed watercolour but not as much as I did. I am not saying not as good, as I did. So it was in volume at that time.
And I must tell you, I was able to meet the American Ambassador, whose wife was a painter, who loved my watercolour. He met me in Auchi. I had the Russian Consulate coming to see me. I had no studio. I was painting in my parlour, on top of my table. When they asked me for my studio, I took them to the parlour. So that is all about the watercolour. But I did something that was really new. I had developed an art that I did not even know with the watercolour, because I was able to combine elements, create some form of factual art that was new in the 1980’s that everybody wanted to get. I used to have a lot of work. So, that was what brought about the watercolour, and those times, the watercolours were more influenced by the media because the media would ask you about the watercolour. But I used enough oil at the International Conference Centre in Abuja. So, I did all those things at that time. I did the watercolours to the extent that at one time, you understand that we must conform to a level, and then creativity takes over. I was almost doing watercolours for life until I now discovered that there are other areas that I had stopped from coming up. So, I decided to begin a show in other areas.
Which area was that?
Ehm… that people were not really familiar with. Only those who were doing projects were familiar with them. The watercolours were famous; the pamphlets were even more famous. In the sense that before Sam Ovraiti, there was no pamphlet artist in Nigeria.
What is your philosophy about creating art?
An artist is meant to be a creator of life by the way he or she creates and uses his or her mind. He then uses what he has created in his mind to bring out a fantastic aspect of life. It is inbuilt and difficult to explain. Every artist should strive to be different from his peers, as that alone would make him outstanding. I know my onions in this job, and I am very confident that whenever there is a list of top artists in Nigeria, I must surely be there. It is not pride. It is what I have achieved over the years. Therefore, every artist should be diligent in his or her work and also apply some form of creativity when doing the work. Be the solution to the problems of the country through your skill and don’t be bothered about pay.
The current economic situation has had some positive and negative impacts on artists. It has affected the output of artists. While it makes some happy, it makes some sad; while it makes some to be more creative, it makes some to be angry. While it makes some to be hungry, it makes some to lose interest in the profession. All these effects, however, depend on the individuals to manifest. We have artists who think that when they condemn the government, they are helping, but they lie, because whatever you condemn remains stronger. We also have other artists who think that when they show the government what should be done, they are helping, they are on the right path, and that is where I stand. For instance, two photographers are sent on an assignment to take pictures of Lagos State. One takes pictures of all the mad men and women, the bad drainages and dirty streets, while the other takes pictures of the good roads, the newly built fly-over’s and other good things. Of course, both of them did the job, yet they were different in their thinking. While one looks at the negative parts of the state, the other views the state in her positive achievements.