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In Retrospective… Ovraiti celebrates 36 years as ‘colourist’


The Last Yellow Buses by Ovraiti

Sam Ovraiti’s art, in over three decades, has enriched collectors’ walls as well as works of critics and historians. Most synonymous with his career is some kind of attention to poetic application of colours.

Celebrating over three and a half decades, the artist goes Retrospective; Exposition of 36 Years Romance with the Language of Colours as his major solo show going on at Alexis Galleries, Victoria Island, Lagos.

Ovraiti had his last solo show in 1998.

Over 20 years after, the current show, specifically, looks at Ovraiti’s career as a ‘colourist.’ The term ‘colourists’ in Nigerian art parlance emerged towards the end of last century. It refers to a generation of artists whose sojourn in Lagos ‘changed’ the city’s art landscape, making it more competitive in terms of creative and vibrant application of colours on the canvas. Ovraiti belongs to that group of artists.

In over three and half decades of studio practice, his palette has created a signature of distinct tone across the different media.

The artist’s mastery of watercolour, for example, in the Nigerian art scene is legendary. However, in celebrating his 36 years of studio practice, Ovraiti plays less emphasis on his watercolour identity.

Profiling the Lagos visual space of the past three decades or more will be incomplete and an unfair exercise if certain icons are not mentioned.

The notorious yellow commercial buses in Lagos, for example, have been one of such iconic themes for artists over the decades.

In a tribute to the ‘dare devil’ yellow buses, Ovraiti, among other exhibits, brings into his solo a piece titled, The Last Yellow Buses.

Impressioned in subtle hues and captured from high angle view, it brings a depth of linear construction into the composite of buses on a queue. However, the artist who belongs in the generation of creative professionals that used to glorify Lagos yellow buses on canvas — with chaotic human traffic — now distorts something: the scene is barren of the usual human elements.

What exactly is Ovraiti saying in this narrative shift?

“The buses are not chaotic,” Ovraiti argues. “The people who operate them are the causes of the chaos.”

In the painting, he has chosen to exclude the human factors. Still in love with the colours that the notorious buses add to the art landscape of Lagos, Ovraiti interrogates the soon to be extinct city buses.

He insists, “the human spirits behind the chaotic buses are missing here.”

The more you try to separate Ovraiti’s strokes from the colourists’ era, the further it becomes difficult. Over two decades after the colourists’ palettes redefined shades and lights of the city’s art appreciation, the dynamics of contemporary contents from other artists seem to be pointing to a new 21st century direction.

Are ‘The Colourists’ struggling to catch up with the new dynamics of Lagos art?

Ovraiti recalls, “when the Colourists came to Lagos, in 1993, the art scene of the city changed.”

He insists that the potency in the business of painting, which is colour, still exists among his colleagues’ strokes.

“All of us use colours, not everybody is a painter,” he clarified during the preview for his current exhibition.

The relevance of colourists, he says will remain as long as colour is the energy that drives art. “The way I use colour in the days of Colourists is different from the approach now.”

In 2014, a group show titled, New Order, at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos, which had Olu Ajayi, Ovraiti, Toni Okujeni and Pita Ohiwerei attempted to spur a new phase for Nigerian art.

Three of the artists, Ajayi, Ovraiti and Okujeni were among those christened ‘colourists’ in the late 1980s to early 1990s for adding a new texture of colour to Lagos art.

Listed as The Colourists then were: Ajayi, Ovraiti, Edwin Debebs, Ikoro Emmanuel, Ekpeni Emmanuel, Okujeni, Osazuwa Osagie, Ben Osaghae, Ohiwerei, Lessor Jonathan and Alex Nwokolo.

Whoever thought Ovraiti is an artist that is very predictable may be wrong. The artist has a load of clarifications to make. “I am not a water-colourist, I practice watercolour painting; I am not a mixed media artist, l practice mixed media in my art; I am not a good or bad artist, I simply create art.”

Being an artist, he continues, is “not a form of art but form that is in consonance with the transient states that l experience time after time.”
Curator/ Founder and Director at Alexis Galleries, Patty Chidiac-Mastrogiannis, reveals how she has been seeking to collect Ovraiti since 2011.

“I have been wanting to collect his works and show then at Alexis Gallery; I finally have him here,” she enthuses. “I’m very proud that I will showcase somebody like Ovraiti with so much experience in knowledge of colours and painting, such that he can paint with his eyes closed.”

Sponsored by Pepsi, Tiger, Mikano, Amarula, Delta Airline, Cobranet Internet Service Provider, Wazobia TV, La Cave, Cool FM, Art Café and The Homestores Limited, the exhibition is in partnership with the Little Sisters of the Poor, located in Enugu, Nigeria.

Little Sisters is a home for the elderly and takes care of more than 65 people who have no one else to turn to. Alexis Galleries, according to the curator, will support Little Sisters home with part of the proceeds from the show.

Ovraiti was born in Zaria, in 1961. He was educated at the famous Auchi Polytechnic, Auchi, Edo State, where he obtained a Higher National Diploma (HND); and the University of Benin City (UNIBEN), where he earned a Master of Fine Art degree (MFA) in painting.

Ovraiti taught painting, drawing and illustration at the Auchi Polytechnic, from 1985 to 1993 and voluntarily moved on to pursue a full-time art practice in Lagos.

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