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Intriguing art of octogenarian ethnographer, Abejide

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor, Arts and Culture Editor
05 January 2020   |   3:37 am
Karen Wright once wrote, “the art world can be a mean place. If you don’t make it as a young emerging artist, chances are you will be out in the wilderness until you might get discovered in your twilight years.”

Abejide’s lighweight sculptures. Banana, cocoa and human head made with polythene

Karen Wright once wrote, “the art world can be a mean place. If you don’t make it as a young emerging artist, chances are you will be out in the wilderness until you might get discovered in your twilight years.”Emmanuel Oladunjoye Abejide is a case in point. Until quite recently, he was only known to a small group of ethnography world cognoscenti. On a recent visit to Ekiti State, this writer encountered the man, who was the best graduating student in fine art at the Ahmadu Bello University in 1968.

Destined to be one of Nigeria’s greatest artists of his era, Abejide had what Greeks call peripeteia, reversal of fortune, in his ‘career narrative’. He took up an appointment as an ethnographer in National Commission for Museums and Monuments. It was the real period of anagnorisis.“That’s how God wants it, because when I was in the university, I was the best in my set, and General Gowon’s government felt I should be honoured. I was given Federal Government scholarship with automatic employment and when I came to Lagos, I was told that there was no work in teaching; I was asked to go to the museum. In the museum, they said the only work I could do was ethnography; that is, researching into culture,” he says.

Abejide is not bitter about being discovered late; he has had an eventful life studying culture and interrogating cultural objects, codes, signs, symbols and artefacts. He is still thrilled to be invited for exhibitions and finding his work hung in homes. “Today, it has helped me because I’ve been exposed to culture a lot, and at the same time, I buried art for the period but it was hitting me. That was why I could still introduce Mirror Art in 1983, at the height of my career. It means I didn’t forget art out rightly,” he confesses.

The ethnographers adds, “it has been fulfilling, in that, today, when I write my curriculum vitae, I pride myself in being curator of Owo and Akure museums. I was the first ever curator who called it the museum. That’s the king’s palace in Owo. And again, I was sent directly from Ibadan after 10 years of ethnographic research to start the museum in Akure and I started it in July 1998.”

Born in Ilasa, Ekiti State, on June 21, 1939, Abejide went to all the schools he was meant to go. He graduated from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where he studied fine art between 1964 and 1968, majoring in painting, and then he did his master’s degree in visual arts at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan.

You must have met Prof. Cornelius Adepegba?
He draws a long smile and adds, as if trying to pause… enhh… enhh “Adepegba was my junior in the university at Zaria, and he was my supervisor for the master’s. A good friend of mine. He’s late now. It was under him I had my master’s. I chose not to be a doctor, because at that time, I was given the option to write my Ph.D thesis. But I was already on level 13 in the Federal Service — National Commission for Museums and Monuments — and I thought I was almost reaching the top, so, I didn’t feel like going to academics.”

Seeing the canvases stacked up in a filled space, you’ll be forced to ask why are they mounted close to foodstuff.He admits, “all the artworks that you’re seeing here, most of them were done immediately I retired from service on June 21, 1999. By that time, I was the curator of Kaduna Museum. I was transferred as curator of Jos Museum to the Kaduna Museum, where I retired. By the time I was in Ibadan, I was already the supervisor of ethnographers in Ondo, Oyo, Ogun, Kwara, Bendel and Lagos states. I introduced Mirror Arts into Nigerian technique of painting. It is etching of mirror from the back, colouring to make mirror art. I became the originator, the first in Africa and I exhibited it in 1993 at the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos.”

With Mirror Art, he interrogated how the artist held conversation with his object and subject in a manner that did not degenerate into absurd or banal narrative like Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Hamm and Clov in Eugene Ionesco’s Endgame.The mirror in his art says so much. It speaks of anything: Relationship between sex and power, men and women and cultures in a globalising world.Is he a popular figure among the older generation of Zaria art school graduates?He laughs and shrugs when asked if this is true. He corrects: “No, No. They call us ‘second generation’ while Grillo, Fasuyi and co was the first generation. I belong to the second generation of graduating students. We were the first set of people who started as undergraduates and graduating in ABU.” He says, smiling, “I couldn’t have been popular because I was not into teaching. I can’t remember this man from Yaba College of Technology. Yes, Kolade Oshinowo, I mean. He was three years my junior and he was under studying me. Dele Jegede didn’t even meet me there, but I didn’t go into direct teaching, therefore, I was in the museum. And museum was showcasing Kolade’s work and others.”

You must have had an encounter with the trio of Uche Okeke, Yusuf Grillo and Bruce Onobrakpeya?
“Those were my seniors. But when it comes to their works, we are from Zaria school, therefore, we are all using the pastel stroke, but I graduated from the pastel to the graffito impressions. I told you the reasons. People steal works and write their names but my identity cannot be stolen,” Abejide explains, drawing attention to Nigeria soil and the natural synthesis developed by the Zaria rebels.

“That is creativity per excellence, so, you can create in different forms. We are all creatives and my creativity pushes me to using materials around me to make sure they are not useless,” the ethnographer says.He acknowledges very few influences, except perhaps, ethnography. “May be because I was employed as an ethnographer, to research into culture, not art.” There was a day he corrected one of his junior colleagues, who was employed as an artist, about what he was doing. His boss scolded him, reminding him that he was not an authority on that subject.

“I reminded him that I’m a fine art graduate from ABU. So, it was just like that. Once you are employed in a civil service, your line is what you should continue on, no regret whatsoever.”Abejide says sarcastically, “it was as if I wasted the 28 years in museum.”He, however, says, “when I now saw what was coming out from the experience, I thank God that I worked there. I took part in so many exhibitions and a major solo show in 1993 to showcase Mirror Art. The exhibition was titled, Echoes of cultural reflections. It held at the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos. I have also participated in SNA exhibitions, and was the key exhibitor at the Convocation exhibition of Obafemi Awolowo University, in 2003. Olomola was the director of Cultural Studies then.”

After retirement, as a deputy director at the National Museum, he was to settle down in Lagos as an artist, but was told in a ‘dream’ to remain in Ilasa. He went back to the small village of Ilasa and in the modest house he built and continued working there.

Is his studio still active?
“Yes, I work round the clock even yesterday night till this morning I still worked. I am also into drum making too. All these thrown away or bad coolers, I turn them to drums, but I use imported leather,” the retired ethnographer says. “Back home in Ilasa what I have is over 200 works,” he reveals. “When you talk of packaging, you know the background is telling on them, because I have somebody who is with me, my daughter, and the two of us are taking care of those works, no more no less. The other thing is that people call me again when they want me to showcase my work.”

Now back home, what is the market value of art or craft in business in terms of marketing?
“It has no market value because nothing is sold, and then, all I do is to think of moving out and selling whatever I can. I have cards of the known buyers I can talk to. I don’t allow them to carry away my work, because a lot of them have been lost to these people. They will carry them away and will not pay,” he says.

So, you are not living on your art?
“No, I am living on what I did in the museum and what I earned as a retiree.” Observed from both below and above the Ekiti Parapo Pavilion, Ado Ekiti where this show is holding, you’d notice the artful simplicity in which the works were arranged.Some of the works showed his passion to turn waste to wealth. The pieces include cassava, cocoa, paw paw, yams, plantain and so on, which are known to be farm products of Ilasa. They are mounted on a mast and could be moved round.

In developing his new medium of expression, he combines culture and earthen colours to interrogate shapes and create new, mediated images that are aesthetically pleasing.“In the year 2014, there was a campaign for governor Fayemi and I chose to use the lightweight packaging (polythene) to do some campaign messages for him. Through that process, I got to know a way of hardening the polythene to make it do whatever I wanted. From that one, I introduced what is now known as the foremost lightweight sculpture in Africa,” he says.

Where are the works now?
His animated face contrasted with the sculptural pieces he mounted at the 2019 Ekiti Festival of Arts and Culture (EKIFEST 2019).“They are in the front. Those oranges and banana, yam and three eggs are all there. I made them from lightweight package, and then, if you look at my work, my interest is waste to wealth. I prefer to change whatever people think is a waste to something valuable.”Before his encounter with lightweight sculptures, he was already obsessed with painting.

You talked about mirror etching. Is it the same thing as lightweight sculptures?
“No, they are different things. Mirror etching was introduced in 1983, while this one came in 2014 and has developed till date,” he retorts.He says, “at the time I was in painting, and somebody was going to Germany, he bought one of my works and in my presence, he changed my signature. I withdrew my painting from him, returned his money and started thinking of how I could make my work unique and appreciated. Immediately I got home, I decided to be a knife painter, and I produced about 120 knives, with over 400 selected edges, and from there, I made painting. So, whoever will produce my type of painting, must be able to see my knife, borrow and use it. Without that, you cannot copy my work.”

His passing shot for younger artist?
“They should know that the future of art is great, because today’s employment is not for many but an artist will always be employed, if you are not employed by corporate organisations or government, you will be self-employed and you can market your work anywhere and I thank God today, my daughter has a Ph.D. in Graphic Art and is heading a section in OAU. The daughter is into theatrical arts and is pursuing a degree in that one after having a diploma in fine art in the same school, I thank God it is in the blood,” he confesses.