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James Irabor: The Art of the matter

By Oji Onoko
16 November 2022   |   4:00 am
The curtain rail dealer had come with a simple request to him- produce copies of the rails, which had designs at the edges. He was only too glad to accept.


The curtain rail dealer had come with a simple request to him- produce copies of the rails, which had designs at the edges. He was only too glad to accept. Satisfied with his sample, she made an order for 50 pieces with a princely price at the time of N200 a pair! Other orders came from her at close intervals. Not surprisingly, he began to make his own designs, which he sold, to willing vendors with good profit margins. Next came ornamental art, which began by beautifying gates for patrons. The world of commercial art had only just begun…

Running at full steam, he added fine statuary, casting and ornamentations to his portfolio. He even exported some of the smaller pieces abroad! There were also wrought iron furniture, ornamental gates and spiral staircases and fence grills as well. Money rolled in. He was on a roller coaster.

But that was not exactly what James Irabor bargained for. His studio with the fancy name, Earthworks located in Ibadan, churned out conventional works of art-drawings, paintings and sculptures.

Freshly graduated in Fine Art, majoring in Sculpture from Ahmadu Bello University, (ABU), Zaria, he was out to prove his mettle. But patronage was low and money in short supply.

Still living with his parents at the time, his siblings who studied conventional courses like Law, Medicine and Pharmacy were doing much better. He began to feel inadequate. He did a lot of abstract works and other compositions but nobody would buy. Even when he participated in exhibitions organized by the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), Ibadan, of which he was a member, few people bought the art works on display.

“They just admired them and said they were very nice but did not buy,” he recalls seated opposite you this Tuesday afternoon at his office, festooned with paintings and a sculptural piece right in the middle. “Sometimes I would look at myself and wonder if I had made a mistake.”

Commercial art gave him the needed reprieve, the oxygen required to express his art in utilitarian ways. He knew he was veering off his main course of study-Fine Art but what did it matter? He was not taught the business of art in school anyway. This is something he picked up in practice. He wondered why the business of art is not taught in schools as he wrapped up yet another deal. He was shuttling at the time between Ibadan and Zaria, where he was undergoing his master’s programme in Fine Art in complete ease and comfort if not luxury. After all, he had money in good supply courtesy of his studio practice. It is a programme he recalls with fond memory. Out of 10 of them that applied, only three were admitted.

“Myself, Lamidi Lasisi now a Professor and Ken Okoli also, a Professor now.” Soon after, he set aside his newly acquired laurel as he plunged back to studio practice with vigor. He continued to enjoy good patronage for a few more years making him one of the highly sought-after artists in Ibadan. The studio was still going strong 10 years after. “Commercial art was good and I was making money,” he says now, a boyish grin on his face. But like all good things, the gravy train soon began to screech to an inevitable halt. Voice heavy, the artist recalls: “It got to a time that I wasn’t selling anymore. Business started dwindling.”

It was at this juncture that news filtered to him of an opening for the position of Lecturer 1 at his Alma mater- ABU, Zaria. It was a position he was tailor made for. With gusto, he rallied round his papers and applied. He did not expect any hitch. He looked forward to joining his former classmates-Lamidi Lasisi and Ken Okoli to form what he refers to as the ‘tripod’. The response was slow in coming. When it eventually came, it jolted him-his application was rejected! For James Irabor who saw his admission into the Fine Art Department of ABU as a “an icing on the cake,” this was double whammy…

He had joined the department on 300 level, as an elite student from Auchi Polytechnic where he had graduated with Upper Credit in Sculpture. He was far ahead of his classmates. “By the time I got to the university, most of the things they were teaching us, I had known,” he explains. Indeed, at Auchi Polytechnic, he had learnt how to weld, do bricklaying, the intricacies of mixing mortar and cement and a lot of other techniques. “It was there that I started getting exposed to installation that we see today. We had been doing it in those days when we went to gather scrap metal to form shapes and symbols. Auchi exposed me to a lot of studio techniques. It was in Auchi Poly that I became a studio rat because by the time you were drawn into an assignment, you just had enough time to quickly grab something to eat and come back to ensure that the work was done before the lecturer came the next day.”

Expectedly, he graduated with high GPA just short of a first class! He decided to enroll for his master’ s degree and at the same time applied for the position of Graduate Assistant in the department. His application for the position was flatly denied. Many years after, he is yet to understand what informed the decision. “Once you finished with a very high score, you could apply to be a graduate assistant in the department. I had a very high score; I narrowly missed a first class. I was the best in my set and from what I heard recently; my record of almost 30 years has just been broken. By rights, I should have drifted in as a graduate assistant, lecturing and then start my master’s programme. I was shocked.”

The setback only propelled him to aim higher in restoring his flagging commercial art. He decided to move his studio practice to the nation’s capital, Abuja. Luckily for him, his wife had already secured a job there. He closed down his studios in Ibadan after 13 years of unbroken practice dreaming of the good times ahead-a larger studio, more clients and even commissions. And why not? Isn’t Abuja Nigeria’s seat of power?

Once in Abuja, he immediately linked up with Kigho Ebioke, an old friend and University of Benin trained artist who was equally into ornamental art. They became kindred spirits exploring the very limits of commercial art “scouting for commissions in the area of wrought iron staircases, fence grilles and burglar proofs” among others. But the jobs were not coming as quickly as he expected. They came in trickles and even the few they got were through his friend! He used to go everywhere canvassing, carrying his portfolio with him. Yet, he could not get any job. Self- doubt began to set in.

His friend later advised that getting a site for a studio would boost their practice. They immediately got a roadside place, which they connected, to the grid as the studio. And just when they were settling in, the then Federal Capital Territory (FCT) minister, Nasir el-Rufai came and demolished everything! It was too much for James Irabor who was having a slippery foothold in Abuja. He withdrew from the partnership. “I sat down at home and started doing my drawings,” he says now, with a straight face.

And why not? Drawing, painting and later sculpture are his natural turf. It was what made him settle for fine art anyway even though his initial plan was to study architecture. Fine art for him is life. It has always been there right from infancy when he used to draw on any available space. In Primary School, he would copy the characters in Marvel comics and cut them out as toys.

It was in secondary school, however, that his interest in fine art was cemented. He attended the highbrow Government College, Ibadan (GCI) modelled after Eton College in the United Kingdom with majority of its teaching staff expatriates including the principal! Music and fine art were given priority as subjects with well-stocked library including imported brochures and other literatures on art the young James was entranced, immersing himself even deeper into art, developing his craftmanship in the process.

But his score at the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board (JAMB) examination cut short his enthusiasm of gaining admission to the University. He had to grudgingly settle for The Polytechnic, Ibadan as a stopgap. His plan was to obtain his Ordinary Diploma and cross over to the University. But it did not work out that way. Indeed, he was offered admission to Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife after his diploma but the course of study-music- even with the possibility of crossing over to Fine Art after one year did not sit well with him. For him, it was Fine Art or nothing. That was how he applied and got admission to Auchi Polytechnic. It is a decision he still cherishes till date. “When I got to Auchi for my HND, the art school was more advanced in technique, talking about experimentation, materials and explorations. Ibadan was normal and restricted. You could not deviate from the norm, even if you wanted to experiment, there was nobody to expose you to it. But in Auchi they had gone ahead,” he recalls. From Auchi, he crossed over to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria for his Bachelor;s and master’s degrees…

Supplication (The Beggar)

For the artist, inspiration comes mainly from the human form in every shape, side, abstract or otherwise. “It is within me and I draw human forms a lot. Once I see a blank sheet of paper, I just want to fill it.” His art, he says “is embellished with myriads of African motifs while most, if not all the concepts are eclectic.” Discernable in his works is a synthesis which he explains “combines the African and Western styles which makes the sculptures modern, yet African and devoid of the primitive, stereotypic and archetypical features.” They are expressions and the motifs, which cut across diverse ethnic backgrounds and art schools in Nigeria and some parts of West Africa…

He had thus earned his pip as an artist of note before joining the services of National Gallery of Art as an Assistant Chief at the Abuja head office in 2007. He rose steadily through the ranks from Head of Exhibition in the Curatorial Department at NGA headquarters to pioneer curator/head of station at Enugu outstation; curator, FCT, Abuja outstation and back to the headquarters as Deputy Director. Each posting had its thrills, frills and challenges. As head of exhibition, for instance, he was part of the first ever National Visual Art World Tour (NIVATOUR) which took him to Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt among other local exhibitions. At Enugu, the zonal headquarters for the Southeast, there was nothing on ground. He had to start from the scratch warming his way among the biggest name in the art circuit: Institute of Management and Technology (IMT), University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) and the professional artists. He brought them together and was able to exhibit their works in three major art exhibitions. He also met some members of the AKA group of artists; got involved in “Life in My City” programme and brought the state chapter of Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) back from the brink! “There was rancour by the time I got there,” he recalls. “My stay in Enugu was very nice,” he says. “Bona is my man till today. He is a brother and an artist. He eats and sleeps art. The same with Okay Okenegbu, Ayo Adenaike, Kryz Ikwuemesi and several others. I was among my people. Those were the days I actually honed my skill in writing…”

It is an area James Irabor plans to explore more, as he steps out of the service of National Gallery of Art after 15 years and attaining the mandatory age of 60 this September. Exuding confidence, he says: “I want to do more of writing at the international level. Writing on so many things that I have discovered along the line in arts; how I think art can be given a better place in the society and right now I am looking at working with cultural institutions and embassies on how we can use art in reaching out to the society. I discovered that art is the only thing that can engage the youths…”

Will he also be going back to the studio? You ask. “I will be going back to the studios,” he replies. “I still sculpt. “I told you I locked up my studio in Ibadan and the works are still there. I have to bring the works back from Ibadan. Some of them will need restoration and I will be doing that gradually. A friend of mine also got me a link to auctions online. It is an avenue I will explore for the sale of my works…”

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