Artist Stories: Part 2 - Asiru Olatunde

John Martin Gallery
Mar 2, 2019 11:25AM

A brief history of the Nigerian Artist renowned for his reliefs in metal.

Asiru Olatunde
Offering to the River Goddess Oshun
John Martin Gallery

Oshun is worshipped in Nigeria and the Caribbean as the goddess (orisha) of womanhood. Love, sensuality, wisdom, coquetteshness, she represents the full breadth of womanhood and ‘all the things that make life worth living’. Oshun protects and nurtures, she is invoked for fertility, marriage and success, she sees the future but can equally be vengeful, bitter and passionate. Her spirit resides in rivers. Oshogbo in Nigeria is the heart of the Yoruba faith. Once a year there is a procession to the source of the River Oshun, which resides in the sacred groves of Oshun (now a UNESCO world heritage site). The procession is led by the Oba, the king of Oshogbo who can be seen in the all three sequences of the aluminium panel made by the artist Asiru Olatunde. The panel reads, snake-like from top left to bottom left, the final sequence shows the Oba feeing the river Goddess her offerings.

Asiru Olatunde was born in 1918 in Oshogbo. Like his father and grandfather, he worked as a blacksmith until the late 1950’s when ill-health forced him to stop work. It was at this time that the art educationalist and writer, Ulli Beier and his wife, Suzanne Wenger (who was later to secure UNESCO status for the Oshun groves) moved to Oshogbo and became friends with the Asiru, who lived opposite them. Beier wrote of ‘the sad, gentle man’ sitting amongst the blacksmiths in a forge opposite his house whose poor health had prevented him continuing to work. Though the two soon became friends, Beier had no inkling of his talents until 1961 when he discovered a little lion, cut out of thin copper plate, lying in the sand in front of his house. It was just 2 cm long and beautifully crafted. The lion’s mane, eyes and mouth had been incised into the copper. When Beier was informed the lion had been made by Asiru Olatunde, he immediately urged Asiru to make more of these as earrings which he could sell to his friends at the University of Ibadan where he taught. Encouraged by this immediate success Asiru began to work with enthusiasm; Beier bought big sheets of aluminium for him from a saucepan manufacturer and now working on a larger scale his panels became more complex. They revealed an artist of breathtaking originality: not only for a technique that was entirely his own invention but with a wide-ranging imagination which easily furnished his ambitious narrative schemes. Through the support of Beier, Asiru’s began to be collected not only across Nigeria but internationally, culminating in an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

His alumium panels are studies in texture and reflected light. The overall stippling pattern recalls the white painted dots found on some traditional wooden shrine figures. Olatunde's subjects include narratives drawn from Yoruba oral tradition, Bible stories set in Nigerian settings and scenes from everyday life. One image seen repeatedly throughout his work is the tree of life, a truly universal motif that also recalls his connections to the groves of the Oshun shrine.

Olatunde begins by incising the fine outlines of his design with a hammer and a sharp piece of iron. Then he incises the details such as the figure's features, clothing or hair. Finally, he creates the background texture using a punch. Apprentices help with the heavier routine portions of the work.

– John Martin

Asiru Olatunde, Hunters in the Forest John Martin Gallery

Ulli Beier wrote: Asiru died in 1992 aged 74 years. During the thirty six years of our friendship I have never seen him lose his temper; I never heard him speak badly about another person. He was always very calm and peaceful. He was also a very modest person. When Duro Ladipo started his Yoruba theatre company in Oshogbo, Asiru went and helped him out by playing the talking drum very competently during the early years. He was not from a drummers family and nobody knew how he had acquired this difficult skill. Asiru preceded the famous Oshogbo art movement by several years. When the Oshogbo artists created their association they elected him as their chairman. With his wisdom and calm he remained outside and above the tensions that sometimes arose between the artists. Throughout his life he was the ideal peace maker.”

John Martin Gallery