TAFETA is pleased to present a two-person exhibition of works by Muraina Oyelami and Ben Osawe as part of Art Dubai Modern 2017. Respectively, Oyelami and Osawe represent informal and formal schools of modern Nigerian art that flourised in the 1960s and 70s. Both of these artists’ works continue to influence contemporary forms of artistic expression in drawing, painting, and sculpture.
Oyelami is considered to be one of the foremost artists in the Oshogbo School, which emerged in South-West Nigeria in the mid-1900s. Fusing traditional Yoruba motifs with what has been interpreted as German Expressionist painting, his work exemplifies the bold lines and colours that frequent the visual art associated this School. Often destroying work with which he is not pleased, Oyelami’s method of blending influences is distinctly different from others in the Oshogbo School, which include Jimoh Buraimoh, Twins Seven-Seven, Adebisi Fabumi, and Jacob Afolabi . Working primarily with pastel or paint on board, paper, or canvas, Oyelami composes works that make rich reference to folklore and the people and/or places in his surroundings. His palettes of embellished earth tones blur representational forms with abstraction, all within marks that allude to the hard contours of carved, Yoruba antiquities.
Oyelami’s use of line is comparable to the lines that appear in the work of Ben Osawe; both incorporate translucent lines as borders that compartmentalize minimalist form. The latter was trained in the United Kingdom and Nigeria, and his works reflects a synthesis of influences that are relevant to much of the visual art produced in Nigeria post-independence. Following his formal training at Camberwell School of Arts, Osawe committed to using drawing to conceive of forms that would eventually be rendered as sculpture, the medium for which he is arguably best known. As the vibrant colours of his drawings are transformed into minimalist interpretations in wood or bronze, the works on paper encapsulate the rhythms and compositions that make Osawe unique. Thereby, these drawings are complete works themselves and also mark beginnings in Osawe’s creative process. Alongside the presented sculptures, the viewer might imagine the nature of the preliminary drawings or resulting sculptures of the exhibited works. Owl (c. 1970), a noteworthy piece by Osawe is a bronze, asymmetric sculpture that demonstrates a shift from the classical figure modeling that appeared in Osawe’s early career.
With works that have never before been exhibited to the public, this selection introduces Osawe and Oyelami to an international audience. While residues of forms typically associated with European movements such as cubism are apparent in both artists’ work, for Osawe, the process is predominantly where the Western influence on his practice lies. The artist attributes his propensity for planning sculpture through drawing to his art school training. To contrast, in the case of Oyelami, this emphasis is often placed on the aesthetics of his final work and his choice of medium; however, it may also be argued that these traits are derivative of localized techniques to have developed over centuries. Muraina considers the informality of his training to be an enabling force in his practice. Still, he interacted with art historian Ulli Beier and artist Susan Wenger in Oshogbo during the mid-1900s. And this had some bearing on his practice, even though the impact may be without the admission or clarity apparent in the case of Osawe.
Leading practitioners of modern Nigerian art, these two artists feature prominently in international collections and continue to be subjects of exhibitions and scholarship that examine the previously described era.
Ben Osawe (1931) was born in Agbor, Delta State, Nigeria. His first instructor was his father, who was a sculptor for Oba Eweka II of Benin. From 1956-59 he studied at the School of Graphic Art at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. Thereafter, he returned to Nigeria, where he taught at the University of Nsukka. He continued to practice visual art until his death in 2007. Osawe’s works are have been exhibited widely in exhibitions such as The Short Century, curated by Okwui Enwezor, and feature in the permanent collection of the National Museum of Nigeria (Onikan) and several private collections.
Muraina Oyelami (1940) was born in Iragbiji, Osun State, Nigeria. He remains part of the Oshogbo movement and has continued to work with younger generations of artists who have taken to this School of art making. His works have been exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art and feature in the collections of the Studio Museum Harlem and the IWALEWA-Haus in Germany, among others.