We visited the studio of artist Akinjide Baruwa in the Yoruba city of Oshogbo, Nigeria. He is working in the medium of painting and drawing and developed a unique and labour-intensive technique, extracting pigments from certain plants. Recently one of his paintings was printed on the cover of the book “The Yorùbá God of Drumming” by Amanda Villepastour (see the blog post The Orisha drummer's reading list for a review). We had a critical talk with Akinjide Baruwa about Nigerian academic education and the modern art movements that shaped the contemporary scene. The artist tells us in his poetic words about Yoruba identity and where he finds his inspiration. Read the full interview below.
Thank you to photographer and artist Silke Lapina (www.silkelapina.com), who recently did a series on portraits of Nigerian contemporary artists and let us share her work in this article.
Moussa: In the text of one of your catalogues your artwork gets connected to the “New Sacred Arts“ movement. Oshogbo is your hometown, you grew up at Ibokun Road, close to the house of Susanne Wenger. How do you as a contemporary artist see this movement?
Akinjide: We can't understand the “New Sacred Arts” movement if we don't understand the motive behind the formation of the Mbari Mbayo Art Club. That in turn you can't understand if you don't know about the Ori Olokun Renaissance. Let us view it like a soul sitting in a weaving pose, the strands behold are eclectic, reverberating and dawning into stern ripples. Ori Olokun is an intellectual effort of minds in the academia, breaking loose off shackle. Mbari Mbayo as a resurgence of aptitude on the part of those down to earth. The sacred art is telepathic and obviously religious and maybe on leeway as those aforementioned - especially with the demise of Mama Adunni and many of her anchors.
My artwork cannot and does not fit into the Sacred Art genre, it is subjected to my personal feelings. As a student of Jacob Afolabi I came to understand the Mbari Mbayo movement pivoted by Duro Ladipo as an energy of resourcefulness and a metaphor of time. This is what is seen in the brush strokes of Afolabi, Twins-Seven-Seven, Burahimo, Mayakiri, Oyelami and so on. If permitted to review this movement from my academic point of view, I will be tempted to see nothing in their effort; as it is today; we are trained to work against them and not with them. For instance, the re-examined architectural works of Mama Adunni from the academic perspective. Or the paintings of Twins seven-seven et al.
What do you mean by you “are trained to work against the Sacred Art Movement”?
"We are trained to work against them" stems from the fact that contents of our curriculum lack independent items in stylization ideal as against the question of "where are we and what we are?" When you take a second look at the art historic studies one will discover that studies were majored only on cultural comparison, instead of informing us students of who we are. And so for good reason students would adopt everything to receive that elixir.
I heard you have been expelled from the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife when studying at the arts faculty. Can you tell us about the reasons?
In the 1990's students like me, that went to colleges of education affiliated to the University, gained admission via direct entry. When I was starting my academic activity in Ile-Ife the University released a letter stating that they no longer reckon our grades. We had to resort to court and filed a case against Obafemi Awolowo University. We were absolved and could continue our studies, but with three instead of two years of course duration. Prior to the final exams the University released a list of names and dismissed again students. As I just had to finish one more paper I was granted leave of absence and could stay. Having written the outstanding paper I returned to the campus to check my results. I met my course adviser, he was shouting at me, asking me to tell him what went wrong with me and the authorities. He did not show me my last paper’s results. I had to vacate the campus.
Sometimes I returned to the campus to relieve my experience. On one occasion my course adviser told me that the Senate had summoned to see me. Wow - I was excited! Then he continued "I went in there to represent you and told the Senate to close your file". I asked him why, he said "I told them that you did not write all your exams". He lied to them. He ordered me to get out. He even called me back and said "go home and re-register for your ordinary level exams". And in case I need financial backing I should contact him. I went home and started writing fiction, poetry, lyrics and to do painting, without ever getting my final exam.
What is your personal opinion on this training, this art education?
My opinion erupted from the time being trained in the museum environment. We had little in our art depository at the University’s museum. I was under the batik tutelage of curator Jacob Afolabi. I found myself communicating with the past, the masks and marks, daily in search of myself, which is to me essential. My mind flowing along the way found a niche for art. I discovered that only a small flame is left alight on this University citadel. And that one is Onaism, a school of thought founded by the best of Ile-Ife, an attempt to resuscitate the spirit in the name of an annual art exhibition. A keen look at the works affirms that an era actually elapsed. In the 1990's many of them went into exile.
We students of the political angst did not benefit from these minds anymore. My sojourn in the University left me dry. With my access to ceramic items I could renew my strength, remembering the Ori Olokun cum Onaism eras. The greatness of the institution came into question, truly the curriculum lacked the luster of the old polish. When the ingenuity known is in the macabre. When the luster of education shone for me was e.g. during an examination. A question came to write whatever we had to teach the examiner. The paper was set by one of the Ori-Olokun crusaders, Chief Ibigbami. The luster lost its shine when I was on a visit to an old friend. He brought out an art object and asked me to examine it. I told him it's just as it is, nothing special. I did not know it was taken from me, dots that he showed me obviously booned out a mini-relief image of a figure. I discredited my years of studies for that experience. My artistic struggle took a new look at all I have learnt and I saw only what academically I was trained to see. Today, much is seen in rustic than the decorated.
You are working with various dyes and paint you extract from different plants. How did you develop this unique technique?
I don't exactly know how it worked out. I remember having a strong feeling when I first came in contact with an old costume of a masquerade, an Egungun, standing in the museum aforementioned. It radiated an energy and I tried to capture that spirit in a quick sketch. Surprisingly some visitors came, bought it and I got paid! Working already for some years as an artist I met Chief Akar, owner of the Signature Art Gallery in Lagos. I started giving my paintings a relief rendition at that time. Chief Akar had been a major collector for some years. One day suddenly he asked me to stop bringing in any more as people don't pay my work any attention.
I felt broken for the second time in my life. I fell into sleep and saw in a dream a brown leave. I saw the leave made into ink and its usage. I didn't take it seriously but for months I kept seeing this image. One day I started asking people around about a brown leave that could be made into ink. Surprisingly I got answers and with some help I went in search of the leave. My first experiment was extremely successful, trying to manipulate the abstract figure with the new herbal colors. It cleaned itself off before my eyes as I attempted manipulation.
How does it work?
The technique has three dimensions. First, you have to scribble the pigment on a surface, sometimes I work with eyes closed not to influence the resulting image. Water controls the fluidity and recreates the imagery. Second, instead of pen and ink I retrace the drawing with the plant’s pigment and splash again water on it, it gets a sort of washed texture. This procedure may take some weeks or months, till the image starts to emerge. Like on an old Polaroid film, but much slower. Third, you have to coat stones, glue them to a board with acrylics and apply the pigment to the tip of the stones. Again lot of water is involved, then it is left to dry. The stone suspends the loomed from the loops.
Is it difficult getting the other supplies you need: canvas, paper, dyes?
It is extremely difficult to get these materials, except dye stuff. As we have a countable number of artists of Oshogbo orientation who are into the traditional wax batik and dying traditions. With the initiative of Nike Art Gallery many new and upcoming artists are given hostel facilities and are assisted in the training. But there are no serious art supplies around town. You must go to the bigger cities to get materials.
You have recently done a book cover for Amanda Villepastour’s book “The Yoruba God of Drumming”. Obviously you deal with Yoruba culture in your work, your own culture. Is there a difference in how you treat these images, compared to e.g. the older Oshogbo generation?
The difference in how I treat my painting compared to the older generation of Oshogboism, is much more the release of myself from the within perspective. I did not know the artists of Oshogboism whose spirit is not in his or her art. But mostly I seek for the subtle and for the sublime in my use of image and colors. I am seeking to add depth to the environment ensued, so the spectators can enter the painting and interact with it or against it. The imagery makes meaning to me in the sense that they brought life into my belief - that not only the homo sapiens are in existence. We often have hints that open human mind to life beyond our understanding. We cannot figure them out unless they let it happen. I wished and it was granted.
Is the Yoruba tradition for yourself, and for your work respectively, important?
Of course, in terms of importance it is extremely important, as the encounter with the olden Yoruba masks and marks in my life that keep on inspiring me. I reckon it is better to identify it a dire need!
You told us about your dreams and visions, poetic feelings and sensations that led you onto new paths in your life and art. Where is this place where you find your ideas and inspiration? Is it connected to Orisha?
Chances are that an artist diffused in cultural procession finds a sombre pace that is accustomed to abstraction rather than to direct representation, like I feel. Notable cultural aspects such as those immunized on synthetic aptitudes as emanating from such belief of the trees, waters, sound, air, flames, earth and real meaningful feeling. Philosophy of the art transforms the aspects of religion for the ages-old pictures. The optical angles and the unfurling shades, indeed mild, and saying something exists in any vacuum. And I see permanently, as the water would submerge mean it's many flow. Ori as in inner head for an instance portrays rich awareness. And its many inputs on self-propitiation as of and for acculturation. Here, the beating into use, a tribal look. A garbed procession, I-am-in, tapered to custom, costume and value. Pointing to an exclusive ingenuity or Ajagunmonle: an invisible hand that opens minds to discern. Abstract in all its folds, from the far forwarded to Yoruba space.
The meaning of Orisha, in Yoruba identity, includes concerns for actualization of rebirth, it is eulogy and usefulness. Actualizing the past in the present and varied dimensions with all sequence given a name. In that a name has weight and essence. Endless doors avail and this opens a bond.
How do you see the art scene in Oshogbo?
Oshogbo is the town of the Oshun, among many Orisha sent by Olodumare. As a living spring Oshun is said to be a traditional fabric dyer. Here she walked the earth and traces of that trade can be found among women's folk in Oshogbo town up to today. Her efficacy is celebrated in the praise "ore yeye Oshun" by the devotees. Oshogbo in other words is the home of spiritual art and artists. Hard to come by a compound without an artist and working in harness. Unlike other artists-guild, each artist remains an individual either by faith or enigma. To find ones way into understanding art of these artistic enclave, one must be connected to abstraction without which a peal is bared.
Can you compare the art scene of Oshogbo to Lagos?
I was invited to Lagos for an artist in residency program. As always my trips to Lagos were filled with hope, but this time it became a struggle against my mission, vision and methodology. The spirit there suddenly thrust in an abstract refraction of a broken mirror and I could not find myself specifically for days. I was seeing Lagos art, warped like never before. Most faces and figures had that rendition of the brush-stroke of alienation. I sat down fagged-out daily, by the adage that "you do in Rome as the Romans do" - with discomfort. But a healing process started and I began to see the reasons. Art in Lagos is not spiritual and aptly biased. Maybe this is because of its identity which cannot really pitch the folks, or for an impelled beautiful modelled tone, as if the works are coined. Very few artists are living artistically as a result. So many artists with works in the galleries only have one leg in the art world, and keep the other leg out. Spirit is weak or seldom found.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on batik paintings currently. Batik art projects have the uniqueness of having cool traditional dye hues at its background and many other bright colors in the foreground. I am focusing on capturing nostalgia and reflections, hoping that I will be able to look back and to grasp me. But it is slow for me and not yet connected.
Thank you for the interview!