BY TAJUDEEN SOWOLE
WHEN writer, Onyema Offoedu-Okeke took a break from writing and returned to the canvas few months ago, his focus was on addresing depreciation of certain values in the society.
He set out with the art exhibition entitled Boudoir Terracotta, held at Didi Museum, Victoria Island, Lagos, in March this year. The collection of works unearthed the link between architecture, woman and shrinking family values.
Few weeks ago, the artist returned to the same venue; this time around, he deployedhis skill to glorify the masses, who in his opinion, are the real force behind wealth of the rich people. He declares that, “this exhibit is not about hanging work to sell, but to honour the idea of trade symbolism. Without this common people, who are always on the street, the rich can’t survive.”
The show entitled, May Day, Bless the Head That Wears the Crown, however, narrowly missed the last Workers’ Day celebration.
Sticking to his drizzling effect, Offoedu-Okeke’s work in this solo show, actually take on the street as seen in such titles as Roadside Trading, Shoe Maker, Boatman, cattle herd, mob energy, Pure Water.
But the activities of the commoners, most times are seen as parasitic; not the actual breeders of wealth, particularly where government’s policy direction tilts towards urban renewal as being done in Lagos State, currently.
The artist agrees: “Often times, it’s the common man that bears the burden of social changes.”
Apparently, the dignity of labour in which this cadre of the society take refuge during hard times is eroded, isn’t it?
But Offoedu-Okeke has a warning for those who might think that life begins and ends in being wealthy. “The common people should realise that you don’t have to be a baron, aristocrat to enjoy life.”
Perhaps the inability of government to effectively get the people to pay tax is the core reason the common man’s contribution to development is not recognised. The elite, Offoedu-Okeke, notes operate tax because they benefit more from it. Event at that, “they often evade tax anyway. When the tax system works, the common man would gladly pays. Just like electricity supply through NEPA used to work, and people were paying regularly.”
THERE is a cultural perspective to the artist’s thought as nearly every work on display had the head load as a significant medium of the subject. From common street scenes such as people carrying loads on their heads as in Cement Bag Head, Shoe Maker, Pure Water, Crate of Soda Pop to curious ones such as TV Head and Generator Head, it does appear that there is no exception in this head load culture.
Sandwiched between the canvas and writing, Offoedu-Okeke has taken a break once again from what he says is a research on artists of Nigeria; about 100 years of Nigerian art. “I thought in between, I could have done one or two shows, but it kept growing. My last exhibition was the study of women space. I chose head now because of the cerebral connection, the burden and intelligence. It’s a cheap labour; no sophistication. We need to use our condition to address ourselves and vice versa. Being masses is like a flood, it can’t be stopped; the trade union has that semblance.
A large format artist, Offoedu-Okeke seems to have found a comfort zone in drizzling technique: the painstaking detail of his work is better appreciated in this format. However, the palette was bolder and aggressive in this display compared with Boudoir Terracotta, which share characteristics with work of another artist, Nyemike Onwuka. Quite a shift, but he argues that, “I have been using this technique long before any other artist started.”
Holder of B.Sc. Architecture from the University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus, 1992, his engagementhe canvas later in 2004 gave him opportunity to contribute some texts to catalogues of several art exhibitions including an essay on Nigeria’s modernism featured in the catalogue of United Kingdom based artist, Yinka Shonibare’s exhibition Double Dutch held at Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
After making a debut solo in 1997 with Spring Forever at the Russian Cultural Centre, Lagos, Offoedu-Okeke had another solo in 2000, titled Idioms of Butterfly Kisses at Mydrim Art Gallery, Lagos Island.
His last solo exhibition Pastel Aficionados, held at the same venue was in 2003.
Other outings of his outside the country were the tour event in 2000, Our World in the Year 2000, held at Mall Galleries, London, England; World Trade Centre, Stockholm, Sweden; United Nations Headquarters, New York, U.S.