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Abiodun Olaku: From Civil Servant to Accomplished Global Artist

The Business of Art: Abiodun Olaku

Abiodun Olaku was born in Nigeria in 1958.  He studied painting at Yaba College of technology in Lagos under the tutelage of Professor Yusuf Grillo, Kolade Oshinowo and the late Dr Isiaka Osunde.  Olaku’s original and continuing inspiration as a painter is drawn from the notion of art transcending time and outliving its creator.  Inherent in his work there is a compelling dichotomy between the precision with which the artist frames his compositions and responds to his subject matter – and the subject matter itself – the minutiae of nature’s atmospherics and the complex narratives of human activity. Olaku’s works are visual tributes to Nigerian life as it is evolving; contemporary culture observed and recreated.

Described by his lecturer, mentor and inspiration, late Professor Yusuf Grillo, as “Primus inter pares,” Abiodun Olaku has slowly but steadily transformed, through a 43-year artistic sojourn, into an internationally-renowned artist, with his work being a regular feature in foremost international auctions, like Bonhams, Sotheby’s, Arthouse Contemporary, etc, and generating a frenzied desire among top collectors, patrons, and aficinados alike. He has participated in over 150 group & joint exhibitions, while his 4th solo exhibition is scheduled for sometime 2024.

In this interview with Arbiterz, Abiodun Olaku chronicled his journey from civil service to becoming an accomplished global artist.

Q: As an artist, do you have a more powerful photographic memory than ordinary people?

A: Observation. Maybe retentive memory to some extent because you can grow or nurture it. Many years ago, in the mid to late 90s, I was coming from Oyingbo, and so traffic slowed down. I was looking at the beggars; this particular one struck me: a blind woman under the umbrella with a child on her lap, I observed that the child was absolutely motionless, and I was concerned, so as I drove past, I was looking and saw a twitch. When I got to the studio, the scene was burning in me. And luckily, I always have a prepared canvas, and I started work.

Q: Briefly, your background and education. What led you to go to the university to study Art, and what was your experience like?

A: Some years back, I granted an interview to a journalist. I found the heading of his story quite intriguing because he titled it “The Accidental Artist.” I think he picked that up from the story I told him about how I strayed into the industry. The decision to study Arts was not an outcome of any long or great deliberation. It was not very intentional. It was something I stumbled on while I working as a clerk after my secondary school education.

Q: Where was your secondary school education?

A: I finished my secondary school at Baptist Academy, Obanikoro, Lagos. Before then, I had a very unstable period when I attended  so many primary schools that I lost count. I at last completed primary school in 1969 when unfortunately I also lost my dad.  I was living with him in Ibadan.

Q: What was he doing in Ibadan?

A: My dad was a staff of Exxon Oil Company. I have garnered most of the things I know about him from an uncle and some of his friends. He studied at Morehouse College, a private historically black institution for men in Atlanta Georgia attended by famous African-Americans like Martin Luther King. My father was in Morehouse College at the same time as many famous Nigerians. Late Justice E. F. O. Dabir was very enthusiastic arts collector. I was in his house one day when it occurred to him to enquire if I was related to one Olaku with whom he schooled in America. He gave me a book written by Professor Babs Fafunwa and said, “Look, this must be your dad mentioned in this book”. The professor wrote about how my father hosted them in his house when the returned to Nigeria. He was still a bachelor then; he had left Morehouse shortly before them. The group of Morehouse College contemporaries he hosted included the late Vice President of Nigeria, Alex Ekwueme.

 

Abiodun Olaku, ‘ILU WA’ (OUR ROOT) , 1994

Q: Do you remember your last school in Ibadan?

A: It was Alafia Institute in Mokola, Ibadan. That was the last school I attended in Ibadan so I remember it quite well. I remember another school vaguely; it was filled with dust. It must have been a school set up for expatriates because I remember the black pupils were not up to 15 per cent. I moved back to Lagos when my dad passed. I remember coming for the burial service and staying with my mum.

I completed my primary school education at Sunnyfields, former Governor Fashola attended the same school. I got admission to Baptist Academy in 1975.  Some of my classmates who have made names for themselves include John Momoh, the owner of Channels TV and Professor Ahmed Yerima, who was the Director General of the National Theatre at a time. I think he is now a Vice Chancellor of one of the private universities. There is also Lanre Idowu, the publisher.

Q: What do you remember about living with your mother and attending secondary school ?

A: When I look back, I think I must have undergone some psychological stress losing my father so early and seeing him buried. So I was a bit distracted at school. I had a wake-up call when I failed my examination and I had to repeat year four of secondary school. My mum made my life hell when I failed and had to repeat a class. I often wondered then, could this woman really be my mum? Her absolute insistence on not having a dullard as a son really made me buckle up and focus on my studies. It also helped that the family had a relationship with Baptist Academy; my dad and two uncles attended the school. The principal in my time at the school was Reverend James Adegbite, a renowned Christian and educationist. I think that was a major turning point in my life.

I was very good at two subjects; I could write English and Fine Arts examinations almost without any preparation. I loved Geography also.

I said to myself while preparing for my secondary school leaving examination, my mum will kill me if I fail. I decided to take my only seven papers, focussing on subjects that I was sure I would do well at. No, doubt my mum did very well raising a young man alone in her own way. Often, when God lays a roadblock on our path, we don’t know where He is leading us. From failing my final examinations in form four, I discovered how to focus on achieving success.

My mum used to work at the Federal Ministry of Works on the Island, at the Racecourse to be precise. I applied for a job there after finishing secondary school and got employed as a clerical officer. I was not very clear the next step in my education. I believe that God has led me at every stage in my life to the next step without much calculation on my part.

Q: What was the experience like as a young man working in a Federal Ministry?

A: Working with the Ministry of Works in Lagos, I realised the ministry was a massive behemoth. The Ministry had a huge registry; I was posted to one of the many sections of the registry. I was shocked to find hundreds of thousands of files scattered about everywhere. Everything was practically upside down. This was in 1975.

One Mr. Utulu was in charge of the section. One day he just decided we had to do something about the files. I was very happy to be assigned such an important task! I threw myself into it with all my energy. It was very hectic work. I was working 8 hours flat every day for two weeks. I was very pleased with the outcome. People had great difficulty finding their files which delayed all sorts of important things like claiming their pensions.

A woman came to look for a document in the Ministry after I arranged the file; it did not take five minutes to get her file and the document she required. She came the next day and offered me a big sum of money when they told her I was the one that arranged the files in the department.   I vehemently rejected the money but she just dropped it and ran off. I was just confused. I was 16 going to 17 years old. My colleagues said we should spend the money but I was against this because I did not think it was the proper thing to do. They could have reached out to her to come and collect her money. The civil service has become worse, they seem to specialise now in making things difficult for people.

 Q: So how did the Ministry of Works job lead you to studying Fine Art?

A: I got to work one day and picked up The Sun newspaper and I saw an advert inviting people to apply to study Fine Arts at the Yaba College of Technology. I had seen establishments around the Ministry of Works where they trained craftsmen. I was thinking of applying to one of them. But I realised that I met the qualifications to be admitted for Fine Arts at Yaba. I applied to study part-time. I passed the practical test and I was admitted.

I was studying  while I continued working a the ministry. I met two teachers in Yaba who turned out to be longterm mentors-Kolade Oshonowo and Prof. Yusuf Grillo. Baba Oshonowo facilitated my conversion to the full-time programme. I resigned from the Ministry of  Works in 1978. We didn’t have to do the industrial attachment then so I finished in 1981.

 Q: What did you do after Yaba?

A: I was very keen on football. I applied to the Civil Service Commission because I believed a civil service job would give me the time to play football. I played football quite seriously as a young man, playing club football at the Lagos Amateur Division. I played against the likes of Stephen Keshi. Tunde Disu was our coach. We were a bunch of amateurs but we ended up winning the league in Lagos State. Our performance contributed to Tunde Disu getting the national assignment. I was also not planning to practice as an artist. We didn’t have any serious career counselling, and there wasn’t any real art industry then. How many studios and galleries existed? How many artists were out there? There were no social media platforms to project the works of artists.

As God would have it, I was posted to the Ministry of Culture and Information. I resumed on 22nd December, 1982.  They processed my documentation as soon as I arrived and I discovered something that almost put me off. I was made a level 7 officer because  I finished from a Polytechnic; I would have gotten a higher level if I had a Bachelors degree from a university. Polytechnic education is more rigorous though it is believed that university graduates are better grounded in theory. The one-year internship makes polytechnic students much readier for the workplace.

Fine Arts students did the same courses in polytechnics and universities.  But I just left all the politics of the HND-BSc dichotomy and decided to focus on my work. I was lucky to have gotten employed. An embargo was placed on employment after I was employed. Every other person that came after me for employment was rejected. I was employed as an Assistant Cultural Officer. I met somebody that I had been reading about as a student, Shina Yusuf, who was Baba Kolade’s contemporary. He died in an accident. That generation of early artists is gone. That is part of our contemporary history. The Grillos were the first set. Most of them helped to build the next generation through the school system.

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Q: Which is superior? Being trained in studios where you have all the great guys to mentor you, or going to art departments in polytechnics and universities?

A: Both have their merits. When we started, there was no industry. There were very few artists who could survive solely on practicing art. There was no market or patrons to make that viable. So artists had to find other means of livelihood. What was readily available was teaching. Some of them taught in secondary schools, some in higher institutions which had positions for Art graduates. Today, the minimum degree required to lecture is a doctorate. Sometimes people carry around paper credentials without intrinsic knowledge. Some can’t even demonstrate basic art skills to save their lives. In those days, it was well-balanced. Artists could have  intellectual credentials  but they were also competent practitioners.

Q: I think it is different in the West; if you like art but don’t have the talent, you can study art history.

A: Things have evolved here too but the question is what are art historians doing  today? They don’t do much. Who is documenting contemporary art history? A lot is happening that is undocumented.  In fact,  the journalists have become the art historians and scholars. They visit galleries and exhibitions and interview us and record happenings. The art scholars mostly stay in the universities, recycling old materials. There is an increasingly vibrant art scene but the people in the ivory tower  do not know what’s going on. They don’t know the artists of the moment, the trends, the events that really shook the industry.

Scholars hey rely on their postgraduate students to come out to interview us and curate materials for research. You hardly find Art scholars at exhibitions except the ones that are friends of the artists. But you have a few who invest great effort in art scholarship and have become valuable experts. These include names like Kunle Filani, a fantastic art historian and practitioner, Professor Ogeomo in Port Harcourt, the late Ola Oloyede of Nsukka, and Dele Jegede who has left Nigeria. I think there is also a political angle, a Nigerian factor- if scholars do their jobs well, producing excellent research on artists, they are also projecting these artists. I think there is an element of resentment.

The journalists unfortunately seem to be doing what art scholars should be doing on contemporary art. They are more active and creative. There’s a guy called Taju Sowole who runs a very good blog on art. We had  very vibrant arts journalism in the 1980s and 1990s. You had the wonderful duo, Jahman Anikulapo and Toyin Akinosho (Akinosho was my junior at Baptist Academy). Both of them were mentored by the great arts writer and artist, Ben Tomoloju.

We don’t have the same quality of arts journalism today. The new ones are not properly groomed. There is a general decline in quality. When you watch TV, you see the new generation of broadcasters pronouncing words the wrong way and making all kinds of mistakes. You miss the days of Patrick Oke and John Momoh. The gap in quality  is too great and I don’t know whether it can ever be bridged.

‘TRANSFIGURATION (OWODE)’ (2015-16), Abiodun Olaku

Q: What gave you the courage to leave the civil service and establish on your own?

A: When I look back, I can only piece things together, because sometimes we were just roaming in the dark. We were lucky we didn’t fall into pits. Most of the choices and moves we made turned out to be good with the benefit of hindsight. When we were in school, we knew about the SNA – Society of Nigerian Artists – because Professor Bello was the president then. From the inception, we used to observe their activities. They were a very close-knit group because I remember around Independence, coming to FESTAC ’77, they had about two or three exhibitions opened by the Head of State and graced by eminent people like the late Emokpai who was given the job of embellishing the National Theatre when FESTAC ’77 was not starring again. So, if you go inside, the kind of embellishment you will find, no other institution in Nigeria has it. It’s valuable beyond its physical structure. All the artists that matter participated, and part of the collection they put together forms the core of the National Gallery Collection. Everything was there.

Q: How about the SNA?

A: For the artist, it was supposed to be like the SNA is to artists what the law school is to lawyers. But ask anyone outside now, they don’t even know about the name. They haven’t heard of it. A doctor cannot tell me he doesn’t know about NMA because they know there’s a means to it and they can’t practise without belonging. But our field is not moderated into any legislation, so anybody who claims to be an artist is an artist.

We don’t have statutory requirements to be an artist, unlike other professions. So that’s one of the things we have to deal with, and it’s one of the areas that I think is dragging us down. The SNA, which I joined with a few of my mates in 1983, so today, we are fellows; we could have been fellows many times, considering the contributions we’ve made to society. I never held any position, but in every regime, we’ve been important at the state and federal levels.

So, we worked and contributed where we were concerned. At a young age, by 1989, when we were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the SNA, it was said at that time that it was the oldest professional body in Nigeria, having been founded in 1965, older than most of the others, and we pursued a kind of revolution just to get things back.

The industry was emerging slowly, and we felt a lot of things were not looking right, especially for artists who were joining the stream of activities. Having joined the SNA, from within there, we started to push and shove, make demands and offers to serve in different capacities. We had a revolution, we turned things around at the state level. We played some politics. So, it was the people we wanted that we felt could help render change. We made sure they got there through elections. From there we moved to the national level. At that time, Professor Bello had left leadership and moved to UNIBEN.

The SNA went down and was eventually comatose. We didn’t hear much about the SNA again. So, we decided to pile pressure on the State Chairman then about an unaware opportunity in the anniversary. I said let’s use the opportunity of the anniversary to host the convention because we never had a convention and election for how long? What really motivated us was that this place was like the National Theatre where we worked, and we were very active. There was a guy too who worked, Accra, who was one step my senior and finished from Ife. CSA Accra was a very dynamic guy. There were some of our guys that we finished with in school. Most of them have trickled down to the theatre.

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Now, we had an informal, very close group of artists and activists, that was the beginning of what turned out to be the Universal Studios of Art.

So, while we were active there, we would discuss, follow up with actions, and pile pressure on our chairman, one Mr Aina, who retired from YABATECH and forced him to send the notification to the president in Benin. The man said they didn’t have money, but we said forget about money, we will host it. We came up with ideas, young boys; that was 1989, which means I was just 30. My colleague, the current chairman of this place, was 31. He was born in 1957, and a few others like that. He was chairman of the sub-committee at the national level, and they set up a task force. He was chairman of the conference convention, and I was chairman of the national exhibition, along with a few others.

Young guys like that, and we really pushed and had our way. We hosted the event in Lagos, and it was the biggest event the SNA had ever had at that time. So, if you want change, are you ready to participate in the processes? As a 30-year-old, I was the chairman of the national exhibition, the whole country, and it was successful.

When I look at these young guys and how they complain; some of them complain about their jobs, and I say go and find something to do, my friend. They abuse the government that can’t even hear them. If the government doesn’t come to your aid, will you kill yourself?

Then, when we were young like you, it wasn’t a singsong for us. Go and find something to do. God has blessed you with your talent, go and start from somewhere. Every time you talk about the government, and so what? Imagine the government doesn’t exist, won’t you survive?

So, we worked and achieved some of those things, and the SNA had a new lease of life that eventually produced another SNA president. Prof. Oluyide has relocated to the US, and that was where another form of crisis happened, but all those events helped us. It triggered another movement.

We felt that maybe things were not progressing fast in the SNA because most of us were artists of a particular nature. Everybody claimed we were not revolutionary in spirit, and most of them were employed here. So, we said, can’t we form a small body of artists that will be independent of all these old orders without resigning, and we started. Today we have what we call the GFA. The full meaning of GFA is the Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria. I’m one of the founders. I was the Vice President of the inaugural executive. We came on stream in 2008.

“ELEMENTAL NOTES” , 2012-13, Abiodun Olaku

Q: Is that linked to you establishing this place?

A: No, it’s a different entity. But in terms of relationships, they were align because we find members of Universal Studios and members of SNA almost the same new clause of people because we always had a concern and we believe that it is not just talk. We can make things happen.

So, those are the things we did along the line, and today GFA is out there, still growing. We just did our second intake exercise last year, but we are full-time artists. That’s the criteria for coming in, which they are trying to bring down a bit to accommodate. It’s been accused of being too political.

Initially, when we came out, they said we were a cult, but we weathered all those things, and it was very interesting. Incidentally, when Mr Oshonowo became SNA president in 2005, he was one of the people who accused us of wanting to split the house. They didn’t understand, but we honoured him too in one of the ceremonies. He’s a friend of the GFA itself. So, he knew that we didn’t mean any harm at the end of the day. We wanted something different. If we said we wanted to meet now, none of us would get permission from the Oga in their workplace. Sometimes, we say let’s meet by noon, and by 7:00 am, we are there. At least most of the time, we are present. We’ve had our challenges where there are human beings, but we are determined to forge ahead. So, we changed the baton of leadership a few times.

I don’t know whether you know Edosa; he was my junior in school, but we are all good friends. He is based in Lagos. Most of these guys are around. They travel and come back.

We had members in the diaspora; in fact, the current president of the Royal Institute of Painters in the UK was my student. He was my student, Adebanji Alade. He’s popularly known online as the Addictive Sketcher. Since ROI was formed in the 1800s, he’s the first black person to become the president. He was very serious. He did his IT with me when he was in Nigeria. He finished from Yaba. He had always been a British citizen, but it was personal circumstances that brought him back to Nigeria. He lost his two parents and his brother almost at the same time, and family members pulled him out.

Q: Do you have other notable people who have passed through you?

A: I’ve lost count.

Q: Maybe three or four very prominent people.

A: Many of the guys who are here passed through me. They are more than 200. The first guy who worked and passed through me was Wande George. He worked and retired. He was one of my first, apparently the first. I think he passed through in ‘84, and so many others to recall.

Q: Do you remember the first people who bought your work?

A: Yes, I know the very person. He’s late now. Late Samuel Olagbaju. It was actually here. I was still working then. That was 1985 at a show put together by the Society of Nigerian Artists titled ‘Offering to the gods.’ We as young debutantes, if they gave us the opportunity, we jumped at it because we said what honour do you ask to exhibit in sales stories. The Grills, David Dale, and all those giants. They gave us all those small small rats. We jumped at it. It wasn’t even the opportunity to sell, just that we could rub shoulders. They were like the Empire State Building to us.

Lo and behold, I was still working then, but I resigned in 1989. Incidentally, it was my section that hosted the exhibition. As a member, I put in work. My salary was around N200. If I missed it, it couldn’t have been more than N220 per month. N200 per month making about N2,400 a year. I sold two works and got N1,650 or so. I said wow. The first person that broke the news to me, I didn’t believe. He said that’s your work. I didn’t bother to go and check. It was days after I saw the rest until he came to pay that day. He paid in cash. He was a renowned collector like Yemisi Shillon, and the Late Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi. We used to call them the three musketeers, but Olagbaju was the first person who bought my work in a public space. From there, we had that kind of very tight relationship, almost like an uncle.

Then some of the early collectors too; Yinka Fitcher, who is one of the greatest collectors in Nigeria. He was at one time the Chairman of the Cricket Association. He was a chairman of the board of the GFA with Senator Ide. He is currently in the Senate. We are just the artist trustees in the body. We have lots of very keen patrons. I like to call them patrons because a patron is definitely more than a collector who has the means. A collector can buy because it’s fancy. It could be peer competition, or rubbing off ego, but patrons are interested in what we do, what we are doing tomorrow, our family, our well-being generally, and even our projections. They discuss things with us.

Q: Can you mention three or two evolutions in your style? I got to know you from ‘playing with light and water.’

A: You know, there is something that we reflected that is missing today because of a few things we have been able to identify; technology has increased the pace of things. It has shortened so many processes. They will tell you it’s old school, go through this, go that way, when you can just take one step and get to where you’re going. Information is readily available at anyone’s disposal, including the availability of images.

Young artists don’t take the pains. I will give you a critical example of what I’m talking about. We train students here. I had to have a conversation with my fellow chairman. I said look, I think I’m getting discouraged. I don’t want to teach again. It’s like we are wasting our time and resources. Look at these children; first and foremost, you have to battle with them to get their attention. You make them retain or sustain attention. Without this, you can’t go to the next. If you write any report to any school that these students didn’t perform well, they will repeat that year. So, we understand the implications. They understand but still take it for granted. So, that’s one battle. Any time we leave our work to go and attend to them if you see, we have a timetable. So, it’s a sacrifice. Everyone leaves their work to come here. I told them one day, I will come to spend time with you. There are times when we are… They say, “Sir e ti n lo niyen, e so pe e ni lo ju one hour lo”. Sometimes, I’m there for two hours, talking, and engaging. One hour, I can stay. I can do a sketch with all modesty, even if it’s sold on “sole”, I just want to let it go. That same work will come with a couple of hundred thousand. Maybe you will understand the sacrifice we are making for you.

Some of our younger ones are enthusiastic. They do listen unconditionally. Joshua, Salako, Funke, and so many others like that, they would leave what they are doing and go and attend to these people.

Thank God too, we are on social media. I’m very active, and you see some people, this person finished school which day. You can’t connect the last thing they did in school to what they are doing now. So, there’s no transition. Go to school to acquire knowledge. The knowledge they give includes certain principles, theories, and formulas. You will even acquire the ethos depending on who you pass through. Those are some of the things we acquired.

How the reflectiveness of our teachers and mentors, their attitude to things. Professor Bellow will tell us that, look, your work is an extension of you. Your personality is important. So, it’s not about the art you create. How are you perceived? How do you present yourself? How do you build yourself? As young people, we understand that who you really are is here. It’s not how you dress. You can manifest that in different ways. Even through your fashion, you can come out. How proud are you? Because there is a difference between being proud and being arrogant. So, how can you own what you do? So many things we learn from these people.

These ones make it seem like mentorship is even outdated. They don’t need it. You can’t force mentorship on someone who is not interested because the person is looking at you with disdain. I had my first solo exhibition 12 years after graduation. I had a guy who finished from here, who is not even qualified to enter the league of 500 here, who was prepared for a solo exhibition before he went for NYSC, a solo outing. What does this guy want to say in this exhibition? But he did it himself. So, we are having agents. The person who was offering that solo exhibition had worked as a curator at Terra Kulture, one of the biggest cultural institutions in town.

So, most of the things happening are occasioned by these people. They are looking for soft ideas that can be applicable, but these ones see it as a great opportunity. Maybe some of them have never counted up to N50,000. It is difficult now, considering the bad growth of the economy. They say, “Don’t go for that, take your time; if I don’t have to go through ten stages to get to where I’m going.” At Art X, I think two editions ago, I went and I saw one display there; I mentioned the boy’s name. The boy was presented by a group from London in the UK. He can’t even enter the first 300 here in terms of talent. I just saw someone just came to prostrate in front of me. I said, “Iwo lo n so”. Won ti deck e up. I saw the display. I was like, what has he got to offer?

Sometimes, you just tuck in your opinion because that’s how things are going now. It’s not the best that are getting that recognition. There was a guy that passed through here. When he came here as a trainee, before he got admission. When he got admission. When we saw his drawings, we used to whisper into one another’s ear. He is talented, it is God-given. His name is Sam Ajobiewe. His drawings… This was when we were propelled for admission. He finished school in YABATECH.

Because even in the industry today, not many of them have that required background. It’s a way of seeking economic salvation; it’s a largely art-illiterate society. Who is going to scrutinise them? Once you have a contrary opinion they don’t want to listen.

Today, art is being turned into literary art; it’s moving from visual arts because we were taught in school by great masters who taught us that look, is in its own natural state, a communicating element. So, why are telling too many stories if it does not communicate, something is lacking somewhere. Mr Oshinowo would tell us because he taught us that the most important subject is pictorial composition, methods, and materials which are probably the key. Mr Oshinowo was like a deputy for all subjects.

TOWARDS ARIYA , 1989, Abiodun Olaku

Q: What is the key essence of the course?

Ans: Pictorial composition is where all these other courses, all the practical courses meet because there we have elements of life drawing, still life drawing, general drawing, life painting, and basic design, those are the smaller courses in pictorial composition. They will come to play. It’s your mastery of those small pieces put together that will produce things that we produce.

But today, those things don’t matter. Principles have been turned on their ends. And I’m looking at someone, some of them can’t even draw from observation. I will show you some, see these guys that they are hailing now, having 80,000 followers, if you sit him down, give him a sketchpad, he can’t because they have ways and means by which they produce those works. There is a projection to them. They have tools. They can project on canvas and trace out lines and fill in the gaps.

Another one is gridding, just like enlargement that we did in Maths and Geography (Scaling). They have a reference of 2:1. They scale it out or do the scaling on their computer and do the enlargement on their canvas. Do the clients care? I don’t know.

Q: I once visited a gallery with my son and we saw someone copying your style. I told him, this one is wasting his time thinking he can build a career being a copycat. 

A: Those things might not really matter to me. If he came to understudy me, it would be different. You can come for an internship and mentorship. I can put you through.

They did their IT, and some finished from UNIBEN, Ado-Ekiti, Auchi. All of them are now our members. This was a masterpiece. He doesn’t work here anymore, but he has blown up.

But when I go out and see what he’s doing because he’s no longer under that kind of supervision that’s their own generation. I go into details, and what my masters have impacted on me. And that’s why till tomorrow, my ogas are still recommending me; a collector came, and they appraised me.

Some of us who understood set out to build big project legacies just like those people we were looking up to. I’ve seen how people will behave with workers. That’s the kind of artist I want to be.

I remember the first time I saw Monalisa, I was like what’s this? Everybody wan craze. It is not that I want to outdo anybody. It’s God that creates artists and after that another generation will come. They could be more naturally endowed than you. Everybody has a role and when you identify your talent, it begs the question of how much you worked on it. Will it stand the test of time? Will it be appreciable beyond your immediacy?

‘S.O.P.’ (SOUNDS OF PEACE) (Series) – Oil on canvas, 14″ x 22″, 2020, Abiodun Olaku

Q: Can you compare the local patronage to international?

A: On a particular scale, I could say almost the same. Economically, the strengths are not the same. Internationally, it appreciates more. Thank God for social media platforms. They recognise what you’re doing, and it is easier to reach out to you. So, I belong to groups and where I come from doesn’t matter. So, you share works and you see the joy and respect it commands.

There’s an American guy, Michael Hubree, who writes and paints marvellously that I’ve never seen. He has a radical spirit, old school and has no apologies about his views. When he was going to publish one of his books, he wanted to use one of my works as his cover. He always had my back and involved me in an online competition, which I won, and the competition was intense. In fact, towards the tail end, the wife of the guy I was competing with accused me of cheating. Eventually, I won.

He is the one who has been revealing how post-modern art gained its power and relevance through the covert efforts of the CIA and has written a lot about how the CIA promoted traditional art around the Second World War. They pumped money into it.

So those expensive works you look at and don’t understand only happen because money laundering is now involved. That’s what has given boldness to someone who comes to exhibit a banana and duct tape and all kinds of funny things.

They’re also succeeding in recolonising us; when you go to exhibitions and see weirdness in our contemporary culture, I hope the government is strong about this LGBT issue. We have a lot in place, and it’s not everything you copy from the West; you can leave them with some of the nonsense they are doing. Because already our children are very malleable, they help to promote and project these guys over those who are more deserving because they subscribe to their views.

They had issues with Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda. Can they try it with Saudi? No, because they’re one of their biggest partners, so why bring it to Africa?

OKE IGBALA (SALVATION HILL) II (2018), Abiodun Olaku

Q: Can you talk about the major influences of your style?

A: I started off with what I was doing, and sometimes you don’t know what you’re capable of unless you start the process. So, creativity unfolds. You try new ideas and techniques; sometimes, you go out and see what people do. You always start from the known; that was what I was taught in school. You start from the known and proceed to the unknown; those principles and theories were mastered. When I tell people that I did some of my work from imagination, if you don’t know the law, you won’t know how to deploy them.

I did a lot of research when it came to cultural stuff. I’m an expert when it comes to Eyo, and I got important commissions to do Eyo. In fact, I got to talk to the chairman of the committee, and we would discuss for hours.

When they celebrated the anniversary of Lagos State, they called me for copyright issues for a book to be published. You would have thought that was where I got my reference from, a painting from 1994, and I did that from my imagination. There were some behind-the-scenes concepts I had to interpret from my imagination, so that was where I started.

I do all kinds of things I started with; I do figurative works. I do landscapes today, and it’s not because I’ve stopped doing figurative works, even conceptual, abstraction because of my background. There are social statements I make, and I almost put the owner in trouble once during Abacha days. Honourable Fashinro owned a gallery in Lagos, and I did a painting in 1994 when we were having the M.K.O debacle; I called it Sorrows of Amalgamation and almost 99.9 per cent set of people called it June 12. The picture really communicated, and some of this man’s G-Men came and escorted a lady who once came to either frame or buy. The gallery owner encountered someone whose reaction changed after seeing the art. Of course, it is an art, and anything it means to you, that’s it.

I know a friend who was harassed then too in Abuja. He too was enthusiastic about the art he was promoting, and he was circulating some pictures, and some of the pictures were those of Ogoni 9 by one of the guys I had trained too. Innocently, he was looking at it from an artistic point of view. But one day, he was called, and he had to go underground for days. He said but for the influence of a woman that was connected, he didn’t know if he would have been wasted underground in one dungeon. So that’s the power of art.

So, we do topical issues also, but for me, the artist’s mind is like a pendulum that swings ceaselessly and covers all the areas of human activities, tangible and intangible. You can go back to the past, cover the present, and even project into the future. So that’s the power of imagination and technical prowess, so that’s how your hand will bring out what’s in your mind and how well you can do it. Is it well conveyed? I remember in school; we were told to tell stories beyond reasonable doubt, and we were given illustrations once in class. A friend of mine was to present our work, and this guy did a painting of two guys and misrepresented them. So, that was a lesson for me then. Also, it will be normal to have a mallam with headgear to stand in front of a mosque than a church. All these lessons on clarity led to building my work.

So, these things that today’s generation of artists produce are not scrutinised; they just go ahead with something that is trending, and there’s no connection. Sometimes you see paintings of colonised Blacks with flowers, and you wonder what’s the connection. They’re always looking for trending issues such as mental health, depression body shaming. It has become boring. Sometimes they will say they are tired of marketing. But has the market shutdown? It depends on how you present the story. If you tell your story very well, you will sell. Where’s the art in the art?

I also paint northern scenes a lot, and the most I’ve been to was Ilorin, and what took me there was a commission given to me by the current Kwara state governor indirectly. I went there and did about six paintings of sights of Ilorin. And when they see my paintings of a place, people recognise it.

I do research a lot; I watch documentaries and I create my own stories.

TRANSITION (2011), Abiodun Olaku

Q: As an artist, do you have a more powerful photographic memory than ordinary people?

A: Observation. Maybe retentive memory to some extent because you can grow or nurture it. Many years ago, in the mid to late 90s, I was coming from Oyingbo, and so traffic slowed down. I was looking at the beggars; this particular one struck me: a blind woman under the umbrella with a child on her lap, I observed that the child was absolutely motionless, and I was concerned, so as I drove past, I was looking and saw a twitch. When I got to the studio, the scene was burning in me. And luckily, I always have a prepared canvas, and I started work.

I painted in real life once, and the man who bought it told me “Do you know why I bought this?” He said I told my children a story that life is uneven and then set his eyes on this and said his children must see this.

This is where people like us started from.

There are times I am going on the way and see objects and draw them. There was a time when I passed through the Third Mainland Bridge and painted it.

I created the mood I wanted; I shot it during the daytime, but I painted it at nighttime. When the Gulf War in 1991 was going on, I did a painting, and it had a significant impact on humanity and that was the first time the war was televised. Some of these paintings don’t live long till exhibitions because somebody bought them for their private space. But I did it and I interpreted it. I called it The Wages of Obstinacy. There are things I’ve done that seem prophetic.

I did a painting in the 80s, and it was like a wide expanse with bonfires going all the way to the horizon and it was a story of Nigeria. I told a woman that if things aren’t corrected, this could likely happen.

I also did one of our GFA’s exhibitions in 2010, I think. It depicted Nigeria with cracks on dry clay, and it seemed almost every part of it was affected. I had the instinct to do it, and I did it. So, when things started happening, I was like, “God, give us peace.” But that was what I felt. Even when they stormed that church in Ondo, I was like, even in Yorubaland, too? When Sunday Igboho wanted to start, Imo too, where we never thought things could get to.

‘HOPE’ – Oil on canvas, 30″ x 24″, 2015, Abiodun Olaku

Q: Do you remember when the inspiration for this series came?

A: It came from school. That’s one thing about having competent and vibrant teachers. Mr Oshonowo was an active teacher, and sometimes when he finished his commissions and was preparing for an exhibition, the works would pass through school, but his work used to have a devastating impact on me. I would be sad for one or two weeks. It was like a silent spur, and he never let up on us. Those who didn’t have the capacity for work always avoided him, but it prepared many of us. He always asked us what we were doing, and that propelled many of us. Looking back, we thank God.

Q: What greater role could the government play in this space to have things work better?

A: We’ve been struggling with a deficit in the power supply before independence, and because there wasn’t as much pressure on the infrastructure as we have today, things seemed better. If we had been developing at the rate we were since independence without interruption, imagine where we would have been now.

Our leaders travel and see what’s happening everywhere. Are they inspired to come home and try? When someone aims to come and empty the purse again. So, I don’t usually have expectations. I’d rather look at the private sector. The public sector is supposed to give us policies that can moderate situations and have more cohesive platforms to be able to explore and prosper.

What do they do? Every year, money is allocated to them from the budget. But what do journalists do (to investigate) because it seems as if they’re complicit? Go and ask them. Publish your findings. Everybody has an official mandate, and we’re governed by legislation. What have we done from that point to this point? Is it only salaries we collect money for? The National Gallery of Art is the only national gallery we have looking desolate and forlorn.

‘AGAINST ALL ODDS’ – Oil on canvas, 1989, Abiodun Olaku

Q: I hope they’ve not taken some of the work to private organisations.

A: We don’t know. We have heard all kinds of stories. There was supposed to be a collaboration between them and a private gallery once, and I was asked to help because of my background, so I worked a bit with them. Red Door Gallery in VI, and I met with the personnel at the National Gallery, and I gave the women ideas to collaborate with private sectors for funding and all. We should adopt that template and look for friends because we used to do a lot of things with companies (like Total who took us to France in 2004), and we enjoyed all kinds of support and sponsorship from them, but everything I brought, they shot it down, and I had to ask her if she had a bag of excuses for trying to explore. I told her that if I had this attitude, I wouldn’t be where I am today, and I didn’t go back.

I’ve been inside, so I know all their tricks. But do the stakeholders feel it, nothing has happened here in donkey years. The two portraits that I did, portraits of Obasanjo and Gowon, were a very rich collection. That was what made me decide to be a full-time artist. Sweet, valuable, carefully selected. Today, I don’t know what’s happening. It’s not functional. I’ve said it, one day, we’ll sponsor our journalist friends (to investigate) because this thing needs attention.

There was a time when Lai Muhammad was here, and we asked something related to the Gallery. They thought we wanted money.

The highest we’ve recorded is £1000 per head, and the door key is over 10 years old now. Production cost for one was then about £12,000. We provided water because some of them turned it into a camp because they came from different states, some for three months or years and did not want to go back. We pay the light bill; we’ve not had light in over 4 months now. I come here at least 6 days a week, out of 7. One day, roughly £17,000 so in 10 days, that’s £17,000 x 3, that’s what I’ve been using for light. So, I do my calculations, and it’s better to sacrifice some profits so I can continue to function, and this isn’t the first time.

Even our water, we dug the borehole from our pockets. In the past, the late Bisi Fakeye was the oldest member I met on the ground, and then he trained some of the expatriates, and I became friends with some of them. They said they liked this place, and they said when they go back home, they’ll talk to their home government to see if they can do something. These people came back with some good news. The Swiss government has agreed to build a world-class studio for us. We did architectural drawing and everything and said let’s put a pause on it. This is government land, let’s go and tell our landlord. They took the plans from us, and months later, we were told it was not possible because money would not come.

That was enough to discourage me from Nigeria, but it didn’t discourage us. We still train students even if we’re not recognized. Some of them leave this place and even say bad things about us. We started with the inspiration to do it for God’s sake and give back by conviction to give back to our society, and what anyone says shouldn’t disturb our vision. So, we’ve had disappointments like that.

When this new restoration thing came up, the Bankers Committee. We had a good friend who was seconded to the committee, so he protected us. In fact, we submitted plans. Because what we do is for Nigeria, but they can’t see the picture, they said it’s a big project, and they can’t accomplish it. But they would say maybe if they come back, they would see what they can do in the long run.

The British High Commissioner to Nigeria has been here, the woman that came before this current one. Even a high-powered delegation came last year. The commissioner said this is the best secret since she came to Nigeria. I think she had even overstayed the time she was given. She was there for over an hour and couldn’t take it all in. If we fold up and everyone goes their way, the ad hoc service we give the education sector, who will cater for it? I don’t think any institution in this country that offers art has sent students (from the northeast anywhere). Something we do regularly, with no subvention from the government, in fact, we pay them. We pay them, we pay rent, light bill.

We’ve had encounters in the past, all kinds of irritating things, so it’s been tough, but it’s been worth it when you see your last students become your colleagues, having a good life. All of them becoming recognizable and renowned brands in the market, the same market you were in before; they’re now there as colleagues. What more can you ask for? So, it’s been worth it.

Q: So, one can easily call this place one of the greatest fulfillments for you?

A: Definitely! In fact, since it metamorphosed into what we have today, we didn’t adopt that name until 1995. It was wavy from the institute as I came to the theatre till 1995 when that place was demolished on our heads, so we came into this space through the intervention of the patron that has passed on who went to the powers that be. He was friends with the second in command then. They panicked and offered us this place.

It used to be a mechanical workshop which has been abandoned since the 80s, which was locked. We brought it up to this level. It was basic and open. At one time, we decided to compartmentalise.

Moyin Arowolo

Moyinoluwa Arowolo studied Communication and Media Studies at Ajayi Crowther University. Before joining Arbiterz, she worked at radio and television stations such as Unilag FM and Trybe TV. She has experience in radio production, television production, digital marketing, and social media management.

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