March 22, 2023
'The past glory returns': Ibadan's budding artistic revival

‘The past glory returns’: Ibadan’s budding artistic revival

Ibadan, Nigeria – Less than a year ago, a painting by Oluwole Omofemi hung, unattended, at the side entrance to the gray concrete building where he maintains his two-room studio.

A few steps above one of Ibadan’s busiest thoroughfares, the young woman in the portrait had a confident attitude, her face framed by a halo-shaped afro. She hung exposed but indifferent to hundreds of passers-by.

Earlier this year, Omofemi removed the painting for safekeeping in his personal collection after similar works from his Metamorphosis series sold for more than 100,000 euros ($96,000) at auction at Phillips and Christie’s. In March 2022, Invader, a painting estimated to be worth between $10,000 and $15,000, sold for $189,000.

Like painting, until recently 34-year-old Omofemi was hiding in plain sight in one of Ibadan’s busiest malls, where he established his current studio in 2018.

“I want to be very quiet,” Omofemi told Al Jazeera. “I want to live a normal life than an average citizen [would] Direct.”

He recalls a moment at a party when people were talking about Nigerian artists and the topic shifted to him.

“People were like, ‘There’s this guy in Ibadan. This guy did this, did that,’ and I was just there, silent,” he said. “A lot of these collectors don’t even know me.”

Butterfly kiss, 2021 [Courtesy of Oluwole Omofemi]

But Omofemi’s hopes of staying under the radar are dwindling.

In April, the third solo exhibition of his career opened at the Out of Africa gallery in Barcelona, ​​with all 10 paintings sold and a waiting list of 75 potential buyers.

Now, collectors are sending emissaries to find Omofemi’s Ibadan studio, hoping to entice him to sell his works directly.

In May, Tatler magazine commissioned Omofemi to paint a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II for its July issue, which celebrated her platinum jubilee, taking her profile to new heights. This may be the last painting made of her before her death in early September.

water importer [Oluwafemi Amogunla/Al Jazeera]
Omofemi, 34, has been in his current studio in Ibadan since 2018 [Oluwafemi Amogunla/Al Jazeera]

Omofemi’s ascent draws more attention to his hometown of Ibadan – Nigeria’s third-largest city by population, with over 6 million people, located about 140 km (85 miles) north- east of Lagos.

While Ibadan has been eclipsed by Lagos as Nigeria’s cultural powerhouse, its legacy as an incubator for many of Nigeria’s most famous artists and intellectuals long predates Omofemi, and he is just one of many artists to spark a burgeoning creative revival in the city.

“Dreams Beyond Money”

Founded in Ibadan in 1961, the Mbari Club, with its gallery, library and performance hall, was not only the artistic center of the city but of Nigeria as a whole. Members included visual artist Bruce Onobrakpeya and young writers Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. Now giants of modern Nigerian art, Uche Okeke and Demas Nwoko were both active members.

In the 1960s, Ibadan was Nigeria’s most populous city and an international destination. Malcolm X taught at the University of Ibadan in 1964. Visual artists, including the Somali modernist Ibrahim El-Salahi and the widely acclaimed American painter Jacob Lawrence, traveled to participate in the creative exchanges at the Mbari Club.

When drummer and visual artist Tunde Odunlade moved from Ife to Ibadan in 1973, the town was still “a melting pot where the development of contemporary art [in] Nigeria took off… there was no Nigerian artist who wouldn’t pass through Ibadan – musical, visual, dance”.

But, for nearly 50 years in the city, Odunlade witnessed the shift of the country’s artistic center from Ibadan to Lagos.

“Lagos became the commercial hub of the country, and it was easy for art to flow there,” Odunlade said.

Mower Odunlade [Oluwafemi Amogunla/Al Jazeera]
“Lagos became the commercial hub of the country and it was easy for art to flow there,” said Tunde Odunlade. [Oluwafemi Amogunla/Al Jazeera]

However, Odunlade and others have sought to revive Ibadan’s art scene in recent years.

As a well-established visual artist, he founded Tunde Odunlade Arts and Culture Connections in the Bodija district of Ibadan in December 2020. The gallery space showcases a wide range of work, having exhibited the works of over 80 artists since its opening.

It should also be noted that it provides a welcoming and accessible venue for young cultural practitioners interested in reviving Ibadan’s artistic energy to hold events, meetings and workshops.

“Ibadan’s past glory is now returning, and I’m happy to be a part of all history,” Odunlade said.

“I am not surprised what is happening in Ibadan today, especially with Oluwole Omofemi. I’m not surprised because he lives in an environment where there is peace, where your inspiration will not disappear just because of the noise around you.

Oluwafemi Amogunla/Al Jazeera
Luxury handbag designer Femi Olayebi says, “Ibadan gives you the opportunity to be creative” [Oluwafemi Amogunla/Al Jazeera]

About a 25-minute drive from the center of Odunlade, luxury handbag designer Femi Olayebi’s administrative headquarters and factory occupy two entire floors of an unmarked building in central Ibadan.

Over her 30-year career, Olayebi was selected for a merchandising mentorship program at Saks 5th Avenue, completed a scholarship at MIT, and founded the Lagos Leather Fair, all while successfully growing the business she founded from home into a team of dozens of employees.

At different points in his career, Olayebi remembers wondering, “If I was in Lagos, would I have made it faster? Could I have succeeded sooner? At first I thought “yes”, but now I’m wiser and know the answer is an absolute no.

Olayebi believes that “Lagos stress does not exist in Ibadan. Ibadan gives you the opportunity to be creative as you are not sitting in traffic for hours…And then there is also the fact that in Lagos having [the] kind of space I have, would have cost me an absolute fortune.

Like Olayebi, the painter Modupeola Fadugba has had many successes in her career. The former Smithsonian Fellow and recent New York Emmy winner in the DEI Long Form Content category for her documentary short, Dreams from the Deep End, made the conscious choice to base her practice in Ibadan.

“I’ve always been someone who doesn’t like to be in the center too much,” she explains. “But I can access it if and when I’m ready.”

Fadugba chose to settle in Ibadan. “It’s quiet, so I can think and have a lot more space.”

Modupeola Fadugba [Oluwafemi Amogunla/Al Jazeera]
Modupeola Fadugba explains her reason for choosing Ibadan because ‘it’s quiet so I can think and have a lot more space’ [Oluwafemi Amogunla/Al Jazeera]

Omofemi also recognizes that Ibadan is integral to its development.

“I am very sensitive to things around me, both visible and spiritual – very, very sensitive, and I draw inspiration from everything I see.”

Although Omofemi was influenced by Ibadan, it was the challenges he presented that propelled him to international stardom.

Omofemi’s current studio is less than a 10-minute motorbike ride from the roadside kiosk where he sold commissioned portraits for the equivalent of $10 to $30, a life he was comfortable with. era.

In him I trust, the immigrant
In him I trust, 2021 [Courtesy of Oluwole Omofemi]

This was all disrupted in 2017 when the Oyo State government launched a citywide campaign against street vending, forcing him out of where he had been selling his work from school. secondary.

Ibadan-based painter and gallerist Tope Fatunmbi had encouraged Omofemi’s career since high school, while respected painter Ebenezer Akinola was also an important mentor.

Although Omofemi was initially certain that his artistic career was over, Akinola began to show him and his work to established galleries.

“He took me to Lagos, and he presented my painting to [Alexis] Gallery, and the gallery was so excited to work with me.

He has exhibited in Lagos stalwarts including Terra Kulture and Thought Pyramid, but it was the Signature Gallery that deemed his work viable in the international market. They kicked off the opening of their London gallery with a solo exhibition of Omofemi’s work in March 2020. All 12 large format portraits sold out.

Today, the heightened spotlight on her work has led to multiple bids from the world’s top auction houses to broker The Queen’s sale as well as bidding wars for exclusive bidding rights. on his other works.

Back in Ibadan, with up to 10 young apprentices in his studio at any one time, Omofemi remains dedicated to nurturing the city’s next generation of artistic talent.

“My thoughts, my dreams [are] beyond just having money,” he says.

“I’ve spent most of my life here…I’ve always wanted to give back to my immediate surroundings in my community. I don’t want to be an artist without impact. I want to be an artist with an imprint in people’s lives.

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