Osaghae… A pseudo-minimalist’s strokes stop

Ben Osaghae

Ben Osaghae

Ben Osaghae (1962 – 2017) died as an artist whose strokes on canvas would be remembered, as radiating pseudo-minimalism aura. Sources from colleagues disclosed that Osaghae was found dead inside his Egbeda home, Alimosho Local Government, Lagos, on Tuesday, January 17, 2017.

Trained at Auchi Polytechnic, Edo State, Osaghae, perhaps did not realise early enough that there was so much potential in him to excel outside the academia until 22 years after training. As one of the ßNigerian artists who lived their careers strictly in studio practice, Osaghae has left behind a legacy of professionalism in visual arts. In fact, the contemporary Lagos art scene has a memorable spot in history for Osaghae as a ‘Colourist’.

However, the artist in Osaghae had a mix of complexity and public misunderstanding of what he stood for. Probing into his views – across artistic expression and professional conduct – a chat with him in October 2008 exposed an artist who had a penchant for being reserved. Here is an excerpt:

“My attitude to shows is the same as not being prolific in painting – too many shows for an artist lowers the standard of the work,” he told me at his residence in Egbeda. “Reason for shows really is to sell, but we don’t have to prostitute our work. Let’s do it discreetly and not like ‘Sunday Sunday Painters; you know those guys who are not pretending to be professionals. Don’t forget, everybody thinks they can draw; so, the professional artist has to brand himself differently.”

Everybody seems to be an artist nowadays, so it’s important to draw the line, and perhaps design a brand like Osaghae’s hard sell kind of work. “My work has power of convincing, gradually; but once you get hooked, you are the better for it. I set out knowing that this artistic crusade I have chosen will be slow because of the low level of intellectuality in our society.”

For the artist, content takes more than just drawing. Some people spend more time conceptualising, others in execution, Osaghae belonged to the former. But art, some would argue, is spontaneous and not like engineering.

“I agree with spontaneity, but conceptualism does not mean I spend much time,” he had argued. “Even the actual execution could be spontaneous. In fact, spontaneity is another virtue of my work.”

This explained why being prolific was not exactly his virtue as an artist. “I am not prolific as an artist,” he noted, “I would rather draw and paint what I see. Again, what you see has limitations – either models or life drawing, etc. It offers less challenge. But imagination is better. The idea of the sketches is to perfect gestures. Be imaginative and try to playback some scene earlier witnessed – a bus conductor jumping off a bus, for example. I keep as many sketches as possible. By the time I go into execution, I might not need to even look at the sketches.”

And what’s wrong in being prolific, anyway?
He cutß in sharply, and said: “I am not a rabbit. I spend more time planning out. So, I can’t be prolific. I mean more conceptual time. For example, this piece, ‘Prosperity Envelopes,’ much more satisfactory to me than the original concept. I like flexibility; my work is not considered finished until the gallery says it is gone. And I sometimes have my work back when I realise it couldn’t go at a time frame. Though my work has abstract value, but they are realistic in approach.”

When it comes to the worth of an art piece, someone must be getting it wrong, be it the art dealers, promoters, the gallery operators or the artists. Osaghae had advice for stakeholders in the profession.

According to him, “The outlets and pricing are another thing. Location sometimes determines the worth of a work; it shouldn’t be. Wherever I chose to sell, Ikoyi, Victoria Island or airport or Egbeda, art has to be bought at the right price, prints or original.”

On a second thought, Osaghae had a knock for the galleries, which he noted were into what he called self-preservation. “They sell themselves, promote their image before they think of the artists. That is wrong; art galleries are not for hustlers. They are supposed to preserve the artist’s work and image before any other thing. Just a few of them are really professional. Mydrim Gallery, for instance, is able to come this far because it has been on ground for a while and knows the artists well enough.”

The fear of failure was hardly read on the canvas, but it cut across a class of artists. Osaghae’s next emotional note explained it better, when he said: “For me, it’s been a kind of fear, coming from the background of fine art. I might not see my works make big and celebrated sales until after my death. Vincent Van Gosh, for example, did not become famous until after his death. Here, I grew up looking up to people like Kolade Oshinowo. But when we used to hear them doing workshops and other academic stuffs, our fear that one might not live to see his works became popularly heightened.”

He recalled that as a fresh graduate, it was so difficult for him that he had to go back to the North to teach art at Government Teachers’ College, Sokoto, and returned later to Auchi and then he met Signature Gallery boss, Rahman Akar. That encounter, he added, gave him hope.

But for other galleries, he disclosed, “I fell out with some of them because they wanted me to mass produce my works. I don’t have anything against those artists, who believe in mass production, but I think art commands better respect.”

WHOEVER thoutht that Osaghae was able to make a choice of what to sell and who to sell to would be wrong. Even during the ‘hard period,’ he seemed to have his voice, as he noted: “At a point, I fell out with some galleries because they wanted mass production to which I declined. Art should not be on commercial basis. We need to look at art as a special field.”

However, in the last few years, keen observers and followers started noticing less energy in Osaghae’s strokes. Was that changing strokes the beginning of a conscious, new period in the artist’s life? Was it as a result of ill-health, which observers thought started intruding into the relationship between Osaghae and his skill? No one had a definite answer until the artist was reportedly found dead, alone, in his apartment few days ago.

“Osaghae was an artist with exceptional skills,” artist, Duke Asidere mourned after the death of his friend and colleague. “He was deeply committed to his art, a very articulate and engaging colourist. His canvases were pitches where he displayed an amazing understanding.”

Art critic, Jess Castellote, stated that Osaghae “was probably the most gifted draughtsman Nigeria has had in recent times. But above all, he was a storyteller.”

Castellote, who has been a keen observer of Nigerian art for over two decades, noted that Osaghae “was the artist-seer and the artist-prophet of his society. Usually, there was a ‘narrative’ in his works, but one that is not at all linear, unequivocal or direct. In his works, there is always an ambiguity of meaning that challenges the viewer to interpret metaphors and discover subtle references.”

Curator at SMO, Sandra Mbanefo Obiago, saw Osaghae as full minimalist but complex artist, adding, “Osaghae was a deep, complex and highly talented artist. He narrated the history of modern Nigeria with deft minimalist strokes, presenting a tongue-in-cheek commentary on both the beauty and the absurdities of what makes our life in this mega-city chaotic, energetic, colourful, exasperating and intoxicating.”

A native of Benin, Edo State, Osaghae studied at Edokpolo Grammar School, Benin for his secondary school education and Auchi Polytechnic, where he had HND in Fine Arts. He was a member Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) and Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA), among other groups.

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Ben Osaghae
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