ON LANGUAGE AND PLACE
Temitayo Ogunbiyi first met Richardson Ovbiebo in 2011, just before both of them joined six other artists at a workshop. By that time, Ogunbiyi was contemplating relocating to Lagos and Ovbiebo was steeped in his studio practice, among other art-related endeavours. During their one-week project, A Kilo of Hope, Ogunbiyi and Ovbiebo chatted as they worked in a landfill.
Ovbiebo would observe the interactions of persons transforming waste, and then develop several sculptures. In creating these objects, the artist explored human behavior through the cyclic transformation of metal, a material found throughout the workshop site and across Ovbiebo’s works to date.
Since their initial meeting, the two artists have had many conversations about contemporary art, between their studios, homes, and exhibitions. In 2013 and 2014, Ovbiebo opened his studio to Ogunbiyi several times. Then, many of the works shown here were in progress and the artists contemplated how best to develop each of them. Ogunbiyi’s writings about these works are informed by these regular discussions with Ovbiebo. Their exchange carries on in the text below.
How does this body of work build upon or depart from past works?
This body of work continues from my first solo exhibition The Forms I Heard, where I used doors as a metaphor to tap into some of the social dynamics I observed in my environment. But importantly, it continues from my work Without Borders (2010) from the same exhibition, which came about through the experience I had after I secured my first (living space). The discussions with my new neighbours started from my door—and how I was to construct it. They were of the opinion that I had to put a burglary door, a mosquito net door and finally the wooden door. The burglary door represented the security challenges they had and the mosquito net was to inform me that malaria was not far fetched. The works here are a continuation of this conversation.
The materials here also demonstrate an acknowledgement of specific circumstances, while furthering the artist’s practice. There is again metal coupled with pure colours that reflect popular spray paints in Lagos. Still, his personal experience initiates the transformation of his materials. And as expected, metaphorical comparisons emerge throughout, each presenting the viewer with nuanced details. Then there are instances where the artist departs from metal to respond to his environment through means that are unprecedented. With these newly discovered approaches, Ovbiebo’s work indicates distinct shifts.
Here the debuted materials began with scrapped four by eight foot sheets of Perspex, which comprised a stack against the wall in an earlier studio visit. Ovbiebo explained then that he purchased these sheets from persons who perform laser cutting in Mushin, a neighbourhood around where Ovbiebo lives and works. At first glance, the many laser-cut letters appear to be incoherent shapes and bits of language, which are evenly distributed throughout each Perspex sheet. Upon close observation, as may be seen in Street Code II (Pages Series) (2014), these sheets become comprehendible. Stenciled ‘ATM’, ‘Service’, and ‘24-H’ join with other forms as the negatives of symbols on signage seen at many banks in Nigeria. Incorporating this type of refuse turned symbol of social currency, these works are a new direction for Ovbiebo. They demonstrate his capacity to expand his conceptual interests beyond metal. Additionally, the Perpex reflects a specific local aesthetic that is accessible to a global audience. Incorporating Perspex, both previously used and unused, the artist begins with a representative material and transforms it into a universal surface for the imaginary.
Why were you drawn to the discarded four by eight sheets of laser-cut Perspex?
I was already creating my own cut-out text designs, but they were on a smaller scale and all the words I used related to the subject I was working on. But these other ones were on a bigger scale and the texts were random and were cut out to create signage. They also reminded me of a project I worked on with Jess Castellote for the Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos.
Sculpted allusions to the human form omitted, these works communicate using written language, colour, and composition. Here, lingual tools combine with context and materiality to revisit the very social economies that have remained relevant through this moment in Ovbiebo’s practice. In addition, the technique connects Ovbiebo’s approach to works of contemporary artists such as Glenn Ligon, Barbara Kruger, and Hank Willis Thomas, all of whom use text read as language to interrogate form, surface, space and their contemporary moments. The connection with Ligon’s work is perhaps most salient as Ovbiebo engages repetition, communal vernacular and legibility.
Beginning with Ovbiebo’s awareness of his personal comfort zone, his many materials convey content as an extension of unique contexts. In other words, this exhibition departs from a deliberate choice of matter sourced from an area that he experiences everyday, both consciously and subconsciously. As he continues to examine the possibilities of manipulating Perspex and incorporating text, he makes reference to his abode, which may be understood as Somulu, Lagos, or Southwest Nigeria. Expressions that emerge in these places are the specific terms included in these works. As presented, these excerpts of visual language and dialogue find relevance beyond the places from which they originate and serve as evidence of human interaction, co-habitation, and inevitable change.
So, tell me about these (door) locks.
Well, the show is about shelter.
The show is about shelter and what it takes to make a home?
Thinking about (Omo Onile I), the work with the locks, I immediately think of how home is constructed, how home is protected and projected in the mind and how (mental constraints) come to influence our physical choices—where we want to live, who we want to live with…
I was looking at four major subjects; the space, the body, the object and time. These four elements help you understand how occupied spaces, as in inhabited spaces, work. You need the space, bodily action, object and time to understand how this bodily action through the use of objects organizes space. For example in Somolu, through the use of architecture and the people in it you can tell how they’ve constructed this place, the idea of how to live in this space, of what the spaces should be like. And this (area) was built many years ago. So even before all the houses are reconstructed you can tell the whole idea of what the people who lived there were thinking—you know the very narrow roads, the kind of architecture where you have one central parlour and then the others are just very small rooms like the one we’re in. I began thinking, how is the home constructed? Having the background knowledge that not all our ideas are genuinely ours; they’re byproducts of cultural constructs (religion, philosophies, etc.). How do these things influence the way a home is created? I decided to use my immediate environment as a case study. I decided to take my little experience as an opportunity.
And in thinking about time, you mentioned in an earlier studio visit how homes change hands over time, become the subjects of disputes and shifts in terms of their functionality. I imagine this has developed from interests you have had in the cyclic nature of economies. Can you site specific examples of how time is relevant in this body of work?
Time plays a vital role in the way one appreciates the different levels of evolution that occur in occupied spaces. I live in Somolu, Lagos. This space is adorned with a nice mix of architecture, both old and new. The way they are constructed varies, from the design of the buildings, to the quality of materials used, to details of the buildings like the doors and locks. Each tells a tale of its own time—economically, spiritually, politically etc.
Somolu is also known to be a haven for printers. This in turn tells of its heavy commercial activities. Though (Somolu) is not only commercial, but also residential. This transformation is what I tried to tap into in my work Omo Onile (2014). Most of the old buildings were built for residential purposes to suit the lifestyles of the families who occupied them, but today a lot have been sold or leased out to developers who either demolish and build new buildings or reconstruct existing ones, but mostly for commercial purposes. This occurs because the children of the owners who are called omo onile in Yoruba are at loggerheads over ownership rights to the properties or because they are having challenges maintaining them. So one can only appreciate this transition within the space of time.
Can you speak more to how the titles of these works connect to the ideas that inform this body of work?
Some of the works have titles that have to do with the idea of shelter. My works are talking about how shared experience becomes memory. This piece is called Agents. You know whatever [the agents] give to you is all you know. They’re middlemen, they’re very important in scouting for houses and afterwards, they just disappear. And then we can return to the work of the omo onile, a phrase meaning the landowners. For you to acquire a landed property in Lagos, you need to meet these people and buy from them, but afterwards when you begin construction, they come back asking for dues. How many of these (encounters) contribute to how a home is built? How do these experiences become memories and then history? Each of the works is very strong on its own. They all have a strong storyline behind them and that’s what I think these works seek to touch: how external factors influence the idea of how a space is created and how in turn the internal space begins to influence the society.
Inasmuch as Ovbiebo is searching for home with regard to the circumstances in which his fellow Lagosians live, he is also honing, and re-evaluating his visual lexicon, and in a sense the delineations that ground his practice. The same may be said of his many contemporaries: Taiye Idahor with her exaggerated configurations of hair in newspaper or Kelani Abass who explores an inherited hand-written book of what some might consider juju or dark magic. The search seems to begin closer and closer to home, as physical place and cerebral preoccupations. While Ovbiebo continues to lean on that which is familiar, he remains vigilant in his everyday, searching for the next material that will serve as a reliquary of his contemporary meditations.
August 21, 2019