As a graduate of marketing from an American university, Ebikebana Akpi would have landed a plum job with any company worth its corporate name in Nigeria. As an American trained tailor, he would have had a long line of high profile clients to spruce up. But on the very day he was to unveil his artworks to the Nigerian public for the first time ever, it suddenly seemed all would not go well.
Days or weeks before the expected opening on Saturday, September 29, 2018, he met and spoke with those in charge of renting out space at National Museum & Monuments at Onikan in Lagos. With the booking secured, the artist was more than certain connoisseurs or whoever came around would have their fill of the twenty-three paintings and woodwork to be displayed and, perhaps, moved by any, tag one or two in the process.
Alas, by the time he got to the venue early on Saturday to mount the works with his curator, Luciano Uzuegbu, the exhibition space was sealed like the tomb of an ancient Egyptian royalty. Worse, there was nobody to ask questions about what suddenly went wrong. There was no museum staff in sight apart from two or three security men at the entrance.
Though the artist himself was out of the loop, the museum workers were in solidarity strike embarked on the previous week by Nigeria Labour Congress. Of course, any artist would be alarmed at the prospect of not exhibiting works he had labored for all those years, particularly his maiden show. Ebi was.
Not to worry. Now may be the time to put to good use his marketing skills. He did, and so the dark cloud of doubt threatening his exhibition passed over. In a matter of hours, the show was on though well past scheduled opening at 4.
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Whatever persuasive force Ebi must have deployed is beyond this reporter’s comprehension. The theme of the exhibition (Seiyefa) may have something to do with it. It may not. Still, there was a coincidence because In Ijaw language, which Ebi speaks fluently as an Ijaw, Seiyefa means “it is well.”
For a first-time exhibitor like Ebikebana – Ebi to family and close friends – the theme was not without its significance. “If you go to my place in Bayelsa, you tend to hear a lot of people say Seiyefa,” Ebi told me shortly after Tam Fiofori, photographer, biographer (Oba Erediauwa) and Ebi’s compatriot, declared the exhibition open. “I kept wondering what the big deal was about that word. It means it is well, like nothing spoil. It made sense and got stuck in my head. By the time the exhibition came up, I said: okay, let me use it as a theme.”
Ebi himself never had formal training as an artist though his passion for art “has always been there” right from primary school through secondary at Government College, Eric Moore in Surulere. If he had a choice, he would most certainly have studied art in the university but Ebi deferred to an overbearing father who urged him to settle for marketing instead, which he obligingly read in the University of Maryland in the U.S.
As they say that whatever is deep in the blood can never be hidden for too long, Ebi’s bias for art bubbled up now and then, first as the head of clothing line Kabana label as far back as the late nineties up till 2008. (Among his upper crust clients was late Gamaliel Onosode.) Extending the frontiers of his art world, Ebi took to organizing and sponsoring art exhibitions, starting with Nigerian Renaissance: An Exhibition in 2004 at Lagos Resort Centre, Victoria Island and then, Rebirth: An Art Exhibition by Ada Godspower three years later at Harmattan Gallery, VI.
In conjunction with Heart of Gold Hospices and Pan African University, Lekki, Ebi organized another show in 2007 titled Save a Child Art and Photo Exhibition. Two more have followed since then with Ebi’s imprimatur. There was An Exhibition of Modern Nigerian Art in December 2011 in VI and, just five years ago, Sam Ovraiti, Damola Adepoju, Joe Essien, Ada Godspower and Alex Nwokolo had a joint exhibit titled Traffic Exhibition at Kilometre 46, Lekki.
The assumption in art circles – most times true – is that the curators, the galleries or museums, dealers, the artists themselves and those who exhibit or sponsor them have something in common: their love for art and, of course, the money. For Ebi, morphing from a mere sponsor to an exhibiting artist today is confirmation of his deep devotion to a profession that “has always been there.”
So, what did the public find as soon as the doors were flung open last weekend? Nearly two dozen paintings and etching on wood depicting everything from bucolic settings to oil rigs and a council of elders in his natal state.
“Somewhere I Belong,” a 162 by 162cm acrylic on canvas puts the artist smack in the middle of any coastal community in the Niger Delta. A lone boatman/ canoe boy is in the centre of a muddied river with drab houses in the background fringed by some palm trees and browning vegetation. The overall feeling is one of desolation, bringing to mind the environmental degradation that has been the lot of most communities in the region.
“Oil Rigs,” a 178 by 128cm wood panel, explores that theme further but this time as stylized, painstaking etching on wood. In place of the countless oil wells in the Niger Delta, there are circles in the wood work with a dash of red paint on top representing the one too many spillages in the region.
In sync with his visual portrayal of life in the littoral region, Ebi has written that “caught between wealth – crude oil wells and environmental degradation due to unregulated exploration activities – the inhabitants of Bayelsa are threatened daily in their quest to live their normal lives of subsistence farming and fishing.”
“Desecration 1,” is Ebi’s portrayal of a domestic household that could be found anywhere from south to north and east to west of Nigeria. The rictus of anguish discernible on the face of the female figure in the foreground says it all, which the dark hues enhance. With three unsmiling faces of children to cater for, a runaway husband, how can a woman in this state be happy?
Ebi has also written that the work was inspired by “my interaction with the subjects as depicted.” But curator Uzuegbu sees the work beyond its domestic frame. To him, the painting has a broader message. It “reads like a metaphor for Bayelsa and the other oil producing Niger Delta areas continually exploited for their natural resources for the benefit of the larger society, and a few greedy politicians and elite to the detriment of the people of the area.”
By the way, Uzuegbu was curator of another exhibition by Juliet Ezenwa Pearce a month or so ago at the same venue. Uzuegbu is close to quite a number of contemporary Nigerian visual artists, insisting that the work of a curator is what a librarian is to the library. For art exhibitions generally, he says that “If I like what the artists are doing, I try to encourage them the best way I can because a curator studies the artist and his works and then presents same to the public.”
For Seiyefa, the curator admits that he has known Ebi for six years. Ebi, he says, was initially a supporter of the arts, organizing shows for other artists and helping them to gain more visibility. “He is also very passionate by trying his hands on art, trying to develop himself along that line, especially for somebody who studied marketing, ran a successful clothing outfit.”
Surely, those should be obstacles for anyone intent on a metier crossover. But not Ebi, whose self-education in art has stunned some in the arts community, not least Uzuegbu who insists that the works on display has “the mark of learned craftsmanship that firmly roots Ebi’s practice as an artist.”
On his influence, Ebi mentions, as did Ezenwa Pearce last month, Sam Ovraiti, especially with acrylic medium, a point echoed by his curator. “Ebi’s luxuriant acrylic rendering on canvas pays homage to Sam Ovraiti’s palette.”
As for the wood work, Ebi himself admitted being influenced by Ghanaian artist, El Anatsui. It is evident too in the intricate etching that must have taken months and months, even years, to complete. “The Guardian,” “The Maker,” “Togetherness,” and “The Connect” were all done between 2016 and this year.
But it is “Free Mind” done in a similar medium that best captures the portrait of a marketer and clothier now as an artist. In it, a dozen or more yellow-coloured swallows take to a blue sky as background in various stages of flight. If for nothing else, it surmises Ebi’s odyssey so far from peddling an idea as a marketer, pitching to dress you up to now making the ideas come alive as an artist.