With sights set on regaining lost ground, Samuel Ajobiewe warms up for a long-anticipated solo exhibition in October. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Something about the title, “… Another Song for Freedom”, conveys both the impressions of a soothing balm and a stirring call to action in response to the scenario depicted in the 2018 acrylic on canvas painting. Indeed, to be able to wring some meaning out of this title, not much discernment is needed by the viewer.
In a posture redolent of Michelangelo’s main work “Pieta”, a visibly heartbroken woman with dishevelled hair and in black mourning clothes is bearing the body of a slain child – obviously hers – in her arms. Behind her, another woman at the head of a mob points an accusing finger at an armed man pointing a rifle in her direction. As though cocooned from this bedlam, a dreadlocks-sporting boy is sitting on a ledge before a locally-made xylophone and strumming his guitar.
Speaking of freedom, it is a word that not only resonates with many but has also pitted activists and warriors against the various grotesque expressions of man’s true enemy—his inclination for gross material transience—for years, if not millennia. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that this galvanising word is incarnated in various forms in his recent paintings, albeit subtly, as a theme song in Samuel Ajobiewe, who is intent on returning to his glory years on the local exhibition circuit. As implied in the explanations in his artist statement, the essence of his studio practice has always revolved around the distilling of his impressions of his environment into messages for the larger society. “The messages could be about the past as they relate to the present or about the present as they relate to the future aspects of the beauty, the ugly or the good and the bad sides of the society,” the artist, who marks his 53rd birthday on September 9, explains.
Perhaps the painting that most expresses his not-so-veiled allusion to the growing disenchantment among Nigerians is “State of the Nation”, which was produced in 2019. In it, the two white stallions in the Nigerian coat of arms seem to gallop away in opposite directions, leaving the central black shield with a wavy white pall clattering to the ground while the eagle, which had hitherto been perched on top of this shield, flutters away in alarm.
Another painting, a 2018 work titled “Irony of the Incorruptible Judge,” takes a swipe at the judicial system, which is believed by many disillusioned Nigerians to be compromised. In this painting, a modestly white-clad ebony-complexioned maiden, representing the mythical lady of justice, holds an upward-pointing sword in one hand and a balance scale in the other hand on her perpendicularly spread-out arms. Behind her, an older woman sporting a black bonnet can be seen removing her blindfold while a judge in his costume, separated from two other men by a coat of arms, looks on with interest.
Meanwhile, a seemingly overwhelmed government – metaphorically depicted in the 2019 painting “The Ineffectual Scarecrow” – watches helplessly as these excrescences of a corrupt system become increasingly evident.
This is probably why the procession of the soldiers clustered around an armoured personnel carrier in the 2019 painting, titled “Marching against the Foes”, seems to inspire no confidence in the viewer. Ditto the gaggle of youths in “Locals Strategizing against Intruders.”
But amid the gloomy prognoses evident in the aforementioned offerings, seething with issues bordering on a palpable sense of insecurity in the country, flashes of lightheartedness flare in others like “Little Dancers” (2018), “Les Petites Fun and Laughter” (2018), “Never without Hope” (2018), “Chats Before Maiden Dance” and “Emir’s Entourage” or “Emir’s Outing” (2019).
Essentially, Ajobiewe, who graduated from the Yaba College of Technology, Lagos in 2004, has always had a predilection for documenting history through his art. This explains why his photo-realistic figurative expressions always revolve around the happenings in his environment.
Leaving the vibrant Lagos art scene in 2009 for the Benin Republic town of Abomey-Calavi, which is now essentially a suburb of the commercial capital city of Cotonou, may indeed have taken its toll on his local collector base and followership. But then, he had good reasons to relocate to this relatively calmer environment. Besides the main reason, which bordered on his regaining failing health, he found the new base, where he spent eight years, conducive to the reappraisal of his art practice. It was there that he realised that his use of oil paints was hurting his health. Hence, he tried his hands on other mediums like pastels, drawing, and sculpture before eventually settling for acrylic.
But even before he started to paint predominantly in oils, he had been exposed as a student to producing sculptures with clay and fibreglass and painting with diverse media, which included pastel, charcoal, tempera, and watercolour.
Upon his return to Lagos in 2017, preparations for his first solo exhibition in many years, which has been long in coming, began in earnest. True, the obtrusion of the COVID-19 pandemic may have delayed things a bit for him. He, nonetheless, leveraged the lockdown period for his creative evolution.
A quick rewind to his early antecedents in the art scene attests to his ubiquitous presence in local art auctions and exhibitions. Hence, worming his way back into the public’s consciousness, this time as a social critic and activist has become his current obsession. This is informed by his love for humanity and aversion to disturbing influences in society.
As the Saturday, October 22 date of his long-anticipated solo exhibition looms, the artist’s hopes of reasserting himself in the Lagos art scene seem to get brighter. After all, having been around for nearly six years ought to have familiarised him with the local aficionados.