Segun Victor Owolabi has transcended his early beginnings as a skilled draughtsman to see art in a new light as an endeavour capable of impacting positively on humanity. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes
“Art was what reconnected me to the world after I became disconnected.” Dredging up the memories of a dreary past requires quite an effort. On that Monday, July 18, night—two days before his 23rd birthday—Segun Victor Owolabi was divulging so much about this chapter of his life to his interlocutor, who was steadily gaining his confidence.
During his early primary school years at Gateway Nursery and Primary School in the rustic Kwara State town of Iloffa, he was a free prey for school bullies. Even teachers would sometimes pick on him for not participating in extra-curricular activities. Hence, a self-preservation instinct made him start avoiding people since he thought he was being judged unfairly for being different.
“This was when I started embracing art,” he recalled. “I stopped going out and all I would do was draw in my room whenever I was not in school. I hated school. I would get punished for drawing in my exercise books. My drawing book was never big enough.”
It wasn’t long before his draughtsmanship skills turned the tables in his favour. His transformation from being seen as a virtual pariah to being acknowledged by his peers and practically earning superstar status as the only pupil in the school with outstanding artistic skills was quite remarkable.
Not left out were his parents, but their joy over his artistic prowess only lasted until when he was set to conclude his secondary school education at Adeoti College in another Kwara State town, Omu-Aran. As his university admission loomed, his dad thought it was high time he got more serious and chose a more respectable course like medicine. After all, who draws for a living? he asked. He obviously saw no future in art. As for his artistic skills, this was about as big an impression as they would ever make on his practical mind.
Undaunted, Segun Victor stuck to his guns. For him, art was the only thing in which he found – and continues to find – joy and the only thing that kept his mind intact. “I felt that I would lose my mind if I were to be separated from it,” he explained.
At Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where he enrolled in 2016, he began as a painting major to see art differently. He discerned that it transcended the mere act of drawing and painting, being the only human endeavour that bears life within it as a work of the spirit. Participating in several exhibitions during his undergraduate years further exposed him to the fascinating world of art and bolstered his confidence enough to submit his entry for the 2021 edition of the annual Life in My City Art Festival competition, where he won the prize for the Best Sculpture/Installation.
His winning the prize qualified him to be one of the chosen 18 winners, who were recently sponsored by LIMCAF on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Dakar Art Biennale, known as Dak’Art, in May with funds made available by the renowned artist Professor El Anatsui.
Curiously, it was the year 2020, and not 2022, that would remain etched in his consciousness as one of the most remarkable years in his artistic career. “I call it the year of self-discovery,” he said.
Perhaps it was because 2020 was the year he learnt how to recreate images using a specific computer algorithm generated from a mathematical equation. His first encounter with this technique was in the work of Alfred Cheng, a well-known artist from Hong Kong. The first edition of his award-winning thread was made that year when the COVID-19 lockdown was in effect. I took my time to study more about it on my own, and I then showed the second version at Dak’Art.
A question gnawed at his mind as he researched and experimented with this technique. He would get the answer to this question while reading Dan Brown’s mystery thriller novel, Origin. This question bordered on who takes the credit when computers are taught to create algorithmic art—that is, art generated by highly complex computer programs. Or, to put it another way, who is the artist—the computer or the programmer? “Well, I say the programmer is the artist. His thoughts go into the computer and thus create the art.”
A quick rewind to the Dak’Art Off exhibition, which featured both the LIMCAF finalists and members of the Pan-African Circle of Artists (PACA), showed that this work—a product of his computational thread art—was well received by aficionados.
Titled “Blinded by Sight”, the 24″ X 24″ artwork was produced in 2022 with thread, measuring 2,337 metres and 400 nails on canvas. This title is the artist’s allusion to the limited capacity of man’s physical eye, which, like his other physical senses, can grasp aspects of reality but never its entirety. “All that we get is an opinion, not a reality,” he argued. “All that we see is a perspective, not reality. True sight is in opening our inner awareness. Consciousness makes awareness. This is being enlightened. In complete darkness, we are no different either way. Our knowledge and wisdom separate us. Things are not generally what they appear to be; the first appearance misdirects many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully concealed.”
This work, which is set in five circular frames, urges the viewer to see beneath the obvious. The organs of the physical body, which act merely as mediators of the impressions of the outer world, are unequipped for finer vibrations. Hence, the Ilorin-based artist blames man’s limited visual perception and judgement for the wrong choices he makes.
Another work, a 35″ x 51″ acrylic on canvas work titled “Sunset,” is a portrait of a pensive, leathery-faced old woman, which alludes metaphorically to that stage in human earthly existence when this awareness of imminent mortality begins forcefully to assert itself. From childhood to adulthood, the earth-dwelling man has been haunted by grim reminders that his earthly life would one day end. They whisper to him from old pictures, the sudden demise of old acquaintances and the passing of the years. But he would rather rush through his earthly life, closing his eyes and ears to the inevitable, with no thought of the meaning of life or what lies “after death.”
“When we are working, we are too busy struggling and handling life to have time to think about death. If we still do not feel that the sun of life is setting, we should look at old pictures. How many people in them are still alive? How many of our friends have we accompanied on their last trip to the cemetery? As we become aware that this is it, life is coming to an end, we ask ourselves what life is all about. What have I done all my life? What was the purpose of my life?”
In the painting, the old woman seems to have discovered the answer to these questions. As the sun is about to set on her earthly life, she looks back with recognition to the things and moments that really mattered and the sand castles she spent her energetic years building.
Basically, Segun Victor’s art is powered by his belief in the interconnectedness of humanity. “In my own view, I think we have a lot more in common than the differences, and a lot more is possible if we could all come together to achieve a common goal,” he adds.
In an extension of the metaphor of the work, “Blinded by Sight”, he explained that just as each thread contributes correctly or incorrectly to the overall picture, so do human activities reflect on world events.
Meanwhile, with determination and resilience, he confronts the challenges that confront him as a self-employed artist in Ilorin.
With friends at a recent Dak’Art Off exhibition