Adam and Eve  by Sam Ebohon. Oil on Canvas Credit: Omenka Gallery
One of the Lagos art scene’s leading artists, Sam Ebohon engages his audience in a recently-held solo exhibition in Lagos. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Why Open Secrets? This was the kind of question Sam Ebohon could have been asked at least once since his solo exhibition opened on Sunday, November 27. Perhaps, even several times… It was one of those questions you’d wager that an art journalist would ask. Almost clichéd, albeit relevant to his audience…His mirth poured forth effortlessly… from somewhere within him. He had suddenly ceased to be just the frontline renowned Lagos-based artist. Imaginary mental snapshot images of him flash before the viewer, trailing each other in no particular order. In one vein, he was one jolly good old fellow, who seemed impervious of the vagaries of existence which assailed him. In another, he was a teacher trying to impart the secrets of his cryptic works on his listener.
Through Open Secrets, the artist invites the viewer to a less superficial observation of his environment. Oftentimes, so many objects – or even happenings – in our surroundings are glossed over as ordinary but, on closer examination, swarm with meanings. Life, he explains, is full of such ciphers, which only reveal themselves to those who would take the trouble to unearth them and, perhaps, also see their connections to other objects or happenings.
Actually, for this exhibition – whether it was the third or fourth in his almost three-decade long career, he couldn’t recall anymore – it’d be better to think less about secrets and look more closely at those paintings. Before any of his paintings that, until Friday, adorned the walls of Rele Gallery in Onikan, Lagos, a viewer needed to linger a little longer than he would have wished to.
Those colourful thick brushstrokes, he’d later discover, are actually words. Yes, phrases, even sentences… Beneath what appears to be a tangled undergrowth of those letters lurk the actual figures. The figures depict faces, females, indeed whatever forms that grip the artist’s fancies. So, the paintings are not exactly as abstract as they look at first. Ebohon is a figurative artist, really. This has been his technique – or, should one call it his style? – as far back as he could remember since the inception of his studio practice.
His studio practice actually kicked off – “officially,” he thought it was important to add – in 1990, the year he graduated from Yaba College of Technology, Lagos with a Higher National Diploma in painting. Before then, he had of course been as active in the studio as one would reasonably have expected from an art student.As a matter of fact, the Lagos-born artist, whose roots are in Edo State, has always had a predilection for the visual arts. He recalled how as a child he would gather his piggy bank savings to buy art materials. Fate, he emphasised before his interviewer, egged him on along this course. No influences along the path were strong enough to divert him from the ultimate goal of becoming an artist.
Shortly, before enrolling at the Yaba College of Technology, a neat weaving of fate brought him in close acquaintance with an informally-trained artist. It was the latter who encouraged him to get involved in practical studio work even before he officially enrolled as a student at the institution.
Ebohon has since graduation at the Yaba College of Technology clawed his way upwards to become one of the respected members of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA). This is in addition to his membership of the more exclusive Guild of Professional Artists of Nigeria (GPFAN). In 2000, he would add a teacher’s technical certificate from the Federal College of Education (Technical) in the Akoka area of Lagos to his credentials.
In the course of his studio practice, he won several awards both within and outside Nigeria. Perhaps, the most prestigious of his many laurels was the first prize of the Caterina (or Catherine) de Medici painting award competition. This was a prize he clinched in 2009.
Of course, he had participated in numerous group exhibitions even in the global stage. Despite his having held only a handful of solo shows, his name is etched in the collective consciousness of the contemporary Nigerian art scene.
Indeed, virtually every art space in Lagos worth knowing displays his paintings, which are easily recognised by their patented bold linear brushstrokes, which also form words.
“This is a way of making my paintings speak,” Ebohon was telling his interlocutor at the Rele Gallery last week. “When you look at the words [written on the paintings], you almost hear their sounds in your head…”
Both the visuals and the letters join forces for eloquent expressions. Even such titles as “Possibilities”, “Woman (1 to 6)”, “Identity”, “Say Yeah Yeah”, “Response and Stimulus”, “Silence”, “Soul Search”, “Breathe” and “The Lord’s Prayer” offer themselves to a literal reading, and eventual understanding, of their cryptic messages.
And he is not done yet with his trademark style of expression. He has been at it for too long already and hopes to continue with it for years, possibly decades, to come. He is almost certain about one fact: that he has not fully discovered the best this technique has to offer. In other words, his masterpieces are yet to come…
In his artist’s statement, he declares: “There comes a time in the craft of an artist when his art begins to dictate where he should lean./ The time when the creator becomes a medium hypnotised and with a burning passion to do something far from his comfort zone./ And he just can’t explain why/ That’s where I am.”
At 50, the artist does not seem inclined to learning new tricks. Or, more precisely, acquiring new techniques… He told his interviewer he no longer panders to the whims of his audiences. Yet, he hopes to please the same audiences with the products of his sincere uninhibited expressions
Okechukwu Uwaezuoke is a respected Art writer, literary artist and journalist.
He writes from Lagos.