Akeem Oyeleke is bent double over his work table this sunny Saturday afternoon. The rays of the March sun cast a long shadow of a hammer on the muddy wall while a pale blue smoke rises from the hot bellow. He stretches out his hand, picks up the hammer and hits hard on the hot iron in front of him with all the strength he can muster. His frail frame has shrunken with hard work rather than age. He has worked as a goldsmith in Oyo town for many years.
This weekend, a client of his will pick up a gold jewellery he has been working on for some days. “It is very important to meet my customer’s needs,” he tells me. “If you don’t deliver on time, they won’t come back here. There are many goldsmiths around here. But I take my customers seriously and they appreciate the quality of my job.”
True, Oyeleke is famed in Oyo town as one of the finest goldsmiths around. His ability to design and creatively make good jewellery makes his pieces a collector’s delight. More so, he is an artist in his own right as his works have transcended a mere act of goldsmithery. Oyeleke may not be a Picasso but his pieces are unique and they can compete favourably on the global stage of fine artist jewellery.
Artist jewellery may be a terrain alien to Nigeria, but there are a handful of artists who have taken on this craft. Even in the global market, it’s a relatively known fact that the creative works of Picasso, Giacometti, Fontana and other celebrated artists often included jewellery as they are most times associated with paintings, sculptures and perhaps installation art. For a long time only their collectors knew about these miniature works of art found in rare jewellery pieces like pendants, brooches and necklaces. In these contemporary times, however, a few people are discovering that they too can own a Picasso, and wear it. Most of what is known as artist jewellery in the country resides with the goldsmiths in remote towns and villages.
Collectors believe artist jewelleries are usually bespoke pieces that enhance both the wearer and the work of art. The designs are often sensual, rather than ostentatious. They are usually touching and romantic. They are fine art at its most intimate.
It is very common these days to see people who are not visual artists but who are artisans use bead makers and
wires to create interesting designs of necklaces and bangles. Sile Adesegun is a bead maker who uses bronze coppers to make creative pieces of jewellery. One day, she picked up a length of thin copper wire and coiled it around the finger of her apprentice. She entangled it around the ring finger of her right hand. That piece turned out to be statement jewellery that her clients never stopped demanding.
On the international scene, the jewelleries of Picasso and other artists were exhibited last December in Valencia, Italy, tagged ‘The Artist as Jeweller’. Of the 227 pieces on display, 118 were from a private collection. They included works by Braque, Man Ray, Picasso, Fontana and, of course, Bernar. The show travels to Miami Beach’s Bass Museum in March and afterwards to Seoul, Tokyo, Busan and Turin. It was an opportunity for collectors to share their enthusiasm for these small works of art. However, the exhibition’s success, as Financial Times reported, is likely to push up prices.
Just as the range of artists whose jewels are offered at exhibitions is expanding, it’s rare that works come up for sale. This has been creating stiff competition whenever they do. For instance, UK’s Christie’s, the most active auction house when it comes to artist jewellery, offers artist jewellery in its 20th Century Decorative Arts and Design, Post-War and Contemporary Art, and Impressionist and Modern Art sales. And, of course, the rocketing sums paid for paintings and sculptures by such masters as Giacometti, Picasso and other modern artists lift prices for their jewels. At Christie’s in New York, for example, a necklace by Alexander Calder sold for N96.4 million ($602,500) in 2011.
Artists have actually been designing jewels for centuries but in recent times the stakes are high. They are more selective in the kind of materials used, making them have larger and better offerings for consumers. Beyond using mere copper or bronze wires, some artists are more daring in using 18-carat gold wire combined with semi-precious and precious stones like ruby, diamond and pearls to create exquisite, lasting pieces. Often coral beads are also used.
This shift in the use of durable materials has been attributed to durability of these pieces. “Nobody wants to wear a piece that will not be wearable in a year or two,” says Adesegun. “These pieces are intended to be worn, hence they must survive wearable condition. They are intricate wirework jewels that must survive all conditions. Besides, they are piece of art, not just anything.”
Renowned artist Bruce Onobrakpeya is one of the few Nigerian artists who have tried their hands on jewellery making as an art from using bronze metal. His definitive works in the arts are intense, showcasing recent developments in jewellery bronze casting, wood carving, amongst others. As an experienced artist, Onobrakpeya is fully aware of the need to develop this market that has remained largely unpopular in the country; hence his Harmattan School of Artists located in his hometown, Agbarha-Otor, focuses on training interested people in artist jewellery.
“Participants choose and specialise in one of the subjects available in a particular session,” he said at the last annual Ben Enwonwu lecture held in Lagos. “They are free to try their hands in other departments if time and materials are available. Subjects available are Painting (oil, acrylic, water colour), Drawing, Mixed Media, Sculpture (metal construction, wood carving, stone carving, cement and fibre glass sculptures), Bronze Casting, Textile Designs (tie and dye, silkscreen, weaving), Blacksmithery, Jewellery, including bead works, Photography, Printmaking (Wood cut, Plastography, Etching, Lithography and Silkscreen), Macrame, Pottery, Ceramic and Computer Studies.”
He agrees there has been an attempt on his part to revive old yet dying crafts like goldsmithery and blacksmithery. “In the choice of subjects, we try to revisit and revive old and dying crafts like stone carving and blacksmithery as well as upgrade popular craft to art. Art materials are sourced from found and recycled materials.”
Peju Layiwola is another Nigerian artist with experience in creatively manufacturing artist jewellery. She grew up in her mother’s studio where she posed for her and also modelled in clay. Princess Elizabeth Olowu, her mother, was an accomplished female bronze caster in Benin. Beyond that, she also taught her daughter art at Federal Government College, Benin. But her mastery of artist jewellery is profound. She is a specialist in metal design. She taught at the University of Benin between 1991 and 1995 where she rose to become the head of the metal design section. Layiwola has held many exhibitions including two solos. She has exhibited in Nigeria, Europe and America. She will be the facilitator for jewellery at the Harmattan Workshop.