• Saturday, May 18, 2024
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Wood of fortune


 On a rainy July afternoon, the misty cold of the earlier rain still hangs loosely in the air as men and women go about their businesses, hurriedly, at the Agunpopo area of Oyo. School children who are just returning from school are spotted in their rain-soaked uniforms. A few yards away, two women quibble over two pieces of iced fish, while at a motor park overlooking the railway line bus conductors shout their destination to the hearing of passers-by who seem disinterested in the noise around them. It’s hard to believe that it’s in this raucous area that creative works which grace shrines and homes across the country, nay, the world, are produced.

Oguniyi Adepitan is at work in front of his home that doubles as his workshop situated close to the motor park. He picks up a saw to cut a piece of wood into two equal halves but it seems the edges of the saw aren’t sharp enough, and so he has to expend another ounce of strength before the saw obeys his command. He sniffs hard at the piece he wants to work on, nods approval, picks up a chisel and a hammer and begins to creatively carve out an image he alone could understand.

“The secret of the wood lies in the carver,” Adepitan explains, while using the back of his hand to wipe beads of sweat off his forehead. “It’s is not known to the ordinary eye. I can use a piece of wood as a base for the figure or I can decide to use it as the figure itself. I can use it as human shadow. I can turn it into anything depending on what comes into my mind.”

True to his words, there are many things inside the wood which an ordinary person cannot see. The lifeless logs of wood scattered across the ground testify to this. It’s incredible that out of these logs Adepitan and his men fashion out beautiful images that have become the toast of many tourists within and outside the country.

What these men do not know as they work their bones sore this afternoon is that their works are a subject of discussion in classrooms, art showrooms and museums, even in the home of art collectors the world over. A simple piece on a mantel in a home means a lot to its owner.

Adepitan has produced works of art that protect the groves in Osogbo and beyond from intrusion and decay. His works include well-carved images of Soponna and Sango, the Yoruba god of thunder. They are strikingly eclectic images which cannot be ignored even by a non-believer. Adepitan believes art cannot be disconnected from its religious functions because creativity is part of ritual life. Hence the fusion of art and religion is at the core of his art and the singular purpose of his work is to protect the sacredness of nature. His works present, to me this afternoon, a mixture of architecture and sculpture.

Adepitan says the best wood for his work is ebony, although he uses tick and apia. “I use apia for wooden doors that come with images on them. I use apia because it is durable.” Although they get wood supplies from sellers, at times Adepitan and his apprentice go to the woods in search of logs for their craft. The price depends on the size. It could be N5,000 or N6,000.

“We can make many images from a log of wood. It depends on the height and the size of the image that I want to carve,” he says.

A piece of two abstract lovers lie on Adepitan’s working table, and he says he has just finished spraying the piece with burnish and will place it somewhere to dry. He is one of the many wood carvers in Oyo who make a living selling figurines – at times even to people who export.

On a Tuesday morning like this, patronage is really slow and so he uses the opportunity to put finishing touches to the carvings he began two days before. Adepitan has earned his living from carving as a little boy who worked with his father.

In Oyo, Adepitan says, patronage is not as high as he expected. So he plans to migrate to Lagos in search of greener pastures. “I was told by a friend that I can make more money in Lagos, especially at the hotels there. I hope to consider this option,” he says.

Adepitan has turned his ingenuity into a business venture from which he makes more than N30,000 monthly, depending on the number people who travel from Lagos and Ibadan to buy his works. “Business picks up gradually during weekdays,” he says. “I sell more at weekends than any other days. At times some customers just walk in to admire what I sell.”

In addition to places like Oyo and Osogbo, the arts and craft village at Eko Hotel & Suites is one of the few emerging craft markets in hotels across the country. The volume, quality and packaging of works on display at the Eko Hotel crafts village are unimaginable. Hoteliers are beginning to understand the importance of combining hospitality business with the arts. In addition, arts and craft villages are spots for hotel visitors to get rid of their boredom after being lodged for days. They are places where foreign visitors to the country shop for souvenirs to take home and also to consolidate their visit to an African soil.

The trend seems to be growing more among European guests who buy the artworks at very cheap rates compared to the highly valued and very expensive African artworks in their home country. But hoteliers think the trend is as a result of the fact that most hotels guests nowadays, especially foreigners, are looking for excitements beyond the comfort of their hotel rooms.

“Before now, our patrons who are mainly foreigners complained of originality and the poor finishing of the works, but our major suppliers from Kano, Osogbo and Kogi have improved on those low lights. We wait at the workshop to pay and get original supplies. But ‘Oyibo’ people pay for the stress,” Rasaq Ade-Kuku, a dealer on artworks at the complex, says.

Besides the need for befitting souvenir from Africa, he attributes the high patronage of their products by foreigners to the better appreciation of creative works and artists abroad. “Left to our Nigerian patrons who buy occasionally for gifts, we will run out of business. They prefer to buy the costliest champagne or Hennessey at the hotel to buying works that will stand the test of time,” he further says.

Also, Lamidi Fakeye, Nigeria’s foremost wood carver and sculptor, is one of the top artists in Nigeria who make real money from their works. Most of Fakeye’s works are based on classical African designs, which makes them collectors’ items any day. His works such as ‘A Priest of Oro’ (carved wood panel), ‘Annunciation of the Angel to Mary’ (carved wood panel), and ‘God of Thunder’ (wood sculpture) are highly valued by those who acquired them at the exhibition.

Besides, on a visit to British Museum in London, the wood carving of the head of Benin Queen Mother, Ife artefact and works of other carvers such as Ben Enwonwu, Lucas Idah, Idehen Omo, Okeke Kezie, among others, will thrill you. These works are highly priced and they add to the aesthetics of private libraries, art galleries and museums overseas and the collections of a few collectors here in the country.

Truly, the art of carving is an intricate, interesting one. A visit to Osogbo town where wood carvers reside, Benin City, Awka in Anambra State, the Abuja Art Village, and some other parts of the country reveals creative ingenuity of the carvers. Yet, wood craft is less appreciated. Is the craft dying? If one may ask. Nowadays, less seems to be seen of the wood carvings as younger artists seem to prefer other mediums to express themselves.

Adebayo Lukman, a-60 year old carver in Osogbo, thinks wood work does not appeal to younger artists again because of the stress in it. “Carving requires physical strength, diligence and creativity. My son has taken to another profession because of the stress and poor remuneration. But the money comes with time,” he insists.

On the average, a medium-size wood work goes for between N10,000 and N30,000. A small one goes from N1,000 to N10,000. “Some corporate organisations can commission you to do a full-size wood work and that can go from N100,000 because of the big timber log, time, labour and quality wood you need to buy for the work. I enjoyed GTBank under late Tayo Adenirokun. He always insisted on wood work among paintings that will be decorating some new branches and we were the ones commissioned to do that. But things are not the same again,” Lukman laments.

But the reputation of the carver, according to Bisi Fakeye, another top Osogbo-based wood carver, is a major determinant of the price. Works by art icons, such as Ben Enwonwu and Lamidi Fakeye, are bound to be better priced than contemporary works despite that most of these icons are late.

“While Fakeye was alive, people first bought his works before looking our way despite Fakeye’s expensive rates. Now his works are collector’s item.”

But his regret is that younger wood carvers are not sharp with wood again. “The fact remains that art can be expressed with different mediums – oil, canvas, wood, cast iron, plastic, paintings, photography, among others. So you need to be sharp enough with your tools in order to perfect a work to masterpiece.”

Seeming challenges for him include the easier/more portable, more aesthetically appealing and even cheaper mediums that are giving lovers of art alternative to wood works. Fakeye laments that in the past, hotels and corporate organisations used to patronise wood craft a lot, but the more aesthetically enhanced, cheaper and portable works are now standing in positions wood works used to be.

“A big challenge is the Going Green policy pursued by most state governments. It makes tree cutting difficult. Timber, our primary raw material, is scarce and even more expensive,” he says, noting further that the high cost of production is forcing carvers to think of other livelihoods.

However, Plateau State-born Christopher Dakut, who has been in the business of marketing wood craft for over twenty years, says the fortune in the business is in the marketing. He makes a fortune selling wood craft to guests (especially foreigners) at Transcorp Hilton Abuja craft village.

“My business is to convince my customers on the authentic African quality of the craft. And the most lucrative works are carvings of half-naked African women that are usually bought by male foreigners,” he says.