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The Triumph of Creativity and Courage

‘I have always tried to hide my efforts and wished my works to have the light joyousness of spring time, which never lets anyone suspect the 1 labour it has cost…’ Henri Matisse

Not many Nigerian artists are sculptors, unlike painters who are easily found in legions. The reasons for this maybe clear in the physical exertion required by the sculptor in gaining mastery and control over the organic properties of his varied media. Indeed the materials for sculpture; metal, stone, wood or any plastic substance are unlimited in 2 their variety and quality, tenseness and aliveness . But for an imaginative idea to be freely projected, a complex sensibility to material 3 and an understanding of its inherent quality and character is essential.

Celebrated British female sculptor, Barbara Hepworth also asserts that each material demands particular treatment; carving, piercing and welding, with successes measured by the degree of unity achieved 4 between the concept, the substance and the dimension.

True, the ferocious cuttings of the shears which slices metals; the angle grinding machine which smoothens; the tedious hammering of metal sheets to bend them; and the blinding sparks from a burning electrode as it welds iron, may not be compared with the subtle dipping of brush in paints and its application on a canvas surface, or delicate calligraphy with pen and ink on paper. Yet, both the sculptor and the painter, guided by intuition, aspire to give form to their perceptions. This juxtaposition highlights the challenges of a metal welder as he seeks to realise such definitive tendencies as mood and fluidity, easily achieved by the painter, since all artistry, whether expressed as two or three dimensional must be subjected to much the same critical evaluation.

Born in 1970 in Agbor, Delta State, Fidelis Eze Odogwu is one of Nigeria’s finest contemporary artists and works entirely in metal. His mastery over his chosen medium conceals the difficulties involved in controlling its vitality, its resistance and demands. The aesthetics of Odogwu’s artistic output bellies the complex themes and meanings. His technical ability in constructing with metal and his natural flair are traceable, as is the case with most artists, to his childhood when he repaired broken wooden handles of farm tools in Agbor. Odogwu later studied sculpture at the famous Auchi Polytechnic and graduated in 1991. He recalls::

In my class, we were eleven students who specialised in sculpture, and most of us then were really scared of using the welding machine because of its health hazards. I took it as a challenge to 5 concentrate on metal in order to show that any of us could do it…” In 1987, while still a student at Auchi, Odogwu went through industrial training at the studio of the late renowned Nigerian sculptor, Ben Osawe, who spotted his potential and guided him through the precarious path of self discovery. With his creative abilities and an unflinching will, Odogwu succeeded despite the physical challenges of welding metal. ‘I give it all to Ben Osawe… he was a source of inspiration…’ Odogwu acknowledges as he reminisces on Osawe’s 6 tutelage and influence on his artistic development.

In 2002, Odogwu participated in his first group exhibition, which was sponsored by Total Nigeria and curated by Lagos art dealer, Chike Nwagbogu of Nimbus Gallery. The exhibition’s success was a defining moment in the young artist’s career as it gained rave reviews in the press and was well received by the Lagos community. Since then,
Odogwu has developed a formidable body of work. His broad oeuvre encompasses a calm academic realism, and the expressive fluidity of classical African sculpture, known for its geometric and architectonic volumes; these elements are at once drawn together by his simple shapes and strong diagonals. Odogwu’s success owes much to his ability to balance spatial and sculptural relationships; the beauty of the geometric elements and evocations of natural form, becoming versatile tools for exploring the formal and metaphorical associations connected with African lore.

He exhibits a mastery of the use of zig-zag and slanted parallel lines, spirals, radial patterns, cylinders and cuboids
arranged in concentric circles and interlocking rings to symbolise the forces of nature; water, sun, life, death, rebirth and creation in a range of work creating anecdotes of man’s interconnectedness with the universe. Odogwu’s artistic output incorporates the aura and essence of African symbolism and the purity of modern forms and thus represents a synthesis of the historical past and the technological advancement of man.

Odogwu’s recent experiments blur the boundaries between painting and sculpture. He creates his art with mild steel of various shapes and sizes including sheets and strands sourced at the Owode and Orile metal markets in Lagos. Guided by his concept, he employs shear cutters to slice the metal sheets into segments. With an arc grinding machine, they are smoothened and welded together if required, after which the artist pounds them into desirable
shapes with a hammer.

Usually cellulose or lacquer is used as a finishing obliterating any traces of joining and giving it a patina of freshness and organic elegance, while challenging the viewer’s preconceived notions of the appearance of metal. With more complex works, Odogwu often uses a lathe machine in fashioning relatively smaller geometrical shapes, sometimes with intricate patterns as embellishments or as components of larger pieces. The artist’s technique sometimes includes welding tiny multi-coloured strips on the faces of larger sheets to mimic the effect of paint dripping
down a canvas.

Fidelis Odogwu’s thirty-three works presented here encompass several themes from the economic to the socio-political and religious. They can be grouped broadly into free standing and relief hanging sculptures. The exhibition draws its titles from two works; Square Pegs in Round Holes and Round Pegs in Square Holes in which the artist engages contemporary African politics, criticising the assigning of juicy contracts and top government positions to less than qualified friends and political allies, while the African continent fails to realise its full potential. The
work, Excellencies is a critique on African leaders who live in opulence at the expense of the populace. Replete with elaborate headgears, flowing robes and umbrellas—all indices signifying the ruling class, the piece delineates the three predominant tribes in the country. This work is reminiscent of an earlier period in Odogwu’s artistic career when the artist was mostly concerned with representations of Nigerian personages and festivals in a calm academic style. The inclusion of Excellencies is significant because it bear hints of abstractionism, which is more prevalent in the artist’s later period. The work marks a transitory phase between these two styles, which he continually revisits.

The Red Carpet is a mimicry of the sycophancy and hero-worship accorded corrupt African leaders, a factor that engenders the desire for self perpetuation in power—a pandemic on the African continent. The work consists of a solitary figure represented by a cone flanked by many rows of cylinders standing erect in absolute respect.

Fidelis Odogwu also explores other social issues through works like Family. This piece is composed of four vertical figures with differing heights representing a father, mother and two off-springs; a male and female. The father assumes the role of the provider and protector of the family, while his wife, cleverly nuanced by his side is his mate and support. In this work, the artist celebrates this basic unit of the human society. Chosen One is assembled from three hundred small cylinders, each constructed singularly. The cylinders are arranged in three columns separated by two grooves. A cylinder is conspicuously missing and is the artist’s interpretation of the Biblical injunction ‘Many are called but few are chosen’. Through works like Passage of Hope, Total Embrace, Together Forever, One People, Congregation, Bond and Unity in Progress, the artist makes calls for social re-organisation and reform. Of particular interest is Unity in Progress where Odogwu metaphorically employs the tailor’s zipper, complete with its tracks to bind together two separate pieces of fabric.

In Adventure, the tension is palpable as Odogwu captures a heightened sense of drama and anticipation in the spring-like cylindrical bow. Other interesting pieces include Aquatic Form where the artist combines ample curves and acute angles to create an organic representation of underwater fauna. The title is apt, as the two limbs recall the groping antennae of a crustacean, with the cavity at the base and swelling curves depicting the carapace.

A majority of the other works like Stepping Stone, It Takes Two, Choreo-dynamism, Unidentical Twins, Head in Space and Full Moon, make use of a dual structure in which the artist explores the interspatial relationship between two blocks of metal, sometimes pushing them to linear abstraction in works like the Acrobat I and Acrobat II. In these works, the artist’s ability to present complex forms with simple shapes is clearly discernible. As the name implies, the work depicts two acrobats performing. Here, Odogwu is pre-occupied with movement and succeeds in defying gravity with the sinuous forms suspended in space.

In all, this exhibition of recent works by Odogwu represents his agitations for harmonious co-existence by communities, the recognition of the importance of family and societal values such as respect and hierarchy, against the prevailing acts of increased terrorism in the Nigerian nation. Fidelis Odogwu Eze’s work forms part of many significant collections.

He has participated in several important group exhibitions in Nigeria and abroad. Working out of the Universal Studios at the National Theatre, Lagos, he has also collaborated with some notable artists including Peju Alatise on major works for hotels and resorts. Odogwu is a member of the Society of Nigerian Artists and the Guild of Professional Artists of Nigeria.

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