Olu Amoda’s Salvaged Art

Olu Amoda is a sculptor, designer and a teacher from Nigeria. He makes Art from materials salvaged from the scrapyards and streets of Lagos, taking his inspiration from the daily life of the city. Olu Amoda’s recent works “Templates – A found –object sculptural musing on the play "Death and the King’s Horsemen" by Wole Soyinka is on a solo exhibition at Skoto Gallery in Chelsea,  NYC through January 30th, 2010.

Olu Amoda’s work continues his rigorous exploration of an independent system of thinking in art-making and design principles that consciously strike a balance between material, form and technique. He draws on themes, ideas and materials that pick up and also refute precedent, and transgresses cultural boundaries to create work of uncommon power and originality. He is aware of function and experiment as implements of creativity, and seeks to find an alternative aesthetics and discursive frame work that mines the microcosm of his culture for symbols that can be universally understood.

Death and the King’s Horseman, a play written by the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka is the inspiration for the body of work in this show. The play, based on an actual incident that took place in Nigeria in 1946, explore the cultural conflicts between Yoruba traditions and western colonialism during the 1940s. Ritualism in Yoruba traditions becomes the focus of that conflict when Elesin, the king’s horseman, must kill himself the night before the king’s funeral so that he may accompany the king into death. The conflict occurs when the District Officer in Oyo tries to prevent the ritual killing from taking place. Set against the conflict of indigenous and the invader, Wole Soyinka’s extraordinary play uses Elesin’s transition from the living to the dead to examine the essence of corruption and the power of the human will.

Replacing the actors with his found metal and wood sculptures, Olu Amoda has created an interpretation of the play that delivers an emotional impact that is perhaps, true to Wole Soyinka’s intent. By imaginatively handling of his material within a formalist sculptural framework, and awareness that major traditional forms of African sculpture contained the basic tenets of universal sculpture tradition, Olu Amoda has created a compelling and significant sculptural ensemble that extend the range of sculpture-in-the-round as expressive poetry, and challenge the viewers’ for their interpretation of the play by expanding a cultural experience that foster the notion of artwork as multivalent narratives crafted from multiplicity of approaches that express big ideas about humanity.

Olu Amoda Amoda was born 1959 in Okere, Warri, Delta State of Nigeria He obtained an HND in Sculpture from Auchi Polytechnic, Nigeria and an MFA (Sculpture) from Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, Ga. He is a faculty member in the sculpture department at Yaba College of Technology, Lagos since 1987, and has also maintained an active studio practice for over 25 years. He is a well traveled and exhibited artist, presently in a 2007 traveling exhibition Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. He is in several collections including the Newark Museum, New Jersey, USA and has executed numerous public and private commissions in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas. – Skoto Gallery

The Aesthetic of Transformation: Olu Amoda’s Template

Olu Amoda’s development in the last 20 years shows his mastery of innovative welded forms, especially as seen in the functional works associated with architecture – doors, windows, and burglary grilles. At the same time that he was establishing a respectable reputation and lucrative business with these “useful” artworks, Amoda regularly responded to the socio-political and environmental conditions of his society and the world at large through vital sculptures, executed mostly in metal, which have received favorable critical attention. The time devoted to relentless experimentation with forms and materials has been instrumental in fostering Amoda’s growing command of the bending of metal and the blending of diverse mediums, which was displayed in Head &Tie: Fashion Architectonic, his 2007 solo show at Skoto Gallery. While justifying Amoda’s rising stature, that exhibition also showed another trait of this artist, namely, the ability to focus on a given theme and generate a cohesive and vigorous body of work, a veritable product of intense and deep reflection.

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In the present corpus, Template, Amoda explores the complex pathways of what is arguably Wole Soyinka’s most significant work, Death and the King’s Horseman. Based on an actual event that took place in southwestern Nigeria in the early part of the 20th century, the story is about how the passing of a king and the rites of his passage to the other world become entangled in a web of personal and larger contestations that lead to a tragic resolution. The play is replete with lyrical poetry of great beauty, unforgettable characters, dance, weighty philosophical issues, and humor. Amoda has tried to capture these, to encapsulate or distil the spirit of Soyinka’s masterpiece, not to illustrate or describe. For him, the play is a point of departure for exploring transformation as a natural, and artistic, process. This is accomplished in formal, plastic terms – essentially, through the agency of found or discarded things like steel, wood, plastic, leather and paper.

Intimate knowledge of or acquaintance with Death and the King’s Horseman is not required for one to relate meaningfully to Template. Certainly, it would open additional chambers of explication. But the sheer power and intricate structures of the sculptures engage the viewer at both the formal and the affective levels. For instance, Head of Elesin is a study in mystery and complexity. Frontally, it looks like a mask with an enigmatic expression. The back view, with its labyrinthine structure, might be read as analogous to the brain or mind. Is it a reference to the saying that knowing a person and not knowing what goes on in the person’s mind is fearful? As a portrait of the King’s Horseman, the principal character in Death, it projects the intricate and subterranean forces that inhabit the recesses of the tragic hero’s interior, and that contribute to his fall.

But that head is not just Elesin’s; it is generic, for it embodies the mysterious workings of the human mind. In the same manner, the conversation piece, Mrs. Pilkings and Olunde, may reference two characters in Soyinka’s play, but it is more of a study in binaries – divergence in gender, age, background, experience and power. Further, by mixing in books with wood, metal and other products in this work, the artist alludes to knowledge; different ways of knowing, diverse epistemologies. Thus, the dramatic ensemble that is Template comprises particulars but, at the same time, represents universals.

by Obiora Udechukwu, Professor of Fine Arts at St. Lawrence University, New York.

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