The painter and sculptor Abayomi Barber (b. 1928) is known for artworks which manage to combine superrealism with intense expressionism. If you are wondering how he achieves this apparent impossibility – well, it’s not for nothing that the word ‘surrealism’ is derived from ‘super-realism’.
Born in Ole Ife, Barber was exposed to art at an early age. His grandfather, Baba Osunlade, was active in many areas of cultural life and in particular had a close connection with the IleIfe palace. At his grandfather’s side, the young Barber was introduced to the palace’s abundance of artistic decoration, which clearly struck a chord and may have inspired his decision to take up the visual arts as a vocation. From the beginning, he excelled across several forms of art: even his earliest exhibitions show a growing proficiency in the rendition and crafting of visual forms in both two- and three-dimensional forms. At the age of just fifteen, he won the first prize for drawing, and in 1952, aged eighteen, he won the Elder Dempster Line silver cup reserved for the best painting in the All-Nigeria Festival of the Arts.
The same year, he registered at the Yaba Technical Institute (now Yaba College of Technology) where his contemporaries included Yusuf Adebayo Grillo, Erhabor Emokpae and Isiaka Osunde. On graduating, he put in a short stint as an illustrator in an advertising agency in Lagos before travelling to London in 1960. A brief visit to finish off his art education became a residence of nearly eleven years as he studied at London’s Central School of Arts and Craft while also continuing to hone his skills in realistic painting and sculpting. Back in Nigeria, he joined the staff of the Centre for Cultural Studies University of Lagos at Akoka, in Yaba, as a resident Studio Master.
In its just-concluded ArtX Lagos, the Mydrim Gallery featured Abayomi Barber’s works alongside those of other artists of his generation, offering an opportunity to see him in his rightful place as not just one of Nigeria’s greatest living artists but also the continuer of important traditions which risk being lost among the demands of Afrocentrism. His work, whether paintings or sculptures, harks back to the ancient Ile-Ife artistic tradition, which, though now extinct, presented magnificent and unique visual narratives characterized by the ‘mysterious r e a l i s m ’ which is the h a l l m a r k of Barber’s own work. It can already be seen in early figural drawings, such as his two studies o f Josephine. In the first (1972), he juxtaposes two images of the same figure: a p o r t r a i t head that t e r m i n a t e s at the shoulder against a more schematic representation.
This pencil on paper rendition, achieved through crosshatching, evenly distributes tones to give a twodimensional figure its three-dimensional feel and value. The second (undated) is more of a bust, displaying sharp contrasts Oba Adesoji Aderemi (1889-1980) and General Muritala Mohammed (1938-1976), both exuding the dignity of their royal status, whether in facial expression or dress, referencing the myth of the divine origin of kingship. As a painter, his New Dawn (1988), a composite eco-scape painting rendered in a combination of cool and warm colours that presents more of a dream world than a precise locale, is an example of his affinity with African-rooted surrealism. Above all, perhaps, Barber is a unique artist within the evolving history of contemporary Nigerian art. Rather than being swayed by the tropes of Afrocentrism, he demonstrates his depth of knowledge of the African visual cosmos which dates back to epochs far predating colonialism and today’s political preoccupations. Whereas Afrocentrists wish to project the notion of a singular visual vocabulary in expressions of Africa – the stylized and the abstracted – Barber harks back to the conventions of the Ile-Ife civilization, and the flowering between 700 to 900 BC of the starkly realistic style that culminated in the magnificent Court Art collection which is today celebrated around the world. He thus provides us with a direct link to the past, insisting that comparable realism has always been a component of African visual culture and experience, contrary to the dominating narrative that realism in African art is of European inspiration.
The unique style Abayomi Barber displayed while working at the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Lagos earned him a considerable followership, which has since become more formally known as the Abayomi Barber School. Adherents such as Muri Adejimi, Busari Agbolade, Bayo Akinwale, and Kent Ineh have continued to explore the surrealism they learnt from their master while Barber himself retired in 2000 to the home in Sango-Ota where he still lives.
Further reading: Frank Willett: Ife in the History of West African Sculpture. Freeborn Odiboh: Creation Reformation of Existing African Tradition: The Abayomi Barber Art School and Modern Nigerian Art