ABAYOMI BARBER – a Nigerian “Genius” whose mastery of his Art challenges the British Art History
by Kola Abiola
Dotting the alleys and the facades, from the rear of the westminster Abbey’s landscape, through the Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, and all around London, one will find statues of great people who made Britain great. Least to say is that London has recorded history of major events and people all around the world. The over life-size statue of Sir Winston Churchill in the House of Commons radiates some finesse, uniqueness, and a proud, undeterred smirk of globalization with the brisk of a conqueror. The artist who was able to conceal upon this statue such intricacies must be a genius. Abayomi Barber, an artist with a distinction deserved some form of recognition in the British Art History today in view of his other statues sprawling around the city of London.
Among the list of his other works erected in London, another over life-size statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Westham, a plaque of Winston Churchill in Westham, an over life-size bust of General Alexander of Tunis, a scale model of Field Marshall Montgomery, bust of General Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia and many others. Abayomi began at the British Museum where he was sent from Nigeria to study the restoration and the preservation of antiquities. According to him, “I was sent to England in September 1960. My main project was to produce the statue of late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the premier of then Western Nigeria. But before starting work on the statue, I was to work for some time in the British Museum to study the restoration and preservation of antiquity and also to attend a school or studio where I could study the principles of bronze casting” Abayomi was introduced to the former Yoruba Historical Research by the late Sage, then premier of Western Nigeria Chief Obafemi Awolowo. For this reason, the sage was instrumental to his success. Abayomi joined the Yoruba Historical Research in 1957. He went on the research field with the late William Fagg, the then deputy keeper of the British Museum, Frank Willet, Dr. Bradbury and Reverend Father Carroll, when they toured Nigeria on research project trying to trace the origin of the Yoruba. Some of the excavations discovered during this project included the fine Ife bronze heads produced by the Ife ancient artists in the 12th century through a metal casting technique known as Lost Wax Method. The method was later taught to the Benin artist who later produced the famous Benin royal bronzes.
This web of history argumentatively clarified the fact that the art of molding and casting in Ife region predated the technology of metal casting in Europe. Is this not irony of fate that Abayomi has come to Europe to learn the skill that was known to have been perfected by his ancestors? Will it not be reasonable also to suggest that before Abayomi left his country for England, he was already consummated with his affection for the appealing fine touches of Ife heads? Judging from the look of his scriptures, his passion for artistic excellence has often been anticipation for similar artistic finesse and resemblance of Ife heads. Abayomi’s influence on British sculpture since his arrival in England must not be ignored. Observably, thinking with kindred spirit, traces of finesse, resemblance of Ife heads are noticeable on major British statues, especially some statues of Kings, Queens, Dukes, Duchesses, Emperors and the Nobles. It is predicated over the years by art historians and critics that artists who work in the same studio are often known to influence one another through artistic instincts, techniques, vibration and inspirational. His first job was in a scenic art studio, at Notting Hill Gate, owned by late Edward Delaney. Later, he worked with Mr. Fredrick Mancini in Wimbledon and then with late Oscar Nemon was reputed to be the greatest authority on the Churchill sculptures. He was a sculpture of Kings, Queens, Dukes, Duchesses and Emperors, and most nobility in England and around Europe.
Abayomi quietly recounted in his memory,” our studio was in the Queen mother’s garden in St. James’s palace where I worked for my last four years in England before coming to the University of Lagos in 1971.”
He has since remained at the University. Abayomi Barber is married with children.