Illuminating Blackness – Sam Ovraiti’s Pastel Portraits from 1987 to 1991

Illuminating Blackness –  Sam Ovraiti’s Pastel Portraits from 1987 to 1991

The decision to use black paper was a simple one. It just seemed right. He knew exactly what he wanted out of this project. A discovery of blackness. No. Actually, an illumination of blackness. The simple lines of the pastel chalk would carve out the beautiful African features of the girls on the black paper. Just lines of coloured chalk subtly defining the forms, discovering their blackness. Simple pastel lines and black paper. He would eventually create hundreds; maybe a thousand or so pastel portraits over a four-year period.

By 1987 Sam Ovraiti was an art lecturer at the Federal Polytechnic, Auchi. He’d graduated from Auchi in 1983, and in 1985 returned there as a lecturer. He was gregarious, friendly, mischievous — the sort of person who found something nice to say to everyone regardless of their station. Among the students and the young art lecturers he had a reputation as a motivator.

‘Don’t keep planning, paint!’, he would tell them.

He was willing to buy a few artworks from any artist who needed money to buy art materials. He was already selling his artworks in Lagos and Abuja so he had enough money to be the local patron. As long as the artist was willing to work, Ovraiti would be willing to help.

‘Don’t be afraid to use these colours’, he’d urge them.

And he followed his own advice. He worked all the time: in his house, in his department, and all over Auchi town doing live painting sessions with other artists. A good number of people around Auchi got to know the cheerful artist who was always working. He didn’t work with intensity. There was something mellow, even casual about his process. He talked as he worked. Joked with whoever was around, laughed a lot, stopped for conversations. It didn’t really seem like he was working. But he was, in an easy sort of way.

Faber Castell, Royal Talens and Mayaki

Sometime in 1987, an acquaintance of Ovraiti’s from his Auchi school days, John Mayaki, informed him that an art shop in Lagos had cartons of Faber Castell and Royal Talens pastels they needed to sell. The art shop may have been shutting down or may just have had a large consignment of pastels they couldn’t move. Mayaki had told the art shop about an artist he knew in Auchi who worked incessantly and who might need the pastels. Would Ovraiti be interested in buying all of the pastels, Mayaki inquired.

Ovraiti wasn’t. He wanted some,but didn’t think he would need cartons of pastel. But he offered to buy some of the pastels and help them get a market for the rest in Auchi. There were lots of students and art teachers in Auchi who would be interested.Everyone was happy with this plan. There was one small problem though. In 1987, many of the artists in Auchi and the rest of Nigeria were not using pastels. The more familiar media were oil and water colours. The schools taught the students that the major artworks were done in oil; other artworks were done in water colour, ink or graphite. Pastel simply didn’t figure as a medium. A few artists like Ovraiti used pastel but it certainly wasn’t a familiar medium for many artists.

Ovraiti knew that if he wanted the art community interested in pastel as a medium he had to show them how good it was. He had to prove to them that it was as magical as he thought it was. He had to use the medium constantly so they could see the process and the results. Portraiture would be a good way to go. There was something magical about recreating a person — both for the artist and the model. Everyone wanted to be painted. It would also be a good way to teach his students portraiture. So, he decided. He would paint at least one pastel portrait every day. It wouldn’t be easy; not with everything else, including lecturing to deal with. But this was Ovraiti. He worked all the time. So that was it. One pastel a day. He’d do it for the next four years.

The portraits

The first set of models were friends, the girlfriends of friends and his students. They were happy to sit for him. It was fun. They could joke around and have a good time. He quickly expanded beyond this circle. The students from the other department started to come in to sit for him as well. In no time there was a waiting list. Everyone wanted to sit and have their portrait done. It could have been vanity for some, the portraits were flattering; it could also have been a sense of adventure, it was certainly intriguing to be an artist’s model; for many, it would have been the idea that they were a part of something fashionable and distinctive — an exclusive pastel club.

Sometimes he paid the models if he felt they needed the money. But always he gave them one drawing. He would do several pastel drawings of each model and at the end of the process the model got to choose and keep her favourite portrait. He found different qualities in the girls. Sometimes, it was their beauty; at other times, their air of melancholy. By the late 1980s, the Nigerian economy was adrift. People were learning to adjust to this new economic situation. He could see it in some of the girls — that sense that they were grappling with a new uncomfortable reality. Eventually, he found that he was always on the lookout for suitable models wherever he was. If he ran into a girl he was interested in drawing, he’d ask. Usually they’d say yes. Occasionally they’d decline. Maybe too shy. Maybe cautious. It didn’t matter though. A lot of girls were keen on sitting.

The girls with facial markings intrigued him. These were not the obvious, bold tribal marks of old but, rather, the subtle facial markings that he saw in girls from the South and the East of Nigeria. Tiny cuts on the cheeks or the temple. It seemed a holdover from another time. The parents had been marked and still felt a need to put these marks on their children. Yet, like a strange brush stroke, the marks intrigued him — the way they decorated the face added a different element to the lines of the face. The way the girls reacted to their markings varied. Some were comfortable with it, just another fact of life. Some were self-conscious, keen to hide them as if the marks were some sort of blemish. Blemish for some, beauty mark for some, mere fact of life for some, culture and heritage for some. Tiny marks that, for him, said so much.

He tried to keep the portraits as true to the girls as possible. He wanted to stay true to their likeness. He also wanted to make it simple. The only decorative element was usually around the ears. The earrings for him played a central role in the centring of the face. He dwelt on the earrings, distorting them sometimes, elaborating on them, and in some cases creating new patterns that spread from these earrings to other areas of the portrait.

The girls came. They sat. They smiled, frowned, laughed, talked, sulked. He drew. Again and again on his black paper, outlining their African features. Letting the paper and the chalks illuminate their blackness — their youth, their dreams, their hopes, their loves, their heartbreaks. He tried to find their humanity, but also their distinct African-ness. The original pastels boxes ran out in no time. He migrated from Faber Castell pastels to Rembrandt soft pastels. He kept drawing. Everyday. He also started to exhibit the pastels all over the country — Lagos, Abuja, Kano. Years later, one of his models, Osato Adams, had graduated and moved to the United States. She’d gone with some friends to visit an American family who had been to Nigeria. She could tell something was up as soon as she walked into their home. Everyone was staring at her.

‘We have an artwork upstairs and the girl looks exactly like you’, they told her. ‘We got it in Kano, but you’ve never been to Kano.’

She went upstairs to see the artwork.

‘That’s me’, she said. ‘That’s me.’

It was years ago. But she still remembered sitting and laughing and joking.

Four years after he started the pastel portraits, Ovraiti stopped painting them. It was just time to stop. They were other paths to explore. He started experimenting with more abstract water colours. But the girls stayed on the black paper — with their marks, their youth, their laughter, their blackness.

Dozie Igweze

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