Abayomi Barber is a surrealist painter, sculptor and teacher.
He is probably one of the most influential contemporary artists in Nigeria. He has, over the years, thought and influenced a generation of artists who have learnt the rudiments of painting from him and have been inspired by his unfettered imagination.
Barber was born in Ife in 1928. As a child he was attracted to the Ife sculptures in the palace of his uncle, the then Oni of Ife, Oba Adesoji Aderemi. By his early teens the precocious Barber had started to create artworks from whatever material was available to him. His early pastels were made directly from coloured chalk soaked in water and kitchen charcoal.
Wilful and talented, Barber gave up his student position in the nascent art department of the Yaba College of Technology after a few months to pursue a life learning art by himself. He worked briefly at the Nigerian Advertiser and Methodist Boy’s school, Lagos before moving to Ibadan to work on the children’s comic book, Awo Rerin.
On the recommendation of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, The Yoruba Historical society recruited Barber. The society would eventually send him to the UK on a scholarship that seemed tailored to his restless spirit. It allowed him get an art education in the UK through a process of cultural assimilation rather than a strict university education. He was also to create a large sculpture of Chief Awolowo for the Government of the Western region.
Barber mover to London in 1960. For a brief period he took art classes at the Central School of Arts and Craft, London. Mostly though, he visited Museums and galleries and wandered the parks of London. He eventually joined the studio of Mancini and Tozer. From there he moved to the studio of the Oscar Nemon. He would work with Nemon on a variety of Winston Churchill busts. Nemon had become intertwined with the art of Churchill and had become, in a sense, Churchill’s art biographer, creating some of the most enduring images of the British politician. Barber upon his return to Nigeria would have the same relationship with Awolowo.
Barber returned to Nigeria in 1971 to teach art at the University of Lagos. His art school like the man was informal. He liked to teach by example and his students learnt by practice. Many of them would follow his surrealistic leanings. These group of artists would become known as the Barber school and would carry on his tradition of a dedication to detail and a liberation of the imagination.