Is Abayomi Barber a painter or a sculptor? Most people would say painter. His surrealist paintings are easily recognizable and have enchanted art enthusiasts for decades. Landscapes, brimming with hidden objects; incredibly detailed character studies that meld reality and fantasy.
Yet Barber has always viewed himself as much a sculptor as a painter – maybe even more a sculptor. His love for art started with school visits to Ife shrines while still in primary school in Ile Ife. During these visits, his history instructor would introduce the children to the art of the ancient Ife artists. Barber was fascinated and quickly decided he would create art himself.
By 1955, Barber had moved to Lagos and enrolled in a sculptor program in Yaba College of Technology. He did not complete the programme. He was impatient, self-assured and driven by a desire to create his art immediately.
In 1960, he was given a scholarship by the Yoruba Historical Society to study in the UK. The scholarship was unusual. He was allowed to take whatever art courses he chose, visit museums, create a statue of Obafemi Awolowo and learn the preservation and restoration of antiquities.
He worked on the sculpture of Awolowo while working at the Mancini and Tozer studios, London. He would later work with the famed sculptor Oscar Nemon in his St. James’ palace studio. Nemon was well-known for his sculptures of Winston Churchill. Barber would partner with him to create five busts of Churchill in the sixties. Something of the linear style of Nemon would remain with Barber and would influence many of his later sculptures.
In the sixties, seventies and eighties, Barber would go on to create a variety of sculptures for public and private spaces. He would create several sculptures of Obafemi Awolowo with whom he had a close relationship. Awolowo had encouraged him in his early days and he would continue to collaborate with him.
Barber would also create sculptures like ‘Ali Maigoro’ and Dr. Sugomu that showed his uncanny eye for detail and storytelling.
His public sculptures were no less impressive. His sculpture of Yemoja was created for the National Gallery of art in 1971. The theme of Yemoja, the mythical Yoruba goddess was one he would revisit intermittently.
A sculpture of the Late Ooni of Ife, Adesoji Aderemi was created for the National Gallery of Art in 1979. This sculpture, imposing and hyper-realistic vividly conveyed Oba Aderemi’s authority and immense power.
While his paintings provided a clear outlet for his surrealist leanings, the sculptures would more directly convey his sense of details, his empathy with his subjects and his storytelling. The sculpture ‘Ali Maigoro’ was an invented northern man created while in London. He was homesick and unhappy. His solution was to create a friendly. old northern man, that smiled at him and brought sunshine to his grey London Flat. His sculpture of ‘Ali Maigoro’ still spreads its warmth decades later.