Erudite. Articulate. Ben Osaghae liked words. He could express himself clearly in writing and in speech. A rare combination for an artist, in my experience. A rare thing for most people, come to think of it. Most people I know are good at either talking or writing – rarely both. Ben was an exception that way. He wrote about his art and other people’s art intelligently and he spoke with such clarity and exactitude that it seemed as if he had an internal thesaurus that filtered the words and delivered them just so.
I can’t quite recollect our first meeting. Age does that to one, I suppose. My earliest recollection though would be from the mid-nineties, on the opening day of his exhibition at Didi museum. At the time, he was a young lecturer at the Federal Polytechnic, Auchi. He taught art, shared an office with Duke Asidere and apparently ate a prodigious amount of Kola nut – a carryover from his time in the North. He was a key figure in the circle of Auchi artists attracting a lot of attention in Lagos with bold, energetic canvases.
I had gone to see Osahenye Kainebi who worked closely with Ben at the time, seen an artwork by Ben at the studio that I liked and had agreed to meet up with him a few hours before his exhibition to talk about it. We met before the opening as planned. He didn’t seem to care too much about the money. Whatever worked for me was fine.
He was warm, gentle, easy-going. He was also somewhat detached, reserved, distracted, like a professor who couldn’t wait to get back to his ideas. The sort of person a stranger might consider aloof but a friend might consider endearingly naive.
I dealt with him as a friend and dealer for the next two decades. My initial impressions of him remained true. He stayed pretty much the same as a person. As an artist, though, he evolved significantly in that time. Many people think the nineties were his best years. He would disagree. That was just a phase in his journey. True. He was a blast of fresh air in the nineties. His canvases were bold, exuberant, adventurous. He was the mad professor changing the way we viewed colour and composition. And themes as well. He could paint just about anything.
He liked social themes. He thought the artist should be a social conscience and a chronicler. He explored our problems – healthcare, housing, transportation, policing. He did those strange exterior/interior Molue buses – people trapped helplessly in those buses, yet floating in a yellow space.
He dealt with other themes as well. I always thought he had a Lazarus-thing going. He could paint anything and bring it to life. He could paint a solitary chair and that chair would tell you about hope, comfort, peace. Or it could tell you about isolation, longing, loneliness. He could paint a fish basket, and it could tell you about family life, contentment, caring. He could bring any object to life. He was that good.
As he evolved, he shed the artifice and embellishment of his earlier work for something more direct, purer, truer. His canvases became more minimalist. He wanted to suggest images to the viewer – a more collaborative arrangement where the viewer’s imagination completed the image. Not everyone agreed with him. In a way, we wanted him to remain with us in the familiar. He didn’t want to. He pushed on, looking for new ways to express his art. We resisted. We liked the familiar. Eventually though, we’d see things his way and come to terms with his new direction. By then he’d have moved on further down his minimalist path. And we’d struggle to catch up. Again.
He never really doubted that we’d catch up at some point. He may have had the occasional bout of self-doubt but generally he was confident in his vision about his art. He painted for himself first. To find an expression for the thoughts in his head. He hoped we would share those truths with him, but understood we didn’t have to.
Deliberate. Considered. He knew every patch of his canvas. Every stroke. Every shade. He created deliberately, meticulously. Transferring his vision to canvas. Some of it would have been spontaneous but most of it was thought-through. Envisioned. It was a rigorous intellectual pursuit, the job of transferring these ideas about life and his society unto canvas in the truest way possible. He was the conjurer, assured, conscious of his action. His canvases may have appeared chaotic but it was controlled chaos. Every stroke was there for a reason, to do his bidding in his creation.
‘That stroke goes down like that’ he’d say with a sweep of his hand, ‘to show the tension of the muscles as the labourer lifts the block’. He’d pause, ‘As he yanks it!’ He’d mimic the motion of a man lifting a building block. It may have been only a tiny stroke, but it was there for a reason.
He understood what each element was there to do and like the teacher he always was, he was keen to share the process with anyone who would listen. He wanted to share not just the canvas, but the process that went into creating it.
Ben liked words. So, as you can imagine, he took pleasure in his titles. ‘Market scene’, ‘Man standing’ No way. Not for Ben. ‘A man of infinite jest’ Now that was an Osaghae title. White background, a dandy gleefully cavorting with his eager women. The women, bold, brash seductive. The man, lost in his pleasures. Truly ‘a man of infinite jest’. I liked the title. For him the title was a key element in the artwork.
‘I better pass my neighbour’ borrowed from the slang for the small, ubiquitous generators found in mini-shops all over Lagos. The artwork is simple. Hints of the generators and plastic fuel containers, all done in oil and a bit of paper cut-out. Spare. A true representation of today’s Lagos. It used to be those huge, ugly Molue buses – the symbol of our chaos. But, for Ben, that was the past. The new Lagos was the humming of a million angry generators – a collective wail that we had grown deaf to. It was simple. True.
He kept searching for the truth. Through his difficulties. Through ill-health. He persevered with a certain equanimity. He didn’t chew the kola nut anymore but one could almost imagine him, kola nut in hand at ease in the middle of the storm. Silent. Painting. Still. Watching the world. Embracing his travails with a simple shrug. Then returning to the canvas to do what he always did.
I saw him just before Christmas. We talked as we always did – about art, football, Auchi, marriage. I didn’t really grasp it at the time but he was disappearing. Not in any concrete way. He hadn’t been painting for a while. That wasn’t necessarily unusual. He had started to have brief periods of inactivity and bursts of productivity. It was something less definable. A waning, a gradual surrender. With a different sort of person it might have been easier to notice, but Ben had a certain calmness that could mask emotional turbulence. But it was there, in the shadows. We talked. we laughed. I took a few sneak selfies to tease him with later. Then we went on to visit Duke Asidere. We spoke again a few weeks later but that would be our last meeting.
The beauty of being a creator is that ever-present state of ‘is’ rather than ‘was’ – not quite immortality, but close enough. The artist is still with us. But we will miss the man. The man, Ben Osaghae, was gentle, intelligent, generous, awkward, reserved, noble. The artist, Ben Osaghae, is brilliant, insightful, bold, authentic. And, yes, infinite.