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'The more you look, the more you see'

The artist Osagie Edomwandagbon (1966) has had an exciting journey in his search for freedom and beauty. He grew up in Nigeria and studied graphic art at the School of Art and Design in Auchi. While there he became involved in student protests against those in power at the time and this resulted in him finally fleeing the country.
He arrived in the Netherlands in 1988 more or less by chance and ended up living in the Kruis Church in Rotterdam and then in an asylum seekers' hostel in Goes in Zeeland where he started to paint, encouraged by local artist Gerard Menken who used to take him to exhibitions. And it was at an exhibition in Amsterdam of the work by the great Kees van Dongen that he met his future Dutch wife.
They moved together to Workum, where his first exhibition was held, and much admired by Jopie Huisman, a neighbor. Osagie moved to Groningen after his divorce, joined the group of artists at the Minerva Academy and started to paint brightly colored abstract landscapes and portraits depicting his roots.
Later in a search for peace and quiet, he left Groningen and moved to Enschede where he found the strength to come to terms with his past. He continues to paint and his passion for art – shapes, colors and matter – remains strong today, as can be seen from this exhibition.
The paintings are all for sale and are hanging in the corridors (third floor) and the library of the African Studies Center in the Pieter de la Court building, Wassenaarseweg 52 in Leiden. The exhibition is open weekdays from 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM from 15 October until 31 December 2008. Feel free to come and take a look.

 

THE IMAGINATION OF FREEDOM

“A painting is not a structure of colors and lines, but an animal, a night, a scream, a person, or all of that together.”

I think of this statement by the Dutch cobraist Constant when I see the paintings and drawings by the Nigerian Osagie Edomwandagbon for the first time. It expresses the same kind of energy as the 'Freedom Scream', the painting by Karel Appel that is considered exemplary of the COBRA movement, the movement active in the 1950s. An almost childlike enthusiasm to start something new and leave the oppression of the past behind you.

Osagie (his surname is often omitted or shortened to Edo) was born in Nigeria in 1966, the year in which two military coups disrupted the country. He studies graphics at the School of Art and Design in Auchi. That is where his commitment emerges. He will participate in protests against the then regime (in 1984 and 1985 there were again violent takeovers). This puts himself in a risky position. Many students are arrested and 'disappear'. Osagie decides to flee his homeland. He ended up in Rotterdam in 1988. Not by choice, but by chance. In the beginning he stayed with a number of 'colleagues' in the Kruiskerk there, the depressing fate of many asylum seekers at that time. After a stay in an asylum seeker center in Goes, he moves to Workum, then to Groningen and finally ends up in Enschede, the city where he can work on his career as an artist in relative peace.

With such a charged past, it is understandable on the one hand that he still cares about the fate of many Africans - for example, he takes part in the celebrations surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of Congo's independence on his blog - on the other hand, it is logical that he focuses on his work tries to liberate. Sometimes his visual language comes close to that of Karel Appel and his Belgian and Danish friends - the cheerful, contrasting colors, the distorted figuration, the love for the materiality of paint - sometimes he also seems to borrow content from COBRA: for example, the frequent depiction of animals (especially birds) and of fantasy creatures.

Yet I would be doing Osagie a disservice if I were to dismiss him as an imitator. His African roots make him a natural storyteller who indulges his innate fantasies, who shows himself to be faithful to the cultural and mythical heritage that provides many African artists with an almost inexhaustible source of inspiration and who knows how to bring folk art into the present. Moreover, he is less limited by a concept and by a visual language that adheres to certain rules. He lets loose more often and appropriates a larger playing field than his illustrious predecessors. In 'I can fly' from 2010, for example, he shows himself to be a humorous translator of traditional symbols: not only the bird symbolizes freedom, but also the mobile phone. In 'The Spirit of the Past' from the same year, he also contrasts the present with the past, with which I believe he implicitly praises the achievements of his own time. 'What about you' (2010) expresses his preference for unbridled details in all colors of the non-Western rainbow. He forces the viewer into an intensive viewing process, because otherwise too many elements and aspects would escape him. Compared to this, the visual language of the average cobraist can be called almost elementary.

This presentation of more than twenty works is his first in Amsterdam. The quality of his work deserves that it will not be the last.

 

Rob Perrée

Amsterdam, April 2011.        

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