Articles, Features

FOR SAM OVRAITI, COVID-19 IS JUST A PHASE

Even a period of lockdown can creatively be advantageous to a creative mind, artist Sam Ovraiti discovers as struggles to adjust his routine to the current realities. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

VISUAL ARTS

Change was inevitable. Things would never be the same again…

It was just little over a month after Nigeria confirmed its first coronavirus case and the public unease about the pandemic had already heightened. As part of the package that eventually came with the imminent change was a lockdown announced by the Nigerian government on Sunday, March 29.

This initial lockdown, which lasted two weeks, became effective from 11 pm on Monday, March 30 and affected only Lagos and Ogun states as well as the federal capital city, Abuja.

But, for Sam Ovraiti, the announcement was not worth losing sleep over. Lockdown might just as well have been another of those buzzwords. Or, so he thought.

“As a visual artist, my world is in me,” he rationalises. “[After all,] lockdown has been my usual state of existence.”

Slowly, but surely, it began to dawn on him that certain things about his normal routine were bound to become “casualties” of the onslaught of change. First among these “casualties” were what he called his “weekly artist dates”. Such dates offered windows of opportunities to see life outside his studio walls. During those outings, he would criss-cross the termite-dense city of Lagos, feeling its vibes and tapping into the pulsating ideas that seem to be floating out there.

Then, it struck him that he was running out of art supplies. The realisation that he could not visit the art supply shops because they were forced to close down made him begin to liken the period of lockdown to a war situation.

This was when his mantra to always to the impossible with the available came in handy. “When one material is no longer available, you begin to look differently at the ones that are available. This tasks your creativity and sometimes helps you to come up with new slants of creating new works.”

Tasking his creativity also implied spending a lot of time on his artworks and seeking ways to make them refreshingly different from the previous ones.

Prior to the lockdown, he had travelled to the rustic Delta State town of Agbarha-Otor as the director and one of the old reliables of the annual Harmattan Workshops. The two-week workshop had a full house, with participants drawn from all over the world. Also in attendance was its founder and chairman, Professor Bruce Onobrakpeya, who created some evacuative acrylic on canvas works.

Meanwhile, the dates for the workshop’s forthcoming August edition, like those of the February edition, have already long been fixed. This means that both the organisers and intending participants would only be hoping that a gradual easing of the lockdown would make it possible for it to hold.

“I am confident that we are well equipped to maintain the right social distancing and healthy practice protocols that will guarantee a successful August edition,” Ovraiti enthuses. “There is enough studio space to accommodate participants, to maintain the highest level of virus-free workshop. If all travel restrictions are relaxed before August, there’s all likelihood the harmattan workshop will hold.”

Ovraiti, a former Federal Polytechnic, Auchi lecturer, also holds a Higher National Diploma from the tertiary institution and an MFA degree from the University of Benin. A leading light of the contemporary Nigerian art scene, he is one of the pillars of the Guild of Fine Artists, which is simply known as GFA.

Even before the lockdown, the members of this close-knit collective of the elite Nigerian professional artists preferred social media as their platform of interaction. This is especially since its membership is spread across Nigeria and even extends to Europe and America. “So, during the lockdown, we resorted to Zoom video meetings, which we found more convenient and stress-free. Social media and technology have come to the rescue.”

On the effect of the lockdown on art patronage, he insists that “art is happening always”, likening the business of art to other business endeavours. “Everything is selling: generators, food, houses, cars, books, wine… All are selling and, like them, the business of art is still running. People are still producing art and collectors are buying art. It has never ceased and it will not cease. Statistics and data will reveal how many.”

Nonetheless, he is concerned about the impact of the press reports on COVID-19 on the sale of all products with the exception of foods and medicines. “I believe at all times some will sell and some will not. Many factors will be responsible for whether a sector or a person will be affected negatively or not. Even in this lockdown mega-companies made profits and some crashed.”

“As a studio artist,” he continues. “I set my goals and my mantra is ‘I am a human being doing the business of art’. In this business, my job is to create art. I create and those who are in the business of selling art take over from there. If I create useful, valuable art that can profit people who deal in art, then a sale is assured!”

He brushes aside the apocalyptic notions swirling around the pandemic as exaggerated. According to him, the so-called period of uncertainty “is all a mind thing created by people, who are meditating in the wrong direction.”

“If I must project into the future, I will project that people will get out of the fear mode and begin to live positively knowing that ‘this too shall pass’.”

Ovraiti premises his optimism on the current positive reports from the art sector despite the pandemic. First, there was, on the international scene, a recent sale of a 1982 painting by the late American artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, Jean-Michel Basquiat, titled “Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump” for $100 million. Then, the bidings for the Lagos-based Arthouse Contemporary Limited’s first-ever online auction flagged off on Tuesday, June 9 and concludes on Monday, June 15.

“Other auction houses have followed suit,” he believes. “This goes to show that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Art will always be created by us, who overcome fear. The business will go on. And collectors like trees are not afraid of the weather. They will always be there.”

He, therefore, advises the younger generation of artists to keep their creative dreams alive and remain open to more revelations irrespective of what the outer world is presenting. “COVID-19 is a phase. Art will remain.”

Sam Ovraiti in his studio

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