How Artists Osaru Obaseki & Dempsey Eguae Are Showcasing the Versatility of the Benin Contemporary Art Scene

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Cr.: the times

Contemporary art is defined as art done by living artists either in the second half of the 20th century or beginning from the 21st century. A contemporary artist is defined, by some, as an artist who does art in a world that is advancing very rapidly in terms of technology. 

African art has inspired and influenced contemporary artists across the world—with inspo drawn from today’s Nigerian artists and sculptors, to the vibrant colours and patterns of traditional African textiles, to scratchings on cave walls in Namibia, to pottery in Nok, and the great bronze castings in Benin. 

The art scene in Benin is renowned for its rich cultural heritage, which is reflected in its traditional art forms, such as bronze casting, wood carving, beadwork, and pottery. The impact of Benin art can be felt all over the world, as it has inspired and influenced art movements and artists around the globe.

Credit: Daily Art

The Benin bronze works, which were created by the Edo people of Benin between the 13th and 15th centuries, have been described as some of the greatest works of art ever produced in Africa, they were also exported to Europe during the colonial era, where they became highly sought-after by collectors and museums.

Today, many of these works can be found in museums and private collections around the world, including the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition to its traditional art forms, Benin has also developed a thriving contemporary art scene, with many local artists creating works that reflect the country’s rich cultural heritage while also exploring new and innovative forms of expression. 

In line with Black History Month, earlier in February, and in the light of celebrating the Black Experience for the March | April 2023 issue of Modaculture Magazine, Peace Osemwengie spoke to Osaru Obaseki and Dempsey Eguae, two multi-talented contemporary Nigerian artists from the heart of the Benin kingdom who are showing the versatility of the Benin art scene.

Osaru Obaseki is an experimental visual artist whose works cut across paintings, sculptures and installations. She explores the use of materials but majorly uses sand as a medium for rendering contemporary paintings. Her work focuses on environmental influences, identity, culture, and history through which she strings the past with the present.

How Artists Osaru Obaseki & Dempsey Eguae Are Showcasing the Versatility of the Benin Contemporary Art Scene
Osaru Obaseki

“The use of sand is significant in my work because it comes from a place of tapping into the Benin art methodology or processes—if I can call it that—especially when it applies to the process of bronze casting, terracotta and even the Benin architectural style. So I wanted to take from that thought process and infuse it into my art, by mixing sand and acrylics to create a textural medium for my works. It’s like stringing the ancient and the modern to translate modern-day stories with traces of past history.” 

––Osaru Obaseki, Modaculture Digital, March 2023

This visual artist is particular about where the sand she uses comes from and says that she uses only three types of sand: red earth gotten from the streets of Benin, black sand gotten from Igun Street, which is famous for being the centre for sculpting and bronze castings in Benin, and white sand got from the bed of the river.

Osaru Obaseki first picked an interest in art in secondary school, always looking forward to fine art classes. But she couldn’t go further in fine arts. And then, in service year, this interest came back, primarily because she needed to pour out herself and channel her expression through something. Now, Osaru defines art as “Freedom. Being given the free will to be yourself and express that self which further gives one the edge to interpret the world in one’s likeness.”

How Artists Osaru Obaseki & Dempsey Eguae Are Showcasing the Versatility of the Benin Contemporary Art Scene
Osaru Obaseki

“Let me start by saying I am so in love with the works of Peju Alatise, so one of my favourite pieces is titled ‘DEEP SLEEP’. It’s a piece from her exhibition done in 2018, Paradox-Paradigms and Parasites.” 

Artists do have favourites after all. Osaru mentioned this during the interview and also mentioned that “Bloom” from her “Red Earth” series and “The Conveyor” from her yet-to-be-put-out series, “Memories Un-Lived” are also special favourites.

Osaru is inspired by the spaces she finds herself in, whether home or abroad because she believes that the shape of the earth isn’t a coincidence and so everything and everyone originates from one source and we are all interconnected. Osaru’s cultural heritage also plays a big role in her art.

How Artists Osaru Obaseki & Dempsey Eguae Are Showcasing the Versatility of the Benin Contemporary Art Scene
Osaru Obaseki

“I am driven by one’s sense of identity, cultures, histories and individualism. Of course, my root source is Benin and expanding to the worldview makes me see that culture is dynamic and it evolves through time. In fact, with this said, this is exactly what my ongoing series is all about—my transitioning as a person and as an artist—cultural and imaginative and real-time sceneries all portrayed as a cause and effect of time.”

“Not everyone will understand your art or what you’re trying to express with it. And that is okay, “, she said, “but it is important, as a Creative, that you do not consider your work invalid or unimportant.”

––Osaru Obaseki, Modaculture Digital, March 2023

Osaru is currently working on the series “Memories Un-Lived”, given her upcoming solo exhibition. She urges young artists to “never forget the past”. “Today makes the histories and myths of tomorrow, so how best do you want to live your today and tell the stories of the past?”

Another fascinating Nigerian artist from Benin showing the versatility of the Benin art scene is Dempsey Eguae. Also known as Whitecollar, Dempsey is a self-taught artist and photographer who first began to paint with poster colours in 2015 while he was waiting for admission into the university. “Art was the only thing that brought me fulfilment in that period,” he tells Modaculture.

How Artists Osaru Obaseki & Dempsey Eguae Are Showcasing the Versatility of the Benin Contemporary Art Scene
Dempsey Eguae

Dempsey’s art, which is now done in realism, has evolved through many phases as he evolved. His art first began as a caricature, and even as he continued to learn, his style changed. He says that art is an expression of his inner being, simply how he had expressed himself throughout his growth. This is evident in his style, realism, which is loosely defined as an attempt to depict naturalness in everyday life, without any form of artifice.

“When I started, my friends took the whole idea of ‘me being an artist’ more than I did. They exposed me to opportunities which helped in my growth. They helped in marketing my talent. My first exhibition was made possible because of a friend. My first purchase was made by my friends. I love them.” 

––Dempsey Eguae, Modaculture Digital, March 2023

Dempsey’s biggest inspirations are his friends. He also stated how he is inspired by music, people and the natural desire to create something. 

While most people would expect an artist to not have favourites from their works, it is a myth for Dempsey. Artists do have their babies, their favourite works. This contemporary artist’s favourite artwork is the first painting in his “Honey” Series. The work, done in oils, depicts a woman on whom honey is lavished generously. 

How Artists Osaru Obaseki & Dempsey Eguae Are Showcasing the Versatility of the Benin Contemporary Art Scene

“I had a model for the pose and I just found myself working day in, day out for over a month and I kept on adding and removing things from the painting until it was finally completed. It was completely different from any other work I had done before. And I have no idea what inspired it.”

––Dempsey Eguae, Modaculture Digital March 2023

For Dempsey, this first painting in the “Honey” series was unlike anything he had ever done before and represented a huge transition in his skill level and career as a whole.

For Benin contemporary artists who are trying to break into the scene today, there are usually more gold-tone metals than gold out there Dempsey experienced this when he first started and it is something he had to navigate. 

Dempsey is currently working on his “Honey” series and the “Black Royalty” series. He says that art is patience, art is expression, and art is fulfilment.

The art scene in the ancient city of Benin continues to evolve and expand. Artists from this ground have gained international recognition and have exhibited their works in galleries and museums around the world, further cementing Benin’s place as a hub of artistic creativity and expression.

This story, by Peace Osemwengie, was originally published in Modaculture Digital March | April 2023 issue. Go HERE to get a copy and read the digital version.

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