We got talking with one of the founding members of the Ona movement, Tola Wewe, who gladly shared his creative process with us, how Yoruba traditional influences impact on his work and more. Wewe is showcasing his work at the ongoing Aabru exhibition at Lacey Contemporary Gallery in the UK (Read about that here)
You started out as a cartoonist; how and why did you make the transition to becoming a studio artist?
I would like to state that I started my art practice as a cartoonist. When I was a little kid, I enjoyed drawing cartoons. Immediately after a rainfall, I would pick a broom stick and lampoon prominent personalities in my communities on the wet ground with the stick. I have always seen cartooning as a way of expressing myself. It is a fact that I got a job with the Daily Times as a cartoonist, but I have have been practising Studio Art for many years now.
You are one of the founders of the Ona movement, and have in the past said the ànjònnú, emèrè and the ebora are the true authors of your work. How do these Yoruba spirits influence your artistic process and is there a path they seek to show through your works?
Yes, I am a founding member of Ona. I certainly know that most of my works are largely influenced by the spirits. In fact, as a student in the university, when others were battling to submit 6 paintings as assignments, I would be armed with over 20 to choose from. My mates would be in the studio all day working and I would quietly appear in the night and litter all the easels with paintings before dawn. Everybody would be shocked in the morning with the quality and numbers of painting done. Hence the appellation,”iwin” – meaning the supernatural one. Talking seriously, I approach the canvas most of the time being manipulated by some superior forces. I am not my normal self when painting. I am being directed by the spirits.
You were born in Ondo and it is apparent that your roots play an important role in the art creation process for you. Were you exposed to the traditional influences as a child or was it a path you found as a young artist?
My Ondo roots play an important role in my creative process. The university I attended also played a great role. Ife was for “Learning and Culture”. At Ibadan, I also had my Masters at the institute of African Studies. So formally, and informally, I have been well groomed in the cultures of Africa.
What does the Ona movement mean to you?
Ona, means more than an art movement to me. Although it was formed mainly by the pioneers with the intent of using African, especially Yoruba, traditional art forms in our drawings and paintings. It has created a bond between me and the Yoruba religion. It has enabled me to appreciate more, the culture of the African.
At the beginning of your career, the Ijaw water spirit mask was one of your major influences. Is this still the case?
There is still the Ijaw influence on my works. In my ‘ Beyond Visual Beauty’; an exhibition of paintings and paintings, 1990, I clearly stated that three major influences characterise my art. The first, which lends form to my art is my Yoruba – Ijaw cultural background. The second being my formal art training in the university; and the third, a call by our historical time in Nigeria.This is still the story.
Your work has been described as ‘sometimes playful, sometimes serious, sometimes dense, sometimes scattered, carefully orchestrated, although seemingly extravagant’, is this how you would describe your art?
I honestly believe it is the duty of the critics or historians to describe my works. I have done my bit. Incidentally, they are visual. So anybody who can see would describe what he has seen of my art.
Is there any artwork you are most proud of and why?
I am proud of all I have done. But there is a piece I am most proud of. It is a painting measuring about 2 X 120 metres on canvas. This painting was completed last year and has not exhibited yet.
Aabru promises to show new works of yours. Please tell us a little about the body of work that you will be showing at Transcending Boundaries.
I am exhibiting “Chibok Girls in my Mind”. This is the most topical issue in Nigeria today. Over 200 school girls were abducted from their hostel in a Government secondary school at Chibok, in the north-eastern part of Nigeria last year. Up till now we have not found the girls. The last image we saw of them was on the Internet. They have been forcefully converted to Islam. This painting I am showing reminds us of the last glimpse we had of them.
What is a typical day like in the life and work of Tola Wewe?
I wake up very early every day and I begin my painting. My compositions are mostly done around the time when everybody is asleep. I work till about 5 – 6 am and then go back to sleep. After breakfast, I continue with painting until late afternoon.