Professor Tonie Okpe was feted recently in two days of revelry for placing people, art and community at the centre of his world. Okpe is currently the most senior sculptor in Ahmadu Bello University’s Department of Fine and Applied Arts and a leading member of the Nigerian art community. Tonie Okpe @ 60 Celebrations started on May 26 with a symposium. Dr Kenny Badaru and Dr Eze Ngene, the lead and supporting Speakers respectively, extolled the sterling qualities of this great artist and scholar. A cross-section of the audience, which included well-wishers and dignitaries from Zaria and other parts of the country, could not agree any less.
The day ended with an engaging performance by Jelili Atiku, an alumnus of the Zaria Art Department, famous locally and globally for his award-winning conceptual performances. A complimentary exhibition of works from an earlier student and staff workshop in the celebrant’s honour and an anniversary solo show curated by Adewumi Kehinde, which retraces Okpe’s artistic trajectory happened on May 27, 2021, the second day of the event.
I met Tonie Okpe as an undergraduate student at a Goethe Institute organized metal sculpture workshop in 1995 at the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria Nsukka. His young and vibrant personality shone through. He is one of those rare people who carried on through life with seeming ease. With playfulness, he carries out otherwise serious assignments just as he easily mixes with other people. At the time, he was already exploring metal as a medium for making his now signature sculptures. His style was going through a period of crystallization.
Okpe attended numerous sculpture art residencies and workshops for about 15 years of his career in various countries (including the USA, United Kingdom, Austria, Brazil and others). Through this, he honed his skills, left legacies of his artistic inventiveness while championing the rich Nigerian cultural heritage.
The mid-1990s was a defining period in Okpe’s artistic journey. He reinvented his style of using the metal medium by divesting it of unnecessary mass. Due to a tragic accident about the same period, Okpe became compelled to take a more philosophical look at life.
A work of art is usually framed by the superficial beauty that inspires artists is also often accompanied by the unseen tragedies of life lurking beneath. When these burst through the seams, as is the case intermittently, we are curtly reminded of our powerlessness as mortals. Okpe lost four of his close colleagues in a vehicle accident while returning to Zaria from an art event in Lagos. While he was mourning them, a fire incident struck in his apartment, leaving charred remains of his archive, works of art and other objects of value.
The fertile Nigerian art field and the intercultural mix of ideas are resources that define Okpe’s work. But the shock from the tragic end of his colleagues stirred his thoughts into asking more questions about the meaning of life. The use of metal was no longer only a medium but as a metaphor for the forte to confront life.
Steel or brass defy “death” as they can be “resurrected,” cut into pieces, welded or melted and reclaimed, or remodelled. Even in a state of rust and destruction, steel can be reused. Okpe’s current studio preoccupation is using rusty and scrapped metal as if he wishes that precious lives of loved ones could survive accidents or violence and emerge even more beautiful. Okpe would reach deep into the roots of his Idoma culture to appropriate the Eche Une philosophy, which means that the earth is a swing (or a pendulum). It is about the back and forth and the uncertainties of life.
Eche Une is thus, an affirmation of life’s dualities and other elements in between extremes such as joy and sorrow, life and death or beauty and ugliness. The work of Tonie Okpe stands at the middle of extremes and could swing to one side or the other, depending on the issue it seeks to address. “The only changes I see between the Tonie of the past and that of the present is his title of Professor and his expanding waistline,” says Ray Soko, Professor Okpe’s classmate and long term friend. While Ray may have skipped mentioning the master’s silent but significant changes from one medium or style to the other in his artistic career, but mellowness comes over time.
Okpe’s work and life will only keep getting deeper and better. And with that, he will continue to probe the meaning of life by saying more with less, using his simultaneously familiar and strange aesthetics. At the dinner party to wrap up the anniversary event for Professor Tonie Okpe, the continued outpouring of love was evident.
The Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Kabir Bala and some principal officers of the University were present at the Campus Staff Club. Amidst contemporary and traditional performances, the head of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts ABU, Prof. Ken Okoli displayed his musical talent to the surprise of many as he serenaded the audience with many beautiful tunes. As the milestones continue to count for Professor Okpe, another opportunity to look at his life and work will, by the kindness of God, come in the not too distant future for the inspiration of others.
Enekwachi is an artist and culture writer and is based in Abuja.