By Kunle Ajibade
There is an anecdote in this well-produced coffee table book with which I would like to begin this review. One day, when Lamidi Olonade Fakeye was about ten years old, Banji, one of his father’s wives, the mother of Akin, the Ibadan-based highly gifted carver, was looking desperately for him. Because she called out his names many times, Lamidi thought he must have done something wrong and was afraid that he was being called for punishment. Although we are not told, eventually, why the woman was looking for him, but Fakeye, in his old age, at 80, recalls: “When she came to where I was and saw me carving she said, Aha-ah, Olonadee, won pe o loruko, o si je oruko naa de le, meaning: Olonade, you are exactly what your name says you are. Then I knew she was not going to beat me, she was simply impressed with what she had seen. This prompted her to call people to come and see what I had done. This was the first time anyone showed any appreciation for what I had carved”. By the way, Olonade means the great artist has arrived. Remember that it was also a woman who predicted that he would be a successful carver. That woman was the grandmother of Bisi Akande, the former governor of Osun State.
The fact that what Fakeye remembers was not the minor or major offence he had committed, but the well deserved praise of his stepmother for his art, should give us a hint that he would be happy in his grave that we are gathered here to appreciate his art and celebrate his talent and gift. I’m sure that this coffee table book, Conversations with Lamidi Fakeye, by Ohioma Pogoson and Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon would please him to no end. For 30 hours, in three uninterrupted days, in January 2009, Fakeye spoke to these two lovers of his magnificent carvings. He spoke joyously without any inhibition at all. The result is a self-portrait of a master carver at the peak of his own artistic game. On the pages of this book, we encounter a true genius. We enjoy the liveliness of the conversations, even when Pogoson and Shyllon sometimes fail to ask necessary follow-up questions. The book is Fakeye’s way of saying to us: this is how I have fulfilled the promise of my talent; this is how I have protected my heritage; this is how I have served my country; this is how I have served the world. And what a great service it has all been!
As Pogoson and Shyllon open up the cavities of his fragmented memories, Fakeye is expansive about his life and career, about his very expressive and crisp originality. Even his silences speak eloquently. Fakeye shows that he is a theoretician of his own carvings whose appeal, on account of the syncretic nature of some of them, go beyond their ethnic and national boundaries. Fakeye’s carvings have their own moments and phases. His carvings have a soul, and there are so many fascinating things in that soul. If Pogoson and Shyllon’s conversations with Fakeye are a tribute to his astonishing skill, Fakeye’s own many conversations, in solitude, with wood, the medium of his art and the many questions he answered with his blades and chisels and other tools of his profession, are all a profound meditation on beauty and tradition. Fakeye shows in this book that what define and sustain great civilisation are principles of reason, tolerance, bravery and honesty which he encourages all of us to embrace.
When Fakeye, for the last time, visited the United States of America at the invitation of Western Michigan University in October 2009, he did not only give a talk on his art, he also demonstrated how he carved at Sangren Hall. During that visit, a very enriching documentary was made on him by Elizabeth Morton and Joe Reese. In that documentary titled “Lamidi Olonade Fakeye: The Life of a Master Carver,” experts and friends venerate Fakeye almost to the point of being worshipped because of his dazzling talent. One of the useful things he says in the film is that he is a bridge builder between the traditional and the modern carvers. I quote him: “I am a bridge between the past and the present”. What is this ‘present’? What is this ‘past’ In other words, what is the peculiar essence of this carver? The answers are all contained in this coffee table book. Here he deals extensively with his own creative process. He offers insights into the historical, cultural, philosophical and metaphysical context of his carvings. He describes the differences and similarities between his works and the works of other carvers. The Fakeye in this book is more agile and concentrated than the Fakeye in that documentary. Conversations with Lamidi Fakeye is an indispensable key to the mind and personality of this incredible carver.
T.S. Eliot, the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, explains in his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.” The distinguished reputation of Fakeye lies precisely in the solid bridge that his works erect across several civilisations, turning him into a valuable torch bearer of his own generation. Fakeye followed the tradition and celebrated the successes of his immediate forerunners–not blindly and timidly. He simply measured himself against his illustrious master, Bamidele Arowoogun, who could carve accurately with both hands. He was very conscious of his place in time. He knew, just like T.S. Eliot knew, that novelty is better than repetition. He knew also that individual talent can only blossom when the labour that nurtures it is painful.
In Conversations with Lamidi Fakeye, this master carver tells the story of his difficult beginnings, his strivings and his triumphs. He learnt how to farm. He was a good barber. He learnt photography. He trained as a bicycle repairer. He also trained as a ‘sawyer’. When he finished standard six, he tried to join the police because carving was not bringing enough money to survive on. In the end, carving was what he still settled for. It was his passion. As we navigate through the sea of his stories, we are told of the significant role played by his artistic family, a family that has produced five generations of wood carvers; we are reminded of the efforts made by Reverend Father Kevin Carrol and Father O’Mahoney in the moulding and sustenance of his confidence as a carver at very crucial moments in his professional life. Those Reverend Fathers may be racist in their attitude, but the paradox of his relationship with them was that no one else supported his art more consistently as they did when he was trying to find his feet.
Artists need patrons to survive. Today, Fakeye’s carvings grace many palaces, churches, museums, important buildings in Nigeria and around the world. Indeed, Yemisi Shyllon, who used to draw excellently in secondary school and who was a campus journalist at the University of Ibadan, has the largest collection of his works. That Fakeye was named a Living Treasure by UNESCO in 2006 is a testimony to his global recognition. His carvings took him to almost everywhere in the world, particularly in the United States of America, where he felt more at home in that country’s universities and colleges. In honour of his contribution to the arts, Nigeria awarded him OFR – Order of the Federal Republic. But he did not receive the medal until nineteen years later!
Professor Bruce M. Haight of the Department of History, Western Michigan University, who co-authored Fakeye’s autobiography with him, noted in his eulogy to Fakeye, who died on 25 December 2009, that his father’s advice to him as a young man played a very crucial role in the formation of his character. His father had once admonished him: “Do not allow anger to override you. You must try to be helpful to your neighbours. Try to be obedient and be hard working. Any of my children who is lazy will regret after my death. He or she will come to my grave and weep and shout to me, but I will turn deaf ears to him or her. Believe in one God and be truthful, even at the point of death. Never avenge any bad deed done to you by anybody. Do not serve as obstacle to the progress of others.” Guided by the ethics of that character building, he worked his way to pre-eminence. He, too, tells all aspiring carvers and artists in this book to persevere, to be diligent, to be passionate about the job and train endlessly for excellence. He says that masterpieces are not easy to come by.
There are forty-three of Fakeye’s works on full display in this book to prove that point. Many of them will elicit meanings, which the great carver did not intend. I find “Oduduwa”, among several others, immeasurably pleasing. No one can deny the aesthetically satisfying complexity of this work. The “Oduduwa” in this book was specially commissioned by Shyllon. The one at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, which inspired this one, was unveiled by Chief Obafemi Awolowo in 1986, not long before he passed on in 1987. Fakeye carved the statue when he was a Senior Arts Fellow in that university. Largely because he respected Awolowo a lot as a politician, Fakeye felt gratified that Awolowo graced the occasion. “On the day Awolowo died”, he tells Shyllon and Pogoson, “I buried the thought of ever running around with any politician. The only politician we can trust is dead”.
Fakeye’s profound sense of justice and fairplay shines through the pages of this book just as his works reflect the power, the prestige and grandeur associated with culture heroes and heroines. There is a work of his that I particularly like which is not here. It is titled “Justice”. Done for Dr. Bruce and Ann K. Haight, it is about the 1993 general elections in Nigeria. He deployed both the traditional Yoruba and Western symbols to express his outrage over the mockery of democratic values, which that election signified. Honesty and hard work were the binds that tied him to people. You stood no chance with him if he suspected any magomago in the way you related to him. On the list of his friends are the following: Abayomi Baber, James Miller, Bruce Haight, Yomi Durotoye, Ulli Beier, Yemisi Shyllon, Professors Hezekiah Oluwasanmi, Wole Soyinka, Adedayo Ijalaye, Wande Abimbola, Roger Makanjuola and Akinwumi Isola, who wrote the foreword to this book. Finally, as Fakeye pays glowing tributes to all his mentors, patrons and friends, this book reads like his moving farewell. Let us hope that there will be more books like this because society gains much more when its artists are supported in a grand way.
– Ajibade read this review on 27 March, 2013, at Freedom Park, Lagos.