Oladele Albert Ogbeyemi grew up around his father’s mechanic shop in Orile Iganmu, Lagos, where scrap metal was abundant. His first love was art and soon he found a middle ground: metal art. In school, at the tail of his teenage years, he took part in exhibitions, contests, and talent hunts. For one of them in 2008, organized by the National Gallery of Art, he created with a mix of materials three female figurines of Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa origins.
After his ND in Art and Industrial Design at Lagos State Polytechnic and his HND in Metal Sculpture at Yaba College of Technology, Ogbeyemi, now 30, undertook what would become his breakout project: a lavish redesign of a Mazda 323 that, in September, went viral on social media.
“My father inspired me through my choice of material,” Ogbeyemi tells me. His father used to sell scrap metal to scavengers, but he stopped when Ogbeyemi developed the idea to use them. Ogbeyemi began to frequent his father’s colleagues’ shops for more scrap metal, and then scrap yards, where he bought them at N200 per kilo. The Mazda consumed 200 kilos, and he worked on it through the pandemic. “Because of the lockdown, I was able to think widely and have quiet time. That isolation period helped me execute projects.”
The Mazda redesign is one of new eye-catching projects by a wave of young Nigerian experimental metal sculptors who have found a niche in repurposed metal art. They include Dotun Popoola, who has redefined his work from hybrid sculpture to synergetic sculpture; Collins Abinoro Akporode, who we profiled for his sculptures made of spoons; and Kelly Omodamwen, the 27-year-old Benin-based artist who sculpts with sparkplugs.
Like Ogbeyemi, Omodamwen took inspiration from family. “Basically, I was born in the studio,” he tells me. His grandfather is a member of the exclusive 30-family cult tasked with maintaining bronze artworks in the Palace of the Oba of Benin. And so, naturally, his first serious medium was bronze.
It was in 2017, in the final year of his ND in Sculpture at Auchi Polytechnic, preparing for his project, that he had the idea to use sparkplugs. “I went into research and thought about sparkplugs,” he recalls. “Everybody has been adding it to their metal sculpture. If someone could attach sparkplugs to metal, why couldn’t I create a whole piece from sparkplugs?” He collected used sparkplugs from mechanic shops and sculpted a bust of a bull. The project panel approved it and Omodamwen set about sculpting a full bull: a 9-feet mass of 9,000 sparkplugs. The animal now stands in the school garden.
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“It took me about a year to get up to 9,000 pieces,” Omodamwen says. “It was tough, I had to walk from one mechanic to the next, one street to the next. I walked around Benin that year. Then I got to meet some dealers. One had over 4,000 pieces for me at a time. I asked him why he had been saving; he said his instinct told him to keep it, that someone might need it. After I presented it in school, people I looked up to, including lecturers, came and said to me, how did you do this?”
When I ask him about Auchi Polytechnic’s history with metal artists, Omodamwen replies, “Auchi builds metallists. There’s this thing among us wanting to do trademarks. There’s always a challenge of who will do the latest; what can you produce that no one else can’t?”
It took Ogbeyemi six months to finish the Mazda; he’d bought the vehicle for N350,000, using his National Youth Service savings, and did the installation in two months. The core work, though, the research, the idea, had taken four years to develop. “My love for animals inspired the Mazda—if you look around the work, you’ll see different kinds of animals. I’ve done so many animals—chicken, dogs, cows, rabbits, birds, monkeys. The animals in my surroundings, they talk to me. My environment has always inspired me.”
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Some designs on the Mazda are arranged like music notes because “music is attached to my art. I play guitar and drums. I don’t want to leave behind anything I have passion for.” Ogbeyemi’s current project is a meeting of the animate and the musical, buttressed by his painterly intuition (his ND project was a landscape painting of the school’s medical centre). “What I’m creating now, I’m using animals to represent human nature. Pussy cat playing violin, dog playing saxophone.”
Ogbeyemi calls his brand of metal sculpting META (My Experimental Technique Approach) art. It is different from the works of his influences: the Americans John Lopez and Leo Sewell, and the Nigerian Odogwu Fidelis of Universal Studios, under whom he apprenticed for six years while studying and running his own studio.
Omodamwen’s influences are Nigerian, and include his contemporaries Popoola and Akporode, and Steve Ekpenisi. Presently, he operates his studio under a bigger one, Edo Global. He has finished his second sparkplug project, a Yoruba drummer, and is completing his third, a ram. Each “takes me three to four months, unless I prioritize,” he says. “I have some young guys assisting me and I’m putting them through.”
Passion is at the root of it all for Ogbeyemi. “If you don’t have passion, I don’t think one can take that risk of building that Mazda. Car makers keep improving but in little details. The joy, the pleasure I derive in it, I want to create something that nobody else has. No other person has that version of what I’ve created. I want it to be unique.”
Omodamwen would agree. “Everybody needs to carve a niche for themselves,” he says. “As artists, we do that by creating something new, moving from conventional materials. My philosophy is that your medium is your voice. For people to listen, you need a unique voice. That’s the drive that keeps art evolving.”
Otosirieze Obi-Young is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.