Ben Osawe’s charcoal drawing The Kiss 2 (1989) is vibrant, potent, imaginative, and alive. Since I saw it a couple of weeks ago at the Hourglass Gallery in Victoria Island, I keep having to remind myself that it is a drawing on paper and not a three dimensional object. Showing Osawe’s proficiency at breathing life into two dimensional drawings, it echoes with a power reminiscent of the cubism of African sculptures that influenced Pablo Picasso’s African period and Ben Enwonwu’s works. The drawing, most likely a study for a wooden sculpture, was made while he was living in Benin City—during his 16 years retreat from the art scene (he later summed the time up as “a period of research into my art, with particular reference to the evolution of my art between 1966 and 1976, with the sole aim of determining the course of its future development).
Osawe’s power of expression in figurative drawings is undeniable. The Kiss 2 is graceful, gentle and firm, qualities you also see in his sculptures. Explaining how this skill transformed his sculpting process, Osawe said, “My drawings took a leap for the better when I eventually returned from England in 1965. Before I left, I could not draw either with pencil or pen; I just carved and did my bronze casting. But when I returned, before embarking on any carving or concept, it had to be conceptualized first on paper, in the form of drawing or sketching before it was realized or executed in two or three dimensional form to become my authorial identity. In my wood sculptures for example, as I carved along, I still draw with charcoal, chalk or 5B lead pencil on the wood as new concepts emerge or perhaps flash into my mind. This process goes on until I eventually complete the composition. Today, I could sell my drawing which comes usually in charcoal, crayon or pen on ink because these drawings have my identity on them.”
One of Nigeria’s most prominent sculptors, Osawe was born in 1931 in Benin. His father was a wood carver in the court of Oba Iweka II in Benin Kingdom. Osawe studied in London at the School of Graphic Arts (1956-59) and the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts (1960-65). He was one of the five Nigerians chosen to represent the country at the Commonwealth Exhibition in Glasgow in 1965. He returned to Nigeria in 1966 and lived in Lagos where he maintained a studio for 10 years. In 1976, he moved to Benin City and continued creating iconic bronze and wood sculptures until his death in 2007.