Oji Onoko writes on his encounter with the sculptor, Ajene Isegbe
"I don't know this woman," he had said, shaking his head for emphasis. There was a spontaneous murmur from the colonel, his sister and other family members who had accompanied him to the studio. Then he looked up and saw the sign post. This was the studio of a master artist, he had only heard about but now saw in person. And what he beheld was an angry man, an intensely furious old man. That was when the entire scheme dawned on him- he had been brought to criticise the work. He muttered under his breath.
For Ajene Isegbe, a prince of Idoma in Benue State who studied Sculpture at Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, Zaria, leaving Benin had a bitter sweet experience especially as another commission came from the Colonel. "He wanted me to remain in Benin, even offered me a place to stay and continue with the practice but I couldn't", he recalls this Tuesday morning at his home cum studio in Abuja. His next port of call was Kano.
"I had a friend who was staying in Kano," he explains. Also, his In-law, an Air force officer had told him endearingly about a prominent architect who loved the arts in the commercial city. "I was quite interested in knowing him", he recalls. He met the architect well prepared- armed with a life portrait he did of his photograph which he presented as a gift. Their eventual meeting marked a new chapter in the life of the young artist. Having expressed delight at the work, Architect Inalegwu Ella of Ella-Waziri & Associates took him to one of his estates in the government reservation area, GRA, Kano and handed over the key of one of the flats to him! "Imagine a flat to a young artist who just finished Youth service who came to Kano and squatting in a small one room apartment with a friend, now in a furnished flat of so many rooms", he says excitement still in his voice.
"The whole compound was like a free studio for me to express myself and do so many things. Sometimes he would drive himself in his Limousine to see me and we would be planning the future. And this was a prominent person, very busy that people used to queue to see him."
Part of what they discussed was the possibility of setting up of a ceramic industry for the production of Ceramic Tiles with the young artist as a partner. This was a challenge he took up with gusto going as far then as Ladi Kwali Centre in Niger State to back up his research with data and other materials. Meanwhile, he had started experimenting with producing Tiles in concrete, an aspect of industrial manufacturing. He could have continued for the enabling environment was there but he also knew he was deviating from his core competence of sculpting and Kano was not quite his dream artistic city rather it pandered into commerce and bustling trade."I am very proud to be a Sculptor", he says. "That's why I economise my sculpture skill. I don't dish it out anyhow. I prefer to dish it out when necessary because it has never failed me".
So it was with glee that he took the Commission which soon came and eventually took him back to his native Benue State. The Swiss General Contractors, a foreign firm was building the State Secretariat and the State needed the Nigerian Coat of Arms in Ceramic full colour to be installed at the gate. He had earlier indicated interest and suddenly he was called to come and defend the proposal. He did and the job was given to him. But executing the sculpture which gave him his first break had its challenges. "I remember I spent Christmas Day of 1986 in the factory," he recalls. "I had produced the model cast and got the mould reproduced in Ceramics in full colour. We wasted so many materials, went through a lot of experiments with the factory workers and technicians, went through the laboratory processes to see how we could achieve it. We spent about a month in the factory without achieving it". But diehard that he is, he refused to admit defeat even when the supervising authority advised him to do it in monochrome instead. He only asked for an extension of time and then shipped the whole mould in a Pick-Up van to PRODA in Enugu. The first two experiments failed but at the third attempt the large coat of arms (4ft x 4ft) came off in relief form as specified. "I was relieved", he says now beaming with smiles.
Soon, his attention was drawn to the newly established National Gallery of Art, NGA in Lagos and he did not hesitate to ask the royal highness for assistance to get in there. This time, he got what he wanted and became Assistant Visual Art Officer at NGA. Of this, he says: "The Gallery work gave me the opportunity to have a wider exposure. It gave me the national image that I have today. It integrated me with the Nigerian artists and international artists". Still the pay package was not as savoury. "I liked everything except the pay package. It was too small. In Makurdi, I was spending so much money. When I went there, I was thinking it would be the same. But we were like a family. There were opportunities of knowing great people, attending great functions and representing the government."
Few years after, the first keeper of the National Gallery left on voluntary retirement and returned Makurdi. "My people never liked my going back", he says. "My wife protested. My brothers, everybody was against me". That did not deter Ajene Isegbe who settled in quickly in Makurdi resuscitating his gallery and studio, ABARTS and even taking a shot at politics in spite of opposition. Indeed, he occupied the position of Supervisory Councilor for Education, Obi local government area. But the icing on the cake was the boost his art practice received when he was commissioned to do the Sculpture of the first civilian governor of Benue state, Chief Aper Aku. "It was the biggest sculpture that I ever produced", he confesses. "They wanted it to be very big. Then I did the sculpture. They came to inspect it while in clay work. That was another moment I felt proud being an artist particularly a sculptor. The then governor, George Akume said to me, "You are a genius. You'd go far. I'm proud of you," he recalls still radiating happiness. With cost in seven figures, he joined the millionaire train willy nilly, what with the landscaping job given to him in eight figures. Mounted at the gate of the Aper Aku stadium on a high pedestal with breath taking landscape around the whole stadium, the sculpture remains a destination of note in Makurdi till date. This was quickly followed by another Commission to do the sculpture of notable politician, Chief J.S. Tarka among others. The artist was back on the groove with Benue State especially Makurdi, his veritable playground. Then he moved to Abuja!
He came to Abuja as he says, "to struggle and arrange myself". Two months later, a consulting job with his former employer, NGA literally dropped on his lap. Would he agree that he has been restless? You ask. "I would rather say that it is not deliberate that I have been restless. I would rather say that it is destiny that has been piloting me", he replies. On a philosophical note, he adds: "If you are too comfortable and contented in a particular place, you will never grow".
So, what's next" You ask. "Events would unfold their selves", he simply says. On his attitude to religion, he says: "I'm very religious. I'm very prayerful. I have a special time with my God. And if I have to pray with anyone, I consider that person as my guest before God".
Still, the Sculptor would not mind a stick of cigarette or a chilled bottle of beer to relax with.