LaVergne, who is currently putting finishing touches on a 14-foot steel sculpture called “The Gift” at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife, described his experience in Nigeria so far as a year of new friendships, dialogue and inspiration.
As an African American from a large family, he had always felt a “strong connection on some level” to Africa.
He was inspired to travel to Nigeria after meeting prominent Yoruba woodcarver Lamidi Fakeye, who visited LaVergne at Western Michigan University, where LaVergne teaches, and spoke with him about the possibility of study in Nigeria. Though Fakeye passed away in 2009, LaVergne continued with these plans and arrived in Ife in January.
He said his art features characters who are enthusiastic and strong, with a passion for life, and he feels these are qualities Americans and Nigerians share. "The genesis of my work is a celebration of humanity and survival," he said.
LaVergne sculpts using a technique that involves cutting and reconstituting large pieces of steel, to solder new connections and create unique works. Similarly, he has been forging friendships with students and faculty of all disciplines at OAU, one of Nigeria’s largest universities. He said he was struck by the "certain pride" Nigerians have and the warm reception he was met with on the OAU campus, even by the fruit sellers he passes on his walk to work each day. As he adjusted to life in Nigeria, he said he has slowly started to wear more Nigerian dress. A faculty member also bestowed upon him a Yoruba name – Ogunmola – denoting Ogun, the Yoruba god of iron, and someone who brings wealth, or ola, and he said he will soon be made a local chief. For LaVergne, his time in Nigeria has been a "culture shock of wonderful things."
Despite these feelings, adjusting to life in Nigeria has not been without surprises and challenges. His work has been complicated by power inconsistencies and difficulties in buying and maintaining tools, equipment and fuel in Ife.
"I’m bringing some of the American spirit to them," he said. LaVergne said he’s spent much time discussing ideas relating to flexibility and free-thinking in the arts. While he said some Nigerian art tends to focus on the preservation of tradition, he described his sculpture as a piece from "an American frontier man with a passion for art."
Though LaVergne will leave Nigeria later this fall, he will think fondly of his experience.
His sculpture, just weeks from completion, will be his lasting gift to the OAU community. “I’ve made it as a prodigal son coming home,” he said.