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Dakota prairie sky inspires African artists

Dakota prairie sky inspires African artists

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LEMMON, S.D. — Men from Africa have turned the long side of an empty building into a scene that could twist a cowboy’s heart for the days when cattle trailed the prairie under a sky so wide and lovely.

Jonathan Imafidor, 29, and Dotun Popoola, 35, are artists from Nigeria, and they traveled thousands of miles to this bustling little town just across the state border to help honor its founding cowboy. That cowboy and town namesake is Ed Lemmon, still famous after all these years for saddle handling more cattle than any man who ever lived, bossing one of the nation’s largest roundups and operating the world’s largest fenced lease of 865,000 acres on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, some of it illegally, or so history says.

Lemmon (1857-1945) was dubbed “Boss Cowman” by a biographer. Though he never used the title himself, it stuck hard, and today is what Lemmon calls its annual rodeo celebration and will soon be the name of a square in downtown Lemmon.

The artistic work of Imafidor and Popoola will be the backdrop to the Boss Cowman Square, setting the scene, so to speak. They’ve painted a long horizontal stretch of prairie hills, the grass dotted with wildflowers, the Grand River cutting through, and a pair of cowboys working a string of longhorns that are precise and detailed in the foreground, fading into blue-gray silhouettes off on the horizon.

It is an exquisite piece of work, done with brushes dipped into cans of exterior latex paint donated by the local Northwest Farm and Home Supply hardware store.

The men are schooled artists and sometimes collaborate on outdoor murals in Nigeria, where Imafidor is a university art instructor and lecturer and Popoola is curator at the National Gallery of Art.

This prairie scene is different from what they know and so are the forms of horses and cattle.

“These are not horses and cows from Nigeria. No, no, no. They took us to a branding here so we could study the cattle and the horsemen,” Imafidor says.

Coming from West Africa where the sky burns yellow hot in a blue sky, the men were taken with all the color above their heads, stretching between the horizons of grass in all directions.

“The sky here is so dramatic in the colors. In the evenings, we see the beautiful oranges and pinks,” Popoola said.

The men arrived in Lemmon May 17, guests of local sculptor John Lopez, and started work on the mural the very next day.

“It is so large, we wanted to give it a full attack and spend more time,” Imafidor said.

Popoola came over from Nigeria last summer to study metal welding under Lopez. This year, along with Imafidor, it is mostly about art with a brush. The pair also has been working on a series of paintings and will hold a show in Lopez’s studio 3 miles east of Lemmon on Second Street, starting at noon on Father’s Day.

The show, “Araism & The West” is intended to both bring together and contrast the African tribal culture and the Plains Indians and cowboys. Their works will be on display and for sale, helping to finance their travel expenses.

Lopez, who is known nationally and regionally for his larger-than-life scrap metal sculptures, is the artistic force behind Boss Cowman Square, though others in town are supporting the work and financing the project.

A scrap metal sculpture of Lemmon astride a horse will take center stage in the square, with the mural creating the context for Lemmon’s life and the prairie on which he lived. Lopez brought in large granite rocks, built a pedestal for the sculpture, created an entrance of metal and wood and designed the mural concept.

It will be beautiful when it’s complete and everyone is invited to the unveiling of the Ed Lemmon sculpture after the Boss Cowman Celebration parade on July 9.

Imafidor and Popoola will be at the unveiling for anyone interested in meeting this pair of men who have come so far to bring so much beauty to the community.

“The mural totally exceeds my expectations. The longhorns look they’re coming right out of the wall in that landscape with Black Horse Butte and the cattle trailing up off the river. They’re (Imafidor and Popoola) so tickled to be a part of it,” Lopez said. 

(Reach Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.)

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