During his last visit to Nigeria in 2005, Prof Ulli Beier who passed on two days ago in Sydney, Australia, at 91, explained to TAJUDEEN SOWOLE how the Yoruba culture strengthened his knowledge about humanity
IT was the second day of the photography exhibition by Beier titled The Face of the Gods: Yoruba Kings, Priests and Children, held at the Arts Gallery, Institute of Cultural Studies, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State.
The exhibition was organized by the institute in honour of Oba Moses Oyinlola (the Olokuku of Okuku 1892 – 1960) as part of a book launch. The book titled Every Inch A King: A Biography Chronicling the Legacy of Service of Oba Moses Oyewole Oyinlola, Olokuku of Okuku, (1934-1960) was co-written by Lasisi Olagunju, Bamidele Salam, Kayode Oladeji and Wole Ogundele.
He also noted that this humility radiated in the children who “in the presence of elders were never unruly like European children.” Despite this seemingly submissiveness, the children, he noted, were given considerable rights. “A mother could not scold her child freely without facing protest from other women in the neighborhood.”
And on his larger cultural mission, he stated that through the royal fathers such as Timi of Ede, Oba Adetoyese Laoye; Ataoja of Osogbo, Oba Samuel Adeleye Adenle; Oogoga of Ikere, Oba Adegoriola; Olokuku of Okuku, Oba Moses Oyinlola, he was able to learn more.
Beier reminisced: “I was fortunate that I met Timi Laoye, one of my early students in the extramural classes. Through Laoye, I met other Obas like Adenle, Adegoriola and Oyinlola (father of the Governor) of Osun State.” Beier was so passionate about the Yoruba culture such that he gave himself different native names. One of such, perhaps, well known among the people is ‘Obotunde Ijimere.’
He also recounted how he met Oba Oyinlola in 1954, an encounter that would later “help me to study the history of Okuku and record the oriki of the kings and the people.”
His academic sojourn, he said had led him to the larger world of Yoruba cultural studies outside the school. “I had come to the college (University College Ibadan) to teach English, but I also had the freedom to introduce courses in African Literature, which I believed would be more interesting to my students than Chaucer, Milton and Wordsworth.”
On Yoruba art, Beier, in the brochure of the exhibition noted that the wood carvers whose works were largely of the doors and columns for the palaces as well as shrine doors, sacred images and masks for the egungun (masquerades) “did not consider themselves as people of a special standing in the society as their Western counterparts have done.”
And on a larger scale, Beier’s contribution to the informal sector of art education started with workshops for artisans in parts of Ife and Osogbo. He said of the people’s art: “In Yoruba art, as in all great art, form and content are completely identical. The artist, like the priest, operates on a certain level of consciousness, where he is in close contact with trees, animals, spirits.”
Beier’s study of the people also suggests a mystic perspective to the people’s culture. “Yoruba are particularly sensitive to inner vibrations of the world; they are still in tune with nature. They can still see meaningful relationships between certain natural forces, historical personalities, the force associated with certain animals, the magic quality of minerals or even colours.”
Although Beier and his partner, British-born Georgina, also included the Eastern part of the country in their experimentation, the Ife-Osogbo axis ended up as the couple’s major focus for which they are known till date.
|Beier (left) and tajudeen Sowole in Ile-Ife, Nigeria (2006)|
However, the workshops for the visual artists, he noted, was made much easier when his partner Georgina joined him. Beier insisted that the workshop initiative was never “meant to teach the artists,” but to motivate them.
In 1949, Susanne Wenger, a lady who would later become Beier’s partner, met the linguist in Paris. Beier and Wenger came to Nigeria, settled in Ibadan and later moved to Ede where she also started inspiring artisans and helped enriched their art skills through the Yoruba traditional religion. Wenger an Austrian-born artist who adopted Nigeria as home and became a high priestess in Osogbo died in the ancient town on January 12, 2009. She was aged 93.
More interesting, four decades after Beier and his partner Georgina left Osogbo, the seed of cultural renaissance planted has grown into another dimension: UNESCO Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (CBCIU) in Osogbo, which was commissioned on Wednesday, January 7, 2009. houses works of the Beiers. Some of the couple’s works returned by Beier during the commissioning of the centre are books, posters and photographers. In a message sent to the occasion through his son, Olatunji Beier, he stressed that Osogbo remains the spiritual home of the works compiled by him and his wife during their stay in Nigeria. .
The important role of the Beiers in documenting Yoruba art and culture was brought to fore earlier as controversy arose over where these works should be kept.
In 2008, UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassador, Soyinka, had campaigned strongly against what he termed clandestine plan to deposit these works at UNESCO-designated Institute of African Culture and International Understanding located within Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library (OOPL), Abeokuta, Ogun State.
Also, the Beiers, according to sources, rejected offers from some universities in the U.S. to house the works.
However, at $680, 000, the couple (Ulli and Georgina) accepted to have their collections return to Nigeria on the condition that the centre be run as a non-governmental entity.
Thus, the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding approved by the Executive Board of UNESCO at its 180th Session in France in October 2008 became the custodian of the Ulli Beier’s archival materials. This is in line with the couple’s wish that their archival materials — over 10, 000 items of books, articles, photographs, negatives and albums, films, videos, audio cassettes, record and CDs, printed momento about concerts and exhibitions — be transferred to Osogbo where most of them were originally collected in 1950s during their (couple) sojourn in Nigeria.
Beier is well known for translating works of African origin such as poetry, drama, particularly of Yoruba language into English.