By Tajudeen Sowole
During the post-independence period, several activities as well as input of some individuals laid the foundation for a blossom visual arts in Nigeria.
ALTHOUGH the list of these individuals and events is inexhaustible in documenting the post-independence Nigerian art, but a recapture of these periods would be an incomplete mission without the key players mentioned in this article.
Signs of greater years for Nigerian artists must have started on October 1, 1960 with the Independence art exhibition organised as part of a national trade fair. The art show, according to sources was regarded as the largest, and perhaps, the richest gathering of Nigerian artists at that period. Held at the current location of Bonny Camp, Victoria Island, Lagos, the show featured works of the then masters such as Aina Onabolu, Ben Enwonwu, Akinola Lasekan, Akeredolu, and foremost female Nigerian artist and Afi Ekong.
Instructively, the show also featured works of younger artists, who are today’s masters such as Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko and few others. In fact some of these artists were in the final year as art students of the then Nigerian College of Arts Science and Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria.
Words of encouragement from the Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa also sent the signals in the text for the Foreword of the catalogue, part of which states: “A country's reputation is as much judged by her art, literature and music as by her political development. Nigeria herself has long had the respect of the world for her great works of art and there can be few connoisseurs who do not know the Ife and Benin bronze.”
Speaking on his experience from that show, Onobrakpeya told me, two years ago, that the younger artists’ involvement was almost accidental as it was not really part of the plan. He said the then art council chairman, Babatunde Majekodunmi and the secretary, Micheal Crowther had convinced the Federal Government to organise a trade Fair with an art Pavilion. “Because Crowther had visited our school, saw our works, we were asked to decorate the cover ways for the fair. Beyond that, our works were taken inside the main exhibition where the works of the then masters like Enwonwu, Onabolu, Lasekan and others were mounted.”
He argued the exhibition “was like what we can truly say it’s the beginning of contemporary Nigerian art; it’s a watershed.”
Some of the young artists, then known as the Zaria Art Society or Zaria Rebels, must have been inspired by the words of the prime minister as a professional body of artists, now known as Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) took-off three years later. Although most of its founding members graduated from the Zaria school, in 1963, some of the members regrouped with other artists outside the Zaria movement to form SNA, which stands as the umbrella body of artists till date.
Beyond that, some of these young artists such as Grillo, Onobrakpeya, Okeke and Nwoko progressed, individually, leaving indelible marks, either as art teacher or mentor outside the academia.
About this period, Nigeria’s impact in craft was louder at the international scene with the award of MBE given to the nation’s foremost potter, Dr. Ladi Kwali in 1963. That resonance confirmed the potter’s highly rated exhibitions across Europe and America in the 1950s through early 1960s.
Two years after that award, another gathering started somewhere else in the then Western Region as German scholar, Prof. Ulli Beier embarked on workshops for artisans across Ife and Osogbo. Tagged Mbari-Mbayo, the initiative involved artists (whose main jobs were carvings and paintings for the royal families) and performing artistes. However, the development could not have been an isolated one; Beier, according to sources, was at the forefront of a literary evolution at the then University College, Ibadan (now University of Ibadan, U.I.) As a teacher of linguistic studies, he had, in the company of other participants such as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, J.P. Clark, Mabel Segun and Demas Nwoko formed the Mbari Artists and Writers Club.
Although Beier and his partner, Georgina, also included the Eastern part of the country in their experimentation, the Ife-Osogbo axis was the couple's major focus for which they are known till date.
From the several workshops spanning a period of over seven years, skills of artists such as Muraina Oyelami, Jimoh Buraimoh, Twin Seven Seven, Jacob Ogundele, Rufus Ogundele were elevated beyond the artisan level. And it was not just about visual arts, but culture in general: in collaboration with late Duro Ladipo, some of the performing artistes who were brought to broader public glare through workshops were Yemi Elebuibon, late Oyin Adejobi, Tidjani Mayakiri, Ademola Onobonokuta and Lere Paimo.
While Beier could not continue, another foreigner who was linked to him and later became the Osun priestess, Suszanne Wenger came in, working with another set of artists to further promote the virtue of Osogbo art and culture.
Although one of Africa's biggest printmaking export, Nike Davies-Okundaye was not among the Mbari Mbayo students, she benefited indirectly. Through her partner, Seven-Seven, Davies-Okundaye met Beier and Georgina, and had kept in touch with the couple ever since. When Beier passed on in 2011, she recalled: “I always traveled to Germany, at least, three times every year on visits after Beier and Georgina left Nigeria in 1974.”
She noted that, the couple showed special interest in her because of “my skill in textile, which I already had as a full time artist before I came to Osogbo where I met one of their students, Twins Seven-Seven.”
And the procreation effects of the Mbari-Mabayo school continued as some of these artists are now well known, sharing their experiences home and abroad through workshops within and outside the formal settings.
However, another workshop, which, though enjoyed less mentioning, but also significant was the one tagged Ori-Olokun. It involved participants such as Prof. Agbo Folarin, Solomon Wangboje (both late) and some other participants from the academia, at the then University of Ife, Ile-Ife, when they returned to Nigeria in 1974.
Beier came to Nigeria in 1950 and was appointed to teach Phonetics in the English Department of University College, Ibadan.
Still from the Zaria Rebels, native content of the Igbo culture known as Uli – art of body and wall decoration practiced by the women – was brought into the core of formal art training of the 1970s by Okeke. For the artist, Uli was like an experiment during his student days at Zaria, until it came to blossom later, leading to the Nsukka Movement founded at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN).
Another artist, whose activities confirmed the genetic creativity of Nigerian artists – as observed by Balewa within the global context – is Abayomi Barber. He started leaving his signature on the art landscapes of Europe, Middle East and parts of Africa in the 1960s through 1970s. According to information available during the exhibition, Dance of the Mind, which marked the artist's 80th birthday in 2008, Barber did two life-size statues of Sir Winston Churchill, each for the British House of Commons (1968 -1971) and Belgium. Portrait paintings of Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother were among the works he did while in England.
Although he emerged as a known artist through the informal setting, Barber however dropped a seed in the academia: back home in the early 1970s, the artist who had been on a inconclusive scholarship to the U.K., re-launched his art career as he influenced the formal and informal sections of youth development in art. In fact, his immediate activities when he returned to the country in 1971, it's been argued, was important to the establishment of what is now known as Creative Art Department of University of Lagos (UNILAG).
The Vice Chancellor of the university, Prof Saburi Biobaku who had in 1971 convinced Barber to return home brought him to the university to work at the then School of African and Asian Studies. During a chat, shortly before Dance of the Mind opened at Mydrim Gallery, Falomo, Ikoyi, Lagos, Barber explained that he was not comfortable with the setting he found himself at the institute. He therefore requested for permission to build a studio. The studio turned out to be what is known in the history of contemporary Nigerian art as Abayomi Barber School, having trained students during an informal exercise that lasted over 20 years.
While the informal Barber school existed outside the university's official structure, the artist himself remained prominent in art activities of the institution from such earlier stage as Seniour Visual Artist of Centre for Cultural Studies until his retirement as Associate Professor of the Creative Art Department over ten years ago.