By Tajudeen Sowole
ASIDE being a pioneer art educator and cartoonist, Akinola Lasekan (1916-1972) had shown the way on how art could play a strong role in nation building as his work strengthened the nationalist movement during Nigeria’s pre-independence struggle.
This much was distilled from a symposium and art exhibition in his honour. Tagged His Life, Works and Contributions to the Development of Contemporary Nigerian Art, and organized by the artist’s family at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos few days ago, the event also exposed inadequate preservation and documentation of the master’s works.
Little was known of Lasekan’s art beyond political cartooning until the last three to four years when art auctions in Lagos, particularly from the stable of ArtHouse Contemporary, started featuring some portraitures by the artist.
Also, prior to the symposium and exhibition, much of the documentations on Lasekan celebrated an artist whose cartoons – under the then popular signature 'Lash' – thrived in post-colonial political scene, most of which were seen as missiles against the opponents of Nnamidi Azikiwe (1904 -1996). However, the lecture delivered by Prof. Ola Oloidi at the opening of the event showed that the artist was a strong partner in the nationalist movement against colonial rule.
Noting that the artist has not been celebrated since his demise 40 years ago, Oloidi, a professor of Art History and Art Criticism, University of Nigeria (UNN) Nsukka, described Lasekan’s art as “unrivalled.” He argued that the artist, who was a cartoonist working for Azikiwe’s West African Pilot, during the struggle for Nigeria’s independence, shared the same activism mentality with his employer. In fact, Oloidi disclosed “there was hardly any editorial policy of the West African Pilot made without Lasekan’s input.” The newspaper’s cartoon contents, he stressed, was a leading voice against colonial rule.
Oloidi’s research also traced the artist’s Africanism character to his youth years, while growing up in his hometown Ipele, Owo (now in Ondo State). According to the art historian, Lasekan dropped ‘Samuel’ from his name “because he felt it was a slave name, and more disturbing, it was Yorubalised as ‘Saamu.”
AS much as the family of Lasekan should be commended for bringing back the memory of the Zikist artist, the presentation of the exhibition appeared like an indictment on the poor attitude of Nigerians towards art collection and preservation. Some of the works on display were prints, poorly reproduced from what looked like Internet or third generation copies of the original.
Some art sources said about eight works of Lasekan were donated to the government during the 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77) event. According to family spokesperson Mrs. Olusola Dublin-Green, only two of the works were recovered as loans from the National Gallery of Art (NGA). During preparation for the exhibition, it was learnt that six works of Lasekan from the eight donated for FESTAC 77 were found missing from NGA collection.
SPEAKING on the importance of art and culture to the development of Nigeria’s economy, chairman of the symposium and exhibition, Omooba Yemisi Shyllon warned that dependence on oil is not sustainable. He disclosed that Nigeria’s largest buyer of crude oil, the U.S. will no longer import from any part of the world in the next 10 to 23 years.”
He therefore urged every stakeholder in the art and culture sector to develop and preserve Nigeria’s art, which he stressed, is vital to tourism to boost alternative revenue generation.
In his contribution, one of the discussants at the symposium, Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya also noted the dismal state of preservation of contemporary Nigerian art. He, for example, drew the attention of the gathering to a leaking roof of the National Theatre’s art gallery, which allegedly “destroyed some of the national collection.” He however argued, “the conservation of our contemporary artworks, particularly of the masters, should not only be the job of the government, but also those of individuals around the artists and communities.”
On the contribution of Lasekan to Nigeria’s independence, Onobrakpeya noted: “Lasekan’s cartoons condemned the injustice of colonialism in Africa, he should therefore share the honour of our freedom with great politicians like Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah.”
Lasekan’s art legacy has blossomed beyond where he left it, even within the family, so suggests the list of supportive artists exhibited at the event: two generations of his family showed with the late patriarch. The artists included children David, the creator of Benbella and Lulu characters as well as other cartoons for Daily Times; Kole a U.S.-based animator and Akinyele; grandchildren Akintunde, Luke and Jumoke.
Also in attendance to celebrate their own were His Royal Highness Olowo of Owo, Oba Victor David Olateru Olagbegi CFR, and Onipele of Ipele, Oba Abel Olaleye Alade II.
IN Lasekan’s works, his painting impressions such as Nigeria Independence, Nigerian Police Under Colonial Rule, Nigeria Soldier Under Colonial Rule and Dancers, all oil on canvas, indeed, show an artist who had a pact with strokes and lighting, perhaps “unrivalled” in his time.
Part of Lasekan’s bio reads: “While working with C.M.S Bookshop between 1936 and 1940, Akinola Lasekan took correspondence courses in fine art, art illustrating and cartooning. His first diploma was in fine art, obtained in 1937 from Normal College of Art, London. He joined West African Pilot in 1937. In 1939, he obtained his second diploma in advance drawing, illustrating, commercial art and cartooning from Washington School of Art, United States of America.
Between 1936 and 1940, he executed notable paintings that attracted great publicity in Lagos.”