Few hours ago, OYASAF, in collaboration with WOTASIDE Studios hosted one of Nigeria’s leading art historians, who took Lagos art community on retrospection of the country’s contemporary art.
Under the theme Contemporary Art In Nigeria: Contextual Navigation Through The Web Of History, the guest lecturer, Dr Kunle Filani and his host Omooba Yemisi Shyllon had a full house of attendance at the Maryland, Lagos office of OYASAF. Guests included top art patrons Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi and Mr Sammy Olagbaju; poet and social critic, Odia Ofeimun; art historian, Dr Frank Ugiomoh; art patron and gallerist, Olasehinde Odimayo; artist and art teacher, sculptor and art art educator, Raqib Bashorun; Dr Kunle Adeyemi; culture advocate Jahman Anikulapo; president of Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), Oliver Enwonwu, artist and art educator, Dr Ademola Azeeez among others.
Few months ago, OYASAF and WOTASIDE organized the first of the series lecture when Dr Frank Ugiomoh delivered a lecture titled On African Art And Identity Logging: A Historical Perspective.
Prince Shyllon, few hours ago assured guests that the OYASAF-WOTASIDE Studios Lecture Series “will be a regular event, most likely four times in a year.”
Excerpts from Filani's paper
The dynamics of change in the 20th century Africa, considerably transformed the art forms that are typical of the earlier artistic traditions found in the various creative cultures that constitute the present day Nigeria. Within this paradigm shift however, is located the tensile strings of continuities that unify the past with the present; thereby justifying the maxim that culture is a continuum. Despite the staggered beginnings of contemporary Art Historical Studies in Africa, a more systematic classification and articulation of formal and contextual genres seems to be emerging. For the artist, form is the outward expression of nuanced experience. It is therefore plausible to examine contemporary art in Nigeria on a historical construct that is premised on contextual narrative.
Guest Lecturer, Dr Kunle Filani and host Omooba Yemisi Shyllon, during the lecture. PHOTO BY ARIYO OGUNTIMEHIN
CHALLENGES IN ART HISTORICAL STUDIES:
Up till date, there are national challenges affecting robust scholarship in Nigeria. The challenges include lack of infrastructural facilities such as power/ energy supply, Information and Communication Technology (ICT), transportation and funding of research activities. These are self inflicted problems that have far reaching consequences for national development.
However, the most significant challenge is the mind-set of early researchers who were mainly ethnographers and anthropologists. The study of African art, especially traditional sculptures, made mostly in local materials and for extra-aesthetic cultural uses was premised on anthropological approach which emphasized the cultural significance at the neglect of form. According to Adepegba Cornelius (1995) the unsuitability of the ahistorical methodology for the study of contemporary arts created a dilemma for art scholars.
Another major impediment to the study of contemporary African art was the reluctance of Western scholars in accepting that African artists in the 20th century created their own peculiar and unique modernity as did their counterparts in Europe and America. According to William Fagg (1963), contemporary art in Africa was an extension of Europe. When acceptance came, it was with tokenist prejudice. The exhibitions titled Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art (1984) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and Magiciens de la Terre (1989) at the Pompidou Centre in Paris were typical examples of pejorative support. Nevertheless, the exhibitions according to Janet B. Hess (2006) made art historians and critics struggle to accommodate contemporary African art within the discourse of Modern and African art history. Such scholars before and after the 80’s include Marshall Mount, Ulli Beier, Susan Vogel, Sidney Kasfir among others. They attempted to find common elements in contemporary African art, but such art remains tied to specific histories and colonial and postcolonial conditions. Janet B. Hess concluded by noting that what appears to be a dazzling heterogeneity of art styles is the consequence of the plural modernisms and national styles that emerged after the end of diverse experiences of colonialism and independence.
A section of the audience during the lecture. PHOTO BY ARIYO OGUNTIMEHIN
Globalization had opened up the creative space in Africa. There are more access to artists from all over the world and their works through the electronic media. The diasporic perspective also added pep to the enlightenment both in theory and practice. Contemporary artists in Africa now engage and experiment with new media, including installation, performance, video art and other formats once exclusively Western. Gifted artists now have acclaimed sites for the unveiling of new innovative and modern art forms to international audience outside and within Africa. For example, the Dak’Art Biennale, the Johannesburg Biennale, the Bamako Biennale, and lately the Abuja ARESUVA (Visual Arts Summit) have become avenues for international creative displays within Africa.
Contemporary African artists; both local and diasporic are increasingly being invited to International Biennales in the West. All these paved way for individual recognition of contemporary African artists and inevitably generated more profound art historical approach to the study of contemporary art in Africa. Of significance is the role played by academic artists who either trained abroad or in Africa in the early and middle 20th century. They insisted on being acknowledged on the same page with their foreign counterparts through series of efforts including insightful writings on art. The contributions of Aina Onabolu, Akinola Lasekan, Ben Enwonwu and the Zarianist artists such as Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko and Yusuf Grillo are typical of such efforts.
Towards the last quarter of the 20th century, many African scholars have acquired sufficient art historical knowledge to properly situate the study of contemporary African art within the appropriate methodology that contextualizes form for aesthetic purposes. Joined by some sympathetic European scholars such as Roy Sieber, Ulli Beier, Evelyn Brown, Jean Kennedy, Marshal Mount, Susan Vogel, Henry Drewel, John Picton, Simon Ottenberg e.t.c. African art historians with their indigenous knowledge further strengthened research in contemporary art history.
Prominent among Nigerian art historians who have written insightful books and articles are Babatunde Lawal, Dele Jegede, Pat Oyelola, Cornelius Adepegba, Chike Aniakor, Ola Oloidi, D.O. Babalola, Nkiru Nzegwu, Moyo Okediji, Osa Egonwa, Kunle Filani, Olu Oguibe, Okwi Ewenzor, Sylvester Ogbechie, Peju Layiwola, Ohioma Pogoson, Ronke Adesanya, Chika Agulu-Okeke, Krydz Ikwemesi, Ademola Azeez, Sehinde Ademuleya and Kehinde Adepegba among few others.
The interdisciplinary approach employed by some Nigerian researchers gave tremendous depth to art historical studies and criticism. Notable among such scholars are Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Abiodun Rowland, Ekpo Eyo, Toyin Falola, Niyi Osundare, Isidore Okpewho, Frank Ugiomoh e.t.c. It seems that we are gradually overcoming what Ali Mazrui regarded as “the tyrannies of intellectual import substitution”.
DYNAMICS OF CREATIVE TRANSITION IN NIGERIA.
Nigeria is artistically rich and her cultural legacy is significant and unique in Africa. Her traditional sculptures, craft traditions and outstanding technical skills have survived the ravages of modernity. The archeology of Nigeria has come up with great finds that proved beyond doubt the antiquity of traditional African sculptures. According to Adepegba (1995), cross-sectionally, the time and spatial spread of the Sub-Saharan African sculptures is in form of a capital T. The top horizontal line of it represents recent ethnographic objects found distributed over West Africa from Guinea to Angola, while its vertical support represents older archeological objects In terracotta and cast metal got mainly from Nigeria.
The variety of materials and the accompanying techniques used in prosecuting art in ancient Nigeria is quite astonishing. The materials included terracotta, stone, metal, ivory, wool, leather, bead, raffia, plants and mineral paints, soil e.t.c.; and the techniques were as varied as the materials. There is no doubt that what constitute most part of the present day Nigeria was the artistic centre of excellence in Africa before and even after the European contact. Nigeria produced the greatest volume and variety of outstanding sculptures and craft traditions in Africa. Typical examples of enduring and classical artistic contributions are the Nok, Igbo-Ukwu, Ife, Owo, Tsoedo, Benin, Akwanshi and the more recent wood carving master pieces that are predominant in the Southwestern part of Nigeria.
Nigeria is an amalgam of many nationalities. She is a geographical entity created by colonial partitioning of Africa by the Europeans. There are significant cultural, social and religious differences among the major ethnic groups and sub-groups. It is therefore necessary to examine basic philosophies, creative and artistic characteristics that unify the country and lend credence to the use of the noun “Nigerian Art” as a collective. In spite of the obvious heterogeneity of interests among the various ethnic groups in Nigeria, there are still some ramifying Africa identify and canons of culture that bind the people together. It is therefore important to note that in many areas of the diverse culture, there is sufficient “confinement of similar” that necessitated the use of “Contemporary Nigerian Art” as significant conceptual qualifier that is descriptive of the peculiar modern traditions (Aniakor, 2003).
The term Contemporary Nigerian art, Modern Nigerian Art and New Nigerian Art are often interchangeably used by many historians and critics. A convement and largely acceptable period for contemporary Art in Nigeria can be defined as covering the whole of the twentieth century. This hundred year-long range made Frank Willet (1971) point out the significance of continuing relevance and viability of particular traditions together with the emergence of novel practices. This continuity is tradition characterized contemporary art in Africa and renders irrelevant those who bemoan the death of African art. (Filani 2005). The preference for contemporary in this paper is to avoid the underlying prejudicial artificial binary of strong and sometimes noxious words that are critical to be understanding of the initial Western bias for modern art in Africa. Terminologies such as traditional/modern, primitive/sophisticated, Western/Non-western e.t.c. were used with the intention of creating opposing creative notions between Africa and Europe. There is also the issue of overlap or simultaneous occurrences in both traditional and modern canons within the contemporaneous period. “Contemporary” in this context is therefore more inclusive of the artistic practices that occurred in Nigeria within the last one hundred years irrespective of the binary differentiation.
This contextualized navigation of historical occurrences will inevitably allow for a fecund understanding of the individual and group classification of Contemporary Art in Nigeria. At the dawn of the 21st Century; with about a century of modernity behind art in Nigeria, it is more plausible to penetrate into the events and ideas that probably shaped the peculiar and definite art forms that emerged in the contemporary period. The narrative will be contextual and as much as possible rendered in historical sequence. It may however overlap if the modern tendencies did not exist in relay.
The aim of this paper therefore is not to merely recount the evolution of modern art in Nigeria, rather, the focus will be to elucidate on some nuanced perspectives that informed the sensibilities of the artists towards the peculiar styles that they adopted. For example, on the surface, Aina Onabolu and Akinola Lasekan engaged in Euro-traditional naturalism to paint portraits and landscapes, but the reason for their engagement was essentially nationalistic. They wanted to proof a political point that colonized African artists can equally paint like their European counterparts. It is therefore myopic to bemoan Onabolu’s efforts as an extension of European art just because his style is derivative of European naturalism. One wonders why Picasso’s art was not criticized as an extension of African art based on his adaptation of African masks and sculptural forms for modernist concepts. Also, Okediji argument (2002) that Onabolu accepted and helped to impose Western materials and method and unwittingly contributed to the assault against indigenous forms of art making may be over looked based on a more plausible reason given by Nzegwu (1999) she opined that Onabolu may have strategically developed European upper-class mannerisms and used his newly acquired European naturalistic style to fight the battle of racial difference.
The remarkable change that African countries experienced in the 20th century due to colonial and post-colonial influences was so impactful that the entire fabric of the people’s culture became completely overwhelmed. The spiritual essence that defined life in African communities was nearly uprooted by the European’s rationalistic approach. Western education being the most beneficial of the colonial offerings opened vistas of opportunities and possibilities for robust search for globalised knowledge, expanded creative expressions and gave profound fulfillment.
If Nigeria is yet to realize her full potentials in the areas of science, technology, politics and economy, the case is not applicable to artistic creativity. The tremendous resourcefulness of the traditional artist(es) of the past seems to have manifested as continuing legacy from creative progenitors to ingenius inheritors. The diversity of contemporary creativity obviously derived from the plurality of the dynamic traditions found within those ancient kingdoms that constitute the present day Nigeria.
Many honours have been won in creative disciplines such as contemporary literature, poetry, drama, music and the visual arts.
Notable names that will forever be engraved in the heart of culture enthusiasts include Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, D.O Fagunwa, Christopher Okigbo, Niyi Osundare, Ola Rotimi, Femi Osofisan, Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, Fela Anikilapo-Kuti, Rex Lawson, Victor Uwaifo, Ladi Kwali, Aina Onobolu, Lamidi Fakeye, Ben Enwonwu, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko, Yusuf Grillo, Uche Okoke, Nike Okundaye to mention a few.
The above listed creative personalities must have shaken-off what Ikejiani-Clark (2004) described as “the persistence of the structures of underdevelopment evident in the paradox of articulation of Westernization as modernity in the arts and atmospheres of African life”. They thereby decidedly “exorcised this unfortunate orientation and decolonize this deleterious modernity in their consciousness”.
Contemporary art in Nigeria seems to have developed along ethnic lines considering the fact that each ethnic group in Nigeria has peculiar artistic traditions that are enduring. Some scholars have argued that there is no collective style that could be described as Nigerian art. William Fagg had earlier claimed that “there is no Nigerian art but Igbo art, Yoruba art and Benin art”. This is corroborated by the “Nigeria ethnic arts construct” that was proclaimed by Chike Aniakor (1998) who argued that apart from political exigencies, traditional art (and to a large extent, contemporary art) are formulated and executed based on ethnic – historical factors. Pat Oyelola (1989) also confirmed that ethnicity still plays a major role in the understanding of contemporary Nigerian art by categorizing artists under the ethnic base from which they derived inspiration. Krydz Ikwuemesi (1990) in his submission on Nigerian art and the politics of identity elaborated on the ethnic tendencies of contemporary Nigerian artists. Filani (2005) summarized that it is therefore evident that artistic development in Nigeria is marked by a distinctive indigenization of forms that reflect the ethnic orientation of the artists.
Modern African art according to Basil Davidson ( )is as much the child of its own past as any other part of the world reaching back through countless centuries and is in the process of action and ongoing reaction to European contact. This was why Chike Aniakor (2001) concluded on the issue of identity in contemporary African art that “there is an African physical, metaphysical and ontological landscape which provides the frame for artistic expressions whether we choose to refer to them as expressions of modern sensibility or not”.
Many scholars had classified contemporary Nigerian art into plausible compartments from where intelligent interrogation could be done. Dele Jegede (1983) gave a broad framework based on two major forms of training methods namely the “formal school” and the “informal school”, i.e. training that occurred in the school system and the training done at workshop centres. Filani (2002) had also proposed classification by chronology where artistic practices were interrogation based on historical sequence. We shall discuss the latter since it also incorporates the former in its broad analysis.
Contemporary art in Nigeria can be classified into three broad chronological periods that reflect creative and conceptual landmarks in the 20th century. The classification includes the Early Period (1900 – 1940s), comprising the continuation of traditional forms with considerable shift in themes to reflect prevalent colonial experience. It also comprises the pioneering efforts of European – trained artists who reacted to influx of foreign concepts, styles, materials and techniques and mainly chose the exploration of naturalistic forms but with local subject matter.
The second phase of the chronological classification is the Middle Period (1940s – 1970s). This era witnessed a radical departure from the past and was also the beginning of the establishment of both “formal” and “informal” modes of training for contemporary artists in Nigeria.
The academically trained artists, i.e. those who were formally – trained, started to articulate art concepts, propelled by the struggle for independence, they imbibed the negritude philosophy espoused by Leopard Senghor and similar ideas by other notable politicians such as Kwame Nkruma, and Nnamdi Azikwe to agitate for African identity. The artists of this period eventually came out with a novel admixture of both traditional and modern forms. This new visual expression derived from what is now known as the theory of natural synthesis and represents the core of Nigerian modernist tendencies.
The workshop trained artists, i.e. those informally–trained, also forged a unique visual image in art that straddled tradition and modernity in its expressiveness.
The last phase of the classification of contemporary art in Nigeria is the Late Period (1970s – 2000). This era is characterized by diverse artistic activities that summarize 20th century Nigerian art. The euphoria of independence waned in the 70s, and indeed Nigeria had witnessed a civil war (1967-1970) while containing the separatist Biafra from the Eastern Region. Exploration of crude oil brought unprecedented wealth to the country, thereby consolidating the economy. Many art departments were created in the universities and colleges. There arose a new middle class that showed interest in modern art and thus increased patronage of artists. The enthusiasm for the promotion of indigenous culture reached its peak during the second world Black Festival of Arts and culture (FESTAC) that took place in Lagos in 1977. The effect of the military take-over of national leadership since 1966 eventually started manifesting negatively on the economy and infrastructural development.
The impacts of the teaching of the synthesis of the middle period started yielding results. Many younger artists became more radically inclined in both style and concept. They articulated better the indigenous forms and philosophies and used them to experiment and explore new visual possibilities. Alongside the more conceptual artists grew those who perfected the exploration of day – to – day activities and popular culture as subject matter using naturalistic styles.
While the conceptual tendencies were more noticeable in the university – trained artists, the exploration of naturalism was more peculiar to those who trained in the polytechnics. (Filani: 2003). It is important to note that it was in this late period that the activities of Nigerian artists and scholars in diaspora also became noticeable and it added fresh breath to art discourse.
CONTINUING TRADITIONS AND WESTERN INFLUENCE
Two streams of major influence on contemporary art in Nigeria persisted in the 20th century. The first is the influence of continuing traditions and the other is the western influence.
Before the 1914 amalgamation, the various ethnic groups in Nigeria had developed high level culture that included visual arts of sculpture, wall and body painting, and profuse use of motifs especially in the craft traditions. Most of the canons of tradition applicable to these arts continued to be practiced and adapted by contemporary artists in the 20th century.
For example, a good number of art historians have documented the efforts of the wood-carvers of northeastern Yoruba land, especially Ekiti and Igbomima master carvers, who worked in historically traditional modes but lived and worked in between the late 19th century and early 20th century. The anthropological and ethnographical studies conducted on them attempted to obliterate their individual significance by attributing their works to their ethnic origin, rather than to the individual artists. They therefore bore anonymous labels in spite of the classical sculptures made by them.
Art historians later identified some individual talents and analyzed their works as being distinct in style even if they all derived from a common Yoruba canon. Some of the so called anonymous artists were later identified as prominent contemporary carvers such as Areogun of Osi-Ilorin (1880 - 1935) Olowe of Ise (1875 - 1930) and Lamidi Fakeye (1928 - 2009) among others.
Onyema Offoedu-Okeke (2012) exposed the paradox and ambivalence of the Western representation of African contexts of modernity that defines African artists of the 20th century in binary labels of “traditional / modern”. He noted that one of the key factors of modern Nigerian art is that the professional and modern practice of Olowe and other notable artists thoroughly negates the colonial attempt to render African artist anonymous. He therefore submitted that we must consider traditional artists such as Olowe of Ise and Lamidi Fakeye as modern artists. Whether these artists who worked in predominant canons of tradition fit into “modern artists” label or not, they remain contemporary artists since they worked within the confines of the 20th century and even adopted prevalent themes in their adapted forms. Other examples of notable artists in transitional web from other ethnic groups include Festus Idehen, the Benin bronze caster and Ladi Kwali the famous Abuja potter.
Apart from those who engaged in the synthesis experiment in the middle period, many artists of the late period further enhanced the adaptation of indigenous forms and motifs in peculiar but distinct styles. The Uli, Ona and Nsibidi movements are typical examples of successful adaptation of cultural elements into viable modernist artistic genre.
In another peculiar though seemingly naïve format, the artists that emerged from the workshop centres in Osogbo (organized by the German Ulli Beier and his wife Georgina Beier and later Susanne Wenger introduced a novel compositional arrangement that defied perspective and with forms that derived from folklores. The mythical allusion to the spirit world which is characteristic of African tales seems to come alive in the disproportionate images made by artists such as Taiwo Olaniyi, Jacob Afolabi and Rufus Ogundele.
Susanne Wenger an Austrian woman later became an Osun priestess and encouraged many local artists to produce sculptural images and paintings reminiscent of the Oshogbo forms. She also produced paintings and sculptures that were surrealistic in forms to suit the religious ambience of the spirit world from which she derived inspiration. She changed her name to Adunni Olorisa and naturalized through a thorough indigenization process.
A more refined articulation of forms by the workshop trained artists could be seen in the works of Jimoh Buraimoh, Muraina Oyelami and Nike Okundaye. The continuing African canon is apparent in the works of these informally – trained artists. However, the new style offered by workshop artists including that of Ori-Olokun at Ile-Ife such as Segun Adeku and Wale Olajide does not in any way justify the common propaganda by the West that the most interesting African art is that of the untrained artist, a belief that equates such art with the naïve art of Europe and America as noted by Ottenberg (1997).
According to Simon Ottenberg (1997), in terms of European influence, the southwest region, including Lagos, the country’s major port and its erstwhile capital early felt the impact of British in conquest, education, Christian influence, and European economic development. Lagos since early 20th century became the centre for contemporary Nigerian art. The south eastern area was opened to European influence at a somewhat later time; Ottenberg also wrote that the largely Muslim north showed a slower response until after Nigeria’s independence in 1960. He concluded that it is not surprising that most of the earliest contemporary Nigerian artists were Yoruba from the country’s southwest.
Filani (2005) claimed that the pioneering efforts of Aina Onabolu (1882-1963) to modern art in Nigeria, as documented by Ola Oloidi, are a major contribution to the development of naturalistic representation. Onabolu and other academically-trained artists such as Akinola Lasekan (1916-1974), Chief Akeredolu (1915-1984) and later Omotayo Aiyegbusi (1921-1994), explored accurate proportion and perspective to propagate naturalism in modern Nigerian art. According to Cornelius Adepegba (1989), Aina Onabolu was not only a naturalistic painter, he equally pioneered art education by pressuring the government to appoint more art teachers in the 1920’s.
Akinola Lasekan was a well known portrait and scenic painter. He became famous for illustrating political newspaper cartoons that criticized the activities and policies of the-then British Colonial administration. He later became close to the first ceremonial President of Nigeria, Dr Nnamdi Azikwe because of his political cartoons for the West African Pilot, and his engagement as a lecturer in the Art department of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Lasekan employed naturalism in the service of critical political drawings and as noted by Ottenberg (1997) he painted images based on Yoruba myths scenes and also the portraits of elites and of ordinary people, as well as doing commercial art in Lagos.
There were others such as Akeredolu Justus who pioneered in creating naturalistic thorn sculpture from silk-cotton tree, with themes of traditional African scenes and activites. The style quickly gained popularity as tourist art.
Chukueggu S.A.O. born in (1915), in Mbaise, Eastern Nigeria displayed innovation away from traditional Igbo sculptural forms. He sculpted unusual, often fantastic, wooden human animal forms and Igbo spiritual figures based on tales and myths. Omotayo Aiyegbusi, who trained as a graphic artist in the United State of America and in London is known for generating motifs that are adapted from indigenous art and craft objects. These pioneer artists created in diverse styles and media, a trait that Ottenberg (1997) described as “characteristic of contemporary Nigerian art since they located themselves as artists within the framework of colonialism, indigenous cultures, and the emerging consequences of relationships between the two”.
The shift from traditional Yoruba/ Igbo stylized forms to naturalism has been argued by Nkiru Nzegwu (1999) to be of political significance. Artists efforts at depicting naturalism debunked the racist prejudices of some colonialists that assumed that Africans were incapable of realistic representation. Nzegwu pointed out that a central part of Onabolu and other pioneers of contemporary art in Nigeria as artists were to use art as a critical tool to confront and challenge the “racist rhetoric of colonialists”.
Although naturalism had earlier occurred in Ife and Owo art, the two dimensional type that was practiced by Onabolu and others did not constitute a continuum in style that can be regarded as typical of contemporary Nigerian art. Naturalism is still popular and continues to be explored as a mode of creative expression by many contemporary artists in Nigeria.
The Western influence became predominant in the middle period (1940s-1970). Apart from the artists that went to Britain and United States of America for studies in art, the first sets of academic artists trained in Nigerian universities and colleges started graduating and registering their presence as contemporary artists with individual identities. Prominent among the academic artists of this era was Ben Enwonwu (1921-1994) who studied art in England and Paris. Enwonwu painted advanced naturalistic portraits, sculpted busts of elite Africans in wood and metal, and in 1957, he finished a portrait sculpture of Queen Elizabeth at Bukingham palace.
Ben Enwonwu imbibed the political and cultural movement of the French colonized countries called Negritude, with centers in Paris and Dakar of which the Senegalese poet and former president Leopold Senghor was the leader. Negritude extolled the virtues of the black Africans and emphasized the inherent beauty of culture. Enwonwu thereafter started making elongated and elegant human figures who often engage in local activities such as festivals, dancing, masking and masquerading. This style was then known as “African style” and was part of the rapidly changing art scene in the 1950’s and 1960’s which saw the growth of other art forms especially the significant synthesis that was espoused by the Zarianist in the 1960’s. Ben Enwonwu restored the dignity of artists as professionals who were articulate and sophisticated. He later became the first Nigerian professor of art at the then University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife.
Formal art training in Nigeria began at Yaba Technical Institute, Lagos (now Yaba College of Technology) in 1952. In 1953, the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST) began art courses at Ibadan and the art programme was transferred to NCAST, Zaria in the north in 1955; this college later became Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. The University of Nigeria, Nsukka commenced art training in 1961 and the University of Ife, founded in 1962 at Ile-Ife began offering art courses in 1969. There are now art and design related courses being run by many Nigerian universities, polytechnics and colleges of education across the nation.
It is important to state that along the substantial growth in the number of skilled artists in this period, there were several so-called neo-traditionalists, standing intermediate between traditional and contemporary styles. There were Ovia Idah and Festus Idehen, both Benin sculptors who worked in wood and in cement and concrete murals respectively. Felix Idubor also from Benin sculpted human heads in wood.
Lamidi Fakeye was part of the famous Oye-Ekiti workshop experiment in 1947 under the guidance of Reverend Fathers Sean O’ Mahoney and Kevin Caroll. They brought together many indigenous wood-carvers, weavers, bead workers and other craftsmen to create a vast array of forms and motifs that were adopted for Catholic Church uses. Lamidi Fakeye, a neo-traditional carver and a prominent product of the Oye-Ekiti experiment, became internationally famous for employing indigenous tools, materials and iconography which have been in use for centuries to depicit modern and foreign themes. A more radical departure from the classic Ekiti style advanced by Lamidi could be found in Bisi Fakeye’s cosmopolitan images. Bisi trained under his uncle Lamidi, but his long stay in Lagos and interaction with younger artists who lived in modernist milieu influenced his forms and themes.
About the time that Ulli Beier’s experiment, with workshop artists was taking place in the early sixties came a burgeoning zeal by educated artists to express modernity through indigenous modes. Some artists who trained in formal schools either at home or abroad focused their research in both form and content on the reactivation and revitalization of the artistic glories of the past. Their efforts manifested in unique modern expression.
The forms of their paintings, sculptures and even architecture derived from artistic imagination that was grounded in African aesthetics. These graduate artists charted a more radical course by jettisoning the academy–tradition and employing varying degrees of hybridization of Western formats with African cannons of creativity.
Prominent “radical” artists such as the members of the Zaria Art society in Nigeria namely Bruce Onobrakpeya, Yusuf Grillo, Demas Nwoko and Uche Okeke who were in Zaria in the late 50s and early 60s named this peculiar admixture approach to art “natural synthesis”. Synthesis manifested in their individual works with unique ethnic typologies; for example Bruce Onobrakpeya’s ability to translate ancient forms into modern finds appropriate idiom in his Urhobo culture. He modifies graphic forms, recreates ideograms and alphabets and re-codifies normative patterns (Filani 2012). He continues to add value to universal culture through modernist interpretation of Uhrobo and other African indigenous forms. He currently runs the Harmattan workshop series in Agbarha – Otor, Delta State, Nigeria.
Yusuf Grillo inspired younger generation of artists with his excellent drawing skills. He was revered as a lecture at the Yaba College of Technology, Yaba, where he taught new generation of painters and sculptors. Famous for his stained–glass works in cosmopolitan churches, Grillo advanced a peculiar elongation of human figures with carefully structured angularity of forms that echoes Yoruba classic carvings.
Demas Nwoko didn’t only adapt the traditional Igbo/ Delta images, but also explored Nok culture of the northern Nigeria in creating sculptures and paintings. His genius equally excelled in the use of indigenous spatial aesthetics for architectural dimensions.
Uche Okeke was the intellectual of the group that articulated the theory of natural synthesis. He manifested this knowledge in the championing of the use of Uli designs for modernist construct in contemporary aesthetics. Uche Okeke is reputed for his pen and ink drawings. His interest in indigenous tales coalesced with the calligraphic nature of Uli linear design that he adapted. Other prominent artists of same generation that explored Uli include the late Chuka Amaefunah and Chike Aniakor whose outstanding scholarship limited his practice of fluid and mobile drawings and paintings.
According to Bruce Onobrakpeya in Whitechapel (1995) in 1964, members of the disbanded Zaria Art Society began to come together again, in a new association called the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA). Its first president was Grillo, and many of the original Zaria members were involved with it along with Solomom Wangboje, Isiaka Osunde and T.A. Fasuyi, who were acquainted with the Zaria activities. Onobrakpeya noted that four new members sympathetic to Zaria earned the tag “Kindred Rebels” – they were Erhabor Emokpae, El-Anatsui, Ben Osawe and Abayomi Barber. The criterion for the label however is uncertain.
There were other artists such as Uzo Egonu (1931 - 1996) whose career unfolded in Europe and reconfigured an Igbo heritage of Uli into a highly distinct and personal aesthetic. (Offoedu – Okeke 2012). El Anatsui, the obviously most famous sculptor and installation artists from Africa relocated and lived in Nsukka, Nigeria since 1975. He also shared in the Uli phenomenon but incorporated Adinkra patterns derived from his original country, Ghana. Anatsui has worked with clay, wood, bottle caps, aluminum strips and any other material that is amenable to his conceptual sophistication. He has won international acclaim for his excellent imagination in deconstructing and reconstructing indigenous textile traditions.
In the southwestern Nigeria, the middle period was quite dramatic. Apart from Yusuf Grillo, there was Solomon Wangboje (1930-1996) who graduated earlier in 1959 from Zaria and later became a notable printmaker, art educationist and university administrator. He was part of those who coordinator the 1968 Ori-Olokun workshop at ile-Ife and indeed founded the Faculty of Creative Arts, University of Benin, Benin-City in the 1970s. Wangboje interrogated forms in a naturalistic manner with echoes of Northern landscape in the background of many of his prints.
Agbo Folarin studied at the Yaba College of Technology in the late 50s and later in London in the early 60s. According to Pat Oyelola (1998), he used Yoruba mythology as direct inspiration for many of his monumental metal panels.
Ben Oyadiran, born in 1931 typifies the spirit of modern Yoruba artists. He explored Ifa motifs and poetry in the form and content of his paintings, thereby re-inventing tradition in modern times. Ayo Ajayi, born in 1935 trained in Ghana in the early 60s. He was one of the early academic artists who integrated Yoruba forms into their paintings (Allagoa: 1967). He also used a lot indigenous motifs and patterns in his graphic works.
The middle generation of contemporary Yoruba artists who trained in the colleges and universities has consciously continued to transform their particular visions of Yoruba culture into relatively new formats, thereby providing fresh insights into the transformative aesthetic process in Yoruba society (M. Harris: 1994). Ibitayo Ojomo was a graduate of the Yaba School in the 60s who later trained as an architect abroad according to Harris; his works are “metaphorical political statements through the illustration of proverbs and the use of allusion”. The angularity of forms in his paintings could have been influenced by Yusuf Grillo and the classic Yoruba wood-carving tradition.
Abayomi Barber was born in 1934 and schooled in London in the 50s. He is an acclaimed photo-realist painter and sculptor. He seems to derive inspiration from Ife classical heads; Ile-Ife being his hometown. He ventured into surrealism using Yoruba myths and legends to define his engagement with super-realistic forms. He headed the Creative Arts Centre at the University of Lagos where he trained some artists in naturalistic and surreal rendition of images derived from indigenous myths and tales. The artists who belong to the Abayomi Barber School excelled in photographic realism inspite of the basically informal nature of their training. Famous among them are Muri Adejimi and Olu Spencer.
Josy Ajiboye is largely self-taught. His style is Akin to the Barber school. He excelled in themes that are culture related. A photo-realist painter and popular cartoonist in the 70s, Ajiboye created a niche for himself as a notable naturalistic artist.
In the Late Period (1970s-2000), Western influence continued among the academically trained artists and also the activities of Nigerian artists in diaspora became topical. The global space opened up for creative interactions among artists and art scholars. This warranted a cross-fertilization of ideas among artists from all over the world. More avante-garde experiments continued and many Nigerian artists both at home and abroad responded to globalization in various ways that still emphasized the issue of identity. The underlying political and economic collapse of the 70s to 90s became the thematic structure on which many conceptual artists constructed their forms.
Many prominent and promising artists and scholars left the country in search of greener pastures. These departures to Europe and United States of America left some gaps in the continuing development of scholarship and creativity in Nigeria since many of those that “brain-drained” were among the best. Apart from the initially disruptions of resettlement, diasporic artists and scholars are inflicted with the scar of “split identity” as described by Adepegba (1996). The allegiance to home country often reduces with time not only because of the new environment, but also for survival strategies. However, the form and content of their art works still share kinship affinities with contemporary artist living in Nigeria. Prominent among the talented artists who continue to practice in diaspora are Dele Jegede, Obiora Udechukwu, Moyo Ogundipe, Moyo Okediji, Osi Audu, Bolaji Campbell, Olu Oguibe, Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy, Sokari Douglas–Camp, Yinka Shonibare, Victor Ekpuk, Wilfred Ukpong and Marcia Kure among others.The Zaria school graduates of the 70s who are now renowned include late Shina Yusuf, Kolade Osinowo, David Dale Ellis Erimona and late Gani Odutokun. The 80s witnessed the burgeoning of young graduates who continued with the Zaria zest for unique compositional arrangement that depicted northern landscape especially at the background. Example of such artists include Jerry Buhari, Tony Okpe (sculptor), Jacob Jari, Duke Asidore , Abraham Uyobisere and a host of younger ones such as Ayo Aina, Hassan Aliyu and Ojo Olaniyi. Most of them worked in naturalistic styles with moderate expressiveness. The eclectic styles they employed sometimes reflect indigenous activities including scenic township landscape, festivals, and ceremonies which Pat Oyelola (1998) described as “culture specificity”. Odutokun and the younger ones engaged in socio – political themes that were prevalent during the military decadence as against the ebullience of themes that some artists displayed in post – war 70s when the money from crude oil exploited from the Niger–Delta area created what was known what was known as oil boom.
The Nsukka School became the most experimental with younger artists consolidating on the efforts of Uche Okeke, El–Anatsui and Obiora Udechukwu. A group of highly creative and poetic artists developed the Uli concept into a seminal movement. Notable among them were Tayo Adenaike, Ndidi Dike the dynamic lady painter sculptor and installation artist, Olu Oguibe, Chris Echeta and Ozioma Onuzulike (ceramists), Nkechi Nwosu–Igbo and other. It is interesting that the experimental zeal of the Nsukka school artists continues in their engagements with installation and video art till date.
Yaba and Auchi schools represent the expanded variants of photographic and impressionistic naturalism respectively. The affinity of the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu (IMT) with the Nsukka School seems to have overwhelming influence on the art of Enugu School (a polytechnic). The graduates are more reflective in their stylization of naturalistic forms.
The Ife School developed based on the culture oriented philosophy of the Fine Art department of the then University of Ife and now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. The department started graduating students with Fine Art single honours in 1976; having graduated some in Fine Art / Education since 1971. Prominent among those that graduated from the Ife school in the 70s are Moyo Ogundipe, and Nkiru Uwechia-Nzegwu. Ogundipe’s abstract and fluid style of the early 80s was encouraged to align with the culture oriented forms and motifs of the Ona group. The Ona experiment typifies the spirit of the Ife School considering the tremendous impact it has on many artists who appropriated aesthetic values in Yoruba and other indigenous traditions by adapting and adopting forms and patterns of culture.
The Ona group of artists was founded in the late 80s by Moyo Okediji, Kunle Filani, Tola Wewe, Bolaji Campbell and Tunde Nasiru. They all graduated in the late 70s and early 80s. They are experimental artists who critically interrogated indigenous forms and appropriated its quintessential values for conceptual and modernist interpretations. According to Adepegba (2000) the group has not only expanded but has also coalesced into a movement virile enough to be reckoned with in contemporary Nigerian art. Those now working in Ona style include artists from all over Nigeria, especially from Ife school such as Victor Ekpuk who employed Nsibidi ideograms, Wole Lagunju, Steve Folaranmi, Rasheed Amodu, Demola Ogunajo, Abiodun Akande and Mufu Onifade with his Ara variant. Other notable Ife artists who are more eclectic but use cultural themes include Idowu Otun, Ope Arije (a potter), Tunde Ogunlaye, Segun Ajiboye, and Kunle Osundina to mention a few.
The University of Benin started its Art department in the 70s. the major mover of the first Faculty of Creative Arts in Nigeria was Solomon Wangboje who ensured the employment of expatriated such as Doris Rogers, Ermma Francis, Clarry Nelson-Cole and notable Nigerian lecturers including Madam Ngbodaga-Ugu (the only Nigerian teacher in Zaria in the 50s). The diversity of the teachers’ orientation led to the eclectic approach noticeable among the graduates. Some of the prominent names are El-Dragg Leonard Okwoju, Akin Onipede, Peju Layiwola, and a few others.
The influence of Yusuff Grillo, Isiaka Osunde and Kolade Osinowo is significant for the Yaba School graduates. They excelled in naturalistic rendition of paintings and sculptures. The big names from the school that popularized urban and ceremonial themes include Biodun Olaku, Ayorinde Olotu, Tolu Filani, Bunmi Babatunde, Raquib Bashorun, Edosa Oguigo, Kunle Adeyemi, Lara Ige-Jacks, Tayo Quaye, Kehinde Sanwo, Segun Adejumo, Rom Isichei, Ibrahim Hamid, Koko Ayi, Ato Arinze, Sam Ebohan, Samuel Ajobiewe, Felix Osieme, Deola Balogun, Pius Oghiolament, Gbenga Offo, among several other.
Auchi School stands tall in expressionistic painting and impressive metal sculpture. The artists from this school started making impact on Nigeria art scene in the 80s. Notable among the painters are Edwin Debebs, Mike Omoighe, Sam Ovraiti, Zinno Orara, Olu Ajayi, Ben Osaghae, Osaheyen Kainebi, Lekan Onobanjo, and Ini Brown among others. Olu Amoda typifies the impressive energy of Auchi sculptors who engage in metal art. Others are Fidelis Odogwu, Emmanuel Mbanefo and the multimedia Reuben Ugbine. Essentially, their themes are based on the exploration of human forms in varying poses, while some use it to express socio – political realties of Nigeria.
There are also several artists from other institutions who are trying to establish school identity for themselves. It is equally important to note that many of the artists mentioned earlier from different school backgrounds also developed or studied outside their first alima-mata. Oftentimes they work beyond the initial group style, while some created their own personal identities. For example Raquib Bashorun from Yaba School has introduced his personal style in wood work and design after furthering his study in the USA. Tayo Quaye and Joe Amenechi from Yaba and Ojo Olaniyi from Zaria having apprenticed under Bruce Onobrakpeya now emulate his plastocast style.
KINSHIP IN DIASPORA:
Okediji (1999) pointed out a resent development where ethnic reality often transcends the borders of the Nigerian nation-state. He cited the arm of Yoruba people living in francophone Benin republic, excised by the colonial divide from the body of Yoruba people in Anglophone Nigerian .A more complex example cited is the transatlantic kinship between Yoruba people in Africa and those in America. In spite of the long distance, time and geographical dislocation of Yoruba descendants in diaspora due to slave trade, there still exist today iconographic connection between them and those in Nigeria. Therefore, despite the politics of alienation by geographical divide, there exist artistic and aesthetic affinities. Art therefore validates their kinship beyond geographical borders and political exigencies that separate them.
We must bear in mind that there are artistic similarities among African countries. Therefore, the ethnic variation of artistic practices does not remove the conceptual and formal affinities peculiar to Nigerian art. Also, the cross-cultural and trans-cultural Manifestations in the arts that were warranted by varying factors allow for positive admixtures. For example, Tayo Adenaike, a Yoruba, is known as a member of the Uli movement which is rooted purely in Igbo tradition. The transatlantic experience has a correlating parallel in Susanne Wenger, an Austrian who lived and worked in Oshogbo for most of the creative part of her life, championing Yoruba religion and aesthetics. (Filani 2002). Equally significant is that the global aesthetic being professed by post-modernist theorists and artists is already breaking barriers of culture. More Nigerian artists are now encouraged to express themselves in a more universal language.
Culture is dynamic in its response to the exigencies of history. Contemporary art in Nigeria has demonstrated that there are tensile “Visible lines of continuities” that justify the maxim that “culture is a continuum”. As the various ethnics groups mix and interact with each other, cultural barriers are being broken and a more national identity and art forms continues to emerge. Also as globalization continues to rage, the possibility of the atomization of world-culture becomes stronger. Art being a visual offering of culture has universal appeal for communication and aesthetics. Contemporary Nigerian artists have demonstrated both at home and abroad that as heirs to divergent and dependable creative patrimony, they can assert their individuality as well as their collective identity in a globalised world where modernity is being gauged by occidental canons.
Nigerian art historians should adopt ecumenical resolutions that resolve tensions between uncritical allegiance to culture and hasty dismissal of seemingly mythical realities.
There should be more rationalist template for contemporary art historical studies in Africa. The Nigerian scholars abroad should work closely with Nigerian scholars who live inside the source. The pitfall of “split identity” with its surreptitious obnoxious consciousness about home-based counterpart artists and scholars should give way for nationalistic fervor. Some diasporic lizards should stop pretending to be alligators in both art practice and scholarship. There should be mutual understanding to assist each other in noticeable areas of strength and weaknesses.
On a final note, it is tempting to round up with a narrative based on a song composed by Orlando Owoh (Filani 2009). The late emotional singer emphasized the significance of stylistic mastery and creative diversity among artist(e)s using the singer-birds as metaphor.
The birds gathered for a singing competition. They came as divergent as they were: Adaba, the cooing dove, Aparo, the patridge, Odidere, the tale bearing parrot, and even Eiyele, the domestic pigeon. The smaller ones were not left behind; Olongo, the red-billed fire-flinch, Ologose, the sparrow, Oge, with its beautiful plumage, Ologuro, the rapper and Tio-Tio, the singing shrike! All were present for the great creative contest. They have all mastered their vocable peculiarities. They were masters of their varying musical styles. It became difficult to adjudge the winner since the audience cheered each of the singing birds in their display of unique talents. The sky is wide enough for all birds to fly…..
The lesson in the above tale is that art appreciation and perspectives in scholarship are most profound when acknowledged within expanded creative diversity.
In the contextual narrative of contemporary art and artists in Nigeria, the onus is not to confer superiority of one epoch over the other; rather, it is to unveil the peculiar circumstances and sensibilities that led to the development of both individual and collective styles that define the continuing art traditions in Nigeria.
By Kunle Filani (MFA, PhD)