22 April 2011

Nigeria: Ulli Beier (1922-2011)

In his last visit to Nigeria six years ago, Professor Ulli Beier who died early this month in Sydney, Australia, said of the Yoruba: "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. Yoruba are highly 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."

Coming from a German who arrived in Nigeria in 1950, lived with and studied the ways of Yoruba people for decades, the statement could be taken as gospel truth.

Ulli Beier had joined the then University College Ibadan to teach English and literary studies but soon discovered that his host culture was rich enough to stimulate international recognition the way that of English people did through the instrumentality of the writings of William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, John Milton, John Donne, and others.

As he travelled across western Nigeria, teaching English and then learning about Yoruba art, the late Beier became convinced that he could be the intermediary between European literature and his latest socio-linguistic preoccupation.

His degree in Phonetics from the University of London prepared him for collecting stories, folklore and other forms of oral literature as he traversed Yoruba land.

The first beneficiary of those efforts was the late Duro Ladipo whose dramatic skills were announced to the world accordingly. Beier's zeal to promote the arts in Nigeria soon resulted in his founding of Black Orpheus, a developmental magazine. It was the publication that first exposed some of Africa's greatest writers, notably Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo and John Pepper Clark.

The Mbari Artists and Writers Club, Ibadan, he also established provided some other Nigerians of his time the opportunities to showcase their talents.

As it turned out, boosting the capacity of Nigerian art to compete favourably on the global scene became his life-long obsession. Beier co-founded what is now known as Osogbo Arts with his Austrian wife at the time, Susanne Wenger, otherwise known as Adunni Olorisha who passed on not long ago. That visionary work was eventually recognised by UNESCO in 2008 at its 180th session in France.

Subsequently, the products of the Osogbo artistic endeavours of the Whites who became more Yoruba than many Yoruba people were collectively adopted and transformed by the world body into Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (CBCIU) domiciled in the Osun State capital. And in the early 1980s, he built Iwalewa Haus, an art centre, at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. It served as an avenue for fellowships and exchange programmes that benefited a sizable number of Nigerian artists.

Some of Beier's books are 'Thirty Years of Oshogbo Art', Black Orpheus: An Anthology of New African; 'Afro-American Stories', and 'A Year of Sacred Festivals in One Yoruba Town'. He proved to be a devotee of customs, people and places to the end of his life. He shunned juicy offers from some American universities to house his works, many of which originated from Osogbo.

Instead, he insisted on sending his archival collections - over 10,000 units of albums, books, negatives, videos, articles, photographs, mementoes about exhibitions and concerts and others - to the Osun State capital, precisely the CBCIU.

A quintessential bridge builder and versatile scholar, the towering stature of Beier who died on April 3 in Australia in Nigerian, indeed African, arts and culture is guaranteed for generations to come. Not even government's failure to give him a well deserved national award can undermine that fact.

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