In 1959, Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Zaria, awarded Diploma in Fine Arts to its first graduate. Sixty years after, GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR (Arts and Culture Editor) looks at the place of Zaria Art School in Modern Nigeria's Art history.
Art, in Nigeria, no doubt, is experiencing an explosion. Once restricted to 'underfunded departments' on university and polytechnic campuses and 'overly dedicated starving artists', it has gradually staked a claim for the country's millennial culture. The development of Modern Nigerian Art could be linked to colonial influence, especially techniques and forms taught by Western expatriates /missionaries. However, in his Modern Nigerian Art: A Discursive Sketch, Prof. C. Krydz Ikwuemesi insists that the West did not introduce art to Nigeria. His words: "Europe did not teach art to Africa... In pre-colonial Nigeria, there were many kinds of artistic expressions ranging from painting and carving to textile design."
Ikwuemesi adds, "although some Western scholars will classify them as traditional (in one of its pejorative senses), I insist, in the words of John Picton, that where such arts exist (as in the case of the uli painting tradition of the Igbo of eastern Nigeria), they are contemporary arts that, while drawing upon a continuity with the past as the basis of (their) existence, (are) about the here and now, addressing local concerns within a sense of local modernity."
Hannah O'Leary, Sotheby's Head of Modern and Contemporary African Art, attests to the growing influence of Modern Nigerian Art. She says, "we are seeing a monumental shift in the art market towards greater diversity and a surge in interest in contemporary art from Africa, and of course, Nigeria is leading the way. Our African auctions see bidding from every corner of the globe, and we are proud to promote the very best Nigerian art to an international audience."
Recognising the growing influence of Nigerian, by extension, African arts, Sotheby's -- the world's oldest and largest auction house -- had its inaugural sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art in May 2017. The second edition, in 2018, attracted 62 artists from 16 African countries and buyers from 33 different countries. A third of successful bidders were notably from Africa.
The auction house also experienced a renewed popularity among collectors, as 19 per cent of these buyers were new to Sotheby's. Estimated at a total of £1,167,500-£1,707,000 ($1,654, 698-$2,419,331), the sale was led by two Nigerian artists -- the pioneer of African modernism Ben Enwonwu, whose work Africa Dances was sold for £187,500 ($265,744), six times more than the estimated £20,000- £30,000; and À La Warhol by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a self-portrait inspired by the silk screen portraits of Andy Warhol, which fetched £200,000 ($283,460), doubling its estimate of £50,000- £70,000. Akunyili Crosby, incidentally, is one of the two Nigerians listed in this year's Venice Biennale holding from May 11 to November 24, 2019.
Another auction house, Bonhams, has also discovered the explosive interest in Modern and Contemporary Nigerian Art. The long-lost masterpiece sold for £1.2 million ($1.67 million) at Africa Now, the first-ever evening sale of Contemporary African art at Bonhams London. The painting had been assumed lost for decades before the family that owned it invited a Bonhams specialist to appraise it late in 2017. Tutu was last publicly exhibited in 1975 at the Italian embassy in Lagos. Enwonwu made three original Tutu works featuring Princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, of which this is the second. The first of three Tutu paintings done in 1973 was stolen in 1994 and its whereabouts remain unknown.
Only on March 20, 2019, Nigeria's Enwonwu also made a strong showing at the modern and contemporary African art sale by Bonhams.
His Anyanwu, 92 x 21 x 14cm (36 1/4 x 8 1/4 x 5 1/2in), led Bonhams' sale. It sold for £187,563 (estimate £100,000-150,000).Anyanwu is one of the artist's most accomplished and recognisable works.
Aina Onabolu, Kenneth Murray and the coming of art education
THE credit for development of Modern Nigerian art is traced to Aina Onabolu (1882-1963), who by teaching himself to draw without any formal art education, proved Africans were capable of producing academic and naturalistic paintings, contrary to general misconceptions at the time. Onabolu was to later study art in England, the first African person to do so.He introduced Western art to Africa without any European assistance. He singlehandedly introduced formal art education to Nigerian schools and laid the foundation for a younger generation of artists to build on.
In 1926, Onabolu requested an art teacher to assist with his art teaching programme in Lagos schools, and in 1927, the colonial education department sent Kenneth Murray (1902-1972) from England. Murray would take Onabolu's dream of formal art education to the Western and Eastern regions.However, where Onabolu called for a complete break with the traditional arts of Nigeria and production of a modern subject through the new medium of academic easel painting, Murray argued for a return to the glories of traditional art against the onslaught of modernity and artistic modernism.
Be that as it may, through a combination of Onabolu's perception and training, coupled with those of Kenneth Murray's -- an expatriate art teacher who encouraged indigenous expression of art forms and styles -- and many others who organised formal and informal workshops at that time, a rounded curriculum was inadvertently achieved in Nigeria, spawning the genius of Nigeria's first Modern Art master, Odinigwe Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu.
Enwonwu is arguably the most influential African artist of the 20th century. His pioneering career opened the way for the postcolonial proliferation and increased visibility of Modern African Art. He was one of the first African artists to win critical acclaim, having exhibited in august show spaces in Europe and the United States and listed in international directories of contemporary art.However, few artists experience the honour of having one of their works become a national cultural icon. Enwonwu's portraits of Tutu achieved this level of celebrity. During his time, Enwonwu was well regarded and his art described as a "unique form of African modernism."Professor Sylvester Ogbechie describes his art as "[the opening up of] third space in art history whose nature and parameters are at variance with art history's exclusionary narratives of modernity and its inscription of the modern artist-subject as a white, Western European male."Ogbechie says, "as an African modern artist, he used his practice to develop a new kind of modern art whose ideals of representation and notions of artistic identity were different from conventional art-historical narrative of European modernist practice."
According to Ikwuemesi, Onabolu and Enwonwu merely set the stage for the ensuing creative departure that was to occur at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST), now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, between 1958 and 1961 through the efforts of some young art students, namely Uche Okeke, Solomon Irein Wangboje, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Simon Olaosebikan, Oseloka Osadebe, Felix Ekeada, Ogbonnaya Nwagbara, Yusuf Grillo, Emmanuel Odita, Simon Okeke, Demas Nwoko and Ikpomwosa Omagie, the only female among them. They were not all classmates except for the fact that their duration of training in Zaria overlapped.
Starting from 1958, under the aegis of the organisation, which they had formed, the Zaria Arts Society, these students began to agitate for a change in the curriculum of the arts programme from its essentially Eurocentric aesthetic position to integrate African aesthetic praxis as part of its offering. Nicknamed the 'Zaria rebels' by Ghanaian-born art historian, Kojo Fosu, the society was a conscious movement fuelled by the first generation graduates of the college (1958 - 1961). This group later went on to influence every sphere of visual arts in Nigeria.
But Timothy Adebanjo Fasuyi is sometimes credited as the main proponent of the movement, being the first graduate of the institution (Painting, 1959). His fame, in fact, grew when Clara Etso Ugbodaga-Ngu, the first Nigerian teacher on the staff of NCAST, who taught drawing, asked him to speak on traditional Nigerian art. Ikwuemesi said, "their stylistic stance critically influenced the course of art in Nigeria and helped to give character to Nigerian modernism in the post-independence era."
The making of Modern Nigerian Art
CRITICS have argued that with Onabolu, Murray, Enwonwu and the Zaria Arts Society, Nigerian art stopped being traditional tribal masks and carvings, raffia and woven crafts -- today's artists are well read, well travelled and tackling contemporary issues such as, oil spillage, immigration, war, famine and femininity. Strange and wonderful in numerous ways, Nigerian art scene sheds new light on both the performance as well as plastic aspects of visual art while reminding everybody that eccentricity is not only basic to creativity but also to personal liberty and democracy itself.From a sprawling cacophony of objects, photographs and films to videos, installations, sculptures, drawings and prints, sometimes even, sometimes uneven, haphazard selection, Nigeria has been orchestrated into a curatorial marvel.Their unusually optimistic-sounding titles inadvertently have raised large and intriguing interests.
How Zaria influenced Mbari Club, Osogbo Art School
BUT soon, the convergence that illuminated their instincts and gave currency to their work happened: the Mbari movement at Ibadan. At about this time, active in their prime -- all born in the 1930s -- Chinua Achebe had moved from Enugu in 1961 to assume duties as the Director of External Broadcasting of Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) in Lagos, Christopher Okigbo moved from the Library of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, as the pioneer acting University Librarian to become the West African Regional Manager of the Cambridge University Press in Ibadan, Wole Soyinka had returned from the UK and was a Rockefeller Research Fellow in the University of Ibadan, and had also founded his theatre company, the Orisun Theatre Company; J.P. Clark was an Information Officer in the Western Region's Ministry of Information in Ibadan, and Ulli Beier was traveling back and forth between Ibadan, Osogbo and Ede for the University of Ibadan Extra Mural Studies, and editing the new journal, the Black Orpheus. Nwoko was active on return from Paris in the Ibadan Theatre, where he was engaged to design stages for theatre productions, and was equally busy creating the famous U.I. Wall murals; Onabrakpeya nearby in Lagos came often, and Uche Okeke was at the Enugu end of the Mbari club, on Uwani Street. The effect was a cultural synergy that gave impetus to a new artistic impulse in Nigeria.
The essential nucleus of the Mbari movement was around these individual writers and artists, who indirectly influenced the birth of Osogbo Art School. The Osogbo art workshop experiment originated from a series of creativity-development exercises in Ibadan, Ede and Osogbo. And it originated serendipitously from Ulli Beier's prompting and encouragement to the late Duro Ladipo to convert his popular recreation centre and bar located on the ground floor of his house to the Mbari Club house.
The first group of students that participated in the Mbari workshop (Ibadan) conducted by Beier comprised the late Jacob Afolabi, the late Rufus Ogundele, Chief Muraina Oyelami, Yinka Adeyemi, Ademola Onibokuta, Adebisi Fabunmi, the late Tijani Mayakiri Jire and Alake Buraimoh (nee Ajibola).On the second run of the workshop that was conducted by Georgina Beier in Osogbo in 1964, over 30 participants attended - comprising Duro Ladipo Theatre Company members and others.
At the end of that exercise, four major artists: Chief Taiwo Olaniyi (aka Twins Seven Seven), Oyelami, Adebisi Fabunmi and Jimoh Buraimoh emerged from the lot - all of whom later became internationally renowned studio artists. Incidentally, none of them had gone to a college before attending the workshop, neither were they previously involved in the arts.
According to Jimoh Buraimoh, "Zaria, in those days, used to be known for photographic art, but the students always found it difficult to find their footing when they left school, because they were not trained to be original. When Osogbo Art School started turning out students, critics were insulting them, calling them all manner of names, deriding them as people with no university education and others. But despite this, we were excelling."
Buraimoh told The Guardian, "Osogbo arts gave birth to Ife arts and impacted greatly on Nsukka arts. Osogbo arts made all the institution in the country to have an area of specialisation. Nsukka arts was known for wall decorations and other related artforms, but after seeing how Osogbo had metamorphosed it turned its type of arts into contemporary arts. Ife that believed in olokun (river goddess) also did the same. They were all influenced by Osogbo arts, which was good for the country, because it made each school to have an identity of the type of art they want."
Art masters on recess
TODAY, these artists are considered Modern Nigerian Art masters -- the pacesetters, so to say.
But who is a master? How good must a painter be to qualify as a Master?Critics have argued that becoming a master artist is not about finishing; in fact, art is never really finished, something will always come and follow, something will be what is next, and there you will find yourself as an artist trying to grow and learn again. Mastery is about continuing to learn even in the longest of time and efforts.
In 2007, during a group show titled, Living Masters, at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos, the questions of who is a master and when will an artist attain the mastery of art came up. Mrs. Sinmidele Adesanya, the owner of Mydrim Gallery, had argued that mastery of art "takes a lifetime of practice and perfecting as well as having influence in the form of mentoring and teaching."
She noted that whatever gains Nigerian visual arts profession has recorded, in expansion and art appreciation, they cannot be divorced from the past efforts of the modern and contemporary masters. "Young artists today need to know the history of those who paved the way for them."
In the second show titled, the Masters (2018), Mrs, Adesanya insisted that the contribution of the masters to the development of Nigerian art is worth more attention. "All of the masters in this exhibition have dedicated their lives to serving the art and have extensively studied, researched and honed their talent. These artists have the clout that is not born in a day. Mydrim would like to draw more attention than to the names of these artists, because their skill and creativity presuppose and speak for themselves. Not only that but they also create emblems of Nigerian society at large and add depths to the culture.
The art critic, Terry Hollis, in his comprehensive elaboration of what is expected of master artists, The Characteristics of a Master Artist, highlighted the following as essential: Resilience, originality, accountability, love for art and eccentricity.He says, "many master artists are resilient because they know that every mistake in their artwork creates room for perfection. They work on their mistakes and take criticism positively. They do a lot of research in their work, which enables them to realise their mistakes. Some also carry out several experiments that inspire them to come up with good art pieces."He adds, "master artists have a unique feature in their art works that distinguish them from other pieces. Master artists use varying techniques such as brush strokes, geometrical shapes, abstract objects or silhouettes to do all their art pieces."
Master artists can account for every detail in their art pieces. They know why they place every detail in their art piece. They do not depend on the set rules of doing art pieces to enable art readers to understand their work. Hollis said, "a master artist dedicates his entire life to art. He treats art as a profession and everything he does is related to it. This love for art is what gives him the zeal to make unique pieces. His passion for art is evident in every aspect of his life."
Creativity, in general, is marked by the combination of rational and irrational thoughts, and turning this into art requires artists to go deeper and deeper into the unknown to create. SIXTY years after producing first Zaria Art School graduate graduate, how much of these attributes can be seen in these master artists:
THOUGH an artist, Fasuyi had a long career in education sector, where he was also an administrator. He spent the last six years of his career at the Federal Ministry of Education to improve Federal Government Colleges nationwide. As an educationist, Fasuyi ensured that art endured as every Federal Government School had, at least, one art teacher.For five years, Fasuyi, also known as Tafas, and a native of Isona, Osun State, served as Federal Art Adviser. He retired from the Ministry of Education on his 50th birthday. He has since then been a full-time studio artist till date.From figural to landscape and abstraction, Fasuyi's paintings radiate the energy of an artist who was privileged to be part of history, especially in the context of evolving Nigerian modernity, over the five decades of his practice.In simplified figure painting style that lures the uninitiated into the perception that creating an art piece is not as difficult, Fasuyi, in this body of work, brings his mid-career styles into the contemporary period of his later years, suggesting that the art and the artist cannot afford to remain only in the past glory.
Bruce Obomeyoma Onobrakpeya
ONOBRAKPEYA is considered one of the most successful artists to have emerged in Africa during the 20th century.The fusion of his training in Western techniques and materials blended into his background, culture and ingenuity that is irrefutably indigenous, yet exotic. His rich textured works are a blend of native folklores, faith, environmental reflections and supernatural essences.
Since 1966, as an experimental artist, Onobrakpeya has discovered, innovated and perfected several techniques both in printmaking and relief sculpture that are uniquely Nigerian. At the same time, he began to experiment with forms in relation to Nigerian folklore, myths and legends. Much of his work uses stylistic elements and compositions derived from traditional African sculpture and decorative arts.
Prof. Sunny Awhefeada, who teaches literature at the Delta State University, Abraka, says, "Bruce Onobrakpeya is a living art avatar, who shares the same hallowed platform with Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Angelo in the universal configuration of artistic influence!" Awhefeada says, "much of the motif of Onobrakpeya's art is rooted in his Urhobo tradition as he gives visual representation to ethno-philosophy, folklore, politics, environment, religion, modernity... While Urhobo tradition provides his collage, the world remains his canvas."Onobrakpeya created the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation, of which he is President, and which organises the yearly Harmattan workshop in his hometown of Agbara Otor, Delta State.
The foundation is an artist-led non-governmental organisation formed in 1999. It aims to encourage the growth of art and culture by giving artists opportunities to gain skills, while increasing public awareness of African art and its benefits to society.
It is a forum to inspire and help support visual artists. This initiative aids to develop the potential of Nigerian artists through the provision of opportunities by means of skills acquisition, training and mentoring.
An exhibition of new installation works by Bruce Onobrakpeya titled, 'Beauty and The Machine', will hold from April 20 to May 10, 2019 at the Freedom Park, Lagos. It is the first of a series of shows to commemorate 60 years of the artist's public presentation of his art through exhibitions.
According to Kennii Ekundayo, curator of the show, "'Beauty And The Machine' will feature -- never been exhibited -- line of works that make a bold statement on the value still present in materials that have been discarded, and deemed unusable. It is a presentation of artworks achieved from abandoned items, all of which have now been recycled and assembled to become components of artistic productions."
She added, "this installation art style is no stranger to the several techniques innovated and improvised upon in the age-long practice of Onobrakpeya. It is a style borne out of his childhood fascination of the workings of machines, which outcome-wise, he has successfully made a part of his artistic expressions. The exhibits are made up of car parts, fabric materials, metals, beads, wood, computer parts, iron rods, steel, aluminum, and plastic parts, with interesting designs and spaces that have been realisable for the artist to reshape to create captivating art forms."
She said, "'Beauty And The Machine' through its exhibits, aims to lend voice to the clamour on the importance of recycling as a means of environmental sanitation as the incorporation of these erstwhile worthless materials into embodying art, not only improves upon the aesthetics of our environment but is beneﬁcial to the revenue growth of our economy and most importantly, a propagation of the art."
OKEKE was at the forefront of this artistic movement. Much of his work is grounded in Igbo folklore and mythology, depicting spirits and masqueraders. The fluid, broad brushstrokes of his compositions owe to the linear uli designs of the Igbo people. Okeke tenure as departmental head in University of Nigeria, Nsukka, which he joined in 1970, aided this style, consequently propagating this distinctive school and art form through his students and colleagues. His inspirations were profoundly Igbo artistic forms; systems which he came to absorb after his art education, and the experimental phase of his earlier work.
The Nsukka Uli culture or the Nsukka School of art is not Okeke's alone; it is a result of the agglomerate success of all working within and beyond this style. As Uche Okeke claims, "it was the predisposition, the consequence of the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War, and the productivity of some of the post-war generation of the art faculty (and the students as well) that truly brought Igbo cultural base to the Nsukka Art Department."
In his lecture titled, 'Uche Okeke: An Enduring Embodiment of Art Revolution', Prof. Ola Oloidi, described him as an unrepentant apostle of art revolution. As an apostle of art decolonisation, Okeke was influenced by the nationalistic revolution that was targeted against the colonial powers through his art. According to him, he was the first to make poetry an integral part of visual art. He was also one of the most important promoters of critical writing in Nigeria and made drawing a full profession in UNN. Okeke died on January 5, 2016, following a long struggle with a devastating stroke, at his home in Nimo, in the Njikoka area of Anambra State, where he had established the Asele institute on his retirement from academics.
GRILLO is considered one of the country's outstanding and academically trained painters. He came to prominence and international recognition in the 1960s and 1970s, while exhibiting a large collection of his early works.Known for his inventive works and the prominence of blue in many of his paintings, Grillo makes use of his western art training in many of his paintings, combining western art techniques with traditional Yoruba sculpture characteristics. His preference for blue in natural settings paintings is sometimes similar to the adire or resist-dye textiles used in Nigeria.
Those who are familiar with his work may know that Grillo has expressed an aversion to photo-realism; rather than aiming for lifelike creations, he instead prefers to elongate and stylise the figures. This technique, which produces graceful, elegant human-like forms, makes his work instantly recognisable. His choice of colour tones and his compositional decisions have been praised by many, including Kunle Filani, a well-known art critic. Filani noted that whilst many have attempted to mimic Grillo's style in their own work, none has managed to achieve the same skilful combination of complimentary hues and perfect spatial balance.
Unlike his stained glass and mural work, Grillo's paintings were rarely the result of commissions. In an interview in 2005, the artist revealed that painting was his preferred medium and the majority of his works were executed for his own enjoyment. Consequently, the themes and concepts are his, and not subject to "market requirements".Grillo sources his inspiration from the actions and behaviour of humankind, but is particularly intrigued by Yoruba culture, and much of his artwork tends to merge western and Yoruba art techniques.Music making, a recurring motif in Grillo's work, is inspired by where he was raised --the Brazilian Quarters in Lagos, an area renowned for the quality of its live bands. These childhood experiences would inspire some of the artist's works including, 'Drummer and Apprentice', 'Quartet', 'Trio' and 'Drummer's Return'. At 85, Grillo still works in the studio after his retirement from Yaba College of Technology where he created the famous Yaba Art School.
Demas N. Nwoko
Nwoko, born in 1935, in Delta State, has designed several private and public buildings. In addition to impressive terra-cotta works, and numerous mural paintings, Nwoko's stage and costume designs of the FESTAC production of 'The Children Of Paradise' will continue to be some of the best ever. Demas studied stage design in Paris, in 1963, under a scholarship from the Congress of Cultural Freedom.
Nwoko sees design as an ingenuous activity that carries with it a focus on social responsibility for positive influences in the environment and culture of the society. Nwoko has been operating a syncretism in between multiple architectural languages, combining Igbo Nigerian architecture, and Japanese construction techniques, since the 1970s. Some of Nwoko's famous architectural works include, the Dominican mission in Ibadan, Oyo State; the Oba Akenzua Theatre in Benin City and the Cultural Centre in
Ibadan. He also has a magnificent private edifice called 'New Culture Studios' in Ibadan.Three architectural innovations are attributed to him: re-interpretation of the traditional Igbo court, the double skinned exterior wall and the use of stabilised and pressed earth blocks. New Culture Studio was his first architectural construction. It consists of a residence and production space with an adjacent theater.
The building was built with local resources: brick, laterite and granite. Evoking Greek architecture, each entrance presents a covered gallery held up by a colonnade while the theatre, a prototype, still under construction, is presented as a semicircular shape at the opening of the zenith. The decorative aspects are expressed by blending patterns from Igbo and Beninese cultures, molded and sculpted in polychrome materials. It was the architect's first endeavour into researching and developing acoustics, the importance given to water, the modulation of natural light and to the skin of the building.
The success of Amos Tutuola's Palmwine Drinkard owes a little bit of credit to the effort of Nwoko. His inventive creations helped organise the choreography and direction of the play and brought to life the themes of Tutuola in every act of the play. His body of stage design and direction, which started at Ibadan, includes, Wole Soyinka's A Dance of the Forests, Bertholt Brecht's Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis (The Caucasian Chalk Circle), and the Mbari Theatre production of John Pepper Clark's 'The Masquerade'.
Jimoh Akolo was born in Egbe, Kogi State, Nigeria in 1935. He graduated from NCAS, Zaria, in 1961, alongside many of the members of the Zaria Art Society. He also imbibed the tenets of synthesising modern art forms with the indigenous concepts.Naturalistic in orientation, he combines traditional African proportions in his forms to create a unique blend. Mr. Dennis Dueden at Keffi Government College where he was educated from 1950 to 1956 spotted Jimoh's talent. He specialised in painting. Akolo did not exactly oppose the Zaria artists' much talked about 'rebellion' against the art forms of their colonial era teachers. But he was said to have taken his own kind of 'natural synthesis' home, leaning towards Yoruba native form.
"He wanted to be more broad in his expression," Mrs Adesanya described Akolo's different artistic route. Between 1961 and 1962, he studied in London and exhibited at the Commonwealth Institute, Whitechapel Art Gallery and many other places. He later studied audiovisual art in Indiana University between 1964 and 1965.A prolific painter with exceptional sculptural techniques, Jimoh's mural adorns the Northern House of Assembly (the Lugard Hall), Kaduna. He has also exhibited in Brazil and the United States of America. He retired as a Professor at the Ahmadu Bello University where he served in various administrative capacities before retirement.
Simon Obiekezie Okeke
The late Simon will remain one of the most devoted, hardworking and gifted artists. His untimely death has robbed the art world of an exceptional master painter and sculptor.Another product of Zaria Art School (1956 - 1960) specialising in sculpture mainly because at that stage he felt that he could continue with painting confidently on his own.He joined the Nigerian Museums from where he went abroad between 1961 and 1962 to study museum technique at the laboratories of the British Museum. He rose to the post of Curator of National Museum, Onikan, Lagos in 1966. He died during the Nigerian Civil War.