11 Dec A journey through Nigerian art Part 1 – Dozie Igweze

Early African art seems to have been functional, either serving as religious symbols or decorations in the King’s palace.With the introduction of European style contemporary art, Nigerians started to experiment with art for art ‘s sake. Contemporary art provided the artist a way to broaden his artistic horizon and in some cases to have a theoretical framework for his art. Art moved from the level of craft to a practice with theoretical foundation that would instead of restricting serve to expand the horizon.

In the beginning, there were very few artists. The earliest Aina Onabolu worked tirelessly to teach art in many secondary schools in Nigeria.In 1920 he held his first exhibition; a landmark event, no doubt, this being colonial Nigeria. By this time though, Onabolu was quite well known having done portraits for many of the colonialists.This was 1920, The beginning of contemporary art. Not too long ago really. Too put it in perspective. A person who attended that exhibition may well be alive today.

In this fairly short time contemporary art has grown exponentially, evolving into a many-headed affair with many schools of thoughts and a wide array of ideas. The journey from the early artists to the current crop of trendsetters is a fascinating one. It’s a journey this exhibition hopes to capture by showing the works of some of the artists who have helped to shape Nigerian artists. The reality is that there are far too many artists who have helped elevate Nigerian art. It would be impossible to include all these artists. The exhibition has tried to include a broad section of these early developers and influencers.

The journey starts with the first artist Aina Onabolu; Pioneer, teacher and practitioner. Clearing the path is always a difficult job. It s a task that needs a strong persevering spirit. Fortunately Onabolu had this, as well as abundant skill. By 1900 he was working in the civil service but already an avid painter, painting mainly from live objects. By 1915 he was well known and respected among the Lagos elite. To further art, he contacted primary schools across Lagos and started to teach art part-time. In 1920, shortly after his exhibition he moved to England to study art. His journey took him to St. John’s Wood Art School . In 1923 he returned to Nigeria armed with an art degree and brimming with ideas. He continued painting and creating portraits of many of the colonialists and the budding Nigerian elite.Onabolu has earned his place in history not just for his skill but his accomplishment as an art educator. On his return to Nigeria he set up art schools in many of the secondary schools across The Western region. Eventually it became burdensome for him to teach in so many schools and he recommended that another teacher be employed. This led to the employment of Kenneth Murray, a Briton and one of the most influential art educators in Nigeria. . He taught the next generation of Nigerian artists including Ben Enwonwu.

Ben Enwonwu was and still is a beacon of hope for many artists. As an artist, he gave the profession style and dignity. In many ways The Picasso of Nigerian art successful in his lifetime and hugely admired afterwards. While Onabolu pursued the traditional European formal art tradition, Enwonwu pursued a style more African .He didn t start out this way though. In his words ‘All we wanted was to know how to draw and paint like a white man’, it was our pride . With Kenneth Murray’s guidance Enwonwu began to develop a more afro-centric style. In 1944 he moved to Goldsmith College , London. He later moved to Ruskin College, Oxford and on to Slade School of Fine Arts , London before doing a Post-graduate course at the University of California.On his return to Nigeria he taught in various schools and started his style of painting that would be a huge influence on many artists. His themes are derived from his Onitsha tradition, the masquerades, festivals and the people. At various times, he was government art supervisor and art advisor to the Federal government. He was influential both in art and government circles. Enwonwu was as famous for his sculptures as he was for his paintings . Among his many landmark sculptures is the statue of Sango at the NEPA Headquarters, Lagos.

Another artist of the period known for his skill both at painting and sculpting was Erhabor Emokpae. He was one of a rare breed – successful in advertising as well as in art. He was at one point creative director of LINTAS Lagos. In art circles he was respected as an unconventional thinker. His abstract works were at the time revolutionary for a relatively embryonic profession. He sought to push the boundaries of Nigerian art both with his sculptures and his paintings and his works are even today striking in their freshness.

Okpu Eze also dwelt in two spheres – as an artist and an administrator. Eze, one of Nigeria’s most famous sculptures, was the first recipient of the Mbanefo trophy for art. He also featured in the Eastern Nigeria festival for arts in 1955.Eze schooled in Nigeria and abroad, but his works were completely Nigerian, mining traditional Nigerian forms and traditions. His themes included the ethnological consequences of the African socio-cultural milieu. His exhibition at the 269th exhibition of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1986 led to his election as associate member .At about the time Okpu Eze started, some student of the Nigerian College of Arts and Science Technology, what is today the Ahmadu Bello University , Zaria, were on the verge of changing the course of Nigerian art . The students known today as the Zaria rebels decided to reject all forms of European artistic knowledge opting instead for a more traditional orientation. This was the beginning of confidence in the ability of Nigerian art to create its on milieu based on Nigerian cultural themes and experiences. It marked the first tentative step towards an independent Nigerian artistic consciousness.

A key figure in the Zaria movement, Bruce Onobrakpeya went on to become one of Nigeria s most influential artists: celebrated in Nigeria and abroad for his artistic vision and his influence on other artists who learnt from him and further developed his style.His works are steeped in the myths and legends of his people. The son of a carver, traditional beliefs and myths were passed on to him at an early age. These memories came to serve as the building block for his artistic vision.Onobrakpeya is best known for his deep etching style. This style can be traced to fortuitous event at a print work shop in 1963. Hydrochloric acid had destroyed one of the plates he was preparing. He repaired the plate by filling it with araldite. On producing a print from it , he noticed that the work had an interesting sculptural quality. This was the beginning of deep etching. Onobrakpeya remains today one of the beacons of Nigerian contemporary art.

Another of the Zaria rebels went down a different path. While Onobrakpeya became a full time artist Uche Okeke went back to school – to The University of Nsukka specifically as an art lecturer.While in Nsukka , Okeke championed the Igbo Uli body and mural painting tradition . Okeke and the Nsukka school became synonymous with the Uli style a linear , curvilinear, visually precise, space , space-emanating, and greatly elemental art with highly romantic appeal and culturally implied symbolism. , The Uli style remains the defining style of the Nsukka school and Okeke remains one of the most influential artists in Nigerian history.

Another member of the Zaria rebels , went on to build the foundation of The Yaba college of technology . While at the Yabatech, Grillo , brought his uncanny understanding of colour to bear on on his students , forming the basis for the Yaba style . He held various positions in the school including Head of the Fine Art Department, and Director, school of Art , Design and Printing. His works, with their deep, brooding colours and angular, expressive figures have been a source of inspiration to many artists and a source of fascination to many collectors. Grillo’s output compared to many artists of his generation has been markedly limited. His choice of murals as a focus has also ensured that there is a dire scarcity of his art. An unfortunate situation because his art would be a significant addition to our lives.

An artist who started at the early days but has continued to create is Abayomi Barber. Barber is certainly one of the most influential artists of his generation having influenced a wide generation of artists There is an informal group of artists The Barber school. The artists who make up this school trained under him and work in a style similar to his. Barber’s interest in art started at an early age after having seen Ife figurines. His interest rapidly developed and he experimented with any medium he could find. He quickly outgrew Ife and moved to Lagos to get greater exposure. After a few years in Lagos he moved to London for further training. In London, he worked mainly as a sculptor helping to create some very impressive sculptures including the bust of Winston Churchill in The House of Commons. His stay in the UK also marked the beginning of his experimental landscapes which carry traces of Salvador Dali .On his return to Nigeria , he joined the University of Lagos and helped set up the creative studio. It was to be for Barber a life long endeavour which marked the training of a wide variety of Nigerian artists including Muri Adejimi .Barber remains an accomplished sculptor but is better known in Nigeria for his Landscapes. These landscapes are part invention, part realism and a journey into a realm of possibilities where nothing is exactly what it seems and new stories unfold with closer observation. His landscapes challenge the eye to look beyond the beauty of nature to hidden meanings and sub-texts. But before discovering the underlying meanings there are beautiful landscapes to be enjoyed. Barber paints landscapes with the rare eye of a lover of nature. It is easy to see his reverence for creation in the glory of his landscapes. It is equally easy to be seduced into joining him after seeing these landscapes.

It is easy to deduce that many of the pioneer artists practiced as well as taught art. Many reasons are likely. One of the most likely reasons would be that at the stage of infancy art needed to be nurtured. There were fewer artists then and therefore fewer people to carry the message. This meant that many of the best artists also had to double as art teachers. One of the most prominent art teachers was Irein Wangboje. His teaching career took him from Yaba College of Technology to the University of Ife ,where he started the Ori Olokun workshop , then on to Ahmadu Bello university where he was head of the Department of Fine Arts and a major influence in the artistic direction of the school. He eventually moved to The University of Benin where he rose to the position of Deputy Vice Chancellor.As an artist, Wangboje focused on print making. His prints dealt with contemporary Nigerian society, the complexities of living in the society, gender roles and the inter-relationship between traditional and modern Nigerian cultures.

Another trend that seemed to run through many of the early artists was the concept of art as professional inheritance. Many of the artists like Bruce Onobrakpeya and Ben Enwonwu had fathers who were artists. They in a sense took up their fathers profession. The only difference being that while the older generation where traditional artists the younger generation had formal training and were contemporary artists.

Ben Osawe one of Nigeria s most prominent sculptors had the same lineage. His father was a wood carver in the court of Oba Iweka II in the Benin Kingdom. Growing up he took after his father in his fascination with creating things . At an early age he started moulding with mud at the bank of the river Niger. Shortly after he left for England where he schooled for ten years along the way working with the likes of the famed British sculptor , Henry Moore.In 1960 he represented Nigeria at the Commonwealth art exhibition.On his Return to Nigeria , he worked in Lagos before relocating to Benin , his cultural basis . This move paid off reinvigorating him and giving him access to the great Benin artistic tradition. Osawe’s sculptures are easily recognizable for their fluidity and grace. His sculptures seem like they were meant to be created, as if all he did was to liberate them . His major theme has been the evolving nature of womanhood in Nigeria.Osawe still works in Benin, mainly with wood and bronze.

Bisi Fakeye also comes from a long generation of carvers. His Uncle Lamidi Fakeye was one of the most famous sculptors of the pre-independence era. From an early age he started to work with Lamidi Fakeye, helping him create some of his most famous sculptors including two 6-foot sculptures at the independence exhibition in 1960. Since then he has gained a reputation for his sculptors. Fakeye remains one of the few sculptors to effectively build a bridge between traditional Nigerian art and contemporary art. His art borrows from both to create works that are from the past but a deeply rooted in today’ s world.

Kolade Oshinowo harks back to the old school of teacher and master artist. Without a doubt his style has left an indelible mark on Yaba art as well as all of Nigerian art. He attended the Ahmadu Bello University, where he studied art. On completion he joined the Yaba college of Technology. At Yabatech he took a talented but sleepy art school and turned it into a force in Nigerian art. His style became the major influence on the school and led to a dramatic change of both its style and its culture. He led by example creating an impressive body of work and presenting over 18 solo exhibitions.Interestingly like most great creators Oshinowo has evolved. There is a marked difference between his early works and his present works, representing the infusion of new thoughts and ideas. His major themes have stayed the same. In his works he highlights the life of everyday Nigerians the trials, their hopes, their joys and their despair.

The Osogbo experiment was a workshop held in Osogbo. The plan was to bring together creative people who had not had formal artistic training and give them an opportunity to paint from their innermost core unrestricted by formal artistic conventions. This experiment was to be the beginning of an informal but highly active school- the Osogbo school.David Dale , like Oshinowo graduated from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He has like Oshinowo been an influential force in contemporary art. He is known for his versatility. His etchings, charcoals, beadworks, water colours are all different in approach but bear the trademark subtlety and elegance that have set Dale’s works apart . He continues to be one of the few artists adept at bringing beads to life.

Ahmadu Bello University also produced Joshua Akande at about the same time. Like many artists Akande practiced while he taught. Unlike many he choose to teach in secondary schools bringing art to people at an early age. As an artist Akande has made a mark with his landscapes. His inspiration comes from Zaria where he schooled, the resplendent horse riders, the pomp of the durbar and the picturesque city gates are all recurring themes in his work.

Rufus Ogundele was one of the leading figures in Osogbo art. Before taking part in the experiment he had been an actor with the Ojo Ladipo theatre . After the experiment he stuck to painting, creating works derived from traditional Yoruba culture masquerades , festivals and other cultural activities. His style while abstract and close to the cubist tradition with its flat surfaces style carry a strong African traditional imprint. He is as famous, maybe even more famous, abroad as he is in Nigeria.

Muraina Oyelami was also part of the original Osogbo experiment and like Ogundele a member of the Ojo Ladipo theatre. Like Ogundele his grasp for painting and his keen inner eye was immediately obvious. Unencumbered by the dictates of a formal art education Oyelami went on to create his own variant of the Osogbo style. His style is more subdued yet more expressive. His figures have a haunting quality that has made his works once seen, difficult to forget. Of his lack of formal training Oyelami says: If we had gone to a university or art school , we would not have been able to develop the inner eye so early. Too many things would have been imposed on us and it might have taken us years to free ourselves from that education .


Like Okeke, El Anatsui has been influenced the Nsukka school. He has lectured in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts in Nsukka for many years helping to form a generation of artists interested in discovering their individual paths to artistic expression.Anatsui is also one of Nigeria s most prominent sculptures. His major medium is wood. He doesn t really work on the wood as much as tease an independent life out of the wood. The variety and range of his creations are astonishing.Anatsui was born in Ghana . He trained at the college of art , University of Science and Technology , Kumasi. His works draw from Ghanaian folklore but are broadly African in theme, capturing the spirit of the continent and the effects of colonialism.

Gani Odutokun had a similar effect in Zaria as Anatsui did in Nsukka. A graduate of Ahmadu Bello University Zaria , he went on to teach there.It is difficult to judge where Odutokun was more influential as an artist or a teacher.In his art he seemed peerless . His fluid strokes seemed to have a life of their . He imbued everything he painted with a peculiar rhythm. Even the most mundane these seemed to come to life in his control. But he rarely did everyday themes seeking instead for higher meanings and themes that would capture his thoughts on the society in an unusual way.As a teacher he rejuvenated the Zaria school , giving new impetus to the Zaria ideology and taking them to a school with great history to one that would be at the forefront of history. He died in 1995 in an auto accident but left behind a legacy of Artists he inspired and artworks that will remain the test of true brilliance.

In recent times Nigeria has had an explosion of artists and an increasing interest in art by everyday people. The interest has come because of better education , a more cosmopolitan outlook , more artists and the growth of a new group of artists that have effectively taken over the rein and are creating the new contemporary consciousness .Biodun Olaku learnt from Kolade Oshinowo and has become a master and art influence in his own right. His works are unique in their ability to capture life faithfully yet imbue it with more meaning. Like Turner , many years before him , he is able to capture landscapes and people with a love and compassion that transforms these scenes from mere landscapes to poignant stories about life. Olaku graduated from The Yaba college of Technology in 1981. Today he is a full time artist and has both taught an inspired a wide variety of artists.

Like Olaku , Duke Asidere began by learning from one of the masters, in his case Odutokun and has gone on to create his own style and garner respect and admiration. Asidere studied at The Ahmadu Bello University Zaria. From there he went on to lecture at The Federal Polytechnic Auchi. He is today a full time painter and the creator of some of the most adventurous works in Nigerian art. Like all people who push the borders his works can be difficult to understand for some . For those who do though, there is no question that he is an artist of rare genius. Many of his works deal with the economic , political and cultural collapse of Nigeria.

Etching as an art form in Nigeria has a limited number of practitioners. Many are protégés of Bruce Onobrakpeya, and most have followed his exploration of traditional Nigerian themes.Tony Enebeli , one of Onobrakpeya’s early students has gone down a different path creating works that are more modern and visually accessible. His main media are plastocast and metal foil, and many of his themes derive from his native Ndokwa, their festivals, marriage rites and traditions.His works capture the evolution of the Nigerian society. The fast disappearing traditions are recreated in new, imaginative ways. In his words he seeks to capture that space between the disappearing traditional way of life and the new urban lifestyle.

Hamid Ibrahim graduated from the Federal Polytechnic, Yaba 13 years ago. His themes are reminiscent of the Yaba school – rustic landscapes, fishermen and other everyday people at work and somnolent sea sides. His style though may well be the antithesis of the Yaba style. His colours are bright and energetic and his strokes, dynamic and edgy.Ibrahim whose sole tool is the palette knife because of, he says, its unpredictability has captured Lagos landscapes in a different way. The grass is livelier, the houses are more inviting and, in many cases, the figures are almost insignificant; only there to, like the viewer, behold the beauty of God’s creation.


Dozie Igweze