14 Jun JIMOH AKOLO AND HIS LONESOME ROAD TO RECOGNITION

For Jimoh Bola Akolo, the choice was simple. It was between the pursuit of ideology and the ideals of the actual art practice. So, he chose the latter. Thus, he was said to have ended his membership of the Zaria Art Society – “for personal reasons” – after only three months. For the record, the 87-year-old used to be one of the leading members of the 1961 set of the Zaria-based Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST). This would make him a contemporary of such leading Zaria Art Society members as Yusuff Cameron Grillo, the late Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Emmanuel Okechukwu Odita and Demas Nwoko.

Nonetheless, designs and patterns, which are reminiscent of Hausa architecture and art, would be discovered in the works that he produced during a short-lived experiment shortly after he graduated from the NCAST. This was despite his reticence towards the society’s “Natural Synthesis” ideology. It was in an attempt to decode this apparent aesthetic lurch towards local motifs that the Prince University professor of art history Chika Okeke-Agulu in his book, Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria, conjectures a likely sympathy to the cause espoused by his former colleagues. Even so, records attest to the artist’s unwavering adherence to the principles of individual artistic freedom, which is not necessarily mutually exclusive with his commitment to a distinctly Nigerian contemporary aesthetic canon. “I don’t think there should be any rules guiding African artists,” he was quoted to have said in an interview with the late Ugandan playwright and novelist Robert Serumaga. “They should do what they like. They are supposed to create. They don’t have to be told what to think.” 

Indeed, the artist whom the late German-born editor, writer and scholar Ulli Beier had – in a review of Nigeria’s Independence Exhibition – described as the “coolest formalist among them”, was renowned for his stylised representational style, which would later find resonance in the works of such notable artists as Kolade Oshinowo, Edosa Oguigo, Alimi Adewale and Abiodun Olaku. His depictions of everyday life scenes are rendered in loose brushstrokes of matt, yet intense, colours.

Not even being left out in the Zaria Art School narratives seems to have denied him recognition in the art circles. For instance, the sale of one of his paintings “An Algaita Player” for £10,625 at a 2018 Bonhams African Modern and Contemporary Art Auction was not a mere fluke since several of his works have been sold for respectable prices during the auction’s previous editions. 

Akolo’s proficiency in painting was already evident in 1951 even before his NCAST years. Back then, he was a student at Keffi Boys Secondary School and had won several awards in painting at the Northern Regional Festival of Arts. This explains why his works were included in an exhibition held in 1956, which featured paintings and prints by Keffi Boys, at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, USA.

Granted that the artist later returned in 1966 to the tertiary institution, which later became the Ahmadu Bello University, as a member of the Education Faculty, this only broadened his scope of influence. This was as he helped reshape the faculty for greater efficiency. 

This explains why he was also acknowledged for both his academic and administrative roles during an exhibition held in his honour in 2019 by the National Gallery of Art. Displayed at that exhibition, which was graced by dignitaries from all walks of life, were some of his drawings and paintings, which included “Plant Life Series” 1, “The Model”, “Horn Blower” and “Test of Manhood”.

Okechukwu Uwaezuoke