Text for The Master’s Exhibition Catalogue 2018 by Mydrim Gallery
Masters as Servants
There are no masters here. Not in a conventional sense, anyway. These are not wondrous, other-worldly beings floating in a bubble of their success.
No, these are no masters. These are servant, when you think about it.
They have toiled to build the foundation that our contemporary art has grown upon. They have inspired. They have taught. They have encouraged. They have served, continuously and diligently.
They are all quite different in their histories and their ideas, yet similar in the nature of their influence. Each is a mix of two strands – the creator, producing ground-breaking art and the catalyst, fostering a process of artistic growth that spreads far beyond their sphere of influence.
Zaria: cohesion and rebellion
In 1961, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Yusuf Grillo and Uche Okeke graduated from The Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University) in Zaria. They had, over the course of their student days, decided on a particular philosophical direction for their art. They would embrace the tools of modern art but would explore Nigerian, rather than Western expressions of their art. This was far more than a decision about technique. This idea, ‘natural synthesis’ as they called it, was at its core a choice about national identity and societal growth. This was a blueprint for self-affirmation for the artist and his society; a process of taking what was best in us as a people and adding what we needed from the outside world to create a better, more enduring version of ourselves.
Each artist would pursue this vision in a different way.
Bruce Onobrakpeya moved to Lagos to teach art at St. Gregory’s College. While he taught in the school he struggled to find a direction for the expression of his art. He moved from painting to print-making and discovered new ways to express his ideas in cast, foil and engraving . He then returned to Urhobo mythology to unearth the great myths that defined his people. Urhobo and Benin culture became a constant source material for his art. These myths, legends and other cultural ideas became the tools he would use to express the great traditions of our national past and present — a rich heritage that conveyed a sense, not just of a rich past, but a hopeful future.
He eventually left the college to become a full time studio artist. He set up his studio in Lagos and assembled a group of young artists to understudy him. Some of them like David Dale would become teachers and great artists in their own right. Many would understand his tools and employ these tools to create their own stories about their cultures.
Yusuf Grillo moved to Lagos, to the Federal College of Technology, Yaba. He carried with him his own version of the Nigerian truth. His art captured life in Lagos with the familiarity of a person who knew the city intimately – which he did. He had been born in Lagos and had grown up there. His eye for everyday scenes and people would inspire a generation of artists to look more closely at events and people around them. His palette was distinctive, challenging his audience to see these sights differently.
Grillo did not just inspire artists, he taught them as well. He would work for many years setting up the foundation of the Yaba art school, not just teaching the students but ensuring that the school had the right structure to constantly challenge the students to find their own vision.
Expanding the scope – Barber, Anatsui, Oshinowo, Odutokun
The seventies and eighties were radically different from the sixties. The sixties had the intoxicating fumes of independence to drive it. There was the need for assertiveness. The seventies and eighties had a more comfortable sense of belonging. The task was to conceptualize, grow and express.
Across Nigeria, some artists were leading this charge for artistic growth.
Barber since the early seventies has created quirky, surrealistic landscapes and portraits. He has also created an impressive variety of naturalistic sculptures, starting with his early sculptures of Obafemi Awolowo, who he would be inextricably linked with, having created Awolowo’s images over a period of time. His artworks have defined him as an important figure in Nigerian art. His teaching has defined him as an inspirational figure – a man who would define a school of thought and imprint his methods on a variety of students who didn’t just learn from him but were inspired to find their own version of his ideas. Each one would be different but most would share his love for the surreal.
Barber was born in 1928. His early years were spent in Ife and Ibadan before moving to Lagos to work in a variety of roles as a graphic artist in advertising, a thorn wood carver, a part-time jazz musician, an artist for the Awo Rerin children’s comic book and a researcher for the Yoruba Historical Society in Ibadan.
He eventually moved to the UK on the sort of scholarship that suited his wandering spirit – a scholarship to do whatever he wanted: study when he wanted, visit galleries and museums and create a bronze statue of Awolowo. He returned to Nigeria in 1971 to join the University of Lagos where he set up what would become known as the Abayomi Barber School – a forum for educating and inspiring a cadre of surrealist painters.
Anatsui was born in Ghana in 1944 and studied art at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Arts and Science, Kumasi. He moved to The University of Nigeria, Nsukka to lecture, and expanded on the existing ideas about cultural exploration, focusing on Uli, Nsibidi and Adinkra motifs.
He would from an early stage appropriate every day living objects, create new meanings for them that didn’t exactly diminish the old meaning of these objects but, in fact, relied on these old meaning to create a loop of emotional and spiritual connections between histories and cultures.
His early sculptures used the wooden trays of the market women of Ghana. He would work with clay as well and then go on to create burnt wood panels. More recently he has created large, amorphous sculptures made of bottle tops. It might seem like a wide range of media over decades, but on some level there is a striking similarity between all the forms – a fundamental link with everyday objects, a link with used objects transformed, yet retaining the spirit imbued by human interaction.
Oshinowo studied at The Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He joined the teaching staff of King’s College in 1972. By 1973, Yusuf Grillo had persuaded him to teach part-time at the Yaba College of Technology. He was assigned to teach the pictorial composition class on Tuesdays. He would teach that class on Tuesdays for the next 34 year. He joined the art department as a full-time lecturer in 1974.
His mission was to teach his student to be artists. This went beyond just painting or sculpting. It encompassed their ideas about their profession and their role in society. He wanted his student to learn from an early stage to respect their calling. This, for him, was the first step to being an excellent artist. He would share his work habits as well. He was a prolific painter, capturing the everyday lives of the people around him – traders, cobblers, mechanics, people leading everyday lives – with warmth and compassion. He also explored the evolving urban landscapes of cities like Lagos and Abeokuta.
His style, his discipline and his strong ideas about conduct would remain a part of the DNA of the Yaba School.
In 1995, Gani Odutokun lost his life in a car accident on his way back to Zaria from Lagos where he had attended a workshop. He was a lecturer in the Fine Arts department of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria at the time. But he was more than just a lecturer, he was also the inspiration and the soul of the group of artists that worked and taught with him, and the students who learnt from this group.
Odutokun was born in Ghana in 1946 where he lived until he was 19. He moved back to Nigeria, joined the Fine Arts department of The Ahmadu Bello University and eventually became a lecturer in the department in 1976. He painted the Zaria landscape, he painted his abstract pieces, he painted his kings and queens; and underpinning this output was a constant questioning about life and art.
He appreciated contradictions. A key idea in his art was his belief that life was a constant merger of happenstance and design. To achieve this tension in his art he discarded the easel. He preferred to liquidise his paint and set it free on the canvas. It would create its own pattern and find its own direction. He would then add his touches. He was acutely aware of injustice in the wider society. His ‘king and queen’ series explored the insanity of Nigerian leadership at the time and the delusion of the rulers surrounded by their courtiers.
His life like his art was a mix of accident and design. The event of his passing was sudden and unexpected — an accident of life. Yet his design on that accident, his deep influence on Nigerian art, endures.
Oshogbo – A seed and a city – Oyelami, Buraimoh, Okundaye
In 1964, Ulli and Georgina Beier organised the first of a series of art workshops to encourage young Nigerian artists. The Mbari-Mbayo art workshop in Oshogbo encouraged creative young people who had no formal art education to explore the visual arts. Oyelami, Ogundele, Fabunmi and Buraimoh were among the first set of students in this workshop. This small workshop would be the beginning of the journey for these artists. It would also be the beginning of the cultural journey for the town itself. Oshogbo would from this point on evolve to a centre of art and culture.
In 1963, the twenty-three year old Muraina Oyelami was an actor with the Duro Ladipo theatre group. A year later, he would became a visual artist in Oshogbo. He would go on to study theatre, teach African music and travel the world sharing the nuances of the Yoruba talking drum. Different worlds for some, but for Oyelami it seemed like one world drawn from the same source and only expressed in a variety of ways.
Oyelami embraced art enthusiastically. He explored his rich Yoruba culture — the folklore, festivals and myths. But he was also a contemplative artist from the beginning, embracing his own personal ideas and expressing these ideas in his art. He would paint the myths of Yoruba culture. He would also paint the faces of young Yoruba women conveying through these faces his ideas about innocence, growth, dedication and more. His landscapes would express his ideas about development, urbanization and inequality. He evolved a nuanced, almost translucent approach that connected to his Oshogbo roots but was uniquely his.
Buraimoh started his working life as a lighting technician with the Duro Ladipo theatre before joining the art workshop. Maybe childhood days spent working with his mother who was a raffia weaver prepared him for a life of putting objects together. He did not have great expectations when he signed up for the Mbari-Mbayo workshop along with 50 or so other young men curious about the new art workshop. Maybe he might become adept at painting backdrops for the theatre, he thought.
The workshop, however freed a latent desire for visual expression in him. This expression followed the path of many of the early Oshogbo artists, exploring Yoruba culture and mythology.
From his start working with oil and Lino print, he would go on to explore beads as a means of expressing his ideas. Beads were common in Yoruba design, used mainly to embellish head gears, stools and other objects. They hadn’t been used in contemporary art before though. Buraimoh’s ability to borrow this design element, reconfigure it and employ it in a new way broadened his horizon, enabling him to create artworks that were profound, yet warm and playful.
He would go on to teach and influence a new generation of artist beyond the Oshogbo circles teaching in the United States in the Nineties before returning to Nigeria to continue the process of creating artworks, encouraging younger artists and passing on the vision of Oshogbo.
Okundaye has had an enduring influence in contemporary art in Nigeria, creating art herself, inspiring artists and creating the right environment for artistic growth. She was born in 1951 in Ogidi and moved to Oshogbo where she immersed herself in the process of Adire creation.
In her art, she would merge her knowledge of batik, her understanding of Oshogbo ideas and her personal vision. She remains a singular inspiration for many artists.
Creating and transferring traditions – Bisi Fakeye, David Dale
For many years, Bisi Fakeye served as a channel from the past to the future. His sculptures told the story of the histories, beliefs and customs of the past intertwined with the modern.
He came from a long line of sculptors and told their stories, as well as his. He was the link, carrying the traditions of wood-carving that pre-dated contemporary art, absorbing and adapting these ideas and transferring them to a new generation of sculptors.
Dale was born in 1947 in Nigeria of a British father and a Nigerian mother. He moved to The United Kingdom at an early age and would eventually return to Nigeria to complete his secondary education at St. Gregory’s College, Lagos. He would meet Bruce Onobrakpeya, then the art teacher at the college who would encourage his interest in art.
He graduated from Ahmadu Bello University in 1971, worked with Onobrakpeya for a few years before setting up his own studio. He would go on to practice art, explore advertising and teach part-time at the University of Lagos in the eighties.
Many of his early artworks are done in the lino engraving and foil methods that Onobrakpeya practiced. Dale would go beyond print-making though to master an impressive variety of media including coloured beads, charcoal, water colour and stained glass. His art explored the energy and variety of urban life in Lagos. His lines were sparse, eliminating superfluous adornment. He told his stories simply but unforgettably.
These artists have persisted awhile. They have endured the early periods of Nigerian contemporary art when to be an artist was not quite as alluring as it is today. They have endured the difficulties of surviving and thriving as artists. Their brilliance and perseverance have been the foundation for the growth of our contemporary art.
We celebrate them knowing that they still serve us everyday — working, teaching, inspiring.