OF ASSUMPTIONS AND REALITIES: CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES IN CONTEMPORARY NIGERIAN ART
by Kunle Filani
The western assumption that all cultures developed along the same stages ranging from primitive to civilized has been argued by African’s scholars to be untrue. This romantic idea was premised on Darwin’s theory of evolution, professing that all animals developed from the same stages, apexing in man. The anthropological and ethnographic evidence available from Stone Age to Iron Age, thereby violating the European’s order of sequence i.e. stone-bronze-iron ages. This therefore means that culture might not develop along the same line; culture is always in response to the environment. It is important that art historians and critics ensure that the peculiar socio-cultural milieu of a people be the yardstick with which their artistic activities are measured. Artistic criticism solely based on an international context (as defined by the west) may, after all, be myopic and in the present day Africa create a morass of confusion caused by mordant criticism.
“Contemporary Nigerian art” as a phrase has been used interchangeably by scholars with labels such as “Modern Nigerian Art”, “Post-colonial Nigerian Art”, “Twentieth Century Nigerian Art”, and “New Nigerian Art”. As noted by Frank Willet, contemporary Nigerian art is mainly about twentieth century art and the continuing relevance and viability of particular traditions together with emergence of novel practices. Artist of this period are affected by the dynamics of tradition and change; which in the hands of the ingenious resulted in creative synthesis, which also sometimes lead to novelty. The story of contemporary Nigerian art should be told within the context of colonial history. Here were people bombarded by foreign and strange traditions. As artists, the onus was on them to respond to this development. They thereby became fascinated with certain aspects of the foreign culture, while retaining some of their indigenous ways of life. There resulted an admixture of style popularly referred to as “synthesis”. Nigerian artists up till date are still experimenting with the diversity of materials and methods offered by the west. In their curiosity to explore and be unique, they have created distinctive paradigms on which contemporary Nigerian art could be classified.
With the peculiar experience of African artists resulting from diverse social factors such as western education, economy, politics, science, technology and globalization, it will be inauspicious to expect the present. Day crop of artists to be inspired by the same factors as their Europe or American-based counterparts. Therefore, the basis for comparison between Nigerian artists and those in the west should not be on stylistic affinity since the cultures are not developing along the same line. In recent times, many art historians and artists from abroad, including Nigerians who are living in the west have berated practicing artists in Nigeria for being insensitive to the globalization of style. They claim that easel painting is dead, and want the Nigerian artist to be involved in “new” approaches such as installation art. Despite the stringent call for change, their definition of installation is nevertheless vague. They were, however, challenged with equal zeal by Nigerian artists and critics who felt that installation as an approach to art and life had been part and parcel of African culture. They reiterated their argument by insisting that installation, not unlike the beginning of modern art in Europe was inspired by African art. With this line of thought, it is perhaps necessary to take a cursory look at the history of modern European art.
Matters Arising For over five centuries, European art developed along naturalistic tendencies, tracing stylistic development of European art from Renaissance of naturalistic forms. It was only when Pablo Picasso and his contemporaries stumbled on African masks and sculptures that the much needed desire to evolve a new art form in Europe became feasible. This position is plausible when viewed against the back drop of the achievement of the most radical artists of the expressionist group whose major departure from the long tradition naturalism was the geometricization of forms. Yet, Paul Cezzanne’s feat was only child’s play when compared to advances made later by the likes of Picasso, Henry Matisse and George Braque. For the first, it seemed that European artists realized that art may not necessarily be viewed from the angle of vivid realities routed in specific canons of proportion. Until these artists were spurred by the “primitive” and “curious” sculptural works from Africa; which were looted to Europe as either ethnographic finds or as spoils of colonial wars, the tradition of naturalism continued with its attendant conservation in western art.
This really was the beginning of modern art. Now, it seems that once again, the west has found solace in Africa to explore another possibility of conceptual art, which is tagged installation. This is one of the post-modernist excitements in the late 20th century. On a general definition, installation may be explained to mean as ensemble of artistic images, which are arranged in such a way as to suggest creative relationship. The images, which are often art works are usually made from a variety of materials. The ability of mobility is one advantage of installation since the scenario could be assembled in another place at another time. As myth and reality intertwine in traditional African, so are all life experiences. Cultural activities, as manifest in dance, drama, music, poetry and visual arts are all embraced within the ambits of festivities. Thus, a rendition of one will ultimately involve others. For a piece of sculpture to fulfill its potentials, it ought to be situated where songs, recitation and dance are performed. Art in traditional Africa is therefore participatory. It is this participatory tendency of African arts that installation desires to fulfill. Installation in the African artistic sensibility could then be found in shrines where sculptural images made of diverse materials are arranged symbolically. The altar created by such acts becomes functional only when the priest performs relevant rites to complement the images. It has equally been pointed out that the regalia that adorn the frames of institutional personalities such as kings, queens, hunters and priests could be tagged installations since they are constructed with various materials such as beads, metals, gourds, fabrics, stones, cowries, seeds etc; all arranged with conscious or subconscious artistic intent. These ceremonial wears also depict participatory gesture when situated in functional roles.
There are other African installations occasioned by necessity e.g. scarecrows erected to ward of animals in farms, assorted display of colorful wares in local markets, makeshift houses on top of water by fishermen, sacrificial offerings placed at crossroads, and even the madmen’s enclave with its assorted “finds”. In order to genuinely understand this position, we must realize that art is defined first by its form and not by its intent or function. A piece of epa mask is regarded as a sculpture purely because of its artistic form and not for its socio-religious functions. It will therefore be prejudicial and unwarranted to query the intent or purpose of the cited local installations. We are here concerned with the formal structure, which incidentally or designedly satisfy our visual sensibility. If contemporary African artists daily encounter these local installations, should it excite them afresh as inspiration for art the way it may affect a foreigner? Contemporary Nigerian artists would rather continue to react to the varying stylistic possibilities offered by relatively new techniques of painting, printmaking, carving, modeling and designing by using local and foreign materials. The artistic creations of contemporary African artists are stylistically dynamic since they can easily be classified based on form and content. If European art was not tagged conservative having gone through a long tradition of naturalism from Greek classical art, through Italian renaissance and Spanish baroque; climaxing in the French impressionism and German expressionism; one wonders why Eurocentric scholars should decry for instance, the less than hundred years of easel painting in Nigeria.
It is important to stress that it is only those that choose to be blind that will proclaim that there is contextual and stylistic stagnation in contemporary Nigerian art. A brief history of contemporary Nigerian art will expose the viability. Chronology of artistic development in contemporary Nigerian art Many scholars have queried the idea of having a general stylistic trend called “Nigerian art”. They often point to the diversity of traditional and modern art styles in Nigeria. This confirms the claims that Nigerian art seems to have developed along ethnic lines. In view of the fact that each ethnic group in Nigeria has a peculiar artistic and cultural tradition that is enduring, many scholars therefore argued that apart from political and geographical exigencies, most other things especially as they relate to cultural offerings formulated and executed based on ethno-historical Nigeria are marked by distinctive indigenization of forms that reflect ethnic orientations of the artists. This is why the statement made by Williams fagged four decades ago that “there is no Nigerian art but Igbo art, Yoruba art, and Benin art” seems to be plausible today.
This continuity in tradition characterizes contemporary African art and renders irrelevant those who bemoan the death of African art. The classification of contemporary Nigerian art could be historically periodised into three broad eras that reflect creative and conceptual landmarks in 20th century artistic practices. The first phase is the early period (1900s-1940s) which, comprises a continuation of the traditional format with considerable shift in themes to reflect colonial experience. The woodcarving tradition of the Yoruba for example was attuned to satisfy the thematic relevance of colonial with traditional format, but explored new themes. However, the most radical aspect of the early period is pioneering efforts of western trained artists who reacted to the influx of foreign styles, concept, materials and techniques by jettisoning traditional format and embracing naturalistic forms. The effort of Aina Onabolu (1882-1963) in the exploration of figurative representation, has been said to be of significant political activism that debunk what Nkiru Nzegwu called “euro traditionalist position”.
This position assumes that Africans are incapable of naturalistic representation. Other notable compatriots of the early period are Akinola Lasekan, Ngbodaga-Ngu and Chief Akeredolu. The middle period (1940-1970) is characterized by two significant schools; the academic or formal art schools, and the workshop centers or informal art schools Western education afforded many artists to train both abroad and in Nigerian universities; thereby becoming sensitive to both traditional and foreign styles. The unique feature of this period is the formation of admixture of styles popularly referred to as “synthesis”.
This trend seems to have started in the 50s with Ben Enwonwu who trained abroad, but consolidated by the “Zaria rebels” in the persons of Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya , Yusuf Grillo, Demas Nwoko and a few others of their age such as Jimoh Akolo, Solomon Wangboje, Ben Oyadiran, Ayo Ajayi, Ben Osawe and Chuka Amaefuna. In the 60s, many artists were produced both home and abroad, and more tertiary institutions included art training in their curriculum. While the naturalists of the early period waxed stronger and continued to initiate other artist into photographic realism, some more radical artists became interested in the revival of culture and used their art as a weapon to fight racism and colonialism. However, a few years after the 1960 independence, some of the artists produced up to the early seventies became romantic and reverted to exuberant naturalistic style or in synthetic approach included Abayomi Barber, a surrealistic, Agbo Folarin, Chike Aniakor, Erabor Emokpae, Igbuanugo Paul, Kolade Oshinowo, Ibitayo Ojojo, Dele Jegede and Obiora Udechukwu to mention just a few. El Anatsui and Clarry Nelson-Cole who hail from other West African countries indigenized their forms and content within Igbo and Hausa-fulani aesthetics respectively.
While the formally trained artist continued to increase in number, there were other major artists that became important through their unique style of expression, especially those who attended workshops and were trained informally. These workshop center trained artists continued to explore traditional art forms as typical of Lamidi Fakeye, a neo-traditional carver who under Kevin Carroll’s supervision in the late 40s at the Oye-Ekiti workshop became famous. Other workshops with distinctive stylistic development include the Mbari workshops that were conducted by Uli and Georgina Beier in the sixties in Ibadan and later at Oshogbo. Many of the workshop artists especially at Oshogbo were semi-literates and usually artisans who drew upon vernacular culture, folkways and folklores in their narratives, usually figurative forms. Their art form was quite distinct from traditional art and seemed naive when compared to those who were academically trained.
The Ori-Olokun workshop that was set up by Michael Crowther and supervised by Solomon Wangboje in the late sixties and early seventies at Ile-Ife was largely derivative of the Oshogbo experiment. There were other equally competent artists belonging to the period who developed their skills through informal modes of training that have roots in the traditional apprenticeship system. A typical example is Olabisi Fakeye whose sculptures depict a fascinating union of old and new art forms. He is from a long lineage of Ila-Orangun traditional Yoruba carvers. Many artists of Edo origin continued to produce good quality bronze works using the cire-perdue technique of their forefathers. The Igun bronze casters workshop in Benin City is a typical example of the neo-traditionalist training based on apprenticeship system still flourishing up till today. The last phase is the late period (1970s-2000) where more dynamic activities could be witnessed due to the large number of artists produced from numerous tertiary institutions that offer art courses. The phenomenon of stylistic relatedness warranted the classification by “schools”. The graduates of notable institutions, which incidentally were trained by some old master, started recognizing the importance of the group interest.
Trends of artistic forms and stylistic peculiarities of individual art schools were encouraged to be more encompassing for the students and graduates, thereby consolidating an important paradigm of classification. Two distinct stylistic categories identifiable among the schools with specific uniqueness seem to be based on the nature of the curriculum. On the one hand are the University trained artists with their philosophical and conceptual alertness, and on the other hand are the polytechnic artists who excel in the skillful and precise rendition. While art graduates from the Universities engage in contextual and stylistic development, the polytechnic trained artists continued to perfect skills and techniques of the trade. However, because of the number of factors including experiences, maturity and exchange of ideas, many of the artists from the two broad based categories at one point or the other, explore these options in their creative search for relevance. Among the University trained schools are Zaria School”, “Nsukka School”, “Ife School” and “Benin School”.
The names are derived from the location of the institutions. Prominent among the polytechnic trained schools are “Yaba School”, “Auchi School”, and “Enugu School” also representing the location of the colleges. Artists from the university-based schools began to conceptualize contemporary art using traditional elements. They carried the synthesis of older masters, who in some cases taught them at school, to a new horizon of forming interest groups and movements such as the Eye society in Zaria, the Uli influenced Aka group from Nsukka, and the Ona movement with its base in life. They all explored elements, symbols and themes reminiscent of the traditions peculiar to their local and ethnic origins. Most notable among this category are Gani Odutoku, Jerry Buhari, Jacob Jari and Tonie Okpe from Zaria, and Tayo Adenaike, Chris Echeta, Ndidi Dike, Nsikak Essien and Chris Afuba from Nsukka.
Ife school produced artists such as Moyo Okediji, Dan Akatakpo, Kunle Filani, Idowu Otun and Tola Wewe. Those emerging from Benin School are Akin Onipede, Dragg Okwoju, Tony Okonofua and Chike Onuorah. The artists who are polytechnic graduates perfected skills in naturalistic and figurative representation. There emerged specific styles based on sound understanding of proportion and perspective.
The Yaba School is prominent for appropriating the creative melting pot of its Lagos location. The graduates excel in photographic realism and some actually stress our imagination by creating corners of mystery in the treatment of volume and void, both in painting and sculpture. Prominent among the Yaba artists are Biodun Olaku, Tola Filani, Lara Ige-Jack, Edosa Oguigo and Felix Osieme among many others. The Auchi School graduates explore flaming colors in post-impressionist and expressionist manners. Notable among them are Ben Osaghae, Pita Ohiwerei, Sam Ovraiti, and Alex Nwokolo. Olu Amodu and Fidelis Odogwu explore cutting and drawing with hard metal. Along the lane of history, other developments in the visual culture of the people include the growth of traditional industries of pottery, weaving, dyeing, metal casting and calabash decoration all over Nigeria.
The late period manifests characteristics of the entire century, and could said to be a summation of the trends in 20th century art in Nigeria. It is important to know that there are many artists listed under only one of the three phases who actually dovetail into other periods. There is no strict line of demarcation, and some Artists even experiment across the available styles. So many other artists re perhaps equally unique and should fall into the historical classification, but because of space and time are not mentioned in the essay.
The sequential history of contemporary Nigerian art is told to allow for the various political and social influences that impacted on the development of visual arts in the 20th century. It also narrated in chronological order in order to ensure the documentation of major contributors to the creative trends. All these are in the attempt to situate culture in time and place and thereby assert Duane Pebbles statement that “every culture has a cognitive system that keeps it functioning”.
Therefore, art historians and critics should avoid the superfluous problems caused by individuals (and groups) who believe that their own way of seeing and doing things is the way things are. Nigerian artists shall continue to give form of cultural values and ensure physical manifestation of peculiar ideas, experiences, and world view through aesthetics appeal.
National gallery of Art (1998) Uso: Nigerian journal of Art (See Articles by Ola Oloidi, Chike Aniakor,Pat Oyelola, Kunle Filani and William Udosen) vol. 2, no. 1-2. pp. 1-52. NGA, National Theatre, Lagos. Eddie Chambers (2000) see “introduction” to Hybrid, An exhibition by Uche Edochie and Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo; Galleria Romana, Lagos pp. 2-3 Kunle Filani (2000) “Trends in Contemporary Yoruba Art; a delineation by history and styles”. A paper presented by Afrika Heritage 2000, 3rd Biennale of the Pan-African circle of artists in Enugu. Kunle Filani Deputy provost Federal College of Education (technical) Akoka-Yaba, Lagos. November 2000