It took the combination of Messrs Olasehinde Odimayo and Mike Omoighe; the deductive and modular measurement exponent to persuade me to document the role I played in the artist’s boom of the 80s. We were at the time comparing notes and planning the retrospective of Demas Nwoko and our topic of discussion was the distortion prevalent in Nigerian Art History. But all in all, firstly, we agreed that documentation was an absolute necessity in the proper chronicling of Nigeria art history.
Secondly, there is the need to right the wrong misrepresentation. My intention is to spark strong criticism among the legitimate players and get every quiescent one to ‘get up, smell the coffee… and know what time it is’. But, certainly not by the current apathy and indolence I see, but by doing something, no matter how small, by contributing their own side of their experiences to this story. “We need voices such as yours to help us reform this profession of ours because if we don’t let some oxygen in, if we don’t let some air in, we are leaving it,” a common refrain I hear thrown at me from my days as a broadcast media personality. We must attempt to deconstruct the fracture of an object and its fragmentation.
Very few major artists at this time manipulate forms for exclusively artistic purpose. Several deliberately created art that will be accessible to the whole class structure of modern society. In my capacity exchanging the isolation of studio practice for the human relationships of the trenches was a plunge I had to take. Indeed, this will enable us put the lessons of the Nigerian art history on a right perspective.
Thirdly, in many ways, I feel that it is my obligation to history and to young upcoming artists – even those still in school – to call for honesty and change and at the very least, to get a debate going. I deliberately intend to spark a debate to correct an obvious cultural misnomer. Considering the place of elders in our cultural hegemony, the norm now is that years of professional practice have had to be relegated to the back burner in place of ‘grey hairs’ that may never have held a paint brush for one day since graduation. It appears that some collectors and opportunists are going to art schools to resurrect names of past students of several decades’ even though they may not have practiced since their graduation.
Artists emerged as well as new notions. And certainly not by any manipulation. Themes and styles ranged from the bizarre, the political to the notorious. The end prompted interpretations from over simplification to avant-garde. Some work offered conventional vision behind a lens of novelty to find emulators rapidly than more thoroughly radicalistic oeuvre. But the release of that addictive sip is seen as collectors and the viewing public trooped to every exhibition venue to be assailed by geometric crispness, violent harmony and the latent taste for the sublime.
I have for the sake of this reproduced Ben Enwonwu’s letter to the Editor of West Africa of July 21,1956 in response to Cyprian Ekwensi:“A New Movement in Art” is generally a result of an artistic revolution, or of an aesthetic rebirth, whose principles are becoming, or have an accepted artistic creed of the age. It is generally begun by a new school of thought; whose basic ideals are philosophical. In other words, such a movement consists of practicing artists, critics, art lovers, writers and others who are lovers of art, propagating an artistic language that is new, as a guide of new art style and forms of expression…”
Names of practicing artists at that time are:
Mike Omoighe, Edwin Bebeteidoh Debebs, Emma Ikoro, Sam Ovraiti, Kent Onah, Ini Brown, Olu Ajayi, Austine Ike Omeke, Olu Amoda, Tony Okujeni, Jude Eseurhobo, Pita Ohiwerei, Osazuwa Osagie (enfant terrible), and then known for his vicious and ferocious cartoons against the ruling junta.
The Benin School
Ayo Elebute, John Onobrakpeya, Fred Akpomuje, El-Dragg Okwuoju, Akinwale Onipede, Jude Ovie-Wilkey and Cyril Odidison.
The Ife School
Kunle Filani, Wehinmi Atigbi, C.S.A. Akran, Mufu Onifade, Idowu Otun, Njideka Ezenwa, Peter Coker, Donatus Akatakpo, Sola Ogunfuwa and Ekpo (a cartoonist).
Lagos or Yaba School
Abiodun Olaku, Felix Osiemi, Olubunmi Babatunde George, late Alexander Ayodeji Shyngle, Kehinde Sanwo, Kunle Adeyemi, Albert Ohams, late Muyiwa Collins, Tayo Quaye, Tunde Olanipekun, Biodun Oladewa, Omolara Ige, Tolu Filani, and Charles Ikeh.
Eastern axis: IMT and the Nsukka School
Nsikkak Essien, Obiora Anidi, Tunde Soyinka, Olu Oguibe, Ndidi Dike, Chike Aniakor, Emecheta, Bona Ezeudu, Chinwe Uwatse, Tunde Soyinka, and the Aka group.
Informal: The Oshogbo Art School
Rufus Ogundele, Taiwo Olaniyi, aka Twins Seven Seven, Jimoh Buraimoh Nike Davis-Okundaye, Femi Ogundipe, aka Femi Johnson, and Mike Togbe, etc.
There were those who we could not classify by the time of going to press like Abiodun Anako, Henrie Moweta, and Ossie Ogwo, a cartoonist in The Guardian Newspapers.
Hassan Aliyu, Joe Musa, Ephraim Ekah, Lateef Sulaimon, Rukeme Noserime, Abraham Uyovbisere, Livi Onyia, Akin Afuwape, Cornel A. Agim, Murphy M. Ajayi, Richard Baye, Jerry Buhari, Matthew Ehizele, R.B. Fatuyi, Tonie Okpe, Esther Onyilo, Mau’zu Sanni, Tony Sharp (British), Ms. Stella Mordi, nee Ikemefuna, Duke Asidere, The two Inyang blood brothers, Edwin and Nse Abasi, aka, Sexxo.
The dealers, brokers and middlemen
The art bug beat a few people. And they became those who you could say were on the driver’s seat. Gabriel Tombini, Cultural Attaché of the Italian Embassy was certainly one. But his focus and choice were centred more on the eastern axis artists. Renate Abertsen-Marton was the key person, then as the deputy director, at Goethe Institut, Lagos. And Goethe Institut was very and still supportive of the Oshogbo School.
Ms. Kate Southey a staff of the Lagos National Museum was unmistakable and very much around as a broker. She resigned from the National Museum, Lagos to pursue the business of art as a full time dealer. Martins O. Akanbiemu was the then the Curator of the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos. His exhibiting rules in the National Museum were so friendly that it became the first point of call for any artist interested in showing. The National Museum, a Federal institution you will find from its records had the busiest period of visual art patronage in its annals of existence during this timeframe. The pendulum of art swung around the National Museum, the Italian Embassy, the Goethe Institut and the National Gallery of Art and a few private galleries like Didi Museum.
Some dealers on the scene were Susan Craig of Tropical Art Centre. Other entrants in art dealership at this time were Afolabi Kofo – Abayomi, Olasehinde Odimayo and Dele Odelola of the Young Masters Arts Trust, then located at Surulere, Lagos. The raison d’entre as the name connotes began to be polarised and compromised at some point. These three personalities eventually broke up and rode the whirlwind roughshod successfully as lone rangers. A shrewd art dealer, Lesley Ukajiagbe was a constant at Sheraton Hotel lobby.
Other names like Sam Ekeledo, popularly called Sokky, (the Art and Entertainment Editor of Vanguard Newspaper who resigned and turned to International Art Dealership dealing on Nigerian Contemporary Visual Art), Ms. Queenette Diete-Spiff, and Tony Ogunfere (an accountant) all emerged. I dragged in these last three names into this rumble. Tony was a staff of the multinational, SCOA and his boss was Folusho Phillips. A rather very quiet and reserved gentleman, he could not but be fascinated by our passion. He never complained once, he constantly saw four young vibrant and vivacious fellows, in their twenties; Sokky, Queen, Tony and Joe talking art to him, he eventually permitted us the use of his expansive Ikoyi G.R.A. residence to hold art saloons. This is how the foursome dragged Folusho Phillips in and today; he is promoting Nigeria visual art internationally as a hobby. The four fellows went on to form the now famous “Merchants of Aesthetics Ltd” a phrase we heard from Demas Nwoko, one of Nigeria greatest visual artists and architects.
A couple of media actors were there too, The Guardian Newspaper stable had, Sunmi Smart-Cole, Jahman Anikulapo, Ms. Toyin Ogunsakin, Tunde Olanipekun: Lampex of Baffles Gallery (He resigned from The Guardian after a while to pursue his Gallery business), Ben Tomoloju, Paschal Anyaso, Basil Chukwuezi, Michael Ebonugwo (of Lagos Life) Uche Nelson, Omowunmi Solarin, Boniface Akpan and Gbile Oshadipe.
Punch Newspaper had Joe Dudun, Abiola Olagbemi and Femi Akintude-Johnson. From Vanguard Newspaper stable was Supo Owoduni. The Daily Times had Adamson Momoh, Kodilinye Obiagwu, Ben Duru and Bello (Evening Times), Dan Egeonu (Sunday Times), Aloysius Ibeabuchi. Newswatch Magazine had Ms. Ajan Agbor. Daily Champion Newspaper had Alvan Ewuzie and Ike Ezeani. Times International Magazine had late Aliyu Momoh and Samuel Odamo.
Thisday Newspaper had Oji Onoko: He published a book on the major players of this period that traverse the art-scape from music to poetry and the other genres. He titled it, Glimpses of our Stars.
And from the National Concord stable were Richard Mofe-Damijo, late Osita Ike and Osazuwa Osagie. African Concord had Funsho Ogunlade; Quality Magazine had Ben Nwanne and Tokunboh Francis. African Guardian had Dili Ojukwu, Humphrey Bekaren. The New Frontier Magazine had Ms. Funmi Jibowu, The Financial Post Augustine Njoagwani and Ms. Joyce Osakwe. Classique had Kunle Bakare. Etc. The Republic Newspapers: Edmund Enaibe
The intention of this story is this crop of the mix – players; the artists, the dealers, the writers, art historians, critiques, and the art schools and how they brazenly re-jigged the present artistic development in the Nigerian Art scene. What was irregular and most uncommon is the effect of solidity and weight conveyed by geometric forms in the works of this period. While transparent volumes dissipated in a mass of concentric forms, their dispersal rather than the concentration of these volumes across the represented space created the distinction in the tactile effects and the final appearances. These constructed new forms synthesized plain colours into bizarre results.
Note: An excerpt from Joe Musa’s soon to be released book on Nigerian art. Musa was at a time Director General of National Gallery of Art (NGA)