Returning to the UNESCO Category II Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (CBCIU) in Osogbo, Osun State, after many years, one felt some sadness at the state of the place. An intricately carved monolithic wood, once celebrated as the tallest talking drum in the world, was now cracked and bent. Even its base seemed to have given way. “Did it sink?” someone asked, expecting no reply. There were signs of emergency bush clearing all over the facility. The buildings told their own stories of neglect and disrepair.
It was hard to believe that this was the same centre that was launched with much fanfare in 2009. A plaque in front of the Administrative Block showed that the building was commissioned in January of that year by the then Director General of UNESCO, Koichiro Matsuura. The centre had in 2010 played host to two major international conferences: The Colloquium on Slavery, Slave Trade and its Consequences; and the First Global Conference of Black Nationalities. It also organized conferences in countries including: Cuba, Brazil and the United States.
Then came a downturn in the fortunes of the centre, owing to a deadlock involving two Board Chairmen and two Osun State Administrations under two political parties. The former governor of the state, Olagunsoye Oyinlola who midwifed the establishment of the centre, was Chairman until Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka was appointed to the role by the current governor, Rauf Aregbesola. In the tussle between these elephants, the CBCIU was the grass that suffered, and the place fell into disuse.
The first signal that things were about to change came recently, when the centre reopened its doors for a major celebration of 50 years of Osogbo Art. In one building, artworks comprising mostly pieces by the two most famous living exponents of Osogbo Art – Muraina Oyelami and Jimoh Buraimoh – were on display. Preparations seemed tentative at first, as finishing touches were being put on the exhibition.
Things kicked into gear with the arrival of Oyinlola ahead of time. “As the Chairman of the centre, it will be absolutely out of tune for me not to arrive early enough to see the settings and the preparations towards the execution of the programme,” he declared. Formerly of the then ruling PDP, he is now in the same party (APC) as the current Osun Governor, and the two have managed to broker a deal that allows the CBCIU to have a new lease of life. Oyinlola gave some background, saying: “There was a lacuna in the running of the place. And by the time I had the consent of the governor to return to my centre, I came here and found what I will regard as a wilderness.”
Asked what led to the said lacuna, he replied: “The problem was that there was a huge misunderstanding and misconception about the whole thing.” According to him, he and the current governor had not properly interacted for broader understanding as to the centre’s essence and status. “But fate has brought us together and I have had the opportunity of telling him what led to the establishment and the commitment of UNESCO, the Nigerian Government and Osun State Government to the centre. It is on that score that we were able to agree on the need to let the centre live,” Oyinlola concluded.
Chief Muraina Oyelami also shared stories of the early days of Osogbo Art. He recounted how the German linguist, Ulli Beier and his first wife, Susanne Wenger (later known as Adunni Olorisha, priestess of Osun) got disillusioned with the expatriate lifestyle at the University College Ibadan. So, Beier designed an Extra Mural Studies programme that took him to all over the South West, interacting with the locals. The couple ended up in Osogbo, where Beier struck up a friendship with the theatre impresario, Duro Ladipo. And so began a highly successful artistic collaboration. “Duro Ladipo owned a drinking joint called Popular Bar” – a haunt for Beier, and the two started the Mbari Mbayo culture club.
The Osogbo Art movement was born, and the first participants were drawn from Ladipo’s theatre group. Workshops were organized by Beier and his second wife, Georgina, with international artists as facilitators. Oyelami recalled that: “The most successful workshop was that of 1964 with myself, Jimoh Buraimoh, Twins Seven Seven, Adebisi Fabunmi, Rufus Ogundele and Jacob Afolabi.” Further training took place on the first floor of the palace of the Ataoja, traditional ruler of Osogbo. “The Ataoja then was so friendly, so kind and so understanding that he allowed the use of that part of the palace.”
The discovery of Twins Seven Seven would become a romanticized episode of the Osogbo School. According to Oyelami, “He happened to come by accident. We were having this get together for one Prof. Michael Crowder who was going to transfer to Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone. We were [rehearsing for] the Festival of Arts in Berlin in 1964.” Twins crashed in on the group. “The guy was actually a dancer for a local medicine seller, so he jumped onstage in the arena and started making some fantastic movements. Ulli (Beier) was carried away. In order that we would find him when we returned from Germany, we lured him into staying around Mbari.” They bought him musical instruments, including an acoustic guitar, which he didn’t yet know how to play.
Decades later, Beier’s son, Tunji, played his talking drum at the 2009 opening of the CBCIU in Osogbo. Ulli Beier passed away in Australia in 2011, but his archives which were slated for Osogbo, are still in Germany. Oyinlola placed the blame at Soyinka’s door: “He wrote some letters that gave the Bayreuth institution that is digitalizing the archival material an impression that all was not well at home.”
The centre is now looking to the future. Oyelami will coordinate the Administrative Office and, together with Buraimoh, will facilitate workshops for students, aspiring artists and other culture workers. The focus is on passing on skills and the love of arts, crafts and culture to the next generation. The centre has also acquired Duro Ladipo’s artefacts for preservation and scholarship.