Visitors during the opening of the exhibition in Lagos
When Osogbo school emerged in the early 1960s, two crucial landmarks in Nigerian art lexicon were recorded: the potency of native content in creative expressions and a coincidence on the eve of the country’s transition from modern to contemporary art.
In celebrating 50 years of Osogbo phenomenon, the event would highlight a group of artists, who are modernists by career path, but excelling in contemporary period.
That trajectory of building a link between two periods of a nation’s art, which the artists of Osogbo informal school holds, has become a reference point. And 50 years on, it is worth celebrating while also introspecting into its hold on 21st Century contemporary art texture.
On the walls of Thought Pyramid Art Centre, Ikoyi, Lagos, where the works of five of the Osogbo artists are currently showing as Vision of the Last Quarter art exhibition, an emission of vast creative skills woven in historic fabric fills the air.
Organised by Thought Pyramid Art Centre, in partnership with Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (CBCIU), Osogbo, the exhibition continues the celebration of 50 years of Osogbo Art, which started last year.
The celebration took off from Osogbo and stopped over at Thought Pyramid, Abuja, late last year.
As at the period when Nigerian modern art, fathered by Aina Onabolu (1882-1963), was breathing new energy of modernists, German scholar, Uli Beier (1922-2011) unearthed huge talents of informal arts haven in Osogbo and its environs.
And before the Nigerian contemporary period set in at the next dawn, an army of artists(es), whose inspirations were fired by several workshops, organised by Beier and his partner, Georgina, have been born.
The beneficiaries, who were largely artisans and cultural performers, would later be known as Osogbo Artists.
Among such professionals whose works, in the past four decades, transcend the art landscape of Africa and beyond, are the artists of Vision of the Last Quarter: Muraina Oyelami, Jimoh Buraimoh, Rufus Ogundele, Adebisi Fabunmi and Twins Seven Seven.
At the left side of Thought Pyramid’s ground floor gallery space are bead paintings of Buraimoh, while on the opposite lie Ogundele’s paper works of oil paintings. Likewise, Twins Seven Seven and Fabunmi share the same opposite space further down the gallery. Ogundele, in streetscape and portraiture, expresses proficiency in stylised pseudo-cubism, with typical native content draughsmanship.
In mostly works that span two years: 2014 – 2016, Buraimoh’s signature of bold lines, either in figural or architectural depiction, keep the gallery wall loaded. Fabunmi’s monochrome of signs and motifs on canvas re-enacts native Yoruba adire textile aesthetics.
Mounted at a corner of the gallery are Oyelami’s mastery of old architecture paintings, mostly on boards. The artist’s paintings keep renewing the glory of Osogbo modern and contemporary era with works that are as old as 10 years and as new as 2018.
For a landmark exhibition such as Vision of the Last Quatre comes the gathering of uncommon opportunity, particularly for the living among the exhibiting artists.
However, this landmark exhibition appears not to have adequately captured the five decades’ focus of the gathering.
Despite the fact that the gallery statement says “the exhibition looks at the evolution of Osogbo art from the 1960s till date,” something was actually missing.
For example, the works on display would have been richer with pieces as old as the late 1960s through 1970s to really reflect “the evolution of Osogbo art,” as the gallery statement says.
For the purpose of the exhibition, such old works should have been included, at least on loan from collectors. In fact, exhibitions such as this provide opportunity for any of the exhibiting artists to also share some of their personal collections of old works for retrospection. Oldest pieces of works on display at the exhibition are from the late Seven Seven, and dated between 1987-1989.
The evolution of Osogbo Arts is, however, captured in the text of the Gallery Statement. “The project was meant to be an experiment that would challenge the formal western education model considered by their patrons to be a contamination with western civilisation”, founder of Thought Pyramid, Jeff Ajueshi, writes.
“As a prerequisite for admission into the experiment or workshop, those that were gathered possessed the minimum primary school certificates.”
Ajueshi explains the role of CBCIU in the exhibition, from the centre’s background of
the study and promotion of art in Africa, saying, “It is only right that the centre heralds the celebration of 50 years of Osogbo Art.”
And placing the sobriquet ‘Osogbo Art’ in the Nigerian contemporary art context, it is not likely that the younger generation of artists from that tradition would blur the line as much. For example, artists of the later Osogbo breeds from Suzanne Wenger end of the experimental workshops – known as Grove Artists – appear to be injecting little contemporary textures in their works.
Oyelami was born in Iragbiji, then Western Region), Nigeria, in 1940. His arts career positions him as a visual artist and performing artiste. He is well versed in musical and theatre performance, particularly of Yoruba native content.
His experience outside Nigeria include Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, Staatlichen Kunsthalle, Berlin, Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC, and Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, among others.
Ogundele was born in Osogbo in 1946. In 1963, he participated in DenisWilliams workshop organised by Ulli and Georgina Beier. His profile traces the evolution of his current state of art from when he started working on large-scale surfaces by applying emulsion paint.
He would later develop his skills into printmaking, using linocut technique under the guidance of Georgina.
The only surviving child of seven sets of twins, Seven-Seven, who died at 67 in 2011, was born as Prince Taiwo Olaniyi Oyewale-Toyeje Oyelale Osuntoki. He was an itinerant performing artiste and later one of the beneficiaries of Mbari Mbayo workshop conducted by Beier and Georgina, which led him to be a visual artist in Osogbo.
Fabunmi was born in Takoradi, Ghana, in 1945. He moved to Osogbo as a young man and attended a workshop under Georgina from where he made history as one of the Osogbo Artists.
Though known for his linocut prints, Fabunmi also worked in other media such a oil paints and painting on wool and yarn. Fabunmi has largely taken traditional Yoruba images as his subjects.
Some of his solo art exhibitions were held in Nigeria and Kenya. In fact, he had what his bio describes as ‘a major retrospective in Bayreuth, Germany, in 1989′. His work, the artist’s bio adds, has been included in group exhibitions in London, New York, Vienna, and Prague among others.
Buraimoh was born in Osogbo, (Western Region), Nigeria, in 1943. He has been described as one of the most influential artists to emerge from the 1960s Osogbo Experimental Art workshops. He is among the distinguished artists permanently displayed at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington, DC.
Beier was no doubt an icon in the evolution of Osogbo Art. During his last visit to Nigeria in 2005, there came an opportunity to share a broader perspective of his activities with this writer.
The 2005 encounter was at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State. Beier recalled that it was not just about visual art, but culture in general: some of the performing artists who were brought to broader public glare through workshops were Yemi Elebuibon, late Oyin Adejobi, Tidjani Mayakiri, Ademola Onobonokuta and Lere Paimo.
However, the workshops for the visual artists, he noted, were made much easier when his partner Georgina joined him. Beier insisted that the workshop initiative was never “meant to teach the artists” but to motivate them.
In 1949, Wenger, a lady who would later become Beier’s partner, met the linguist in Paris. Beier and Wenger came to Nigeria, settled in Ibadan and later moved to Ede, where she also started inspiring artisans and helped enrich their art skills through the Yoruba traditional religion. Wenger, an Austrian-born artist, who adopted Nigeria as home and became a high priestess in Osogbo, died in the ancient town on January 12, 2009. She was aged 93.
More interestingly, four decades after Beier and his partner, Georgina, left Osogbo, the seed of cultural renaissance planted has grown into another dimension: the setting up of UNESCO Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (CBCIU) in Osogbo, which was commissioned on Wednesday, January 7, 2009; it houses works of the Beiers. Some of the couple’s works returned by Beier during the commissioning of the centre are books, posters and photographers.
Some of the guests at the opening of the exhibition on Friday, March 30, 2018 commended the Osogbo artists, praising their contributions to the development of contemporary art in Nigeria.
Robin Campbell, a management member of the Adunni Olorisha Trust, said: “There were two schools of art in Osogbo but the Ulli Beier driven school is extremely important. If you look at the history of contemporary art in Nigeria, the Osogbo School is outstanding. All you have to do is come here and understand why.
Jimoh Buraimoh’s work, Muraina’s works, Bisi Fabunmi, all contemporary artists and I’m so proud to see them well displayed.
They deserve to be given more recognition.”Artists Mufu Onifade and Sam Ovraiti spoke in the same vein. Onifade confessed his respect for all the individuals that influenced the Osogbo Art School and admitted that his Araism Movement, took some of its influences from them.
Ovraiti noted that though possessing different qualities, all the artists share the same source.Speaking on the contributions of Osogbo Art, Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola said it has “boosted the corpus of knowledge in the field of creative arts and validated the richness and vitality of Yoruba culture as part of the common heritage of mankind.
So much so that Osogbo art has become a trademark comparable to any other art form anywhere in the world.”The former Osun State Governor who was represented by Professor Siyan Oyeweso, Executive Director of the CBCIU, also hailed the artists, noting that: “the very high confidence reposed in these great artists is not only sustained but has been proved to be true and right.
These men and women with humble backgrounds have become great cultural assets and remarkable reference points as part of Yoruba folklore and the Nigerian story.”
Oyinlola, who further noted that the exhibition was also a celebration of the fertile imagination of Beier, Susanne Wenger and Georgina Beier, expressed happiness that it was happening in Lagos.
According to him, “though Lagos, the Centre of Excellence and the first truly megacity in Nigeria and Osogbo, the burgeoning town transiting seamlessly into a city are different in their pomp and pageantry, the importance of the place of arts in the cultural life of both cities brings about a commonality of interest.
It is for this reason that this exhibition has found a comfortable home in Lagos even though the master of the art are from the rustic towns of Osogbo and environs.
This shared heritage of aesthetics, innate beauty, colours and profound creativity has made the two places tourism destination as well as coveted heritage meccas.”