The Art School in the Development of Contemporary Nigerian Art Practice: An Historical Overview & Analysis of Style
By Ekpo Udo Udoma
The story of contemporary visual arts practice in Nigeria goes right back to the turn of the 20th century, when Aina Onabolu (1882-1963) pioneered art practice as we know it today. This development though gradual, led the British colonial government to introduce a curriculum for Art in Nigerian schools, with the assistance of Kenneth Murray, a British colonial officer. (Onabolu, 1963: 295; Wangboje, 1977: 10; Fosu, 1986: 7; Babalola, 1987: 79; Udoma, 1989: 2)
The Aina Onabolu School
Aina Onabolu started his art practice by copying pictures from magazines and books, and perhaps buoyed by the need to disprove the notion that Africans were incapable of depictions in anatomic realism, he pursued an aggressive artistic practice that enabled him to start selling pictures for money. In 1902 Onabolu painted the portrait of Mrs. Spencer Savage, his first known commissioned job. His proficiency in art was severally acknowledged and it later earned him a scholarship, from some of his patrons, to study art in Europe in 1920.
On his return, Onabolu devoted most of his time to encouraging talented people to practice art. He did this by first of all encouraging the government to introduce art as a subject of study in secondary schools. To further emphasize his commitment he offered to teach in most of these schools himself.
Inspired by Aina Onabolu’s tenacity, others took up art as a vocation. Some of those who followed his footsteps include Akinola Lasekan (1916- 1972) who became famous as a cartoonist for the West African Pilot a newspaper published by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, first president of Nigeria. He also later taught at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and was the first indigenous Head of Department (Nnadozie, 2008: 49). Others were Eke Okeybolu (1916- 1958) and J.D. Akeredolu who followed in Onabolu’s tradition of representational art characterized by naturalistic images and technical competence in terms of conscious realism reemphasized by the laws of perspective and anatomical accuracy. This was informed by the need to debunk the commonly held view, at the time that Africans had never painted or sculpted in statue before (Onabolu, 1963:295; Okeke, 1979; 13; Aig- Imoukhuede, 1984: 6; Fosu, 1986: 7; Udoma, 1989: 2; Ikpakronyi, 2003: 31).
The Kenneth Murray Intervention
By the 1940’s Kenneth Murray, who was hired by the colonial government on the prodding of Aina Onabolu, introduced an art curriculum for Nigerian schools. Ola Oloidi (2008) notes that before the institution of the Ibadan College, which later moved to Zaria in 1955, to be known as the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, no stylistic ideology was strong enough in Nigeria to challenge or compete with the art of Onabolu.
Technically, between 1900 and 1960, it was the stylistic school of Onabolu that dominated the Nigerian art scene despite some ideological divergence. This was to become a sore point between Onabolu and Murray. Kenneth Murray saw himself as a saviour of sorts. His attitude was that of a man drafted to save the Nigerian / African culture from extinction. Oloidi once again explains “Onabolu became uncomfortable and through personal contacts and letters advised Murray about the ‘negative’ ideological blitz. Murray frowned at the way the traditional Nigerian art and other values were being devalued or oppressed by colonial political and cultural intolerance. He encouraged his students, particularly the pioneer ones (sic), to make their art depict or reflect the aesthetic of indigenous forms especially in sculpture. Murray urged his students to be themselves. ‘Be yourself and not others (European) in your pictures’. Murray’s pioneer students, Ben Enwonwu, P.L.K. Nnachi, Uthman Ibrahim, C.C. Ibeto and A.P. Umana were always shocked at their teacher’s anti-western art-naturalism ideology. Without doubt, nearly all of them were uncomfortable with Murray’s teaching and were in fact stupefied by his anti-European sermons”. To Onabolu’s consternation the ideological dialogue went on unabated.
While some students of Murray became reasonably adaptive to their teacher’s prescriptions, some like C.C Ibeto and Ben Enwonwu were not seriously affected by his hyper-critical position as Enwonwu himself later confessed ‘we were really surprised that Murray told us to do this or that in our art lessons, which was not why we chose to study art…we wanted to make art like Onabolu…and of course; I personally began to follow his direction outside our class’” Oloidi (2008:9).
Ben Enwonwu & African Consciousness
The emergence of Ben Enwonwu (1921- 1994), who later became the art adviser to the Federal Government of Nigeria in the 1960’s, on the art scene coincided with the fervor for African nationalism in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Artists at the time were painting and sculpting more political and philosophical themes, as well as propagating the idea of African personality, the concept was known as negritude and it was pioneered by Leopold Senghor of Senegal to promote black consciousness especially in literature and poetry (Udoma 1989: 3; Agiobu-Kemmer, 1978: 11; Irele, 1977: 1; Jahn, 1961: 206).
The naturalistic trend of the early pioneers was infiltrated by stylistic rendering, which reflected a consciousness of the aesthetic value of Nigerian traditional forms. This can be seen in Enwonwu’s paintings like Negritude, Olokun and Dance Forms which are all works in the collection of Nigeria’s National Gallery of Art. Other works by Enwonwu include Anyanwu a bronze sculpture at the main foyer of the United Nations Headquarters in New York, U.S.A., a replica adorns the façade of Nigeria’s National Museum building in Lagos; Sango statue in front of the Lagos office of National electricity utility company known as Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) and the statue of a drummer at the Nigerian Telecommunications company (NITEL) building also in Lagos. Other artists in this group included Etso Ugbodaga-Ngu and Udo-Ema who were given scholarships to study art abroad and excelled as art educators. While Ugbodaga-Ngu was one of the early staff at Ahmadu Bello University and the University of Benin, Udo-Ema helped to start the art department at the College of Education, Uyo (now the department of Fine and Industrial Art University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State).
Zaria Arts Society
By the time Nigeria attained independence in October 1960, a new crop of artists had emerged most of them from the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in Kaduna State. This group included artists like Yusuf Grillo (b. 1932), Bruce Onobrakpeya (b. 1932), Uche Okeke (b. 1933) and Demas Nwoko (b. 1935)( Beier, 1968; Okeke, 1982; Fosu, 1986; Babalola, 1987).
This represented a period of sober reflections when Nigerian artists began to question themselves on the role they ought to be playing in modern Nigeria. Their attitude towards
Art was such that the conflict between traditional forms and western techniques was of little significance to them (Beier, 1961:31). According to Bruce Onobrakpeya, they were”….rising against the secondary role or position assigned to contemporary artists, who were placed below the traditional artists in Africa….” This group formed the nucleus of what came to be known as the Zaria Arts Society and the forerunner of the Society of Nigerian Artists. They introduced new ideas hinging on the concept of Natural Synthesis which was essentially a fusion of African motifs, concepts and techniques with western ideas. Explaining further the aims of the society of which he was an active member, Onobrakpeya emphasized that …” apart from the things we learnt in the class we retired to our cubicles to discuss what African art is…” ( Onobrakpeya, 1985: 22)
The members of the Zaria Arts Society produced works that were characterized to a large extent by individualism in various styles and techniques, which in most cases constituted a complete break with the Nigerian contemporary art of the early period, thereby creating a new trend in the development of Art in Nigeria. At the Yaba Higher College (now Yaba College of Technology) a kindred spirit had imbibed the new ideas. One of its major protagonists was Erhabor Emokpae (d. 1980).
The Art School In Contemporary Nigerian Art
As higher institutions were being set up in the country, some were introducing the Fine Arts into their curriculum. Through these schools the ideas and ideals of the Zaria Arts Society began to blossom. In most schools the new ideas and theories created a groundswell of a variety of art expressions that are now prevalent. This has led to a phenomenal growth in the number of formal art schools.
Formal art schools
The Zaria School refers to the Department of Fine Arts and Industrial Design of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria founded in 1953 as part of the Ibadan branch of the old Nigeria College of Arts, Science and Technology, which moved to Zaria in 1955. In 1957/58 the school was affiliated to the Slade School of Art, and later the Goldsmith School of Art, both of the University of London.
The School has produced the cream of Nigerian Artists. The list is endless never the less mention shall be made of a few: Solomon Wangboje, Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Uche Okeke, E. O Odita, Demas Nwoko, Roland Abiodun, Dele Jegede, Gani Odutokun, Shina Yusuff, David Dale, E.O. Nwagbara, and S.A. Adetoro. Among the younger graduates who are making significant contributions include Jerry Buhari, Muazu Sani, Tonie Okpe,Oladapo Afolayan, Nse-Abasi Inyang, Uwa Usen, Joe Musa, Abraham Uyuvbosere, Duke Asidere, and Emmanuel Inua.
The Yaba School refers to the Department of Arts and Design of the Yaba College of Technology, Lagos. This school was established in 1952/53 as a technical institute. The school produced many well known artists; many of them however went on to further their education in Europe. Among them included Agbo Folarin, Isiaka Osunde, Erhabor Emokpae, Osagie Osifo and Festus Idehen. The second phase of the Yaba School started with the upgrading of the college to a Higher National Diploma awarding institution. This coincided with the addition of Yusuf Grillo and Kolade Oshinowo both graduates of Ahmadu Bello University to the staff. The influence of these two artists can be seen in a number of the later graduates namely Abiodun Olaku, Tolu Filani, Segun Adejumo, Kunle Adeyemi, Lara Ige, Felix Osiemi and Edosa Oguigo to mention just a few.
The Nsukka School was established in 1961/62. The School which is made up of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka became famous for the evolution of the Igbo traditional art form of body and wall painting known as Uli into modern usage. This art form was introduced by Uche Okeke who joined the department in 1970 after the civil war. Its introduction is evidently linked to the concept of Natural Synthesis, which had been propagated by the members of the Zaria Art Society. One can however say that this art form can be extended beyond the Igbo traditions to embrace other African cultures as in most African traditions body and mural decoration is common.
Other lecturers in the school that have experimented with uli include Chike Aniakor, Chuka Amaefuna (d. circa 1990), Obiora Udechukwu and El-Anatsui. Others include Tayo Adenaike, Olu Oguibe, Ndidi Dike, Krydz Ikweumesi, Chuka Nnabuife, and Uche Edochie.
The Ife School comprises those that graduated from the department at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife which was established in 1968. Spurred on by a desire to look inwards to examine form and content of their works, some of the graduates felt they should explore further a particular trend noticed as common to Nigerian artists. They therefore examined the decorative nature of decorative motifs, ornaments, patterns and designs peculiar to the rich artistic culture of Western Nigeria. The Ona group was then formed. Exponents in the group include Moyo Okedeji, Tayo Ojowu, Don Akatakpo, Victor Ekpuk, Biodun Akande, Kunle Filani, Mufu Onifade and Stephen Folaranmi amongst others.
The Auchi School is made up of Art graduates from the Auchi Polytechnic Auchi, which started in 1974. Their style is characterized by lavish use of colours to express mood. A concept pioneered by Ademola Adejumo, a graduate of Ahmadu Bello University. Prominent among the exponents include Edwin Debebs, Sam Ovraiti, Tony Okujeni, Pita Ohiwere, Alex Nwokolo, Olu Ajayi, Ben Osaghae and Zinno Orara amongst others.
The Benin School, this is made up of Art graduates of the department at the University of Benin, established in 1975 under the mentorship of Solomon Wangboje. Among these groups include Fred Akpomuje, El-Dragg, Miracle Maseli, Egbibo, Jude Ovie- Wilkie, and Anthony Okonofua among a host of others.
There are arts schools that were set up after 1985. These New Schools as one may call them include in no particular order, the University of Uyo, University of Port-Harcourt, University of Maiduguri, I.M.T. Enugu, Delta State University, University of Lagos and several other polytechnics and colleges of education all over the country.
There are also informal schools. These schools had an entirely different kind of instruction that were privately supported. Among them include the Mbari Mbayo Workshop at Osogbo in present day Osun state. This was established as a response to a new development in post- independent Nigeria, which began with the formation of the Mbari artists and writers club of Ibadan and Enugu.( Odita, 1970: 39-40; Okeke, 1970: 17) This club was founded by a group of young writers working in and around Ibadan in 1961. Artists, theatre and radio producers were involved. Among them included Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clarke, Christopher Okigbo as well as painters like Uche Okeke and Demas Nwoko and Ulli Beier, a German art critic and writer (Nigeria magazine, 1963:223; Mount, 1973: 65; Okeke, 1979: 12). The club gave musical and dance recitals, as well as, plays by leading Nigerian writers. Art exhibitions were also held. It was the success of this club that encourage Duro Ladipo, a playwright and composer to form the Mbari Mbayo workshop in Osogbo in 1962, with the support of Ulli and Georgina Beier as well as Sussane Wenger, an Austrian artist who later made Osogbo her home.
The Mbari Mbayo workshop brought into focus the benefits that can be derived from informal art training, as the workshop had attracted a number of student’s mostly residents of Osogbo and environs. The roll call included Twin Seven Seven, Muriana Oyelami, Adebisi Fabunmi, Nike Okundaye and Jimoh Buraimoh amongst so many others. The works produced were derived from traditional Yoruba mythology, deities, as well as, individual fantasies (Mount, 1973: 151). They made use of bright colours, stylized and disjointed figures, as well as unconventional materials. Today the extensions of the Oshogbo art can be seen in the establishment of the Nike Arts Centre
At the same time the Osogbo workshop was nurturing what could be referred to as the Osogbo School another art school was developing what would be regarded as the Maroko School. (Odimayo, 2000: 22). According to Olaseinde Odimayo, an art dealer of many years standing, the Maroko School was never deliberately established as a school with any articulated manifesto. “…there is no documentation, books, exhibition catalogues or press reviews on it…” the school is believed to have been started in 1963 by Micheal Obodiwe and Agboma who operated in the shanty town of Maroko on Victoria Island. Now demolished, the school developed through an apprenticeship system. Some of the apprentices included Prince Okuku, Akpukpu Yekini, Emmanuel Ekefrey, Amonis and Silas Adeoye among others.
Following in the apprenticeship system was the Abayomi Barber School, started in 1971 by Abayomi Barber who was born in Ile Ife, and attended several primary schools before enrolling in St. Stephen’s School Modakeke, where he received prizes for Drama, Poetry, singing and Music. In 1952 he moved to Lagos and enrolled at the Yaba College of Technology after a brief interaction with Ben Enwonwu who was then Federal Art Adviser. Although his stay in Yaba was very brief some of his class mates then included Yusuf Grillo, Erhabor Emokpae and Isiaka Osunde.
From 1957 to 1958 he joined the Yoruba Historical Research Scheme at Ibadan under the Chairmanship of Dr. S. O. Biobaku and catalogued, drew and labeled all the art works in the collection of the Yoruba Research Scheme and went on field research with William Fagg, Frank Willet, Dr. Bradbury and Reverend Father Carroll. In September 1960, Barber was sent to England. He worked for some time in the British Museum, while he enrolled in the evening class at the Central School of Art Crafts, Holborn. While he was in the United Kingdom, he worked with the Scenic Art Studio at Notinghill gate and Fredrick Mancini in Wimbledon and Oscar Neman, a great authority on Churchill sculptures, for four years before coming to join the University of Lagos in 1971.
Barber is an artist who believes that it is only when ones technique is fully developed, that ones imagination, originality and individuality can come into play and be of any use. The objective of the school was to produce hard core professional works of art. He had since then succeeded in training a generation of young Nigerians, whose activities have culminated in the emergence of what has been known as the Abayomi Barber School, a school that bases its inspiration on the classical Ife bronzes. Some of the disciples of this school, which started as part of the centre for cultural studies, University of Lagos include Olu Spencer, Rufus Olanrewaju, Micheal Egbuna, Akin Savage, Ekpeyong Ayi and Archibald Etikerentse to name a few.
Towards the end of the 20th century we have witnessed greater activity in the informal sector with the establishment of the Harmattan Workshop Series by Bruce Onobrakpeya who was an active participant in the Osogbo Workshops and one of the few academically trained artists who participated. The Harmattan Workshop is an annual artists’ retreat started in 1998 with just eight artists. Today with over 10 editions it has become a pilgrimage of sorts, with an average attendance of 50 artists each year. The workshop, which is being organized by the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation, has been sustained by the support of the Ford Foundation, the National Gallery of Art, Abuja and other corporate organizations from time to time. Some of the artists that have participated include Mike Omoighe, John Agberia, Peju Layiwola, Nse Abasi Inyang, Olu Amoda, Salubi Onakufe, Uwa Usen, Duke Asidere, Sam Ovraiti, Emmanuel Ekpeni, Tony Emodi, Anthonia Okogwu, Lara Ige-Jacks, Oladapo Afolayan, Bunmi Ola –Afolayan among several others. Over 300 artists have participated in the workshop since its inception.
In conclusion therefore one can say that the development of contemporary expression in the visual arts in Nigeria has blossomed in the last 100 years from the seeds planted by a few dedicated people. The groundswell of activity indicates a growth of art practice in both the formal and informal sectors thereby providing a platform for projecting Nigerian art globally as we enter the second decade of the second millennium.
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