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Modern Nigerian Art: A Discursive Sketch

By C. Krydz Ikwuemesi

Before the advent of the colonizers, what is today known as Nigeria was a cacophony of peoples and cultures engaged in the art of living according to their peculiar circumstances and destinies.  It was Lord Lugard, the first colonial Governor-General of the area, who facilitated the amalgamation of the so-called Southern and Northern Protectorates to create one entity called Nigeria.  His very imaginative wife proffered the name Nigeria and composed the first national anthem for the new nation.

Negritude by Ben Enwonwu

Today, Nigeria is made up of 774 local government areas, 36 states and the federal capital territory, Abuja.  The existing state structure in Nigeria only amplifies the cultural diversity of its people. The local government areas and states may represent mechanisms that facilitate governance and administration, but they are far from being objective basis on which culture in Nigeria can be appreciated. They are only microcosms of the macro complexity which Nigeria represents.  Culture-wise, Nigeria is a variegated collage.

The complex cultural and political history of Nigeria readily problematizes the term “Nigerian art.” It has often been debated whether there is any such thing as Nigerian art, given the plurality of people and consciousness that frame Nigeria.  But I believe we can talk about Nigerian art in the same way we can talk about British or American art. Modern Nigerian art is a fusion of the African spirit/experience and Africa’s yearning for new challenges in a highly fleeting world. Nigerian art made of Western tools and materials, to me, is as African as an African person dressed in Western style clothes.

But it must be pointed out that Europe did not teach art to Africa. Art is a pan-human phenomenon. In pre-colonial Nigeria, there were many kinds of artistic expressions ranging from painting and carving to textile design. Although some Western scholars would classify them as traditional (in one of its pejorative senses), I insist, in the words of John Picton, that where such arts exist (as in the case of the uli painting tradition of the Igbo of eastern Nigeria), they are contemporary arts that, “while drawing upon a continuity with the past as the basis of (their) existence, (are) about the here and now, addressing local concerns within a sense of local modernity.”

The Rise and Development of Nigerian Modernism

Modern Nigerian art is roughly 100 years.A product of the colonial encounter, it began in Lagos, former capital of Nigeria, largely through the exertions of pioneer artist Aina Onabolu. Onabolu received art training in England in the heyday of colonization and returned to Nigeria to teach young Nigerian students in the colonial school system. In his art, he was committed to a realist paradigm. As a teacher, he was instrumental to the stabilization of art in the early school system and in training some of Nigeria’s premier artists.

Another important hero of Nigerian modernism is Ben Enwonwu. However, unlike Onabolu, Enwonwu had a glaring culture sense. Although he was steeped in the British Academy traditions having studied art and anthropology in England, he understood—thanks to the teachings of Murray (his expatriate art teacher)—that art needed to relate with its time and environment if it was to be meaningful to the people.  Thus he pursued in his work a realist-symbolic vision whose epicenter was vigourously fortified by a sustained culture consciousness.

This informs the diametric difference between his works and those of Onabolu.  While he painted maiden masked dancers, village beauties, spirit figures, and other mythic themes, Onabolu favoured portraits and landscapes. Not that Enwonwu did not do those; after all, Queen Elizabeth II of England granted him a pose for a realistic bronze portrait at Buckingham Palace and in the artist’s studio between 1956 and 1957, and he painted the portraits of other notable people. But his forte was perhaps in his ability to bring a sense of nationalism to art, not only through his graphic work but also through his position later as Art Adviser to Nigeria’s Federal Government.

I must hasten to point out that Onabulu’s art was not necessarily counter-nationalist. By panting in the realist style, he sought to demonstrate that realism or even naturalism was not the monopoly of Western artists. He certainly was not the first to create realist images in Africa. Some artists of the ancient Benin Kingdom in present-day Nigeria had attempted realistic busts, but he was, perhaps, among the first in the history of modern art in Nigeria to grapple with realism on the two-dimensional format, turning art which was once a principal religious instrument into a professional and profitable engagement. In matching, rather than challenging European style and technique, Onabolu remains a nationalist par excellence.

Thus one could aver that Onabulu and Enwonwu merely set the stage for the ensuing creative departure that was to occur at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University), Zaria between 1958 and 1961 through the efforts of some young art students, namely Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Yusuf Grillo, Emmanuel Odita, Simon Okeke, Demas Nwoko, among others.

These students “rebelled” against the British-oriented art curriculum in Zaria and adopted a “glocalised” approach to art and aesthetics. In other words, aided by Ulli Beier and his anti-academic aesthetics,  and apparently buoyed by Léopold Sédar Senghor’s Negritude, coupled with the whirlwind of nationalism that was blowing through Africa then as a result of the eye-opening outcomes of the so-called World Wars, the Zaria students celebrated in their art the African spirit and aesthetics without falling into the dangers of localism.

Their stylistic stance critically influenced the course of art in Nigeria and helped to give character to Nigerian modernism in the post-independence era. Most of the Zaria artists later went in different directions (both in Nigeria and elsewhere) upon graduation, creating new vistas as academics or successful studio artists, as their activities gave impetus to the rise and development of many successful artists.

Beyond the stylistic-ideological revolution in Zaria, another radical departure was to occur in the first decade after the Nigerian civil war, that is, in the 1970s. The theatre for this new manifestation was the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in Eastern Nigeria, where one of the former Zaria students, Uche Okeke, had re-emerged as Head of the Fine and Applied Arts Department.

In the immediate post-war period and in the 1980s, the Nsukka artists were engulfed by the “natural synthesis” philosophy as espoused by Uche Okeke, through the appropriation of the Igbo uli symbology and other cultural heritage in painting, sculpture, textile, and other graphic works. The experimentations gave rise to what is called the “Nsukka School”, note-worthy stylistic bloc of art and artists in the history of modern Nigerian art.

But a composite history of Nigerian art must not stop at the role played by the Zaria and Nsukka phenomena and other committed artists in the post-independence era. It must be recognized that the emergence of many more art training centres, universities and polytechnics in the 1980s and 1990s has helped to further develop and diversify the outlook and content of art in Nigeria, although much of the outcome of this development is yet to be engaged by art historians. It is obvious that the gains of Zaria and Nsukka have been extended in many ways through some of these institutions.

This possibly accounts for the diversity of styles and visions that are discernible in the contemporary art scene in Nigeria.

Being an excerpt from a lecture presented at the Palace of Arts, Ministry of Culture, Cairo, Egypt, July 28, 2010 in commemoration of NGA’s  organised NIVATOUR

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