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Ulli Beier (1922- 2011)… The Patron Saint at Iwalewa House


Ulli Beier

Ulli Beier, the German editor, writer , scholar and one of the people that pioneered the development of literature, drama and poetry in Nigeria as well as in Papua New Guinea died last week in Annandale, Sydney, Austrialia at the age of 89.

Ulli Beier who graduated from the University of London where he got a degree in Phonetics came to Nigeria in 1950 in the company of his former wife, the famous Austrian artist, Susanne Wenger. He joined the University College Ibadan (now known as University of Ibadan) and traveled to several Yoruba towns and villages where he imparted knowledge to many Nigerians. Though, he was a teacher at Ibadan, he ventured outside the city and lived in nearby cities of Ede, Ilobu before settling in Osogbo and this gave him an avenue to experience the environment of different Yoruba communities. In 1956, after visiting the First Congress of Negro Artists and Writers organized by Presence Africaine at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France Ulli Beier returned to Ibadan and founded the magazine, Black Orpheus, An Anthology of New African and Afro-American Stories. The journal was widely accepted and quickly became the leading space for Nigerian authors to write and publish their works. The journal became known for its innovative works and literary excellence and was widely acclaimed. Later in 1961, Beier, co-founded the Mbari Artists and Writers Club, Ibadan, a place where new writers, dramatists and artists meet and performed their work. In 1962, he co-founded (with the dramatist Duro Ladipo) Mbari-Mbayo, Osogbo. In the early 1980s he also founded and directed the Iwalewa Haus, an art centre at the University of Bayreuth in Germany.

Ulli Beier like his compatriot will be remembered for his efforts in translating African literary works. He was one of the scholars who introduced African writers to a large international audience especially his works in translating plays of dramatists such as Duro Ladipo and the publishing of Modern Poetry (1963) an anthology of African poems.

Known for his passion for Yoruba arts and culture, as a literary person, he helped publish books on Yoruba festivals and religion. He co-founded the Mbari-Mbayo Artists and Writers Club together with the late Duro Ladipo of ‘Oba-Koso‘ fame.

With the help of his former late wife, Susanne Wenger, the priestess of the Osun grove who died at the age of 93, they changed the art history of Osogbo to what is today known as Osogbo Arts The couple registered their names in the marble of the culture sector in the country. Mr. Beier learnt Yoruba at 28 and went on to translate many Yoruba writers into English and published several anthologies of poems and essays.

Reacting to his death, the Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Alhaji Abubakar Sadiq Mohamade described the late Beier’s influence on Nigeria’s cultural space as “ phenomenal and enduring.” According to the Honourable Minister, Beier was “ so persuasive in his legacy on the Nigeria’s cultural heritage- literary, visual and performing arts especially in the fifties and sixties- that his name evokes strong, almost cult- like feelings among his devotees as well as on the ordinary artisans in Iolbu- Ife, Oshogbo, Ede and its environs.”

Continuing the Minister added that , “ There is no doubt that he dominated our cultural place by his many cultural engagements in the multi- dimensional way by his interaction with our then emerging literary icons, Professor Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, JP Clark, but also the ordinary performing artistes such as Duro Oladipo, Yemi Elebuibon as well as the visual icons of today, Taiwo Olaniyi…”

In another statement made available to Arts on Sunday, Director General of the Centre for Black African Arts and Civilisation, Professor Tunde Babawale described Beier, “ as a unique personality who made passionate and indelible contributions to the development and popularisation of Yoruba arts and culture.”

According to Babawale, “ Ulli Beier provided an enduring platform for interaction between Yoruba indigenous ideas, beliefs and practices and the Yoruba cultural space, the legacy of which is the Iwalewa House at the University of Bayreuth, which continues to host scholars in different areas of African Studies.”

Also reacting to the death, renowned print maker, Dr. Bruce Onabrakpeya said. “It is a great loss to the arts, it is a great loss to Nigerian contemporary art. He is one of the foremost pillars of some of the famous Nigerian artists today. He is one of those that shaped the history of art in Nigeria. But on the other hand Ulli has left a legacy of not only being an artist, but an art institution that contributed to forge the arts forward. I am particularly indebted to him because I regard him as a mentor. He founded the Mbari art workshop and I employed Mbari art workshop as a role model in creating the Harmattan Workshop which has benefitted many artists.

He also left a good legacy in Osogbo, that Osogbo is a Mecca today is part of his creation. He created all the good works there. He was a very good teacher and an intellectual with great ideas. Nigerians mourn him and we will miss him.”

For Nike Okundaye of Nike Art Foundation, “Nigeria has lost a great son; especially the arts community. His contributions to arts were enormous, he was a writer and he wrote about the artists in Africa. He loved tradition and was one of the pillars of contemporary art in Nigeria. He opened the Mbari Mbayo where many artists practiced their art and exhibited their works. His foot prints will always be remembered for his contributions to the development of arts.”

Toyin Akinosho, a culture landscapist confessed that “Ulli Beier indirectly brought me into the arts, writing and culture activism. I was a Geology student at the Obafemi Awolowo University (then University of Ife) in 1981 when he came to talk about the death of Duro Ladipo, his own favourite Nigerian performer. I was one of the few Science students in attendance. I wrote that event for Concord Newspaper and it was published. That got me to do some more writing for other newspapers. Today, everything I have achieved in the arts is tied one way or the other to that experience in Ife”


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