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Dele Jegede @ 70: A Humanistic interrogation of the biography of a sage

By Kunle Filani

Prof. Dele Jegede’s face is iconic, his mien is defined with immense dignity and his demeanor is characterized by inimitable assertiveness. He may not be physically massive, but he carries an air of poise and self-respect.

Attaining the age of seventy does not betray any physical fitness. In spite of the slight furrows on his forehead and the deepening lines etched on both sides of his upper lips, Prof Dele Jegede’s face remains robust.

The thick dark hair on his head contrasts sharply with the bushy white beards that delineate his sagacious visage. Each strand of his gray beards mirrors years of dynamic assiduity, scholarship and creativity. Dele Jegede’s introspective looks epitomizes remarkable erudition, affective profundity and technical dexterity.

In order to contextualize Prof. Dele Jegede’s genius, his biography will be interrogated, thereby revealing reasons behind the success of the sage.

Prof Dele Jegede
Prof Dele Jegede

Born in 1945 in Ikere-Ekiti in Ekiti State of Nigeria, Dele Jegede is one of the reputable scholars that emerged from the ancient town notable for many significant hills. Indigenes of Ikere-Ekiti are appraised as Omo Oloke Meji tako tabo. This is in reference to two enormous hills known as Orole and Olosunta whose magnificence serves as landmark for the agrarian community. The two hills are mythically personified as male and female; thereby lending credence to the humanistic philosophy that defines reality by two opposing principles. Africans in particular uphold this philosophy in order to create social and spiritual balance.

The concept of dualism recognizes the delicate balance between life and death, good and evil, day and night, right and wrong, male and female among other uncountable social, moral, religious, political and economic choices we make daily. Dele Jegede seems to construct and reconstruct his perception of life on the interrogation of these opposing principles. Whereas he often aspires towards the utopia in his art and scholarship, he nevertheless depicts this by decrying the ills of the society. For example, in an attempt to promote social equity and demand for the dividends of democracy in Nigeria, he held an exhibition titled Paradise Battered in 1986. Semantically speaking, Paradise connotes the utopia, but Dele Jegede conceptually created an impression of chaos and disorderliness by adding the word battered in order to admonish the societal ills.

Dele Jegede and Niyi Osundare are both indigenes of Ikere-Ekiti, and they are acclaimed wordsmiths. Prof. Niyi Osundare is an award winning poet and scholar whose splendid cultural verses resonate all over the literary spaces. Dele Jegede as a visual artist does not only draw and paint with unusual formal candour, his numerous scholarly publications are marked by rhythmical prose. He employs poetic devices of assonance and alliteration in order to maximize critical reflections in art. Typical of his formal and thematic articulation of human existence is the poem written in 2013 during a healing process after suffering a great loss. The effusion of passion in the verses is so emphatic that a reflective reader becomes schooled in stoicism.

The appropriation of the childhood memories and the communal perception of Orole and Olosunta hills seem to serve as poetic metaphor for both Dele Jegede and Niyi Osundare.

Both are very critical of the societies they lived in, and often lampoon the Nigerian system in order to accelerate a more socially and economically balanced nation.

Dele Jegede attended the famous Yaba College of Technology, Yaba-Lagos, Nigeria in the late sixties and later earned his Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria in 1973. He bagged a First Class Honours and won many prizes, therefore attesting to his studiousness and brilliance. He immediately joined some of the hardworking art graduates of the Zaria School who obtained their degrees in the 1970s to form the nucleus of what could be referred to as the second generation of Zarian artists. Notable among his contemporaries are the late Sina Yusuf, his close friend Kolade Oshinnowo, David Dale, late Gani Odutokun and Joshua Akande among few others. Most of their works in the 1970s and even till now are naturalistic with varying degrees of stylization. They schooled in the post-independence era when Nigerians were still celebrating the crude oil boom. They therefore embraced joyous and profane themes rendered with remarkable graphic and painterly skills. However, dele jegede was more critical of the Nigerian society using the outlets offered by the various newspapers he worked to create cartoon strips such as Flower Power (1979-1986) and Kole the Menace (1984 – 1989). The two major characters, Bobby in Flower Power and Kole Omole in Kole the Menace were cast as precocious children who parodied the systemic failures of the Nigerian state during the military dictatorship. The objectification of children to satirize the state of the nation was intentional. Dele Jegede used cartooning to play down the acerbic criticism of the ferocious dictators. The funny juvenile characters of Bobby and Kole lightened the otherwise ‘subversive’ content of the strips. The fluidity of lines and the rapidity of the pen drawing of the cartoon drawings cast Dele Jegede among the greatest draughtsmen in Nigeria.

By 1986 when Dele Jegede exhibited Paradise Battered, he declared a revolutionary manifesto to uphold nothing else but social and political activism using radicalism as the expressive content of his art. He therefore elevated his artistic offerings beyond formal aesthetics to nuanced thematic orientation. Dele Jegede explored issues that were problematic with the government and the Nigerian people by highlighting the despicable aspects of national realities.

The metropolitan city of Lagos became his constantly referenced metaphor for the emergent negative urbane characteristics, attitudes and values. He illustrated figures in comical forms while contextualizing the systemic rot within the society. His excellent skills in draughtsmanship afforded him to break the rule of proportion. He often elongated the human figures and cast images in carefree and open ended compositions. The titles of his works and even exhibitions parodies the popular grammatical verbal and vocal lingo often found in the expressive culture of Lagos city.

Dele Jegede did not only consolidate himself as a respectable modernist artist in Nigeria, he also pursued scholarship by obtaining his master’s degree and PhD in Art History at the Indiana University, U.S.A in 1981 and 1983 respectively. Roy Sieber, an erudite professor of African art supervised his PhD project. His thesis in 1983 was perhaps the first on contemporary Nigerian Art. He has since published numerous well researched articles on African art history and on African diaspora art history especially when he eventually relocated to the United States of America.

Between 1989 and 1992, dele jegede became the president of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) succeeding Prof. Solomon Wangboje. His proactive administrative skill is still admired up till date by the members. He ensured the official registration of SNA with the Corporate Affairs Commission and strategically carried out far reaching reforms in the organization.

During his brief stay in Nigeria after obtaining a doctorate, he lectured at Yaba College of Technology, Yaba and while at the University of Lagos, he became the Director, Centre for Cultural Studies between 1989 and 1992. His dynamism opened up discussions on the eventual creation of the Department of Creative Arts a few years after he left.

His sojourn in the United States of America witnessed a booming career in academics. His focus of research and teaching was in African art history and African American Art history. He demonstrated excellent intellect while occupying professional chairs at Spelman College, Atlanta, Indiana State University, Terre Haute and Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. He researched on migrant and dual identity while enunciating diasporic conflicts. He cushioned the dilemma of relocation which often results into what Cornelius Adepegba called “Split Identity” by constantly coming back to his roots to support local artistic and cultural programmes.

He straddles the physical and virtual borders of creative, curatorial and academic spaces of local and international territories by sheer audacity and intellectualism. He debunked the jaundiced historical narratives of some Western scholars that depicted African art and culture both at home and in diaspora as primitive and inferior to the Europeans. He reconstructed art historical narratives that critically theorized the fecundity of African cultural practices and established a dynamic kinship with the black migrants and the diaspora. His writings like his paintings are expressively passionate without violating the sensibilities of others. He equally promoted the image of the artist, and indeed that of the African as a cerebral and mettled individual who knows his onions in the global vision of contemporary society. He successfully chaired many international associations and academic Boards.

Behind every successful man, there is a woman who stands as pillar of encouragement and support. Dele Jegede once describe his wife Joke as “my vociferous supporter, critic, friend and wife”. Dele Jegede’s diverse and productive life is no doubt as a result of the enormous support given by his family, relations, friends and colleagues.

In spite of his great achievements, he remains humble. He profusely appreciates minor gestures of support and due respect given by admirers. His sense of humour belies his underlying astringent social comments and expressive temper whenever things are not properly done. Dele Jegede’s handwriting is calligraphic and he writes his name in minuscule letters.

This sage deserves to be celebrated at 70. May he live more numerous and fertile years to the benefit of humanity.

Dr. Kunle Filani is an artist and art historian. He is the Chairman of the Local Organising Committee for Dele Jegede @ 70 celebrations.

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