Professor Oseloka Osadebe (born 1934) is an outstanding artist, playwright, theatre director, and teacher. He grew up in Onitsha, Anambra State, and from an early age, distinguished himself as a brilliant draughtsman, eventually earning acceptance into the prestigious Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria.
In this interview, Oseloka spoke about his long absence in the art community and his home coming for the first time in over 50 years to present a retrospective exhibition of rare works he created from 1960 to 2014. Excerpt.
Tell us how you got to study art?
I was born in1934 in Onitsha into a large family of four sets of twins, myself being one of these twins, with a twin sister. When I came out of my mother’s womb, I came out with chisels, hammers and saws, and with these tools, I began to create art. I believe my artistry is something God had already schooled me in; it then became a matter of how to apply these tools.
How did you begin your art? Did you begin with sculpting?
I was what I call ‘taught by God’, and as such, it only took me noticing an object to get me thinking either about how to build or destroy it. I remember the first time I was in close contact with an aeroplane. I began to think of how to build one, despite my lack of knowledge about engines. I eventually learned that motor car tyres have inner tubes, which are cut in strips and used as the elastic for catapults; this made me recognise that I could use the same object as a spring. At my core, I am a builder, and each time I see objects, I want to take them apart to rebuild.
With this fascination with how things are made, and desire to build things, where did you study?
In elementary school not all teachers were trained, but they were expected to tutor you in each subject. For me, art class was fantastic, as it brought some excitement and an element of surprise, as well as experimentation. One of the things I created in art class was baskets made out of raffia produced from palm trees that grew on the marshes. When the leaves were green, we would peel the shiny surfaces and dye them, before creating baskets out of them. My best part of school was art or craft class, or anything having to do with arts and craft.
Due to the nature of your father’s job as a pastor, you travelled quite a bit around Eastern Nigeria; describe your secondary school years.
As part of my father’s job, each year we were moved to a different town, like army families. We travelled extremely often till I completed standard six.I attended a school nine miles outside of Onitsha, called Merchants of Light School, Oba. It was founded by a missionary who came to Nigeria on a mission trip as a principal to one of the best grammar schools in the area.He served as a principal for quite sometime, all the while saving money to build his own school. The name of the school, Merchants of Light, was inspired by the boat with which he had travelled to Nigeria, as well as his desire to market education as a means to make people smarter.
Demas (Nwoko) and I went to high school together. I was a prefect at the time and when he came, everyone said he was as good in drawing as I was. So we met and galvanized and became friends right away. And we continued being friends.At 19, I moved to Lagos. In line with my artistic gift, I was quite skilled in drafting, and got shortlisted at my job in The Post and Telegraph, for a scholarship in England to pursue a career in drafting and engineering. Unfortunately, as a person from the East in the then Western Nigeria,there was a slight issue of tribal profiling going on in my department, which led to a hesitation in my name being submitted for the scholarship. In order to enjoy scholarships for overseas study, I had to work for the Eastern Region government.
I was then given a condition by the regional scholarship board that in order to attain the scholarship, I had to spend a year earning the rights to the scholarship, which led to my application and acceptance to attend Ahmadu Bello University, ABU.When I got admission to ABU, we travelled by train but we encountered a ghastly accident at Lokoja when the train hit another train headon and killed so many young people. For a year, my name was listed among those who were killed. Due to the accident, I had to return to the East, and many people did not know I had survived. But I did.Demas Nwoko and I had been admitted the same year, but I did not make it because of the accident.
This resulted in my being a year behind the other members of the Zaria Art Society, such as Demas Nwoko, Yussuf Grillo, and Uche Okeke. I would have been their classmate had I not gotten into the accident. Because I was so religious and read the Bible, my father thought that God brought me to replace him when he retired as a church minister. Therefore he used to punish me when I came first in (art) class because he concluded that I spent all my time doing art and leaving out the religious factor which was important to him. You should have heard him calling me, “Oseloka!Oseloka!” I knew there was no way out. Eventually, he realised that all the things he was trying to do to sidetrack me from art (was not working) and he realised and said, ‘Maybe God wants you to do that.” So not only did he let me go, he also began to pray for me. Unfortunately, he did not survive to see me graduate.
So tell me about Zaria.
I arrived in 1958 and left in 1962. Zaria was good. I used to have stomach problems so I only ate rice pudding and milk. And I had a straw hat and I used to put it sidewise, and I was almost a tennis star. Then Uche was a bit aloof and eventually he and I and Demas Nwoko became very close. There are a number of photos with us three.
What brought about the establishment of the Zaria Art Society?
Historians looked at that society as being the bedrock of the contemporary art movement in Nigeria.
What made you become a member and what was special about the group’s outlook? Why was the term “Rebels” given to your group? What were you rebelling against?
We had professors who knew it would be helpful for us to form some society. There were students who were very good and clever and Uche Okeke was quite ahead of us. He had like a sixth sense, and he worked very hard and also formed a small group of his own. We all looked up to him because he did not make mistakes and worked very hard. Those students like Uche who were a year or two ahead of us, had the courage to challenge the professors. There was a head of department who had an exhibition at an advanced age. Uche and Demas took him to task. His paintings were very good, but the fact that he was more than twice the age of the oldest students and he considered himself a young artist, we said he had no right to do that. Consider the fact that students had the kind of level of education to challenge the professors and not to mention the head of department. Eventually, he found out what we were saying about him. But there was also a great deal of reaction that had some political impact.
So your master’s degree was looking at the interpretation of religious motifs in traditional architecture?
Yes. And the thing we called Uli became popular. Uche Okeke’s mother was a great story-teller and he learned a lot (from her). He wrote two books on African folktales that I got a lot of inspiration from.
You eventually developed a deeper interest in theatre. How did that transformation happen; from visual art to theatre?
It was inevitable because I needed to get funding. Once I got my master’s, they said they were not going to pay for my doctorate (in art), but they would pay for a master’s in theatre. They knew I was interested in it because I had done some sets while I was in Nsukka, and so Northwestern University opened their arms and received me. But before that, I went to the Goodman School of Drama, where I did another master’s degree. Then when I finished, the (Nigerian) civil war was over but it was not safe to go home so my brothers and sisters said, “don’t come back, or they will draft you into the army” which was an easy way to get killed. These are some of the reasons for continuing in theatre especially when I went to do my doctorate; it caused me to spend 30 years in theatre. A friend of mine, an artist and sculptor who was in the Art Institute always said: “Come home. Come home. Remember you have tools.”
Why did you not go home? After the war there was reconstruction, but you stayed away for over 50 years.
I don’t know. Some of it was like I was conquering a (new)territory. My theatre focus was in scene design which was the closest thing to visual arts, so that was an attraction. And rightly, I used those skills that I brought into visual arts. It was so interesting to use visual art to create set design.
Reflecting on your long and rich career, what were the highlights in terms of art and theater – what are you particularly proud of?
I am very proud of the fact that I brought great plays to the schools I worked in. After spending quite a few years in theatre, my concern became creating a legacy.
So what is the legacy you want to leave behind?
I consider everything that I have done, including my exhibition this November my legacy. I believe I made some important choices which led to Ikemefuna. My concept of reincarnation, as well as other religious and mystical concepts that have led to works that I have done.I have a large work I am currently doing called The Eternal Comings and Goings, which focuses on reincarnation, a topic that is very deep and important to me.