By Osa Amadi, Arts Editor
HE is called a barber, architect, drummer, journalist, photographer and other things, all of which he is. The one word, however, that encapsulates who Smart-Cole is ‘artist’. Sunmi Smart-Cole was born in Port Harcourt on September 25, 1941, to a Nigerian mother and a Sierra Leonean father.
His formal education ended at 15 as a result of financial constraints at home – his mother who brought him up was a petty trader.
The family must have suffered a reversal of fortune, for Smart-Cole was born into what looked like a life of privilege. His grandfather was the pioneer Principal of Abeokuta Grammar and later the first resident vicar at Yaba. His father was educated. Due to the high educational standards in those days, the Standard Six School Certificate qualified the holder for employment as a teacher in the primary school. Also determined to make something out of his life, the lad embarked on a journey of self-education through buying and reading of old books and magazines like Time magazine, News Week, Readers Digest and others. “I learnt how to speak in English by always waking up between 4.00 and 5.00 am to listen to the BBC radio,” he says.
This combination of his Standard Six School Certificate and the self-help efforts at education prepared him and made it possible for Smart-Cole to become a primary school teacher at about the same time his formal education stopped. He taught in Primary 1 and 2 in Port Harcourt. At 17, he became apprenticed to an architectural draughtsman who taught him the rudiments of architecture.
“I had the dubious distinction of designing the washrooms at Ikoyi Club, Lagos, when I worked with Nixon and Boris, the country home of the Prime Minister of Sierra Leone, Sir Albert Margarai, in his village, Gbamgbatoke,” Smart-Cole says. “I also designed an extension to the house of Mr Johnie Smythe, QC, a one-time Attorney General of Sierra Leone and another house with a swimming pool at the top, for BBC presenter of “Good Morning Africa” programme, Pete Myers.
In 1966, when Smart-Cole was 25, the late musicologist, Steve Rhodes, appointed him Artist and Road Manager in his company, which gave him an opportunity to, according to him, “road-manage musicians like Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Koola Lobitos, Victor Uwaifo, Sunny Okosun, British singer, Militants Small of the M Boy Lollipo fame, Ghanaian dancing group, the Rolling Beats, and Pat Finn and The Hikers.” Earlier in 1964, he had organised the first Nigerian Jazz festival at King’s College Hall in Lagos.
Always utilising opportunities to learn, Smart-Cole, through such close association with some of the best musicians in the country, learned to be a drummer. “I had been adjudged to be one of the best drummers in Nigeria and was a founding member of the Soul and Jazz group, The Soul Assembly, reputed for bringing and popularising African-American Soul music to Nigeria,” he says.
Sunmi Smart-Cole also became a barber. In 1967, his barbershop, called “Sunmi’s Place”, at number 1 McEwen Street, off Herbert Macaulay Way, Yaba, was a trend-setting centre for the fashionable Lagos elite. The barbershop, Cole says, was also a cultural centre. People went there to read foreign newspapers and magazines which were banned during the Civil War.
They also went there to listen to Jazz, Soul and Classical music. Smart-Cole is sometimes ridiculed as having been ‘once an ordinary barber’. But barbing was an occupation usually combined with medical practice in Europe during the Middle Ages. They were called barber-surgeons.
In September 1972, Smart-Cole shut down his barbershop and travelled to the United States of America where he lived for ten years. He lived in Mountain View, California, where he worked with VIDAR Corporation as a Technical Illustrator and Architectural Drafter. In 1976, he began to study photography at Foothill College, Los Alto, California. It was photography that best defined Sunmi-Smart Cole as an artist and offered him a place of honour under the sun. “I went into photography in America because I wanted something that would bring out the real artist in me,” he says.
Sunmi held his first solo exhibition at Stanford University, Stanford, California, in 1978. That same year, Aig-Imokouede, director of Arts and Culture at the National Arts Theatre asked Smart-Cole, who had planned to stay on in America, to come home to exhibit his works. In December 1978, he was invited by the National Council for Arts and Culture to mount an exhibition at the National Arts Theatre, Lagos. He finally returned to Nigeria in 1982. In 1983, he became the first photo editor of The Guardian Newspaper.
Sunmi Smart-Cole is a multi-award winner.