Navigating Nigerian art history, Zarianists, among other issues

L-R Dr. Filani and Prince Shyllon

Is the artist Yusuf Grillo a member of the Zaria Rebels? Are Nigeria art historians on the right path? How does one classify Nigerian art and why do Nigerian artists prefer to be recognised as global rather than as Nigerian?

These questions came out of the paper delivered by Dr. Kunle Filani at the second edition of the quarterly OYASAF Lecture Series in Lagos on January 26. Titled: “Contemporary Art in Nigeria: Contextual Navigation through the Web of History”, so succinct was the lecturer that Mr. Toyin Akinosho, who is secretary general of the Committee for Relevant Art, CORA, declared that it was “10 papers in one”.



Akinosho, however, pointed out that Grillo mentioned in Dr. Filani’s paper as being a Zarianist, was actually a year before that class famously regarded as the ‘Zaria Rebels’. “Grillo, according to Okeke (Uche Okeke-Agulu), was not a member of the Zaria rebels”, Akinosho stated.

His statement elicited comments from many of those in attendance including Filani, who said that was news to him.

“I’m surprised, this is the first time I’m hearing that Grillo is not a member of the Zaria Rebels”, Filani said.

Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, an art collector, who has invested so much in the Grillo name even naming an art pavilion after the great Nigerian artist, said some of the issues raised, “warrant us to get students and art historians who will amplify them”.

“I want to provide N1m under OYASAF moderation to find some of the answers to the issues. One tiny one that I’ve stumbled on is the argument about who and who constitutes the Zarianists”, he declared.

But there were many other issues. After listening to the exchange that ensued after the lecture, Professor Frank Ugiomoh of the University of Port Harcourt, UNIPORT, who had delivered the very first lecture in the series in October last year made a profound statement. He said: “I keep advocating that if we don’t interrogate ideology that occurred at various times in history against the forms they generate, we will have nothing to learn”.

There was much to learn from the issues that came up though. For instance, Prince Yemisi Shyllon, whose OYASAF convened the event, adding voice to the Zarianist matter, said Akinosho’s position and that of Filani were different “so scholars should help throw light on where lies the truth”. He recalled that it was a scholar on fellowship at OYASAF that had made it easier to understand better the origin of ONA school of art.

Dr. Kunle Adeyemi of the Yaba College of Technology, himself an artist, said, like many of the people who spoke, that art in Nigeria will go a long way with what OYASAF, VASON, Yusuf Grillo Pavilion are doing, “providing an avenue to discuss contemporary Nigerian art”.

He said that because of the split identity consciousness that Filani mentioned in his paper, he doubted whether the art historians that went away to the West would tell those who pay them the truth when it comes to the place of Nigerian or African art. “He who pays the piper dictates the tune; those in the Diaspora have to eat and they need to play a level ground so their appointments may not be terminated”, he explained.

For art collector, Sammy Olagbaju, there was no point quibbling over classification, whether this is Nigerian, African, Igbo or Tiv art. “The facts are that Yoruba art, Kanuri art, whatever, are major civilisations, so that is how I look at it”, he said. He was in agreement with Chuka Nnabuife, an artist and journalist, who said he had an axe to grind with classification and identification of Nigerian art. Our interrogation of this issue of progression of art, he said, tends to go the line that the Western scholars whom we challenge will prefer.

“My worry is that we are trying to be correct. But what about going out of the box? If at this age of our art scholarship and the interrogation of issues we have not really situated our art history and connected with the findings in Esie, Igbo Ukwu, Nok, if we have not managed to connect our creative stream up to this moment then this generation has not done much”, Nnabuife said.

He suggested that like the Japanese, Chinese and the Koreans have done, we can actually set our intellectual facility to trace our root towards where these art happen to be Nigerian.

Poet and essayist Odia Ofeimun’s worry is about matching the forms in traditional African poetry to the poetry written today.

He said this is because there are not enough enterprising literary critics. “I find that the descriptions you are all bothering about are actually part of the same tradition that you are critiquing. We are all still behaving like anthropologists; we have not reached that point of aesthetic insertion, which enables us to bridge the contexts that we are using within the various forms. We do need to go beyond anthropology”, he said.

President of the Society of Nigerian Artist, SNA, Oliver Enwonwu, wondered what the common denominator in defining Nigerian contemporary art is and whether Nigerian artists want to be defined as such?

“I think we should be engaged more in the content and that is the only way in which we can define ourselves, whether modern or contemporary artists and actually defining Nigerian art in itself. I think Nigerian art has been dealing with the wrong things that is why we are not being taken into the international scene”, he said.

OYASAF, which stands for the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation organised the lecture in conjunction with WOTASIDE Art Studios run by the artist and teacher, Olu Amoda.

Shyllon said at the event that the idea behind the lecture was informed by the reaction from people to the effect that OYASAF was promoting scholarly activities by inviting scholars from different parts of the world to come and take from us without creating something within ourselves.

If nothing else, the issues raised at the lecture and the quality of the members of the audience is justification enough for OYASAF to forge ahead with the lecture, which Shyllon said plans for the remaining three editions in the year have already been concluded.

Filani’s paper dwelt on African art, globalisation, opening up and bringing our art into the international context. He looked at globalisation as having led to the increase in scholars interested in studying African art within African methodology. Not forgetting the contribution of people like Frank Ugiomoh, Babatunde Lawal and Ulli Beier, among others, as well as the interrogation of our creative history and those who have interrogated our creative history.

An overview of Nigerian art history, what is Nigerian art? Is there something common that we can allude to as Nigerian art? What is contemporary as against what is modern art? The essence of continuity, what we have is Yoruba art, Igbo art and so on and so forth since art developed along ethnic lines in Nigeria. Classification of our art within the formal and informal school, those who went to university and those who did not but rather attended workshops. There is also the chronological approach which takes cognisance of the early, middle and late periods.

Filani concluded his paper with a song which lesson he said is that art appreciation and perspectives in scholarship are most profound when acknowledged within expanded creative diversity.


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