The post-Independence contemporary Nigerian art owes its aesthetic canons to waves of creative currents pioneered by the Zaria Art Society and the informally-trained artists in Osogbo, among others, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

Acycle was about to be closed. What the members of the Zaria Art Society had started in 1958 was about to come to an end that day. The day – Friday, June 16, 1961 – marked the official end of the society with an informal get-together.
Uche Okeke’s room, the venue of this get-together, pulsated with music. Drinks were consumed in copious quantities.

Appropriate speeches bordering on the society and the contribution of its members to the cause of contemporary art in Nigeria were made. “There was great optimism expressed by one and all the entire atmosphere of this last meeting was happy,” Uche Okeke recalled in his diary (excerpts from which were published in the book, The Zaria Art Society: A New Consciousness, edited by Paul Chike Dike and Patricia Oyelola). “Y. A. Grillo and E. O. Nwagbara could not turn up. B. P. O. Onobrakpeya, E. O. Odita, O. O. Osadebe, D. N. Nwoko and I were present. We were all agreed that the spirit of inquiry the Society engendered in us all should continue to march on even in the grave like John Brown’s body.”

Flashback to how it all started. The Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology – a. k. a. NCAST – was about to become affiliated to Goldsmith’s College of London. For many of the tertiary institution’s students, this was a big deal. That meant that the word “London” would add sheen to their certificates. In any case, the art students among them cared little or nothing for a career in art. A cushy job in the Federal Civil Service would amply satisfy their ambitions.

But Uche Okeke and Demas Nwoko saw things differently. Indeed, they were so vocal in their opposition to this idea that they approached the institution’s authorities to insist on its autonomy. Their action paved the way to the eventual formation of the Zaria Art Society on October 9, 1959.

A perusal through the annals of the society revealed that some of its 11 members stayed longer than the others. For instance, Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko and Okechukwu Odita were members from 1958 to 1961. William Olaosebikan and Felix Ekeada were members for just a year (1958 to 1959). If Yusuf Grillo and Simon Okeke were members for only two years, it is because they were a year ahead of the trio of Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Demas Nwoko. While Ogbonnaya Nwagbara and I. M. Omagie/Omigie only joined the Society just a year before its dissolution.

“We didn’t meet to draw or paint…because our curricula took care of that,” Uche Okeke told the US-based art critic Chika Okeke-Agulu in an interview published in the book, The Zaria Art Society: A New Consciousness. “We were concerned about the nature of Nigerian art, what it could mean in the face of our traditional and transitional art. Were we to jettison these and embrace the kind of art taught by our lecturers? These formed the focus of our deliberations then.” Enter the “Natural Synthesis” concept. A concept bequeathed on the contemporary Nigerian art lexicon by the group. And one that would pave its aesthetic direction.

Yusuf Grillo, one of the society’s pioneer member, explained that the society only went with the flow of the concept rather than invent it. “It more or less provided the packaging,” he said. “Everybody… agreed that if you were a Yoruba, you didn’t have to throw away your Yoruba background. We envisioned a kind of synthesis that would bring out art from our ‘tribal’ enclaves and put them on the platform of national significance.”

Therefore, the concept, according to him, “is so natural that one doesn’t need to talk about it. It is something that comes naturally with any artist who is sincere, any artist who is self-examining, any artist trying to discover himself. It has to be Natural Synthesis if it has to be sincere.”

Further explaining the concept, he evoked the metaphor of a well-laid out buffet table. From this table, the connoisseur would always take what appealed to him. “Your body process digests all [that you have eaten] and eliminates so much it doesn’t need.”

Similarly, the artist becomes one with his work so much that it can no longer be separated from him. That also would explain why people may see the same thing but assimilate it differently according to their nature. “It is your spirit. What you reject could be what another person assimilates.”
The Zaria Art Society may not have invented the concept, as Grillo himself implied, but it did focus the trends in the local art scene along that direction.

The call to duty soon dispersed the Zaria Art Society members to their different posts. Uche Okeke laid the foundations of University of Nigeria Nsukka’s Fine and Applied Arts Department. The department, which espouses the Uli credo as its core aesthetic philosophy, has produced artistic greats like Olu Oguibe, Sylvester Ogbechie, Chijioke Onuorah, Chika Okeke-Agulu, Marcia Kure and Krydz Ikwuemesi. Art teachers like the Ghanaian-born El Anatsui, Chuka Amaefunah, Chike Aniakor and Obiora Udechukwu helped nurture and crystallise the foundation dreams of the department. Okeke retired to the Asele Institute in his hometown, Nimo in Anambra State.

Further, Bruce Onobrapkeya is best known for his Harmattan Workshop series, unarguably the biggest annual gathering of visual artists in sub-Saharan Africa. Okechukwu Odita, from his base in the US has made several forays into the local art scene with his K-12 workshops. Grillo pioneered the Yaba College of Technology’s Art School. And Demas Nwoko became a leading light and reference point in architecture.

But there was a second creative wave. This was pioneered by the German-born Ulli Beier, who was drawn to the scene in 1960. Ditto Michael Crowder, who was the then director of Ministry of Information’s Exhibition Centre along the Lagos Marina as well as editor of the defunct Nigeria Magazine and a lecturer at the University of Ibadan’s School of Extra-Mural Studies. The activities of these two initiated the society’s members into series of workshops, seminars, symposia and exhibitions.

Fast-forward to a few years later. Ulli Beier, in a collaboration with his then spouse Austrian-born Susanne Wenger, instituted a workshop in the south-western Nigerian town of Osogbo for a group of artisans. These artisans, thanks to the workshop, would become professional artists, whose efforts – though initially derided by the formally-trained artists – earned them recognition beyond Nigeria’s borders. Thus emerged such Osogbo-trained titans as Jimoh Buraimoh, Muraina Oyelami, Twins Seven-Seven, Rufus Ogundele and Nike Davies-Okundaye among a host of others.
More creative tributaries, emerging from these currents, have since added so much colour and oomph to the talent-glutted Nigerian art scene.