A group exhibition in Lagos, celebrating 50 years of Osogbo Art School’s existence, only lifts a corner of the veil on its vibrancy, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

Could there still be any aficionado, who hasn’t heard of the quintet? That would be rather far-fetched, for these artistic icons have been around long enough to etch themselves into the industry’s consciousness. And for them, worming their way into the embrace of both local and international art circles was just a matter of time.

The artists, who have come to be known as the members of the Osogbo Art School, were actually products of a workshop experiment by German-born Horst Ulrich Beier, better known as Ulli Beier, and his English-born second wife Georgina held in the south-western town of Osogbo in the early ’60s.

So, featuring at an on-going exhibition at Thought Pyramid Art Centre Lagos, along Norman Williams Street in South-West Ikoyi, Lagos are the works of five of this famous art school’s leading lights: Muraina Oyelami, Jimoh Buraimoh, Rufus Ogundele, Twins Seven Seven and Adebisi Fabunmi. The exhibition, titled Vision of the Last Quarter, opened on Friday, March 30 and will be concluded on Sunday, April 15.

Because the celebration of the Osogbo Art School has become a very culturally correct thing to do, the exhibition was guaranteed to elicit the interest of the Lagos art community, more than any other held so far at the venue this year. Indeed, a celebration of the exploits of the once sneered-at art informal art school goes hand-in-hand with reverence for traditional Yoruba arts and culture.
This explained Beier’s enthusiasm for the Yoruba cultural heritage while he lectured at the University of Ibadan and which saw him visit south-western Nigerian towns like Ede, Ilobu and Osogbo. He had, in 1961, first co-founded the Mbari Artists and Writers Club in Ibadan, which had the likes of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka as members. Then, he had co-founded Mbari-Mbayo with the dramatist Duro Ladipo in Osogbo the following year. With his wife Georgina, who designed costumes and sets for Duro Ladipo’s theatre, he conducted the Osogbo workshop from 1963 to 1966. Thus, the couple became catalysts for the spectacular evolution of the careers of the exhibiting quintet.

The exhibition beams the spotlight on this art school’s 50 years of existence. This is even when it has actually been around for a little longer than that. “The exhibition looks at the evolution of Osogbo art from the ’60s till date, using the works of Muraina Oyelami, Jimoh Buraimoh, Rufus Ogundele, Twin Seven Seven and Adebisi Fabunmi… telling the story of the journey from Osogbo to the world. A journey that has been filled with a lot of revelations, discovery and immense success, a journey so successful that it has become a movement; a movement so strong and influential that it has become a lifestyle; a lifestyle so unique and captivating that it has garnered the praise and respect of art communities all over the world,” explains Jeff Ajueshi, the Thought Pyramid Art Centre’s director.

Vision of the Last Quarter, is also a collaboration between Ajueshi’s Thought Pyramid Art Centre Lagos and the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (CBCIU). Recall that the Thought Pyramid Art Centre had last year hosted a similar exhibition in Abuja.

Apparently, the exhibiting artists had influenced and mentored younger generations of Osogbo-based artists, whose works have inundated the Lagos art scene. Their influences have also extended to the academia, where their efforts had been previously viewed derisively as “naive”. Even the annual Harmattan Workshop organised in the Delta State town of Agbarha-Otor at the instance of the highly revered elder of the Nigerian art scene Bruce Onobrakpeya seemed to have drawn some of its inspirations from the Osogbo Workshop experiment. Thus, the legacy of the informal art school – partly forged by the stimulus of the Beiers and the late Austrian-born Osun-Osogbo priestess, Susanne Wenger – was handed down from generation to generation.

The art school’s informality, which was at odds the tenets of the formal art schools, turned out to be its unique selling point. Curiously, it was and is still being celebrated for its iconoclasm. “All inhibitions of academia and pedagogical bottlenecks were broken,” explained Sam Ovraiti, one of Nigeria’s leading artists. “A new informal method of teaching art and looking at its products was ushered in the art system in Nigeria making art created by workshop trained artists accepted as quality art.”

Even so, not much would be left of the Osogbo art legacy without the works of these exhibiting artists, whose renown as visual arts titans have transcended their origins. They have also been known to have made spectacular forays not only in the local art scene, but also into the international exhibition platform.

Take 78-year-old Oyelami, who works from his home town Iragiji, for instance. His works have been featured in venues across the globe like the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, Staatlichen Kunsthalle in Berlin, Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC and Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, among many others. The fact that he double as both a painter and a great performing artist extends his sphere of expression. Besides being among the early artists of the Osogbo Art School, he also studied technical theatre specialising at the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in Ile-Ife, where he later taught traditional music from 1975 to 1987.

In addition, he was once a guest of the Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw, Poland, artist in residence and fellow of the National Black Theatre in Harlem, New York, and guest professor of African Studies at the University of Bayreuth, Germany.

The works of this one-time member of the Duro Ladipo Theatre Company depict his experiences, stories, folktales and landscapes.
Similarly, Buraimoh has also basked in the international limelight with his works gracing exhibitions in both local and international scene. His works, which blend the Western aesthetics with Yoruba motifs have also found their way into prestigious venues like the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington, DC.

The 1996 recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Center for African and African-American Art and Culture in San Francisco, California also bagged an Award of Excellence from the Atlanta Urban Design Commission as The Best Mosaic Mural of the Year with his 1997 mosaic mural, titled “The Elders”, which was commissioned by the City of Atlanta, Georgia USA and installed in the City Howell Park.

As for Ogundele, his works are rooted in his traditional Yoruba culture and religion. A self-confessed adept of the Yoruba god of iron, his works have also made waves on the international stage, featuring in exhibitions in the USA, the UK, Germany, Ghana, Kenya, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Japan and Nigeria.

Fabunmi, who seems fixated on traditional Yoruba images, has held several solo exhibitions in Nigeria and in Kenya in addition to a major retrospective in Bayreuth, Germany in 1989. His works has been displayed in group exhibitions in London, New York, Vienna and Prague, among others. Then, there was the late Prince Taiwo Olaniyi Oyewale-Toyeje Oyelale Osuntoki, a. k. a. Twins Seven Seven, whose works were influenced by traditional Yoruba mythology and culture. Thus, his representations offered a fantastic universe of humans, animals, plants and Yoruba gods.

Back in the 1990s his works were displayed in major exhibitions in Spain, Finland, Mexico, the Netherlands, England, Germany, and the US.

Thus, Twins Seven Seven, who died at 67 in Ibadan on 16 June 2011 as a result of complications from a stroke, became one of the most celebrated artists of the Osogbo Art School.

As for the Thought Pyramid Art Centre exhibition, it only lifts a corner of the veil on the vibrancy of the school’s products, who also express themselves on other platforms.