Even as an octogenarian, Adebanjo Fasuyi’s sights are set on leaving behind an enduring legacy for the art community. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

Adebanjo Fasuyi has obviously savoured series of limelight moments. Yet, not even this luminary, with whose name has been associated many firsts, is immune to a narrative arc that sometimes sees stars plunge beneath the horizon. Indeed, it is no easy task keeping track of the many artistic talents in this documentation-challenged local art scene. This should explain why Abdullahi Sabo Muku, the National Gallery’ of Art’s director-general had previously heard of him.

“When Simon Ikpakronyi, our director, Planning and Research, first mentioned the name Adebanjo Fasuyi to me, I must confess it did not ring a bell,”Muku told a gathering at TAFAS Gallery in Ikeja, Lagos recently. “But by the time he added that Fasuyi was the first graduate of painting with a first-class degree from [the] then Nigerian College of Arts, Science & Technology (NCAST), the forerunner of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in 1959, I could not only pay attention, but also became excited. I wanted to know more about him and I thought that many more people would be curious to find out more about the man.”

Muku was right. For many were the aficionados gathered at the public presentation of the book, Timothy Adebanjo Fasuyi: A Renowned Artist & Contemporary Educationist, that Saturday, April 21 evening, who were awed by the artist’s accomplishments. And for the artist, for whom the occasion was also an extension of his 83rd birthday celebrations activities, it was also a time to extend his goodwill to the art community. This, he did by conferring awards on a coterie of collectors, his older and younger colleagues, media practitioners as well as on students.

Now, thanks to the National Gallery of Art’s efforts at documentation – which was initiated by its pioneer director-general, Dr Paul Chike Dike, and continued by Muku – the name Fasuyi has once more regained its place in the industry’s consciousness. Above all, his place as a predecessor of the more-renowned Zaria Art Society members – tagged the “Zaria Rebels” – has been established. The NGA-initiated research scoured into the archives to dredge up how the pioneer students of NCAST lived, studied and interacted with their mostly expatriate teachers. It also unearthed the artist’s early life, career and late return to professional practice.

On Fasuyi’s late return to professional practice, Muku had commended his “abiding interest” in art practice, which sees him not only returning to painting and sculpting at 83, but also for reviving TAFAS Gallery, the venue of the book presentation. The proceedings at the high-profile event, graced by the crème de la crème of the local art community, were steered by Omooba Yemisi Shyllon (who chaired the occasion), Professor Bruce Onobrakpeya (the keynote speaker), Ambassador Umaru Azores Sulaiman (the chief host), Dr Paul Chike Dike (the book presenter) and Muku, who was the host.

Among the other industry’s leading lights at the event were Jerome Elaiho, Chief (Mrs) Aino Oni-Okpako, Dr Kunle Filani, the artist Dr Ademola Azeez, Dr Kunle Adeyemi and the SNA national president, Oliver Enwonwu.

For a man whose lustrous career spanned over three decades, Fasuyi deserves all the accolades showered on him at the event. Among the glittering high-points of this career was succeeding the late Professor Enwonwu as the federal art adviser and being instrumental to the formation of the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC). The latter was the end-product of the amalgamation between the Maitama Sule-led Northern Cultural Society and the Kola Balogun-led Lagos Arts Council. He was also a member of the Committee for National Festival of Arts and Culture (NAFEST) and was briefly on the FESTAC ’77 Committee.

Fasuyi’s complementary interest in education explains his powerful impact on the sector. Besides having held such high-profile positions as secretary-general of UNESCO National Commission and secretary to the Federal Scholarship Board, among others, he founded the Pre-varsity Education and Cultural Centre, which later had branches in the Agege neighbourhood of Lagos and in his home town Ilesa in Osun State.

Education, indeed, offered him the platform to advance the cause of the visual arts. As the first art teacher at King’s College, Lagos, he taught the subject up to Higher School Certificate (HSC) level. It was during his tenure as executive secretary of Federal Scholarship Board that scholarships were awarded for the first time in courses like law, economics, Nigerian languages, art, drama and music. “The last three (art, drama and music), I brought to post-graduate level,” the octogenarian told an interviewer. “Before then, post-graduate scholarship was exclusively for medicine and engineering.”

Fasuyi owes his passion for art to his family background and destiny. He was born in a family of craftsmen in the Osun State town of Ilesa. It is from this family he believes he inherited his talent and interest in art. On it being the dictates of destiny, he explained: “It is believed in Yoruba mythology that everybody is created for a purpose and that your life’s activities revolve around your destiny.”

Reviving his TAFAS Gallery is one way of fulfilling his life’s purpose. In the sprawling space, there is a permanent exhibition of his works, which could be viewed by the members of the public from 10 am to 6 pm free of charge. “Every year, I hold a special solo exhibition around my birthday to showcase my creative efforts of the out-going year,” he added.

This gallery, arguably the first private gallery in Nigeria, was opened in 1975 to mark his 40th birthday. Its formal opening was graced by Professor Solomon Wangboje, Professor Adamu Baike and prominent art personalities like Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Erhabor Emokpae, Jerome Elaiho, Segun Olusola, Dr S. Adedeji and Uche Okeke, among others.

At 83, Fasuyi’s sights are set on revitalising the Society of Nigerian Artists, which he co-founded, facilitating regular informal gathering of artists as well as building a hall of fame and creating a compendium for artists, among other things. Awestricken by the recent sale of a Ben Enwonwu painting for over a million pounds, he hopes that one of his work would also become an international commodity 25 after his death.

A promising future was awaiting him after his graduation in 1959 from NCAST, where he was not only the first graduate painter and the first to make a first-class result, but also the winner of the special Sir Sidney Philipson Prize for the best result among the three colleges of the tertiary institution. He had first worked in the Ondo State town of Owo before relocating to Lagos.

Lagos, shortly after Nigeria’s independence in 1960, used to be a serene littoral city with “no chaos, no go-slow”, he told his interviewer. “Life was indeed really good,” he reminisced. “At that time in Lagos, you could drive from Race Course to Ikorodu Road (precisely, Bobby Benson’s Hotel) and go back two times in five hours… You could stay at a night club till 2 am and go home peacefully. The entire city was safe.”

His post-graduation experience was a healthy mishmash of work and pleasure. He has seen it all: success, position and fame. But his message to the younger generation of artists is “to endeavour to sustain their campaign against the evils of the society.” This, he added, is by continuing to produce works that will make Nigeria great and improve her economy.