Visual Art-mosphere in Post-Independence Nigeria 

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Yinka Olatunbosun argues that the trends in contemporary visual arts in Nigeria may share certain economic semblances with Nigeria’s crude oil

Almost everyone knows the story of Nigeria’s crude oil. In chemistry, it’s called sweet petroleum, a toast of oil prospectors. The lack of functional oil refinery has however necessitated the process of exporting the crude for refining and later, importing it to be sold at some rather ridiculously high prices back to its native producers, usually consumed on short-term basis.

As it stands, the contemporary visual art scene in Nigeria has gradually assumed the same economic role. Starting from the father of contemporary art in Nigeria, Aina Onabolu, the visual art stage is decorated with enormous talents bred through different movements and schools of art. 

It started with our traditional art that encompasses wood carvings, pottery, weavings, paintings of walls and shrines, body art such as face marking, body painting or tatoo, beaded art, amongst others. But with colonial intrusion, the narrative took a different shape. Perhaps to clapback on the nation’s demand for independence, some of our most revered arts and artifacts were looted and are in custody of the west. While some had been returned after much diplomatic interventions and outcries, others are still in the tight grip of world acclaimed museums in Europe. Again, our art pieces are as good, if not better than crude oil. Unlike the dwindling crude oil prices, art works, as long as they remain in good condition, appreciate in economic value as the years pass by.

A case in point is found in Ben Enwonwu’s works. Enwonwu belongs to the first generation of artists who enjoyed the tutelage of the British art educator hired by Nigerian government, Kennett Murray in 1927 to teach art in secondary schools such as the Government College in Ibadan and Umuahia. Onabolu had requested for Murray’s employment having been overwhelmed with the arduous task of laying the foundation of modern art education in Nigeria. 

Inspired by Murray’s lessons, Enwonwu continued his art education at Goldsmith College, Ruskin College and Slade School of Fine Arts, Oxford and returned to teach art in Nigerian schools. Enwonwu became the most influential artist of the 20thcentury, winning several awards. Fast-forward to present day, the post-humous sale of his 1973 work, “Tutu’’ at £1, 205,000 earlier this year was a record-breaker.

While colonial education may have propelled contemporary art development in Nigeria, the blend of African tradition and Euro-American art styles cultivated fresh talents. From the informal art workshops to the various formal art schools in Nigeria, contemporary art scene in Nigeria became partitioned into schools and movements on the basis of shared philosophy, thematic preoccupation, styles and forms. 

Unlike the formal schools of art, the informal schools of art had no syllabus; offered freedom from rigid perspectives. The Osogbo school sprung from the Mbari Artists and Writers’ Club, Ibadan, co-founded by Ulli Beier Ibadan and birthed Mbari Mbayo in Osogbo with the contributions of Georgina Beier and Susanne Wenger. Later Beier and Duro Ladipo founded the Ori Olokun workshop.

The eastern parallel to this informal art movement is Aka Group; the Eye society; the Ona movement; Pan African Circle of Artists as well as Culture and Creative Art forum.

Currently, there are trends pointing to the rise of artists of Nigerian descent making significant contributions to cultural life across the globe. For instance, the British-Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare’s works are the envy of world’s leading museums. With a physically challenging condition, United Kingdom is a preferred home of Shonibare since the age of 17 in terms of humane living conditions and enabling infrastructure.

Laolu Senbanjo, a Nigerian artist living in New York made a resounding contribution to Beyonce’s critically acclaimed visual album, Lemonade with the body art and paintings that evoked the spirit of Kalakuta queens. He had since been enjoying juicy deals from international brands, and had only relocated to the US in 2013.

Another commercially successful artist, Njideka Akunyili-Crosby migrated to the United States at 16 when her mother, the former NAFDAC Boss, Dora Akunyili won the Green Card lottery. Her name dominated in global news when she won the genius grant from the John D. and Catherin T. MacArthur Foundation worth $625,000 and was named Financial Times Woman of the Year in 2016.

Now, these aforementioned artists return to Nigeria as guests, not necessarily to help grow the knowledge economy as their predecessors. Our contemporary art practice space exists without much grant opportunities, contemporary museums and other structures that attract Nigerian artists to study, work and settle abroad. 

With this trend, this generation will likely produce brilliant artists who will get imported on short-term basis, glorify Nigeria with some posts on social media and return to where the land is green, in figurative terms.