Even after a trailblazing career as one of the contemporary Nigerian leading artists, David Dale devoted his last years to producing masterly works despite the debilitating effects of his ill health. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes

Perhaps, sobering was the right word. Or, how else should one have described that feeling that trailed the waking up that Tuesday, August 6 morning to the sad news? That David Herbert Dale had given up the ghost! Words, sensing how superfluous they could be under such circumstances, refused to lend themselves to expression. Hence, the brief silence that followed…

So, he had to go this way, after all! Hope had stubbornly lingered despite his deteriorating health condition. Hadn’t he once “prophesied” that he would be permitted to live up to 93 years? This was years back when he still lived in that verdant islet of sanity he had called his home, which was at 52, Adebola Street in the Surulere neighbourhood of Lagos.

Really, his recent health condition should have left any dispassionate observer with little hope. The body of the 71-year-old, who could have turned 72 in November 22, could only take so much! Throughout the duration of his month-long hospitalisation in the Military Hospital in the Yaba area of Lagos, one complication had followed on the heels of the other.

The man, whose café au lait complexion attested to his British and Nigerian parentage, earned his stripes as one of Nigeria’s undisputed artistic greats. He did a great job churning out stained-glass paintings, mosaic designs, etchings, charcoal and water colour paintings as well as metal sculptures. And these have remained prized works among aficionados. Among his most notable works in recent memory are his stained-glass depictions of religious themes, which adorn Our Saviour’s Church close to the Tafawa Balewa Square in Onikan, Lagos; his mosaic works for St. Agnes Church in the Lagos Mainland neighbourhood of Maryland and Chief Razak Okoya’s estate along Lekki Expressway and a mural for the MTN Building in Ibadan. This is in addition to other works at the State House, Marina and the Shell and the Nigerian Stock Exchange buildings, among others.

Once hailed by the University of Nigeria, Nsukka-based art historian Professor Ola Oloidi for working successfully in 23 artistic media, Dale would at a stage in his career devote so much time and energy on bead paintings and etchings. The latter, he had to give up because of arthritis. As for the bead paintings, the founder of OYASAF – acronym for Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation – Omooba Yemisi Shyllon said: “He built upon the pioneering effort of Jimoh Braimoh in producing larger-than-life works in realistic and impressionistic forms.”

Yet, it was these bead paintings that continually exposed him to the hazardous use of Araldite. Perhaps, he was underestimating its side effects when he shrugged it off as an occupational hazard. For it was doubtful that he would have been indifferent to the impending danger that eventually plunged him into an agonising period in his life. First, he had had to abandon several commissioned bead paintings he was working on to seek urgent medical attention in the US. Then, he was forced to put health first even when trying to earn his living as an artist. This was why he had to seek the help of two Finnish doctors, who prescribed kelp and eucalyptus oil. These herbal remedies, he was assured, had no side effects like the orthodox medicine he had earlier been given in the US during his medical evacuation. And, of course, these would have cost him a fortune!

But he had benefactors like Omooba Yemisi Shyllon and his two now deceased friends, Sammy Olagbaju and Rasheed Gbadamosi, as well as Femi Majekodunmi and others, to thank for coming to his aid. To his last days, he remained grateful to the efforts of Olasehinde Odimayo, who owns the Africa Treasure House Gallery, and of the Arthouse Contemporary Limited’s Kavita Chellaram and her staff. “I give Shyllon the credit for helping procure kelp from the US and the UK,” Dale said in an interview not so long after the experience. “This was most kind of him.”

It took him a while to gradually claw himself back to relevance. Perhaps, his abrupt relocation to Akute in the neighbouring Ogun State did not help matters. His friend and collector, Olaseinde Odimayo believes he “died the day he left his 52, Adebola Street, Surulere residence…” Ever since then, things seemed to have begun to move southwards for the artist. He had suffered a mild stroke just as he was about to return to his studio practice. Then, he was plunged into a coma, which lasted for 12 days. Because the stroke affected none of his limbs and only left him with a partial facial disfigurement, he still didn’t lose hope. Also, the debilitating effects of diabetes and old age took their toll on his effervescence. Oh, how he wished he would produce works the way he used to!

Moved to compassion for him, Gbadamosi had organised an art soirée in his honour at his office in Southwest Ikoyi. Featured at that event, which was his first outing since his ordeal, were 21 new works consisting of oil paintings, bead works, stained-glass and engravings alongside 30 other works culled from the Chief Gbadamosi, Olagbaju and Odimayo private collections.

Gradually, it was beginning to look as if he would successfully put the stroke behind him. But then, so many commissioned works were awaiting his attention. “I’m trying so much to cope but there is so much I can do for the time being,” he once lamented.

His deplorable condition led once more to his embarking to further medical trips. The first, which was sponsored by his sister Mrs Victoria Spiff and General Tunde Reids, was to Germany in 2014. The second, sponsored by the business mogul and the CEO of the telecommunication giant Globacom, Dr Mike Adeniyi Adenuga, was to Dakar in Senegal. Upon his return from these trips, the artist had continued to struggle for his daily subsistence until his recent hospitalisation.

To this man – whose English father was a quintessential “colonial gone native” and Nigerian mother, a Itsekiri woman – the art community owes a lot. This was not only for his masterly works, but also for his mentorship of younger generation of artists. Dale, a lifelong philanthropist, literally burnt himself out in the service of others.

He, as one of the eight children of the mixed marriage, was born in Kano and was sent to England when he was only two years old. There, he lived with his paternal aunt Johanna Ernest in Burrswood, a community founded in 1948 by the Christian healing visionary Dorothy Kerin (1889 -1963). It was with his Aunt Johanna that he developed a predilection for horticulture, which transformed his former residence in Surulere into a verdant oasis amidst identical rows of grimy masonry.

The sudden death of his father in Lagos in 1963 forced him to return to Nigeria. That implied his continuing his education at St Gregory’s College in Obalende, Lagos, where he studied art under the tutelage of the master artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya.
Later, he had gained admission to study fine and applied arts at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. After his graduation in 1971, he became actively involved in studio practice. Not so long afterwards, he was chosen by the then Federal Military Government as one of the Nigerian artists who embarked on a six-month tour of countries behind the so-called Iron Curtain. Hence, the tour had taken them to the former USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), the old Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia as well as Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania.

He was later appointed the graphic consultant of the second Festival of Black and African Arts and Culture (also known as FESTAC ’77) art exhibition. This was the same year he resumed at the University of Lagos to teach art to architecture students.

Taking up this appointment didn’t affect his studio practice. Nor did it make him abandon a concurrent appointment with Akrel Advertising, which he later left in 1984. As for the teaching appointment, it had lasted until 1990.

Meanwhile, Dale has attended several workshops and has held over three scores of exhibitions both within and outside Nigeria. “He has left a void that would be very difficult to fill in the visual art sub-sector where he was a major player for more than four decades,” the acting director-general of the National Gallery of Art, Dr Simon Ikpakronyi said in a tribute . “He will be greatly missed by the arts community. Our prayers go to the immediate family especially his daughter, Mrs. Patience Ejeba for succour and strength at a time like this.”

Other tributes came from the Society of Nigerian Artists and the Thought Pyramid Art Centre. While the SNA hailed his “hugely successful career spanning over four decades” and celebrated his mastery, which “is also clearly evident in his many oils, watercolours, bead paintings, gouaches, wrought iron, etchings, mosaics and lino prints”, the Thought Pyramid Art Centre, based in Abuja and Lagos, described him as an “artist extraordinaire and a great man.”