Art and the Man Called Jimoh Akolo 

Despite his enviable career highlights as one of Nigeria’s visual arts luminaries, the octogenarian artist, Jimoh Akolo, consistently shunned the limelight until his demise. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes

Fame  just wouldn’t let  Jimoh Bola Akolo (a.k.a. Jimoh Akolo) be. Instead, it tracked him down to his hometown, Egbe, in Kogi State. This was where this reticent contemporary of the trail-blazing Zaria Art Society members had relocated—and sought a haven of peace, so to speak—after retirement from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, sometime between the end of 1999 and early 2000.

Oftentimes, Akolo’s name had continually popped up among aficionados in local, informed art circles who, seemingly scandalised by the scant attention he was getting in the amnesia-prone art scene, took decisive steps towards redressing the anomaly. Besides his proficiency in painting, which predated his years at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology (abbreviated as NCAST) in Zaria and had earned him several awards at the Northern Regional Festival of Arts, there were also the recent sales of his paintings for respectable prices at the Bonhams African Modern and Contemporary Art Auction, which wouldn’t have gone unnoticed among the cognoscenti. 

It came as no surprise, therefore, that last year’s retrospective exhibition at kó, a gallery in the upmarket Ikoyi neighbourhood of Lagos, which was curated by Professor Jerry Buhari of Ahmadu Bello University’s fine arts department, included a video conversation with him and scholarly tributes from people who had closely interacted with him. Yet not even the laudatory remarks of his contemporary, Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya, his former classmate and colleague at the Faculty of Education at Ahmadu Bello University, Professor Adamu Baikie, his only surviving son, Richard Ayodeji, or those of his younger female siblings, Mercy Feyisola Akolo and Grace Yemisi Ukhueleigbe, among others, sufficed to unravel the web of mysteries woven around this reclusive artistic great.

So much about Akolo, who, after a brief illness, departed this earthly life on Saturday, June 3, at the ECWA Missionary Hospital in Egbe, remains shrouded in obscurity. Clearly a man who valued his privacy, he seemed to have deliberately shunned the limelight, beginning with his resignation from the Zaria Art Society, invoking “personal reasons” after three months of membership.

Then, there was the early and painful demise of his second son, Ayokunle, a third-year student of the Ahmadu Bello University, ABU Zaria, in 1999 after a brief illness at 25, which seemed to have further driven him into his shell. “To be honest, Dad never really got over it,” his survivor son Ayodeji, who now lives in the UK, confirmed. 

This could also be why Ayodeji cited being closer to his late son’s final resting place as one of the reasons his dad retired to Egbe sometime between 2001 and 2002. Akolo had left Zaria ahead of his wife, who only joined him later. Meanwhile, Ayodeji, then a student at the University of Ilorin, which was two hours away from Egbe, expressed his filial bond through his frequent visits, which continued even after his graduation. On one of these later visits, Akolo told his son that he had no regrets since he had spent his earthly life the best way he thought he could. “We were brought up to be very modest and with principles,” Ayodeji added, lifting a corner of the veil on his and his late younger brother’s years growing up as Akolo’s children.

Akolo, who would have turned 88 on September 20, would be best remembered for his paintings and drawings, whose themes swirl around indigenous cultural traditions and everyday life and proclaim his commitment to a uniquely Nigerian aesthetic canon. This despite his being quoted as telling the late Ugandan playwright and novelist Robert Serumaga that he didn’t “think that there should be any rules guiding African artists,” adding, “They should do what they like. They are expected to produce. It’s not necessary to tell them what to think.”

Perhaps his early interest in engineering, which he was reported to have abandoned thanks to the advice of his Keffi Government College art teacher Dennis Duerden, crept into his paintings, the hues of which appear measured and calculated. Akolo, whose stylised representational style in loose brushstrokes of matt yet intense colours seems to have found new life in works by Kolade Oshinowo, Edosa Oguigo, Alimi Adewale, and Abiodun Olaku, was once famously described by the late German-born editor, writer, and scholar Ulli Beier—in a review of Nigeria’s Independence Exhibition—as the “coolest formalist among them.”

Talking about his works, there are some that hark back to his Northern Nigerian experience—like the oil on board works “Test of Manhood” (Sharo) 1982, “Horn Blowers from Southern Kaduna Welcoming the Governor” 1984/1986, “Milk Maid” (Fura da Nono) 1998, “Man on Horse” 1996, “War, Red War” 1996, the oil on canvas works “Dambe” (Native Boxing) 1998, “Mother and Child” 1998, “Wrestling Match” 2000, as well as the pencil on paper works “Horse Man II” 1995 and “Durbar”, among others— and some that are clearly influenced by the Yoruba culture such as the oil on canvas works “Owambe” 2013 and “The God of Thunder” 1964, as well as pencil on paper works like “The Model” 1961.

Akolo, whose works have been sold at such prestigious auction houses as Arthouse Contemporary, Bonhams, and Sotheby’s, among others, has participated in several exhibitions both within and outside of Nigeria. In a brief comment in reaction to his demise on her Instagram account, Mrs. Kavita Chellaram, who runs the Arthouse Contemporary auction house and kó Gallery, wrote: “We were honoured to work with Jimoh Akolo… and privileged to have met him.” The National Gallery of Art, which had in 2019 published a book on his life and works, meanwhile said in a statement signed by its director general, Ebeten W. Ivara, that it was “glad to have been associated with such a renowned artist and mentor”, adding: “His passing is a great loss to the arts community and the society at large.”

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