Saturday, 25 July 2009

Contemporary Nigerian Art | 1950 - Present

Artist: Bruce Onobrakpeya
Title: Okoroko
Material: Lino Engraving
Size: 12 x 17 cm
Date: 1975

Art, Artists and Art Criticism
Situational Report in Nigeria from 1950 – 2004


This article is focused on some issues concerning contemporary art and its practitioners and art critics as it relates to Nigeria from 1950 to date. In any way the article may not be able to discuss in minute detail due to space constraint. At the same time the theoretical framework of the paper will be historical and also analytical in order to be able to state the author’s views on some issues raised here.

The history of contemporary art in Nigeria cannot be complete without referring to the instrumental figures who through their solo efforts brought Nigerian modern art into the world art history. The history started with Aina Onabolu 1881-1963 as a leading figure who did not only start the art of drawing and painting but also fought single handedly to put art in the school curriculum in 1927. Onabolu consciously went into art of figure drawing and painting to prove and disabuse the minds of the then Europeans who thought no African can dabble into the art of figure drawing and painting. With the help of some European art teachers such as Kenneth Murray who came in 1927, H.E Duckwork and Dennis Duerden who later joined, they later discovered of other talented indigenous artists who did not only continue from Onabolu, they equally made their distinct landmark in the propagation of visual art. Such notable artists include Akinola Lasekan 1921-1972, Justus Akeredolu1915-, Ben Enwonwu 1921 – 1994, Etsu Ngbodaga and others.

These notable Nigerian academically trained, or partially trained or self trained artists started what was later christened Natural Synthesis by the “Zarianist”. For example, Enwonwu’s paintings and sculptures reflect naturalistic and stylized forms which he called “African Style”. As it is argued, Enwonwu’s spirit of synthesis later became the compass upon which the Zarianists members of Zaria Art Society based their popular theory of “Natural Synthesis”. Ademuleya,2003.

The events starting from 1950 have been very topical and have also dictated the trends in contemporary Art in Nigeria. Also events since then have been properly classified by some scholars who wrote on contemporary Nigerian art. These scholars include Dele Jegede 1983, Adepegba 1995, Akatakpo, 1995 Kunle Filani 1998.

Late 1950s and early 1960s witnessed in Nigeria art history the beginning of radical revolution in visual art. The periods consciously witnessed the change of art style from ancient traditions and also jettisoning of western – style realistic approach to execution of artwork. The new consciousness ushered in what was referred to by Filani as “New African” concept which simply means an admixture of traditions and modernism, the philosophy which was later developed as “Natural Synthesis”. This philosophy in the first formal Art School in Nigeria. That is, the college of Art, Science and Technology, Zaria which was later renamed Ahmadu Bello University ABU Zaria. The key actors of this great African philosophy in visual art, who started as students and later spread into various art schools after their graduation are Yusuf Grillo, Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko, Emmanuel Odita, Jimoh Akolo, Solomon Wangboje and a host of others. They formed what was known as Zaria Art Society. .

The artists mentioned above influencee other followers and students who have some common and unique characteristics which reflect in their individual works. For decades they dictated the trends in Nigerian contemporary art. Their ideologies according to Filani were carried to other formal schools or workshops to create vibrant artistic revolution Filani 1998:35. Some of these pioneer artists are still in contention in the country.

Another generation of Artists who were later discovered after the 1950s and 1960s progenitors are 1970s graduates of mostly the Zaria Art School. Among them are Shina Yusuf – painter now dead, Joshua Akande – painter, Nelson Cole – painter now dead, Dele Jegede – painter, cartoonist and critic, David Dale – painter and mosacist, Kolade Oshinowo – painter and Gani Odutokun- painter now dead. Their works have been described as characterized by elongation of forms, with elegant northern architecture, and human figures while some depict northern grassland in their landscapes. Most of these artists’ works are in the collection of National Gallery of Modern Art. It is worth mentioning that artist like Late Professor Adepegba 1941 – 2002 who graduated in 1971 with 1st class degree in sculpture consciously went into art history and criticism. He made his mark as one of the distinguished, outstanding and foremost Africanist Art Historians/Critic the Continent has ever produced.
Most contemporary Nigerian artists are classified along the school in which they graduated from. There are also cases of few artists having other distinct styles or deviating from the usual school styles. Of large number of contemporary artists in the practice today are the 1980s graduates of various formal art schools in Nigeria. The term “school” is also used to describe the philosophy, styles, themes and forms that are peculiarly distinguishing of these schools. The schools that have distinguished themselves with some unique characteristics include Zaria School, Yaba School, Nsukka School, Ife School and Auchi School

The distinguishing characteristics of each school will be briefly mentioned as well as some of their outstanding products or artists. The name of the school represents the location of each art school or may some time bear the name of the founder.

Some Agents of Contemporary Art in Nigeria

Zaria Art School

The works of the school are characterized by elongation of forms, with elegant northern architecture and human figures. Their landscapes, most times reflect the grassland and savannah vegetation of the North. Other later graduates of the Zaria School who have made their marks from 1950s till date as artists, teachers and historians include Prof. Yomi Adetoro, Dr. Tunde Akinwumi, Jerry Buhari, Jacob Jari, Tonie Okpe, Rukeme Noserime, Nse-Abasi Inyang, Tunde Balogun, Tunde Oniyide, Tony Emordi, Victoria Ukpera, Chinwe Abara, Abraham Uyobusere, Akeem Balogun, Wunmi Busuyi, Betty Bassey, Duke Asidere, Emmanuel Irokanumo, Ade Odun, Taiwo Oyejide and Abiola Idowu among others. Their contributions have been in the sustenance of the art tempo which the pioneers started through their constant practice. While some of the listed artists are household names among the art historians, critic, collectors and the art audience, some talents are just emerging.

Yaba School

The Yaba School employs realistic art form that are done in narrative, and descriptive style mostly done in accurate photo-graphic-realism. The initial notable artists who graduated in the 50s and 60s and went for higher studies in Europe include Agbo Folarin, Isiaka Osunde, and Abayomi Barber. The later artists of the School, who were taught by the former graduates of the Zaria School, belong to the 1980s generation. These include Mike Omoighe, Biodun Olaku, Phemi Adeniran, Lara Ige, Felix Osieme, Edosa Oguigo , Joe Amenechi, Ato Arinze, Sam Ebohan among others.

Nsukka School

The calligraphic nature of ‘Uli’ art body painting/decoration influenced the products’, works. The philosophy of application of Uli art form as espoused by Uche Okeke and later supported by Chuka Amefuna, Chike Aniakor and El-Anasui was to intensify the search for Igbo–identity, thereby using the Uli linear forms to depict radical socio-political and cultural subject matters. Their linearity of drawing and modeling according to Filani, became the hall mark of Nsukka’s contribution to modern Nigerian art. The graduates are conceptually rich and fecund in imagination thereby making their themes to penetrate into the social situations of the people. Filani, 1998:36. Notable of late 1970s and 1980s artists of the school include Tayo Adenaike, Olu Oguibe, Ndidi Dike, Chijioke Onuora, Ernest Okoli etc. Of 1990s graduates are Chika Okeke, Krydz Ikwuemesi, Ozioma Onuzulike among others.

Ife School

The school is noted with intellectualization of its works with vigorous emphasis on theoretical content in art form. Noted with cultural inspiration drawn from the Ife location, the school explores a rather diversity of creative exploration in the use of local materials, symbols and images which later developed into the exploration of Yoruba traditional symbols, motifs, structure and concepts termed Ona by some of the 1980s graduates. The lecturers of the Ife School who are not graduates of the school include Babatunde Lawal, J.R.O Ojo, Abiodun Rowland, Ige Ibigbami, Agbo Folarin and PSO Aremu among others.

The late 1970s and 1980s graduate artists of the school who have made their marks in art practice, writing and teaching include Moyo Ogundipe, Nkiru Uwechi-Nzegwu, Moyo Okediji, Don Akatakpo, Sherinat Fafunwa-Ndibe, Kunle Filani, Idowu Otun, CSA Akran, Osi-Audu, Tola Wewe, Eben Sheba among others. The emerging 1990s graduates of the school include Segun Ajiboye, Stephen Folaranmi, Mufu Onifade, Ademola Ogunajo, among others. These artists exhibit often and some also participate in the yearly exhibition of the school graduates tagged “The Best of Ife” which started in 1993.

Auchi School and Its Artists

Auchi Art School is noted with expressionistic naturalism. The use of vibrant and sweet colours are attributed to the graduates of the school. Some of the outstanding artists of the school who have made their impact on the audience and collectors include Ben Osaghae, Sam Ovraiti, Olu Ajayi, Pita Ohiweri, Edwin Debebs, Alex Nwokolo, Toni Oshiame and Olu Amoda metal sculptor among others.

The Informal Schools and Their Artists

These are art locations where artists are informally trained without following rigid rules of formal art syllabus. The training is acquired through apprenticeship system or workshop experience. Within the informal school, some of them do not obey the rules of accurate proportion, and perspective. Mbari Mbayo–Osogbo and Ori-Olokun-Ife schools explored the workshop system. Notable artists that emerged from the Osogbo School include Twin Seven Seven, Jimoh Buraimoh, Muraina Oyelami, Tijani Mayakiri, Rufus Ogundele, Ademola Onibonokuta, Asiru Olatunde, Nike Davies. Their contributions to art history in Nigeria is their deviation from the known western–style realistic form. These artists’ forms are original, spontaneous and naively created with utter disregard for the depth, space or any expected relationship of motif. Their themes are most times derived from folktales, myths and religious stories. The characteristics of which was classified as “Naive Vision encouraged and fossilized” Adepegba, 1995. They hardly follow the cannon of verisimilitude which is common with Western Art. Ori Olokun workshop is seen as an extension of the Osogbo but the style of execution tilts greatly towards naturalism. Prominent artists of Ori-Olokun experiment include Wale Olajide, Rufus Orisayomi, Fela Odaranile, Adeniji Adeyemi, and Ademola Williams. Other important informal school is “Abayomi Barber School” which started in 1973 by Abayomi Barber . Although the founder was formally trained, the trainees of the school are informally trained. There is no curriculum to operate as in formal art school and no specific entry requirements. Emphasis was always placed on importance of drawing as the basis of it all, also the need to see correctly, measure accurately and observe very keenly, the rules that are borrowed from formal school system. Its prominent artists include Muri Adejimi, Olu Spencer, Busari Agbolade, Toyin Alade, Kent Ideh, Bunmi Lasaki, and Bayo Akinwole among others. Their works are widely collected in Nigeria and abroad and have also been documented by researchers in art history Azeez 2002. Many of them have been in active practice from 1980s till date.

Aka Group

Aka Group based in Enugu and Nsukka in the Eastern part of Nigeria, formed in 1989 as a circle of exhibiting artists. It has close affinity to Nsukka School. As reported by Filani, the Aka group and Uli artists are philosophically inclined in thematic choice with clairvoyance in social vision Filani,1998:41. The founding members of Aka include Obiora Udechukwu, Tayo Adenaike, El-Anatsui, Nsikak Essien, Samson Uchendu and Chris Echeta among others.

Eye Society

The Eye society is based in Zaria Ahmadu Bello University. It was formed in 1992. The membership comprises mainly some artist staff of the Department of Fine Arts of the University who also graduated from the Department. Some of the founding members include Gani Odutokun died in 1994, Jerry Buhari, Jacob Jari, Matt Ehizele and Tonie Okpe. The group’s contributions have been in the areas of propagation of visual arts as an instrument of development of the society, publishing of journal called “The Eye”, mounting of exhibitions, organizing workshops conferences and symposia etc.

Uli Movement

It is Nsukka-based. The membership is for an artist who believes in the philosophy of Uli Art as a stylistic expression using its linear and spiral motifs in terms of forms and using themes that have socio-cultural content and advantage. The members of the movement who are both Igbo and non-Igbo include Obiora Udechukwu, Tayo Adenaike, Chris Afuba, Chris Echeta, El-Anasui the famous and prolific Ghana born artist, working in Nsukka University. Chijoke Onuwa, Chika Okeke, Olu Oguibe, Victor Ecoma, Ndidi Dike, Krydz Ikwuemesi, Ozioma Onuzulike and others.

Ona Movement

This was formed in 1990 by the five graduates of “Ife Art School”. The five pioneering founding members include Kunle Filani, Moyo Okediji, Tola Wewe, Bolaji Campbell and Tunde Nasiru. The movement explores the decorative motifs, ornaments, patterns and design peculiar to the rich artistic culture of the Yoruba Filani 1998. One advantage of Ona approach to artistic expression according to Filani is the rich visual grammar it affords the artist to employ, resulting to melody of tones, forms and structure and also enriching the aesthetic sensibilities of the viewers Filani 1997. Some of the other exponents of Ona philosophy as an art include Don Akatakpo, C.S.A Akran, Ojo Bankole, Akin Onipede, Ademola Azeez, Sehinde Ademuleya, Rasheed Amodu, Mufu Onifade ,Kunle Adeyemi and others. One of the major contributions of Ona movement to contemporary art is its enriching the visual aesthetic and appreciation of Art.

Pan-African Circle of Artists PACA

It is an artists’ organisation formed in 1995. Its focus is to provide fora or avenues for African artists within and outside the Continent. It also works “at engineering an indigenous voice for the propagation of African Art”. Ikwuemesi, 2000. Its founding members include Krydz Ikwuemesi, Ayo Adewumi, Nnaemeka Egwuibe, Jerry Buhari etc. One other contribution to art history in Nigeria and African continent is its regular publications that border on African and global issues. Its headquarters is located in Enugu, Nigeria.

Culture and Creative Art Forum CCAF

This organisation was formed in July, 2001. Its objectives among others include intervening and promoting the creative and artistic education of Africans through cultural means in order to encourage their economic and creative independence. It is also to maintain and sustain the rich cultural heritage of Africa and her people. Its headquarters is located in Lagos, Nigeria. Its founding members include Dr. Kunle Filani, Ademola Azeez, Dr Ademuleya Sehinde, Akin Onipede, Mike Omoighe, and Austin Emifoniye. It has organised two National Conferences with the themes “Culture and Creativity” in 2002 and Contemporary Challenges in Nigerian Arts” in 2003 . CCAF has published two major books.

Artist: Victor Ekpuk
Title: Market Day
Material: Ink on Paper [edition of 5]
Size: 152 x 114 cm
Date: 2005

Artistic Trends in Nigeria

The artistic trends in the country are still being dictated most times by the mode of training and styles adopted by each school discussed earlier. The artistic trends are as varied as number of art schools formal and informal movements we have. For instance, some artists of formal school orientation still engage in naturalistic art form with the synthesis of tradition and modernity to express their concepts. One other current artistic trend that is prevalent among the workshop trained artists especially of Osogbo and Ife Ori-Olokun is the depiction of their forms in the traditional culture, folklore and myths in a figurative and narrative way. Another artistic trend is the expressionistic expression that is prevalent among the Auchi School graduates.

Exponents of Ulism those who adopt Uli art forms of expression mostly graduates of Nsukka School and Onaists those who adopt Ona art form and concept as found in Yoruba decorative pattern, design and ornament to express their messages also constitute a strong trend in contemporary Nigerian art. The “surrealist-naturalists” of the Abayomi Barber School is equally an artistic trend. The common thing to most of these artists is their thematic expression depicting socio-religious beliefs, socio-economic conditions and social lives of the people.

The Front-liners of the Artistic Scene

The frontliners of the artistic scenes today in Nigeria include established artists pf 1950s those referred to as “Zarianists”, such as Bruce Onobrakpeya, Yussuf Grillo, established artists of the 1970s, 1980s of formal school and some of the 1990s. The graduates of Informal School system discussed earlier are still in active practice and these are Osogbo and Ori-Olokun artists, and products of Abayomi Barber School the surrealists. Most of these artists’ works are still being collected and exhibited. They are classified as front liners because they exhibit from time to time and not only that, some of them exhibit yearly in solo exhibitions.

Representing 1950s graduates is Bruce Onobrakpeya who exhibits regularly with new works produced in the exhibiting year on display. Of the 1970s graduates is Kolade Oshinowo who apart from exhibiting regularly, also showcases new works. He is arguably the most prolific artist of his generation. Notable among the 1980s graduates who are front liners are Kunle Filani, Tola Wewe Ife School, Mike Omoighe, Olu Amoda, Abiodun Olaku Yaba School, Ndidi Dike female painter Nsukka School, Ben Osaghae, Olu Ajayi, Sam Ovraiti, Alex Nwokolo Auchi School, Duke Asidere Zaria School, Muri Adejimi and Olu Spencer, Informal school. Most of them have been listed in “Who is who” in Nigerian Art. The remarkable thing about these artists’ works is that each artist style of painting or sculpting or modeling is very unique and experimental and their artistic developmental stages can easily be traced by critics.

Art Writing and Criticism

Very few writers are engaged in critical writing on art. Among the few are visual artists and artist academic intellectuals. Their writings can be categorized into articles in art journals, newspaper art reviews , and reviews in exhibition brochures Critics of the 1970s include Ayo Ajayi, Ben Enwonwu, Cyprian Ewensi, Okpu Eze, Uche Okeke and Demas Nwoko and Obiora Udechukwu late70s. Art journalists/writers/critics of the 1980s include Ben Tomoloju, Tam Fiofori, Elsy Obasi, Taiwo Ogundipe and Toyin Akinosho, Jahman Anikulapo, Shola Balogun, Lanre Idowu, Wale Aina and Gbile Oshadipe and Dili Ezughan among others. Oloidi, 1996. The academic intellectuals who went into art writing and criticism from the early 1980s-1990s include Adepegba, C.O., Dele Jegede, Ola Oloidi, Olu Oguibe, Sylvester Ogbechie, Kunle Filani, Mike Omoighe, Chika Okeke and Krydz Ikwuemesi.

The art writers/critics who stand at the front line of the artistic scene today include Kunle Filani , Toyin Akinosho, and Jahman Anikulapo,and Krydz Ikwuemesi Their writings are remarkable due to the issues their critical writings generate. These issues range from art policy, art administration, status of the artists in Nigeria and Africa, art practice and theory to collection and appreciation of art among other topical issues. There are also up coming and promising art critics not mentioned here. The front liners listed here have contributed a lot of reviews in exhibition brochures, newspaper articles and reviews, academic art journals and even comments on socio-cultural issues in the country. Some have even curated national exhibitions. The limitation of their writings especially on artists’ works is their inaccessibility to the stages and processes involved in artists’ works before the final exhibition.

National Collection of Contemporary Art

There are collections of contemporary works by both government’s culture institutions and private collectors. The institution charged with the national collection of contemporary art is the National Gallery of Art NGA. It has the largest collection of artists’ works among the other culture institutions created. Its collection was first documented in 1981 in a publication titled “The Nucleus”. There are also private galleries and collectors who have in their keeps works of prominent contemporary artists. Among the private galleries in Lagos are Signature gallery, Treasure House, Nimbus gallery, Mydrim gallery, Galleria Romania, Nike Okundaye gallery, Quintessence and others. Private collectors are few Nigerians and foreigners mostly Europeans and Americans who have in their collections works of most artists mentioned in this article. Of special note among the Nigerian collectors, is Engineer Yemisi Shyllon, an avid art collector who arguably has the largest private collections of contemporary artists’ works both Nigerian and non-Nigerian artists.

Artist: Niyi Olagungu
Title: Untitled (Installation view)
Material: Wood palettes & leather balls
Size: 900 x 750 cm
Date: 2009


It is the view of this writer that art and culture matters such as status of the artist, consistent implementation of art policy, administration of art and artists, production and practice of art, criticism and writing on art have not been given the adequate attention they deserve by the Government. There are many problems confronting contemporary art and artists in Nigeria some of which the artists themselves have attempted to solve but due to financial constraint and lack of political powers, those problems are still there. As individual artists and writers, they have tried to draw attention to some of the topical issues either through their art works or writings. There are a lot of benefits Nigerian Government can derive from artists and other culture activists if they are genuinely involved in the administration and implementation of art and culture matters that directly affect artists and citizens at large. Nigeria as the most populous Black African nation in the world can utilize the capabilities and potentials of her artists and culture activists if the artists are also allowed to put their ideas and skills into fruition as stated in the Cultural Policy for Nigeria. Nigerian artists are looking forward to a day when an established and a seasoned visual artist/administrator would be appointed to head for example, “The National Gallery of Art”. One believes that if this is done critical discourses of issues on art and culture could be widened and more articulated. On a final note, this article does not pretend to discuss and raise all issues on contemporary art and artists due to space constraint. The issues and artists cannot be exhausted in just one article.

Adepegba, C.O. 1995: Nigerian Art: Its Traditions and Modern Tendencies, Jodad Publishers, Ibadan. p.96
Azeez, W.A. 2002: “The Works and Artists of Abayomi Barber School in the Development of Contemporary Nigerian Art” PhD Proposal submitted to the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan
Filani, E. O. 1998: “Form and Content as a Basis for the Classification of Contemporary Nigerian Art” in USO: Journal of Art, National Gallery of Art, Lagos, pp. 33 – 44.
Filani, E.O. 2001: “Trends in Contemporary Yoruba Art: A Delineation by History and Styles” in A Discursive Bazaar : Writing on African art, culture and literature Ikwuemesi, K. C. and Adewumi, A.Eds.. PACA, Enugu Pp.127-140
Filani, E.O. 2003: “Zaria Art Society and the Imperative of Historical Articulation” in Triumph of a Vision: an Anthology on Uche Okeke and Modern Art in Nigeria, Ikwuemesi, K. C. Ed.Pp.133-143
Ikwuemesi, K.C. 2000: “Preface” in Crossroads: Africa in the Twilight, Aniakor,C.C and Ikwuemesi K.C. Eds., National Gallery of Art, Nigeria. p. v
Oloidi, Ola 1996: “Art Criticism in Nigeria, 1920-1996: the Development of Professionalism in the Media and the Academy”, in Art Criticism in Africa, Deepwell Katy Ed. P.p. 41-47
Osa Egonwa 2001: “The Evolution of the Concept of Natural Synthesis” in Uso-Nigeria Journal of Art Vol. 3 1 & 2 pp 52-60 as cited by Ademuleya, B.A. 2003: in “Synthesis: Between Onabolu, Enwonwu and the Zarianists” in Triumph of a Vision: an Anthology on Uche Okeke and Modern Art in Nigeria, Ikwuemesi, K. C. Ed. Pp. 145-153


Anonymous said...

This article is a product of research but it should have atleast mentioned "non-artists" who have devoted their lives to the promotion of various aspects of Nigerian Arts. Some of them include Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, Chief Frank Okonta and Dr. Patrick Okpah (who has committed his resources to promoting institution-based artists in Nigeria - Undergraduates, lecturers and Teachers).

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Audraey said...

Nice. Would it be possible to get a list of Nigerian Art originators/Fathers and there first works or break through work

Unknown said...

It is too long now