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Independence and Modern Nigerian Art

This October, Nigeria celebrates the 60th anniversary of her independence. Bearing this in mind with a focus on stylistic development, BusinessDay Weekender takes a look at the growth of the visual arts over the last 6 decades in this 2-part feature.

Modern art in Nigeria borrows from the geometric shapes of classical African sculpture. Amongst these globally recognised forms are Nok terracottas, Ife and Benin bronzes. They share several distinguishing features including; a disregard for anatomy and psychological expressiveness. Their influence on the emergence of modern art in Europe in the late 19th Century is profound, especially following the sacking of the Benin Kingdom by the British in 1897 and the looting and movement of bronze pieces to the ethnographic museums of the West.

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Colonialism, Christianity, industrialisation, technological advancements, Western patronage and formal education also impacted heavily on modern art in Nigeria. Aina Onabolu studied in Paris and is the first academically trained Nigerian artist. He was radical in departing from the classical canons of African art and adopting European academic formalism. However, modern art itself is defined by a break from academic practice and Slade-trained Ben Enwonwu is widely credited for first laying the foundations of a modern visual art language by merging indigenous aesthetics with Western techniques and conventions of representation. Running parallel to Enwonwu’s practice in Lagos were the Oye-Ekiti workshops of the 1940s led by Fathers Frank Mahoney and Kevin Caroll.

Bruce Onobrakpeya, Man and Two Wives II

The establishment of universities, polytechnics, and colleges of education led to the rise of many art schools, styles and movements. The most significant of these schools was established in 1959 at the then Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Early graduates include members of the Zaria Art Society like Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Yusuf Grillo whose collective proposed the theory of ‘Natural Synthesis’ that built upon Enwonwu’s direction.

Yusuf Grillo, Three Friends

Together with Enwonwu, they were preoccupied with propagating a visual language that exemplified their aspiration in defining their new nation. Working outside the Zaria school but achieving much the same fusion were significant artists like Ben Osawe, Erhabor Emokpae, Clara Ugbodaga-Ngu, Theresa-Luck Akinwale and Afi Ekong,

In Benin, Ovie Idah, later Felix Idubor and Festus Idehen reinterpreted the best of ancient Benin sculpture. The Osogbo workshops of the 1950s and 60s led mostly by Ulli Beier produced work immersed in Yoruba mythology. Participants include Twins Seven-Seven, Jimoh Buraimoh and Muraina Oyelami.

Ben Enwonwu, Agbogho Mmuo

Today, art in Nigeria is largely pluralistic; contemporary interpretations of traditional archetypes, works in a modern idiom, conceptual art, performance art, photography, video and new media all exist side by side. Artists are no longer concerned with nationalist ideals but regard themselves as world citizens, eager to prove the artistic merits of their work while responding to pressing global issues. Many of them are educated at the most prestigious institutions in the world and represented by leading international galleries. Other developments include the increasing volume of professionally-run galleries and the emergence of a thriving domestic secondary art market, that has in turn enabled successful international auctions of Nigerian art. These events have given rise to a rising number of exhibitions with accompanying publications containing critical text, an art fair, the Lagos Biennale, residencies and art foundations and several alternative spaces.

As Nigeria embarks on the next 60 years, it becomes more imperative to set sustainable structures. These include public and private sector partnership in funding the visual arts, legal framework to protect Intellectual Property and artist’s secondary resale rights, the embellishment of public buildings/spaces, enterprise development including export assistance and art/technology hubs.

Ben Osawe, Man with Hat

Art historian, publisher, and curator, Oliver Enwonwu is the director and founder of Omenka Gallery, as well as president of the Society of Nigerian Artists. Enwonwu is also CEO of Revilo Company, publishers of Omenka, Africa’s first art, business and luxury-lifestyle magazine and Network, the bi-monthly magazine of the Nigerian-British Chamber of Commerce. A third generation artist, he is the son of late Professor Ben Enwonwu MBE, Africa’s pioneer modernist artist.

He is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants (CMC, FIMC) and sits on the board of several organisations including the Reproduction Rights Society of Nigeria, the Lagos Biennial and Alliance Française Lagos, where he serves as Vice President. Recently, he was appointed by the Federal Government as Chairman, Visual Arts Sub-Committee of the Post-COVID-19 Initiative for the Creative Industry.

Oliver Enwonwu

Oliver Enwonwu also serves on the governing board of the National Gallery of Art, Nigeria and was appointed member of the Advisory Group on Technology and Creativity in the Nigeria Industrial Policy and Competitiveness Advisory Council, chaired by His Excellency, the Vice President of Nigeria.

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