Saturday, November 1, 2014

Issues in Modern and Contemporary Nigerian Art

In resolving the bugging issues relating to modern and contemporary Nigerian art, it is important however to note the differences as well as similarities between the terms - Modern art and Contemporary Art, and then look at them in the Nigerian context. Modern art includes artistic works produced during the period extending roughly from the 1860s to the 1970s, and denotes the style and philosophy of the art produced during that era.

Modern artists experimented with new ways of seeing and with fresh ideas about the nature of materials and functions of art. A tendency toward abstraction is characteristic of much of modern art. This movement actually begins with the heritage of painters like Vincent van Gogh, Paul C├ęzanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, all of whom were essential for the development of modern art. But Contemporary art can be defined variously as art produced at this present point in time, or art produced since World War II. The definition of the word contemporary would support the first view, but museums of contemporary art commonly define their collections as consisting of art produced since World War II.

Ceramic sculpture by Ato Arinze

According to Dr. Dele Jegede, the erosion of the traditional base of Nigerian culture through contact with Europeans had set off a metamorphosis in patronage and artistic promotion. Western education interrupted the traditional apprenticeship system. Between the 1930s and 1960s, Christianity and a new social order contributed to the genesis of a new era in Nigerian arts. The Oshogbo and Oye Ekiti workshops were important watersheds, which led to a new patronage system, along with the emergence of galleries, new opportunities for exhibitions, and government-sponsored cultural festivals. 

Modern and indeed contemporary Nigerian art traces its origin to the days of the great pioneers like Aina Onabolu, Chief J. D. Akeredolu, and Akinola Lasekan. These were people, who had a form of contact with, or had western oriented or college art training to acquire their skills. From the array of collections seen of the works of the forerunners and those working today, it demonstrates clearly that "contemporary" art in Nigeria is a wide and diverse field. This diversity covers the areas as Painting, Sculpture, Printmaking, Drawing, Textile design, Ceramics, Fashion design, Architecture, Photography, as well as new currents like Installation, Video Art Performance Art, and Sound Art.

However, Dr. Ola Oloidi argues that the man credited with introducing formal Western-style art education into the curriculum in Lagos was not a European, but the self-taught painter Aina Onabolu. Though committed and persevering in the face of official indifference, his real success was not in the classroom but in bringing Kenneth Murray to Nigeria in 1927. Murray's "culturistic" ideology differed from Onabolu's more conventional approach, and it is Murray's students who form the first generation of established artists: Ben Enwonwu, Christopher Ibeto, A. P. Umana, Uthman Ibrahim, D. L. K. Nnachi and J. Ugoji. They in turn spanned out, influencing subsequent generations of art students through their teaching and writings.

In 1952 the first formal art school was established at Yaba Technical Institute (now Yaba College of Technology); college art departments soon followed, and they in turn merged into the universities of the 1960s. At the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaira, where Etso Clara Ugbodaga-Ngu pioneered as an art teacher, the congenial atmosphere spawned the free thinking, politically minded Zaria Art Society composed of articulate, talented artists, such as Yusuf Grillo, Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, and Demas Nwoko, who were ignited by both the euphoria of Nigerian Independence and by their own artistic rebellion and quest for relevance. Then came Ulli Beier, who embraced and publicly supported the work of this group of rebel artists, and the foundation was laid.

Contemporary Nigerian art is vital and dynamic, drawing on both traditional streams of creativity and on newer outside influences, especially from the west. The infusion of abstraction, the artistic freedom to create new forms and inject new meaning into art or to rework older forms have created a wide range of individual styles in the last decades. These artists are not reluctant to make bold commentaries in the context of their work on contemporary Nigerian society, but they do so with a visual repertoire that speaks to as wide an audience as possible.

By Morgan Nwanguma

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