Resurrecting the spirits of recently departed ancestor-artists at LABAF’s Arthouse Forum

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By Anote Ajeluorou

Tributes to Ancestor-Artists

Chairperson, Chinwe Uwatse; Oliver Enwonwu and Dr. Akin Onipede

THIS year’s Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF) held two celebratory Arthouse Forum in honour of six eminent members of the art community who recently joined the ancestry pantheon and have created a huge vacuum that will be hard to fill in the years to come. Indeed, the forum brought together the spirits of both artists and collectors in a sort of communal ritual cleansing where they were both mourned and celebrated for living worthy lives and leaving behind inestimable cultural and historical legacies through the invaluable works they did that will continue to have resonance among the living.
It had double themes that created narratives of continuum where the works of the artist and art collector converge in ‘Homage to the Recent Arthouse Ancestors’ and ‘State of the the Collectors’ Vault’. With the two forums holding back-to-back, it turned out feasts of great ideas as the speakers on both sessions gave the audience value for their times’ worth. Students among culture afficianados made up the audience members.

First LABAF 2021 Arthouse Forum panel on ‘Homage to Recent Arthouse Ancestors’ – Dr. Ademola Azeez (left); moderator, Mufu Onifade; chairperson, Chinwe Uwatse; Oliver Enwonwu and Dr. Akin Onipede

While ‘Homage to the Recent Ancestors’ was devoted to celebrating art historian and teacher, Prof. Ola Oloidi, painter and teacher, Dr. Mike Omoighe and painter and teacher, Prof. Yusuf Grillo, it had painter and gallerist, Mr. Oliver Enwonwu, artist and academic, Dr. Ademola Azeez, artist and academic, Dr. Akin Onipede, and artist and teacher, Prof. Peju Layiwola who joined the discussion via Zoom as panel members. However, both sessions had painter and ‘Araism’ exponent, Mr. Mufu Onifade moderating while artist and art administrator, Mrs. Chinwe Uwatse, as chairperson. Notable art collector, Prince Yemisi Omo Oba Shyllon was guest of honour for both sessions. Although no family member of the late artists was present, the case was different with the late art collectors whose wives and children and grandchildren were present to lend their voices to fears in some quarters that the art vaults of their late husbands and fathers were not only intact but would see a continuum and resurgence of activities in memory the works the collectors left behind.
Chairperson Uwatse expressed delight at the celebratory event in honour of the great artists who have left the artistic spaces they dominated with their work and presence, saying, ”These were men saw the value in having our own self-expression, our own philosophies,  our own aesthetics, our own cosmologies put into the background of our art. And so it is a special honour to give these men who have just recently passed the honour that is due to them that we somehow did not do in their lifetime, but we are here to do it now.”

Dr. Ademola Azeez; Mufu Onifade and Chinwe Uwatse

Guest of honour, Shyllon, said he was close to all of the artists and fondly recalled that he had 20 works by Omoighe who said it sounded ironic that Omoighe was being called an ancestor when he was barely in his 60s when he passed earlier in the year. Shyllon also recalled how he got two of Omoighe’s works, one on Wole Soyinka and the other titled ‘Dugbe market’, describing it as ”very interesting piece.”
Perhaps the biggest living collector in the Nigerian art space, Shyllon waxed philosophical on the role of an art collector and why he or she must orient his or her art collection passion to the service of society and not just based on some fanciful whims.

Prince Yemisi Omo Oba Shyllon (far left with microphone) and guests at the first Arthouse Forum

Collecting Art for Society’s Good
”What role are we playing?” Shyllon asked his audience and fellow art collectors and would later narrate why he chose to establish his museum at Pan-Atlantic University (PAU), Ajah, Lagos, rather than the University of Ibadan or Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife where he attained his degrees. ”What impact are we making in society? Did we come here to add to society or take and aggrandise ourselves? What are we leaving behind for our children, for the earth?”
Moderator Onifade then introduced the three late artists, describing Oloidi as ”an art historian who was vast in his field”; Omoighe ”was a friendly man, hard working” and as Grillo ”a rennaissance man, a man of many parts”. In his tribute to all three, Onipede, who started out as a cartoonist at The Punch newspaper before veering into academics, lamented the exit of the artists, saying, ”It is painful to describe them as ancestors. If we can accept the fact that Grillo and Oloidi lived to respectable old age at over 70, Omoighe was only 60. Well, it’s final and the nature of life is that we don’t want to accept ours to depart.
”Oloidi was a veteran; we met at conferences. News of Omoighe’s death came like thunderbolt. A lot of questions popped up, but answers to them hung in the air. Happily, they lived fulfilled lives, artistically. Grillo was described as the most conversative of the Zaria Rebels, a giant of a man. He was the oldest and most formidable of the group in Zaria, a year ahead of the rest. They argued for the inclusion of local content in the art curriculum being taught them by the English teachers in Zaria. They advocated that enough of London Bridge is falling.”
Onipede recalled the establishment of Yusuf Grillo Pavillon by Rasheed Gbadamosi at his place in Ikorodu where they held art activities, adding, ”Grillo was great and he attracted greatness unlike now when people don’t want merit; they want mediocrity. Grillo was different. His work at Yaba College of Technology stands out; it’s on record he made it great.’
The art teacher also eulogised Oloidi’s ”zeal and commitment to art history and scholarship was sterling among his generation of art scholars”, also also praised Omoighe for being ”a peace lover, a blend of Auchi and Yaba school of art.”
On how he views Oloidi alongside his contemporary art historians, Onipede described him as a ”talent hunter with the likes of Uche Okeke, Obiora Udechukwu, El-Anatsui. If you look at the trajectory of University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) art school, nationally and internationally, you will see how outstanding it is. Oloidi was first among equals; he’s first among modern Nigerian artists. A talent hunter; he’s written so much. No matter how you stretch it, he has a noble place in the art history of Nigeria.”

Panelists and guests after the session

Layiwola who was close to Omoighe wondered how he could be classicified an an ancestor considering his relatively yong age when he passed away. ”Memory just keeps flooding in. I had the closest contact with Omoighe. On one memorable ocassion, he came with Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya to ask if I could help facilitate at his Harmattan Workshop at Agbarho-Otor, Delta State; it was a very important period in my life. Omoighe had zeal to learn, to know more; he opted for Language and Communications and he went to Abraka to get his PhD. Omoighe made a lot of sacrifices for his students. He had projects he didn’t execute before he died. He was a family man who was devoted to his family.”
Layiwola also spoke about Oloidi whose scholarship she said she has great respect for, adding that though ”I did not have such close contact with Grillo, they were wonderful people and they played a vital role in our lives. This is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate them.”
For Enwonwu, Omoighe was ”a mentor to many other artists, contributing to organising events, an artist artist; he was a great administrator. Omoighe was able to fuse western and African art techniques. He was also political; he mastered the use of geometric forms in his work. The younger generation is able to take up art because of how these three men taught art. Their contributions weren’t just in practice but also as teachers who mde impact, and not only through their practice but through their remarkable personalities as well.”
Onifade compared Kolade Oshinowo and Omoighe’s art practice as shinning examples of how admirable it is to combine teaching of art and its practice.

Best Brains as Art Teachers
Also, Azeez mourned the death of Omoighe, saying how close they had been since 1996. ”Omoighe is very mobile and restless scholar too, very daring, very controversial, too, like me; we shared many things in common,” Azeez said of his departed friend. ”For you to change things, you must step on toes. Coconut is very sweet, but you must look for something hard to break it. Omoighe belonged to many organisations. Omoighe liked to make impact in any assignment he was given. He mixed with everyone without difficulty. As a teacher, he did a lot; he was also a critic and writer as well. We were both in pains for the cause of the art. He made a lot of impact in writing, painting and scholarship.”
Azeez made some profound statement about the state of art pedagogy in Nigeria, arguing that for a vibrant art teaching practice to happen in art schools, whether at colleges or universities, the best brains must be recruited. ”For visual arts to flourish, you must have dedicated and intelligent art teachers. Let’s attract the best brains to art teaching.”
He lamented the inability of the University of Lagos to have its own ful Department of Fine Arts, as the disciplne is still under what he called ”shadow of Creative Arts”, arguing that the programme was too academic and lacking in practice. ”University of Lagos should be running MFA programmes; we run to the University of Benin, Benin City, to get things done.”
But Layiwola was quick to counter Azeez on the failings of UNILAG’s art practice curriculum, saying his opinion was unfounded as art practice was as vibrant as it can be in the department in spite of it being lumped in Creative Arts.
UWATSE also excorted the audience down memory lane in her encounter with Oloidi at UNN when she was a teenager. ”I’m one of the privileged artists to have had a relationship with all three artists,” she said. ”I met Oloidi aged 17 when I went to take entrance into UNN. I walked into a panel sitting behind a big table with my rather childish sketches compared to what others had; we met the stern faces of our inrerviewers. The only one who smiled was a younger Oloidi who led us out and said, ‘see you in September’. Oloidi knew what he talking about.

”Even as teenagers, they made us feel at home. El-Anatsui, Obiora, they asked us to call them by their names; we did with much trepidation though. They allowed us to express ourselves and we had arguments and quarrelled. Right through university, Oloidi treated us like siblings.”
Uwatse also also recalled when as an art administrator with the National Gallery of Arts (NGA), she invited Oloidi for the celebration of Prof. Ben Enwonwu in the 1990s and he refused to take part, saying the man was too aloof. She said she flew into a rage. But when she asked him to humour her with his presence, he obliged. And when Oloidi eventually met the legendary Enwonwu in his Ikoyi home, they had a 4-hour conversation. And when he came out, Uwatse said Oloidi ”was so enraptured; if he made mistake or wrong impression, he was quick to admit it. Oloidi was an amazing man.”
Uwatse also spared a thought for the guest of honour, Shyllon, saying, ”He’s done so much; he’s a lone star,” and brought the first Arthouse Forum session to a close.

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