By Lindsay Barrett and Afolabi Adesanya
Newly admitted into the octogenarian club is Tam Fiofori, a beloved elder artsman with whom fellow elder artsmen are immensely pleased. When he recently turned 80 (June 17, 2022), two elders took time to pen down their thoughts on the man Fiofori; these were read at CORA (Committee for Relevant Art) Arthouse Forum held in his honour in Lagos. It was a full house for Fiofori, and many had a lot to say about what Uncle Tam means to them and their careers in the arts sector that he straddles. Two elders paid glowing tribute to him for his immense contributions to Nigeria and Africa’s cultural awakening and consciousness. First is Lindsay Barrett, followed by Afolabi Adesanya
IN the early 1960s, the cultural ferment of the artistic community of American society was a global phenomenon. In literature, visual arts, music, and dance, it unleashed a barrage of innovation and experimentation that influenced cultural practices universally. The critical understanding of these activities became an imperative and crucial aspect of the international understanding of socio-political experience. It soon became obvious that many commentators were challenged to interpret American creative activities from a position of global relevance rather than national chauvinism. It was in that period that I first encountered the creative, critical essays of someone called Tam Fiofori on the pages of Downbeat, one of the most highly respected American musical journals. Fiofori wrote about the new music of America with such authority and insight that I assumed that he must have grown up within the community and did not associate him with Nigeria at that time. I at first assumed that he was probably from Scandinavia because I read some reports by him about a concert by the most esoteric of African-American musical geniuses Sun Ra in that part of Europe. I later came across some extraordinary poetry by Fiofori in the Evergreen Review, one of the most adventurous literary journals of the time. His poetry which deployed remarkable African symbolism intrigued me and it was as a result of this encounter that I discovered that he was actually a profoundly nationalistic African individual whose origins coloured his deeply held and highly visionary opinions and values.
I had read much of his work before I ever travelled to Nigeria where I came to live in 1966, but it was not until the early 1970s that I met his sister the broadcaster, Gloria Fiofori, who was a senior producer at the national studios of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) in Ikoyi. That meeting proved to be a revelation for me as I then realised that Tam Fiofori’s innovative cultural expression was a part of Nigeria’s unique historical reality. The fact that he was from the Rivers State community of Okrika and also spent a substantial part of his youth in Benin City were elements of his life experience that interested me. I traveled to Europe in late 1971 and in 1972 I was privileged to meet him in London. When I met him, it was like meeting a long lost brother, especially since by then I had lived for more than four years in Nigeria and had begun to take a personal interest in the affairs of the Niger Delta communities. When I first met Tam, he told me that he had read some of my work in the Chicago-based magazine Negro Digest and that he had also read my first book of essays, The State of Black Desire. It gave me great pleasure then to be able to respond by telling him that I had enjoyed and been enlightened by his own work.
When I returned to live in Nigeria in 1973, I discovered that Tam Fiofori had also returned home. He had brought some friends with him and was busy making films. It was then that I discovered that one of his major preoccupations was photography and that he was a truly revolutionary artist in that field. I learnt an incredible amount of technical innovations and professional practices from listening to and observing him. He was a brilliant teacher because he taught by example rather than by instruction. He has remained engaged throughout his entire life and I am happy to welcome him to the club of active octogenarians.
TALL, urbane, soft spoken and no airs and graces about him. No frills, he is simply “Tam” to you, or “Uncle Tam” to someone else, depending on how your relationship with him started. Tam Fiofori is an achiever, and would have been an achiever in any area of endeavour he chooses. As a student at the highly esteemed King’s College (KC), Lagos, he excelled in athletics representing the school in triple jump and became Nigeria’s school boy champion with a national record attached. With a soft voice and decorous mannerism, he could have become a medical practitioner. He was actually admitted into King’s College London where he studied the three Ps – physiology, psychology and psychiatry, preparatory to going on to study medicine.
But Tam jettisoned a career in the medical field for the creative arts, writing and music. Bold and audacious, he convinced the African-American musician Sun Ra he was the manager he badly needed. “More than anyone else, Tam Fiofori made Sun Ra known internationally,” he is acknowledged. For six years, he not only succeeded in improving Sun Ra’s image but got him a wider global audience. He took him on a tour of Europe where we played 30 concerts in eight countries and ended up at the foot of the majestic pyramids of the Pharaohs in Egypt, engendering “a founding connection between Ra and the movement that would be known as Afrofuturism”.
Tam had earlier met Fela then in music school in England in the sixties; they bonded and became friends. After his sojourn abroad, he returned to Nigeria and renewed his friendship with Fela. His quest to know what was happening locally took him to Demas Nwoko’s New Culture Studio in Ibadan. He sought out and made friends with professional colleagues.
Tam Fiofori is a renowned Nigerian documentary photographer, filmmaker, writer, critic and media consultant. Through his films, he had highlighted such Nigerian artists as Biodun Olaku, J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere and Olu Amoda. His works have been exhibited or screened in Africa, Europe and the US, including Odum and Water Masquerades (1974), screened at FESTAC ’77, Tampere Film Festival, 10th edition of FESPACO, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (1987), Pan-African Writers’ Association, Accra, Ghana. Tam was at a time film consultant to Rivers State Council for Arts and Culture, the director of Rivers State Documentary Series, and consultant/scriptwriter to NTA Network on Documentaries. He was founding executive of Photographers’ Association of Nigeria (PAN).
His publications include the photodocumentary 1979: A Peep into History and Culture and A Benin Coronation: Oba Erediauwa (2011). He was a contributor to the 2018 book African Photographer J. A. Green: Re-Imagining the Indigenous and the Colonial (edited by Martha G. Anderson and Lisa Aronson).
In April 2011, upon my recommendation Tam Fiofori was invited to the National Film Institute (NFI), Jos, to conduct a documentary film workshop. I authorised purchase of his publications 1979: A Peep into History and Culture and A Benin Coronation: Oba Erediauwa (2011). He penned me a thank you note, “Dear Afolabi, Thank you for ordering my books for the NFI and yourself. Hope you like them. I suppose the quality control and contrast could be better in the BENIN CORONATION book but time and the wahala of customs made me settle for a local Nigeria. I am happy that the book is finally out. As for the 1979 book, I’m pleased with the contrast achieved in the B & W images. Tam Fiofori, 27th April 2011″.
As a critic, Tam is equally unsparing of himself and his works. He is always striving for excellence. And he did achieve excellence as attested to by the eminent critic and journalist Lindsay Barrett who referred to Fiofori as “Nigeria’s iconic photographic genius”.
Eighty (80) hearty cheers to a living legend, Tam Fiofori, born June 17, 1942. Happy birthday!
* Jamaican-born Barrett, also an octogenarian, is a documentarist, photojournalist, journalist, essayist, broadcaster and novelist; Adesanya, filmmaker, television director, photoartist, writer, critic and film historian, was formerly MD/CEO, Nigerian Film Corporation