When ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA asked me to write an article about Oṣogbo (phonetically Oshogbo), I did not hesitate, I immediately said yes. This acceptance reminded me of when I started my studies, a B.A. in Culture and Society of Africa, some years ago. I studied in Bayreuth, with the subsidiary subjects of African art and literature, at the legendary Iwalewa House.
While studying, my subsidiary choice became my main subject. This was probably due to our teachers, Peter Probst, Tobias Wendel, Bettina von Lintig, Ulf Vierke and Peter Hahn, amongst others. With Peter Probst, I was taught the craft of African art. Iwalewa House was the ideal breeding ground to get acquainted with the art of Nigeria.
Ulli Beier’s legacy lay heavy on our shoulders. The myth was always present and the art surrounded us. Works by Nigerian artists were hung in the classrooms and formed our understanding of African art. However my first encounter with the art from Oṣogbo took place a few years before the start of my degree, in the form of an exhibition curated by Stefan Eisenhofer in Linz, 1997. The exhibition presented, on equal terms, contemporary Nigerian art alongside traditional Nigerian African art.
Studying Oṣogbo was more or less obligatory for the students of Bayreuth but Iwalewa House, under the aegis of Tobias Wendel, opened us to a truly global point of contact for contemporary art from Africa. The art of Oṣogbo became almost like a burden as well as a heritage. That being said, I was almost antagonistically drawn to the culture and art of the Yoruba.
The Ulli and Gorgina Beier collection at Bayreuth was a gigantic treasure and part of mankind’s legacy. Peter Probst taught us about the art of Nigerian artists and in turn, we grew to respect these artists. His work on the art of Oṣogbo is now a classic.
The art of Oṣogbo will always be associated with the names Ulli Beier, Susanne Wenger, Georgina Beier and Duro Ladipọ. Let us first look at the biography of the European protagonists.
Ulli Beier, was born in Gölwitz near Stopl (today’s Poland) in 1922. His father worked as a country doctor and was an assimilated German Jew. Shortly after the birth of Ulli Beier, his family moved to Berlin. In 1933 the family emigrated to Palestine. The family was briefly interned during World War II. Ulli Beier graduated from the University of London with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He worked for three years in London as a teacher for disabled children. Parallel to this, he studied phonetics and received a post at the University College Ibadan in 1950. During the time in London he married his first wife, the Austrian artist Susanne Wenger whom he had met previously in Paris.
Through travels (to Ede, Ilobu and Oṣogbo) he got to know Nigeria and its peoples. He tried to break out of the isolation of the white population in the country and made efforts to get to know the people and their cultural environment. After returning from a conference in Paris where he met black authors and exchanged ideas with them, he founded the ‘Black Orpheus’ magazine in Ibadan. From 1957, it served as an international platform for writers and poets. Thus, translations of Yoruba texts could be read for the first time.
In 1958 Ulli Beier and Susanne Wenger settled in Oṣogbo. There, Beier organised literature and cultural seminars, workshops and exhibitions, and published texts on local artists and their works. During this time Ulli Beier met the musician and theatre director Duro Ladipọ (1931 – 1978). In March 1962, the famous cultural centre, Mbari Mbayo Club opened in Ladipọ’s private house. It was also here that the first artist workshop was organised by Ulli Beier in the same year, under the direction of Julian Beinart and Denis Williams. Subsequently, another workshop was held with Denis Williams and Jacob Lawrence. Artists such as Jacob Afolabi or Rufus Ogundele proved their talents here.
1964 marked the birth of what is now known as the ‘Oṣogbo school’. The young artist Georgina Betts (born 1938) arrived in Oṣogbo in 1963 and moved into a studio there. As an art teacher she had previously taught cadets at a military school in Zaria. Together with Ru van Rossem (1924 – 2007), she conducted a workshop in 1964 with artists such as Muraina Oyelami, Adebisi Fubunmi, Jimoh Buraimoh, Twin Seven Seven, and Tijani Mayakiri. In 1965, after Susanne Wenger and Ulli Beier separated, Georgina married Ulli Beier.
Susanne Wenger took another, equally culturally important path. After becoming seriously ill with tuberculosis in 1951 and tied to her bed for 14 months, the artist studied literature and books about the culture of the Yoruba. When Ulli Beier and Susanne Wenger moved to Ede, she met Ajagemo, the chief Obatala priest. In the following years she became a priestess in the Obatala cult herself.
Wenger, surrounded by religion and nature, formed a circle of artists, known as the ‘New Sacred Art’, that was created in Oṣogbo. In 1960, together with friends, Susanne Wenger was able to rebuild the Osun Holy Grove. Caring for and ritually preserving the grove gave Susanne Wenger a task for life. She became the ‘living goddess’ and guardian of the grove. Today, the area she helped create is now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.
Since this introductory text alone cannot do justice to the Oṣogbo art movement, what follows is a brief introduction to three of the movement’s representatives; Twins Seven-Seven, Rufus Ogundele and Bisi Fabunmi.
One of the most famous artists of the Oṣogbo art movement is undoubtedly the artist Prince Taiwo Olaniyi Oyewale-Toyeje Oyelale Osuntoki, better known as Twins Seven-Seven.
His work is influenced by traditional Yoruba mythology and culture, and creates a fantastic universe of humans, animals, plants and Yoruba gods. Visually, his work resembles Yoruba carvings in the segmentation, division and repetition of his compositions; conceptually, it reflects this influence in the emphasis on transformation and balance, as well as its embodiment of dualities such as the earthly and the spiritual, past and present, industry and agriculture.
Early works such as Dreams of the Abiku Child (1967) make allusion to concepts or figures in Yoruba cosmology and mythology, such as the abiku (twin), and the Orisha Osun. However, Twins Seven-Seven also described his work as ‘contemporary Yoruba traditional art’, not only paying homage to the influence of his cultural background but also to noting his responsiveness to current events and the postcolonial experience.
“Twins Seven-Seven works in different techniques such as painting, brush-painting, engraving, cardboard relief and fabric painting. One remarkable result of the Oṣogbo experiment was the rapidity with which the young artists found their own style. Seven-Seven threw away the wide brushes he had been working with and began to draw with the flexible quills of the palm leaves. He begins in the upper left-hand corner and then worked his way down, filling the space with dense, ingenious patterns,” Ulli Beier describes Seven-Seven’s style and working methods, which are often imitated in contemporary Nigerian art.
He was a gifted self-marketer and managed to reposition himself, whether spatially or artistically, despite immense setbacks.
Another well-known representative of the Oṣogbo art movement is Rufus Ogundele. Ogundele’s family name means ‘Ogun worshipper’; Ogun is the Yoruba orisha of war, fire, and iron.
In his youth Ogundele worked as a musician and actor in the theatrical ensemble of his uncle Duro Ladipọ. In 1963 he took part in a seminar by Denis Williams. Although raised as a Christian in the Anglican Christ Mission Society, Ogundele combined the European artistic techniques he developed at the Oṣogbo workshops, under Williams’ and especially Beier’s tutelage, with the teachings of traditional Yoruba culture. His subject matter attests to his strong beliefs, which are rooted in Yoruba culture and life, and the dominant presence of colour in Ogundele’s work appears to underscore the power of Ogun as a factor in the artist’s life.
From the beginning, Ogundele worked on a large scale. He worked with emulsion paint, first sketching one or two large black figures. Then he filled the background with white colour and all the rest he painted blue, green and red. At the time when Georgina Beier invited him and Jacob Afolabi to work with her in the house, Ogundele developed his skills as a graphic artist. She taught him the technique of the linocut.
As a member of Duro Ladipọ Ensemble 1962-1964, Adebisi Fabunmi participated in Georginas Beier’s studio workshop, 1964 – 1966. His work can be characterised as follows.
Adebisi Fabunmi—perhaps influenced by the way Yoruba sculpture effects a total involvement with space, or perhaps by the cohesive character of Yoruba towns—divides and subdivides space, filling every inch of composition with pattern. This treatment, especially apparent in his ‘city prints’, is also true of his ‘yarn paintings’. In both media he uses the city as a theme, a logical subject in a part of Africa where city-states were once major political units. The towns of his family’s origin, Okemisi and Imesi-Ile, are the inspiration for much of his city imagery.
He began to search for a new medium, experimenting with yarn after studying a Huichole Indian work. Unaware that the Huichole use beeswax as a binder, he couldn’t figure out how they adhered the yarn to a surface, but finally he developed method of gluing it to a backing of heavy muslin or plywood. The intricate designs in his earlier works found natural expressions in the winding patterns, which evolved from his use of yarn as a medium. Coiling the strands to reinforce outer forms, he enriched the designs.
Dr. David Zemanek is a German ethnologist, expert of African and Oceanic art and a public sworn auctioneer for non-European art (Auction House Zemanek-Münster, Würzburg). He is author of several articles and publications about African art.