Nigeria: Ibadan As Nigeria’s Art, Culture and Intellectual Hub

The 19th-century Yoruba wars between 1825 and 1893, as well as the military jihad from Sokoto instigated a southward move of many Yoruba communities in search of more secure locations. This brought about the dispersal of some ancient cities like Old Oyo and Owu, leading to the emergence of new ones, such as Abeokuta and Ibadan. While the Egba found safety under the Olumo rock in where they described as Abeokuta, warriors from Oyo, Ife and Ijebu found safety within the hill ranges at the interface of the forest and the savanna – eba odan, and what we now know as Ibadan was founded in 1829.

By 1893, the British had exerted a protectorate over the region within which Ibadan was located and the Lagos-Kano railway, designed as the commercial linkage between the Northern and Southern Protectorates, reached Ibadan by 1901. This turned Ibadan into a natural magnet for agricultural products such as cassava, cocoa, cotton, rubber, timber, and palm oil coming from the adjoining settlements, and other goods from further inland, headed for the seaport in Lagos. This movement of agricultural and other products through the Ibadan railway station triggered an increase in the population of Ibadan. Thus, the city grew rapidly into a major trading, as well as a manufacturing and services, hub. All these contributed to its selection as the headquarters of the Western provinces in 1939 by the colonial authorities.

The University College Ibadan (UCI) was established in 1948 as a college of the University of London. Within a few years, some of the most brilliant young Nigerian minds had converged on Ibadan because of the university, some as students and others as lecturers and support staff. Notable among them were Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Pius Okigbo, and John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo; most of them in their 20s and early 30s. Straddling the humanities and the sciences, some, like Bola Ige, later went into politics, others, such as Gamaliel Onosode, went into corporate administration. In the sciences were the likes of Adegoke Olubumo, James Azeilo and Chike Obi. They all had one thing in common: they loved and patronised the arts.

The university college did not attract only young bright Nigerian minds, it also drew in some free spirit Europeans. Among them were Doig Simonds, a medical illustrator, and Frank Speed, a medical photographer, both of them working at the University College Hospital, Ibadan, and Ulli Beier, a German phonetician. Doig Simonds and Frank Speed spent the bulk of their spare time documenting Yoruba culture, with Speed filming cultural festivals all over Yorubaland. By so doing, he became a pioneering ethnographic filmmaker, and a significant one for that matter. Many of his works defined the subject of African Studies around the world. As for Ulli Beier, he saw more value in working outside the university walls (extramural) than teaching about speech sounds within the walled enclave of the university. He ultimately disengaged from the services of the university and moved further inland, exploring Osogbo, Ilobu, Okuku, Erin Ile, Erin Osun and many other Yoruba towns and cities. He was seeking to understand the Yoruba mind and ways of life. Yoruba being a highly oral culture, essentially transiting into literacy at that time, Ulli Beier engaged Yoruba visual arts as a material media and the performing arts as a non-material media for expressing and documenting Yoruba thought. All these he did outside the walled enclave of the university. Apart from these free spirit Europeans, there were also forward-looking thorough-going academics such as Martin Banham, and Geoffrey Axworthy of the Department of English in the university. They both moved out of the Department of English to start the first School of Drama in Nigeria at the university of Ibadan in 1960.

The establishment of self-government in the Western Region of Nigeria in 1952, preparatory to independence in 1960 nece,ssitated the development of a civil service and a secretariat. The secretariat was strategically located near the university so that the civil service could benefit from the intellectual atmosphere of the university. Both of these institutions having been built far from the old Ibadan city, the quest to promote interaction between the university community and the civil service was enhanced by the construction of Bodija Housing Estate as the first of its kind in Africa. It was deliberately situated between the University College and the secretariat. So started the breeding of a new civil service elite and a learned gentry, providing the building blocks of what made Ibadan an art and culture hub in Nigeria of the 60s and beyond.

While the thorough-going academics sought to institutionalise education in the arts within the walls of the university college and the European free spirits encouraged arts and culture in the larger society, the young and bright Nigerian minds oscillated between the two persuasions, seeking to obtain their degrees within the walled city of the university while still trying to affect the larger society in which art was deeply embedded in the spiritual lives of the people. For example, Clark-Bekederemo chose to stage his “Song of a Goat” in a restaurant in town rather than at the university’s newly built Arts Theatre. He was said to have actually slaughtered rather than merely enact the slaughtering of the sacrificial goat in the play. Such was the level of boldness and adventure that characterised the effect of the university on the arts and cultural life of Ibadan at that time. The extramural programme of the university also enriched the larger Ibadan society with knowledge produced within the university, thereby fulfilling the desire for the university to influence the new civil service elite positively. Even though the extramural programme later degenerated into a remedial programme for prospective university entrants, its initial positive influence on the new civil service elite was significant.

This was the environment that produced the Mabri art movement in which Mbari, an Igbo notion of “creation” and a concept of ritual art became the symbol of the nascent Ibadan art movement. With Ulli Beier’s support, the Mabri movement in Ibadan ran a theatre and an art gallery. They also published the works of Nigerian artists as well as a journal of African and African American literature; The Black Orpheus. Duro Ladipo, a playwright of the Yoruba travelling theatre tradition, inspired by the Ibadan group decided to set up a similar group in his family house in Osogbo, also supported by Ulli Beier. Unlike the Ibadan group, the Osogbo group attracted more than just intellectuals, senior civil servants and the expatriate community. By virtue of its strategic location on a major road, it quickly became an all-comers arts place, where passers-by would stop by to see ongoing stage plays and visual arts on display. In order to make the idea resonate with the local community, they adopted the name Mbari Mabyo, a Yoruba pun of the Igbo word as an expression of “a wish for the joy of accomplishment”.

The Osogbo group became an important satellite that influenced the Ibadan group in no small measure. Many talented artists from Osogbo visited Ibadan regularly to perform and exhibit at the facilities of the Ibadan group. These included Rufus Ogundele, Jimoh Braimoh, Muraina Oyelami, and Prince Twins Seven-Seven. They worked in painting and sculpture, music and theatre as well as beads and textiles, all becoming internationally recognized artists. Demas Nwoko, after studying fine art in Zaria and Paris, moved to Ibadan and became part of the Mabri movement. He taught at the University, giving design support for theatrical productions. His extramural influence on the larger Ibadan community includes the design of the chapel of the Dominican community and his New Culture Studio on top of Mokola hill. Another significant personality in a support role for theatrical productions was Dexter Lindsey, a West Indian theatre technician. Their inputs in visual design and technical support for theatrical productions further enhanced the quality of theatrical performances within the university and around Ibadan.

Ben Enwowu’s sculpture of “The Risen Christ”, commissioned in 1954 and carved from a single block of an iroko tree is arguably Enwonwu’s finest wooden sculpture. This sculpture, for the new Chapel of the Resurrection in the University College Ibadan, remains a masterpiece. Even though the great Nigerian sculptor, Ben Enwonwu was not really part of the Ibadan crowd, the location of this masterpiece in Ibadan is a testimony not only to Enwowu’s prowess but also to the then-evolving artistic tradition in Ibadan.

The establishment of Western Nigerian Television (WNTV) in 1959 was yet another big boost to the art movement in Ibadan. The quest to indigenize the TV station’s content saw in the Mbari Mbayo groups in Ibadan and Osogbo a fertile recruitment base. Yoruba traditional travelling theatre groups such as Duro Ladipo, Kola Ogunmola and Oyin Adejobi all from Osogbo contributed to indigenising TV production. Other groups such as those of Hubert Ogunde, Adeyemi Afolayan and Moses Olaiya (Baba Sala) as well as Akin Ogungbe, Isola Ogunsola and many others from other parts of Yorubaland also converged on Ibadan to contribute to the indigenisation of TV content. From within the budding Ibadan elite, thespians like Bayo Akinnola and Femi Johnson took part in productions that went on TV. Richard Taylor a Briton who headed the Camera unit of the TV station visited secondary schools in Ibadan watching plays put up by the schools in search of bright stars among students and teachers. This activity produced Tony Honner, an Ibadan school teacher whose career as a TV cameraman started at WNTV in Ibadan, later in life blossomed as an international TV cameraman and climaxed as a personal videographer to Muhammad Gadhafi, the Libyan strongman.

As a child growing up in Ibadan, I benefitted from this artistic ecosystem. Wives of expatriate university lecturers in a bid to use their spare time productively started a children’s playgroup around the Arts Theatre in the university. There, we learnt to play musical instruments as simple as the descant recorder and as standard as the piano. Various venues such as the Obisesan Hall and the British Council library hall in Dugbe often hosted productions. The Arts Theatre and the Trenchard hall in the university also had regular stage plays and musical concerts. The Unibadan Masks and the University Music Circle were very active. The Liberty Stadium, built long before the National Stadium in Lagos, being the first standard stadium in Nigeria was available for major arts and cultural events. For us children, there were lots of choices and our parents made good use of these choices to enculturate us. My mother taking me to watch Kola Ogunmola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard at Obisesan Hall in the mid-’60s remains an indelible experience.

Social life in Ibadan also benefitted from the arts with virtuoso trumpeter Edie Okonta and ace saxophonist Orlando Julius making Ibadan home between the 60s and the 80s. Tunji Oyelana and the Benders rose to national fame and also had international stints as a popular Ibadan-based music band. The band “inherited” the Adamasingba base of the defunct Mbari club. My music tutelage in the children’s playgroup around the Arts Theatre paid off when in my mid-20s I became the keyboardist of Tunji Oyelana and the Benders.

With this definitive history of artistry, Ibadan became the seedbed of much of Nigeria’s artistic future. The University of Ibadan as it later became known after it had been weaned off the University of London in 1962 produced many more great artists. Femi Osofisan, Kole Omotoso, Biodun Jeyifo, Niyi Osundare and many others produced, performed and theorised the arts, distinguishing themselves in poetry, prose, theatre and many other artistic traditions as well as criticism. The International School Ibadan, a secondary school established to cater for the children of the Ibadan expatriate community had the amazon, Amorelle Inanga, a West Indian music teacher, who nurtured many Nigerian classical musicians in their formative years. Two of them, Opinimi Akinkugbe, a trained concert pianist, who is at present Nigeria’s Ambassador to Greece and Glenn Inanga, (her son) trained as and became a distinguished international concert pianist after an engineering degree from Cambridge. The distinguished baritone singer and choral conductor Christopher Oyesiku took an appointment as Artiste-in-Residence at the University from 1987 to 1997, reinvigorating the University Music Circle. Today, the relatively young Department of Music at the University of Ibadan, established in 2011 is transforming the music life of the university in particular and Ibadan in general. The Ibadan City Choral (ICC) an extramural manifestation of the effects of the department has risen to a high level of national acclaim in Choral music.

The artistic, cultural and intellectual legacy of Ibadan also manifests in activities around the book enterprise. Three of Nigeria’s biggest publishing houses; University Press Plc., Evans Brothers (Nigeria Publishers) Ltd and Heinemann Educational Books (Nig) Publishers Plc. are located contiguously on one Ibadan Street along the old Lagos – Kano rail line that catalysed Ibadan’s growth in the early 1900s. The younger First Veritas Educational Content Delivery Ltd and the famous Ibadan bookshop; The Booksellers Limited are also located along the same road, all within a stretch of about a quarter of a kilometre. On Kongi Layout in Bodija Estate is yet another publishing company note; BookCraft Africa and also of significance is Spectrum Books Limited in Oluyole Industrial Estate, all in the city of Ibadan.

The huge land mass stretching from the location of the University College Hospital (UCH) Ibadan, all the way to the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Idi-Ose village, along the old Ibadan-Oyo road encompasses what was designated as an “Educational Zone” in the development plans of the 60s. Within this zone today, are educational institutions such as The Ibadan Polytechnic, The Dominican University, The Institute of Church and Society, The Immanuel College of Theology and Christian Education, (and of course) the University of Ibadan, and further down the road, the Nigerian Institute for Social and Economic Research (NISER) to mention some of the most prominent educational institutions in the said zone.

On the other side of town on the Onireke/Idi-Isin axis are the National Horticultural Research Institute (NIHORT) and the Forestry Institute of Nigeria. Along the Ibadan-Abeokuta road are the Institute of Agricultural Research and Training (IAR&T) and Moor Plantation established in 1921 as probably the first agricultural institution in West Africa. Further down the road is the good old Government College Ibadan, which must have been one of, if not the first government-established secondary schools in the defunct Western Region of Nigeria.

This artistic, cultural and intellectual tradition continues to show in the achievements of Ibadan dwellers. In 2012, Rotimi Babatunde, operating from the Bodija Estate guest chalet of Information Aid Network (IFANET), an Ibadan-based NGO won the Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story “Bombay Republic”. One year later in 2013, Tade Ipadeola, his Ibadan “compatriot” won the prestigious Nigeria Prize for Literature instituted by the Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas for his third volume of poetry “The Sahara Testaments”.

Tatler is a British fashion and lifestyle magazine that covers British high society and politics. Targeted at the upper-middle and upper classes, it focuses on British high society and politics. Tatler decided to commission an African artist to paint a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II of England. The portrait was specially commissioned for the cover of Tatler’s commemorative Platinum Jubilee issue. Tatler’s careful search found no other African artist but the 34-year-old Ibadan-based Omofemi Oluwole. Omofemi Oluwole’s portrait appeared on the cover of Tatler’s Platinum Jubilee edition and featured prominently in the specially curated Sotheby’s exhibition Power & Image: Royal Portraiture & Iconography, in the company of screen prints from Andy Warhol’s 1985 Reigning Queen’s portfolio. In addition, it now features in the Woburn Abbey Collection’s Armada Portrait of Elizabeth. Speaking recently at the opening of an exhibition at Ibadan’s new Tech Art Gallery, Omofemi Oluwole spoke of his pride as an Ibadan-based artist when he was invited to Buckingham palace to meet King Charles in acknowledgement of this portrait, which happens to be the last portrait to be made of the late Queen in her lifetime. The opening of the Tech Art Gallery featured a retrospective art exhibition titled “The SILVA Lining” of the works of Sri Lanka/Nigerian artist Imal Silva from his years in Ibadan. Imal grew up in Ibadan and did much of his artistic work while living in Ibadan. Now based in Abuja, he looked back at what Ibadan offered him and concluded it is a SILVA lining. The Silva Lining exhibition, curated by Blessing Bee Azubuike is still running at the Tech Art Gallery at Nustreams Conference & Culture Centre, Alalubosa, Ibadan.

Thus continues the pioneering spirit that birthed a sustained tradition of excellence in the arts in Ibadan. Today, this Ibadan artistic tradition offers a refreshing breath of fresh air to those seeking temporary escape from the high entropy of Lagos. The new Lagos-Abeokuta-Ibadan train service has introduced new dynamics to Ibadan as Nigeria’s art and culture hub. Groups of local tourists now leave the “hullabaloo” called Lagos on the Saturday 8.00 am train service, enjoying the pleasant leisurely ride, and arriving in Ibadan by 10.30 am at the Moniya station. The first port of call is usually Amala Skye or Ola Mummy, two of the many eating spots in the UI-Bodija axis of Ibadan that offer the Ibadan staple speciality of Amala and Abula. Next is Tunde Odunlade Arts and Culture Connexions in Bodija for a full day of a variety of art activities. There are a number of other interesting venues with the promise of a refreshing time. The sheer novelty and variety offer guaranteed refreshing in enough time to head back on the 30-minute drive to the Moniya railway station for the 4.00 pm train back to Lagos. With the new Tech Art Gallery at the NuStreams Conference & Culture Centre at the other end of town in Alalubosa, the Lagos-Ibadan day trip is also possible through the Omi-Adio Railway Station. Better still, a weekend visit that leaves Lagos by the 4.00 pm train service on Friday to return by the 4.00 pm train service from Ibadan on Sunday gives more than enough time for an invigorating weekend in preparation for the next week of high entropy in Lagos. Both ends of town offer a wide range of decent and decently priced hotels. Hello world, Ibadan beckons!

A report of the exhibition The SILVA Lining can be found on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW6C_puJqD4

Tunde Adegbola, a language technologist, culture activist and director of Alt-i (African Languages Technology Initiative) wrote from Ibadan.

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