The journey from the early neo-traditional artists who were mainly sculptors to artists of European artistic style or academic realism in Nigeria at the turn of the twentieth century, created a serious gulf.
The journey started with the first artist, AinaOnabolu; pioneer, teacher and practitioner. Clearing the path is always a difficult job. It is a task that needs a strong persevering spirit. Fortunately, Onabolu had this, as well as abundant skill. He did not only start the art of drawing and painting but also fought single- handedly to put art in the school curriculum in 1927. He consciously went into art of figure drawing and painting to prove and disabuse the minds of the then Europeans who thought no African could dabble into the art of figure drawing and painting.
AinaOnabolu was born on September 13, 1882, at Ijebu-Ode. He was often referred as the patriarch of modern Nigerian art due to his commitment and efforts at promoting the study of art at the early decades of the 20th century. He attended Caxton House School Lagos and later worked with the Customs Department. He had his early artistic inspiration from pictures and illustrations from available European textbooks and magazines of the period. He started practicing as an artist in 1900, without any formal art training. He began as a self-taught portrait painter. Fascinated from childhood by reproductions of European paintings in foreign magazines, in school, Onabolu became notorious as the only black African to make images like the Whites. The European painting he copied were academic realism, which, with its exact likenesses of individuals, objects, and landscapes, presented something starkly different from the religiously functioning carved idols and masks that constituted the main tradition of African visual culture Onabolu had grown with.
At the time, he was working in the civil service but already an avid painter, painting mainly live objects. AinaOnabolu was so accurate in his perspectives based on European aesthetic principle, that by 1900, he had started to produce paintings in water colours. He successfully painted in 1903 the portrait of the colonial director of public works in Lagos. He also produced the first oil portrait painting in Nigeria in 1906. By this time, he had developed high artistic skill at visual representation of forms in spite of his informal art education. He held his first exhibition in 1910. Most of his exhibits were portraits of the colonial masters and prominent Nigerians, who lived in Lagos.
By 1915, he was well known and respected among the Lagos elite. To further art, he contacted primary schools across Lagos and started to teach art part-time. In 1920, he held another exhibition and used part of the money realized to travel by sea to Britain. From 1920 – 1922, he trained at St John wood’s Art School, London. He graduated in 1922 with a Diploma in Art. Onabolu still wanted to know more about European aesthetic principles, he therefore crossed over to France and enrolled at Academic Julien in Paris. He obtained another Diploma in Art from the college.
He was able to impress on the colonial administrators of the period, the ability of the average African, albeit Nigerian, to represent forms impeccably like their European counterparts. In 1923, he returned to Nigeria armed with an art degree and brimming with ideas. He continued painting and creating portraits of many of the colonialists and the budding Nigerian elite. Onabolu has earned his place in history not just for his skill but his accomplishment as an art educator.
On his return to Nigeria he set up art schools in many of the secondary schools across the western region. Onabolu, who had taught informally to enthusiastic students, began teaching in a few top schools in Lagos such as King’s College, and CMS Grammar School, Lagos. His themes dealt primarily with the science of perspective, drawing and human proportions and watercolour painting. Though there were few teachers of western techniques in art, Onabolu’s period started the separation of art and life.
Before he travelled in May, 1920, his subject matter was essentially portraiture and landscape drawing and painting where not too detailed features were noted. A number of them were derived from pictures taken from magazines and books of the period. Attempts were made to represent the subjects as they were seen to appear. However, after his acquisition of an art certificate, his technique progressed, taking into cognizance the basic elements and principles of art. Compositions became more detailed and the uniqueness of perspective became more pronounced, thus leading to a facsimile of what is being represented. Local sceneries were prominent.
Eventually, it became burdensome for him to teach in so many schools and he recommended that another teacher be employed. It is no wonder, therefore, that he convinced the colonial administrators to send to Nigeria an expatriate Art teacher, Kenneth Crosswaite Murray, a Briton and one of the most influential art educators in Nigeria. to assist in this creative enterprise.
By the 1940s, Kenneth Murray, on the prodding of AinaOnabolu, introduced an art curriculum for Nigerian schools. This provided the opportunity for the training of a crop of secondary school students who were more conscious of the need to use local concepts in their art. Among them was Ben Enwonwu, who later became the art adviser to the Federal Government of Nigeria in the 1960s.
Onabolu believed that African art was a living, developing phenomenon, not an activity, which came to an end with the achievements of the sculpture of earlier period. He perfected his philosophy of photographic realism of artistic representation of forms. Before his death in Lagos on February 3, 1963, he made tremendous impact as a nationalist in the creative enterprise. The year 1915 to 1920 was a landmark. In the history of art education in Nigeria. This was the period Onabolu contacted several primary schools in Lagos for a possible informal part – time position, teaching art.
His untiring campaign for the teaching of art in government secondary schools triggered off all that was required for the massive awareness and acceptance of the new art tradition in Nigeria.
Onabolu had contempt for traditional art forms because he saw them as primitive. At a time when his contemporaries, like Picasso, were being influenced by the simplicity of West African art, Onabolu rejected this style for the more realist depictions of figures in more traditional Western art. In his book, A Short Discourse on Art, published in Nigeria in 1920, Onaboluwrotes:
“What have we done to promote Art and Science? Our Geledes, Alapafujas, the Ibejis (sculptures) and our drawings are still crude destitute of Art and Science; our canoes remain as they were since the day they came into use without the slightest improvement. Why! Are there not among us young men, or men of brain capable of improving our condition and surroundings? There are, I say emphatically a good number of young men among us with fine brain, but for want of self-application and perseverance they cannot bring themselves forward, and therefore, remain unknown.”
His early conversion to the Christian religion also greatly aided his conviction of adoption of European artistic concepts and principles. He openly prided himself as belonging to the newly introduced religion. He was careful in his art and clearly distanced himself from the traditional concepts and ideas. He lived in Ikoyi, in Lagos, which was generally referred to as “European Quarters”, where, he was fully separated from his culture and tradition, along with other “Europeanised Nigerians” who did not believe in the cultural heritage
His students were encouraged to base their pictorial themes on subjects and highly secular and genre experiences of a city. To make these students understand the technical aspects of art, he dosed them heavily with science of perspective, proportion, colour technology and chiaroscuro thus making students to take courses like drawing, basic design and painting. This brought about naturalistic representation thus producing the first art school, Onabolu School.
Onabolu School or philosophy of art produced artists or artistically capable minds and art teachers, which succeeded in giving Nigerians fully developed Western forms of art and art education. Onabolu was part of an African current of modernisation, from which came the advocates of African Nationalism and progress. Onabolu’s works and skill were highly exhibited in the first stage of this stylistic tendency.
Portraits were Onabolu’s major art works. His portrait of Mrs Spencer Savage in 1906, was credited as one of the earliest outstanding works of art that used a Western and modern style and technique. Another major work of his was the portrait of Mr Randle. The latter was his mentor who got his attention on the deleterious characteristics of colonialism which was accentuated with a segregationist governor in the person of Walter Egerton. Several of his portraits are in the National Gallery of Modern Art, Lagos.
He received the medal of the Order of the British Empire for Meritorious Service for his educational work.
In 1935, AinaOnabolu was commissioned to construct pews for the Lagos Cathedral of the Church of Christ.
Onabolu died in 1963. The Exhibition Hall of the Nigerian Gallery of Art is named after him.