The nation July 27,2011

Page 32



The Midweek Magazine


Beyond dispute: Origins, travails of Ona Twenty five years after it was founded, Ona Art Movement continues to attract controversies on who forms and manages the movement. In this report, USbased art historian, DR. MOYO OKEDIJI, one of the trios that nurtured the movement from conception, speaks on many issues bordering on the true founder and managers of the movement.


RETENDERS to the crown of Pontifex Maximus of African poetics must learn to mind the thorns,” was Wole Soyinka’s incisive warning to The Troika in his canonical essay, “NeoTarzanism: The Poetics of Pseudo-Tradition.” On July 9 2011, under the title of The Return of Our Mother, Tola Wewe and I opened an exhibition of paintings and terracotta panels at the City Center in Lagos. The exhibition celebrated the triumphal return of Wewe’s mother from captivity, following her abduction in 2010 by unknown kidnappers. The other reason for the exhibition was to keep alive the waning flame of the Ona Movement. Attracted by the news of our show, the cream of the Lagos art world graced the event. Curators, artists, collectors, and connoisseurs present at the opening included Nike Okundaye, Yemisi Shyllon, Rasheed Gbadamosi, Chinwe Uwatse, Olu Amoda, and Craig Fashoro, who flew in from Houston, in Texas, United States. As supporters and prospective members of the Ona Movement originating from Ile Ife, a busload of professors and students of the Obafemi Awolowo University also drove in, adding cadence and texture to a cultural ceremony that became increasingly colorful as the proceeding of the evening unfolded. Janine Sytsma, hired by Azu Nwagbogu of the African Artists’ Foundation, to curate the exhibition, remarked that she had never witnessed a comparable show in which the press was so large that it became difficult to stop the interviews of the artists, in order to formally open the exhibition on time. Perhaps the most recurrent question that the press asked me concerned the origin of the Ona Movement. From what I was able to garner during my discussion with the press, there is a critical distortion of facts and gross manipulation of recent history concerning the origin of Ona. A young reporter drew my attention to the book titled Nigerian Artistry, recently published by one of the most famous writers on the subject of Nigerian art, Pat Oyelola. Inter alia, Oyelola wrote, “On the western side of the Niger, the Ona Movement crystallized at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, in 1989, having been initiated by Kunle Filani and Tola Wewe …. Moyo Okediji a member of the Ona Movement, has experimented successfully with earth colours, ultimate symbol of the locus of the Yoruba artist.” (p.281). Upon encountering this distortion and manipulation of history, my initial reaction was to keep quiet and allow time to settle the facts. But I have also considered the views of those who insist that history cannot write itself without the pens of illumination, the eyes of witnesses, and the visions of central characters. Whether the distortion of the origin of the Ona Movement is willful or the manipulation malignant is difficult to discern, and well beyond the purview of this review. As the key player in the formation and management of this art movement, I have listened to the plea of many people, including those in general academia, the Nigerian art world, and all other parties, particularly students of art history, who are eager to hear the story of the origin of this contemporary art school in Nigeria. I am therefore reconsidering the opinion of those who plead that it is my responsibility to academia and scholarship to present the facts surrounding the origin of this movement, in the art historical context within which it emerged in the eighties. This response will therefore open with a candid review of the stories that are currently served as staple menu in Nigeria art circles and schools today by those who were not conversant with the origin of the Ona Movement, and probably received their information from mis-

interpretations and misrepresentations. Perhaps the article that has misled most writers emanates from The Guardian newspaper. In this account of the origin of the Ona Movement, Mufu Onifade, wrote in 2007 under the title, Kunle Filani: Between Practice, Theory and Administration.” Another version of the article appeared as a review of The Return of Our Mother in NEXT, a news journal, on Sunday April 24 2011. As the central anchor of these articles, Onifade queries some facts in A History of Art in Africa, written by Monica Visona, Michael Harris, and Robin Poynor, with additional contributions by Rowland Abiodun of Amherst College and Suzanne Blier of Harvard University. The impressive canon of scholars behind the production of this book should have served as a crucial hint to Mr. Onifade that the academic team probably did a tireless volume of rigorous research, in the tradition of international scholarship, before the seasoned intellectuals began to pound their keyboards. Onifade, a product of the Ife school, however assumed that the accounts in the celebrated book were shoddy, and the claims of the distinguished scholars bereft of requisite rigorous peer reviewing, as might occur with the selfpublications quite rampant in Nigerian art scholarship. Without asking the founding members of the Ona Movement any questions, Onifade concluded that Visona et al did not know what they were talking about. I will summarize Onifade’s review here. He sought to settle, once and for all, what he considered the controversy surrounding the origin of the Ona Movement. He was disconcerted that Visona’s book, clearly the most important textbook in African art, contained a wrong account about Ona’s origin, despite its voluminous tome and unparalleled international success.Th The The chapter of the book that discusses the origin of Ona was researched and written by Robin Poynor. According to Onifade, “western scholars who found the philosophy of the (Ona) group unique and fascinating soon began a journey into misrepresentation of history when the group’s establishment was erroneously credited to Moyo Okediji. One of such scholars was Robin Poynor who, in a book, A History of Art in Africa edited by M. B. Vasona [sic] et al, erroneously reports that, ‘The founder of the group is Moyosore Okediji (born 1956), then a professor of art at Obefemi Awolowo University‘. Two errors of history emanated from Poynor’s scholarly blunder: at the time, Okediji was not a professor of art. Secondly, he did not found the Ona Group….It is common knowledge that the idea of the Ona Group was mooted by Filani in 1987 when he was still a teacher at Adeyemi College of Education, Ondo. Not only that, he was mandated to develop the concept of the group long before it became a Movement. Subsequently, many meetings were held especially in Tola Wewe’s house with other friends as Ope Arije, Bankole Ojo and Segun Ademilua [sic] during the formative years before the idea was eventually broached to Moyo Okediji who was then working as editor on a journal, Curio Africana [sic].” At this point, Onifade quotes Filani as saying, “But we still have to credit Moyo for disposing himself to the idea and pursuing it rigorously.” My immediate reaction was to dismiss Onifade as a young man eager to make a name through cheap journalism and unmitigated fawning. Onifade’s essay is a dismal example of bad journalism, exemplifying sheer ignorance of Nigerian art history, and total lack of familiarity with the American cultural parlance. Given his status as a regular writer of art reviews in Nigerian newspapers, Onifade’s ignorance of Nigerian art history is culpable; but while it is not compulsory for him to understand American culture, without this requisite

•One of the works exhibited in The Return of our Mother

‘First, he is wrong that I was not the founder of the Ona Movement. Second, he is not familiar with the context of the use of language in the United States, in which ALL university teachers are described as professors. In other words, although I was a mere Senior Lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University when I founded Ona in the mid-eighties, I was, technically speaking, a “college professor,” from the American perspective and usage of that phrase’ •Okediji

background, he lacks the tool to review and critique American intellectual and cultural productions. First, he is wrong that I was not the founder of the Ona Movement. Second, he is not familiar with the context of the use of language in the United States, in which ALL university teachers are described as professors. In other words, although I was a mere Senior Lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University when I founded Ona in the mid eighties, I was, technically speaking, a “college professor,” from the American perspective and usage of that phrase. Poynor therefore describes me as a college professor in the eighties, not because he does not understand that I was only a Senior Lecturer at that time, but because he is writing as an American scholar. I did not know Onifade, neither had I heard of him, though I encountered his essay online while enjoying random internet browsing on a totally different subject. I had never read anything else that he wrote, nor did I comprehend his stake in the contemporary art in Nigeria. When I emigrated to the United States in 1992, I had never met this young man. He was not my student when I taught at the university in Ile Ife, from 1978 to 1992. I later discovered more about Onifade from Janine Sytsma a doctoral

student from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who is in Nigeria conducting research on the Ona Movement. I understand that Onifade studied at Ife after I left the Obafemi Awolowo University. Because Sytsma has had the opportunity to interview many of the players associated with the Ona movement within and outside Nigeria, she is a witness to the shameful commitment of blatant dishonesty that certain scholars and artists perpetrate in their undeserved rush to fame. Sytsma, in her research trips, was surprised to encounter in Nigeria a curious story about the origin of the Ona Movement. It is a story conflictive with what is internationally acknowledged, though the story seems “common knowledge” in art schools in Nigeria. As a thorough researcher, she confronted me with questions because she was eager to “get at the bottom” of the story. But, just out of curiosity, I also asked her questions concerning the status of the “other” story that is avidly shared in Nigeria about the origin of the Ona Movement. The alternative story emanates, I gathered, partly from writing by Filani, which is unavailable outside Nigeria, and the journalism of Onifade, who apparently is striving to fill a vacuum created by the lack of enthusiastic review of contemporary art in Nigeria. The more vigorous the Nigerian artistic production rises and soars, the less rigor-

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