Monday, 20 April 2009

My Journey through the Arts

The desire for self-expression is indeed born early in the human mind. A myriad of influences condition the chosen path. I am not an exception in the conflicting emotions sparked from time to time about my preferences in serious arts appreciation. Once it was music, an interest which took me to symphony halls abroad and peaked as one of the foundation members of the Musical Society of Nigeria (MUSON) and indeed its Chairman for five years.
My Isale-Eko, Lagos childhood immersed me in the appreciation of dramatic and creative possibilities: the perennial Oro shrieks in the heat of the night, which forced my sinking under bed covers in the belief that I could not be snatched from my mother’s bosom, my mother’s Isale Eko roots, which she transmitted to me by forcing me to stand by her outside her shop on Reclamation Road while Tarzan, Sokolobo, Bamgbose, Olukoso, Alapansanpa, the Egungun masquerades in procession paid her homage, greeted her in the rhymes of the deadman’s voices, cagged money off her, frightened the daylight out of me and vanished into the receding silhouette of the evening towards the Oba’s palace.
Mother’s greatest love of course was the fascinating Adamu Orisha play, the Eyo, that enduring heritage of her ancestors. I remember once, a stray Eyo came into her room for a quick swig of beer, unmasking himself, mouthing and displaying bravado exaggeratedly and reciting prayers and incantations. With an exchange of money and gently, playful strokes of the “opambata” on my mother, the Eyo would jump and twirl and disappear into the fold of the returning dead symbolised by the awesome Eyo group.
No wonder my mother got me enrolled in the Eyo Agere group on my return home from academic pursuits overseas. I have since risen through the ranks to become the Chairman of that group.
The walk to the secondary school on Broad Street, Lagos, sometimes took me through the Brazilian quarters where the Pinheiros, the Da Rochas the Damazios, the Grillos had bequeathed artistic architectural landmarks to replace the back to back compounds (Agbole) of yesteryears, where the children of those days were identified sometimes by their Agbole of origin. The Island of Lagos was then quite small and everybody knew each other and juvenile delinquency was bare.

Also at school, Pa. Aina Onabolu fearsomely ambled into the school premises donning his trademark well-spruced tropical suit complete with his rimless glasses and his walking stick. The day’s routine was thus: A boy, on Pa’s orders, climbs the teacher’s desk and, models a pose at an angle, another boy moves his chair to the middle of the space between the blackboard and the front desks. Pa. Onabolu draws lines on the blackboard, nasaling like an Englishman the memorable phrase: ANGULAR PERSPECTIVE!
Then the drawing by the class commences. Pa. Onabolu sits and pretends to be dozing off. Momentarily, one of the naughties in class distracts us by mimicking the teacher. He (Onabolu ) is awakened, fuming and asks the boy to step out, hand outstretched for a dose of beating on his palm with that cudgel of a walking stick. Oftentimes, the hour bell rings, the class comes to an end for a rendezvous next week with that early Master of art, Pa Aina Onabolu.

I was of course a poor student of art. I remember my mother once taught me how to draw lizard and female comb (iyari) for a class assignment in elementary school; but she was indeed transmitting her ungiftedness to me and I lost interest in a way that even my Biology suffered in later years from an inability to draw.
Interest in art was eventually aroused through the embrace of literature; the written word encapsulating varieties of human creative mind. In effect, the poetry of the labour of aloneness whereby a blank canvass is transformed into a painting of exquisite beauty, a chunk of tree becomes a carver’s delight, the muse instructs and a play is crafted, a novel awakens from months of lonely agony and providence guides the creating artist to produce a masterpiece thus winning the adoration of his peers. A musical composition endures beyond the lifetime of the composer thus earning him eternal existence.
A journey through drama has been mine. Mercifully, the entire tapestry of creative impulses is spread before man, indeed the youthful mind and the absorption by the brains of anything creative is nature’s divine narrative as found in the dictum: go forth to conquer the earth and appropriate all there is therein. There is indeed room for embracing all or perhaps flirtation with each genre as the restlessness for appreciation of the arts captivates. The choice is that of the individual.

HEROES surface all the time. Fela was a friend and a great influence in the fertile mind of that epoch of the rebelliousness and left-wing persuasion. What commenced as another incursion into art collection in my student days was prompted by buying of Athena prints of masterpieces of Van Gogh, Piccaso, Renoir, Rubens. I was being won over by European masters, influenced by the acculturation wrought by visits to the museums of the western world. At last, fate drove me to a conscious search for fulfilment from home-grown visual art endeavours.
For example, my late friend Tade Ismail gave me as a New Year present a print of Enwonwu’s Tutu masterpiece, which is lost somewhere. I had totally forgotten the episode until Prof. Grillo reminded me about two years ago that he had designed the set for my maiden play, Trees Grow in the Desert in 1970 at the instance of the producer, late Eldred Fiberesima. Meanwhile, several visits to exhibitions in the burgeoning visual art market preceded by my chairing of a J.A Akande’s 1984 solo exhibition prompted my emergence as a serious art collector. There has been no pause since then and no serious distraction into another variety of the world of arts.
The hold of Lagos and its creative soul has however been stronger. I remember Professor Babatunde Lawal kept me awake on family visits to him at the University of Ife in the 1970s and regaled me with tales of his archaeological exploits. Igbo-Ukwu finds fascinated me, and his fertile mind and its possibilities in the transmission of his profound thoughts had stayed with me ever since. We both, of course, share the Isale-Eko background and indeed the Ikorodu roots.

ONCE I encountered Yusuf Grillo’s painting Awo Opa procession, there was a rushing of emotions which has since surpassed my life-view as an art lover. I could always see my childhood reincarnated, my mother celebrated, the calm dignity of her relations in white loin cloth quietly and solemnly marching along our street, who unlike the boisterous Egungun, Gelede, Eyo, Igunnu, Meboi and Fancy parade etc. exude the spiritual underpinning of a race that need periodic cleansing by serious-minded, etheral, priestly beings, unspeaking, awe-inspiring marching into a hallowed grove of fulfilment in the recesses of the world beyond.
Another great piece of work by Grillo is the 5-part serialisation of the Nativity story enriched and ennobled by the artist’s superb interpretation in a combined synthesis of the cubist, the impressionistic and the surrealistic modes. Here is Grillo, the inheritor of Islamic ancestry reverting back to his Catholico-Brazilian heritage amalgamating life force legacies suffused with intriguing symbolism of the story of Joseph and Mary and the birth of Jesus Christ.
The Lagosian in Yusuf Grillo shines through. Lagos is the home of three religion and the ideal situation is to create the space in our consciousness to expunge the potentially alienating stresses of a megapolis like Lagos. I share an affinity with his kind of profile having been similarly raised and nurtured and yet liberated from inordinate hate of any fellow man.
The creator of those phenomenal masterpieces, Yusuf Grillo, is whom we are celebrating today.
Of late, his pre-occupation has been more of the execution of glass stained, mosaic window of churches as work in progress in his studio rather than blank canvasses waiting for his cerebral paint and brush. Is there now a re-discovery of yet a spiritual plane?
But Grillo is not alone, there are peers and disciples. In all this agglomeration of creative talents, I take pride in being amidst you all admiring an array of collections, revelling, learning and gaining intellectual strength from your diversity, which is at once ennobling as well as enriching our collective souls.

TODAY, I acknowledge a debt of gratitude to Omooba Yemisi Shyllon, a soul brother in the art from whom I spied his prodigious, prolific commitment and irrepressible investments in fine art. In fact, his multi-talent stance was put at my disposal to sketch the original concept for the building, assemble the builders and he has been untiring giving ideas at all times.
Of course, my old time architect/builder, Arc Kunle Onafowokan who joyfully deceived me into building this house and had anticipated the Grillo Pavilion and the garden went to work six years after his original concept; and the rest is what is before you. No wonder, he had commenced his post secondary education as a student at Yaba College of Technolgy. Art practitioners hugging Ikorodu precincts have been a gem and I must mention the supreme, Olu Ajayi even for falling ill while curating the exhibition and arranging the ceremony, Hakeem Balogun, Ajobiewe, Abdulsalam, Ejoh and Ogunsanya (Olu Ajayi man Friday) for being so kind as to relieve my wife and I of the burden of organising this event
And so my fellow men and women of visual arts, let the Zarianists live long, let the Oshogbo School mourn Susan Wenger no more since her spirit lives forever and they ought to produce more work, let the Ullists prosper, let the Onaists continue their experimentation; Auchi school be colourful. Let more art schools blossom and let us expand the landscape and exact more earnings from our collectors. In short, let prosperity reign in this our collective endeavour to grow the art terrain.
May the spirit of creativity never die.

Originally titled Yusuf Grillo Pavillion: Its Influences and Confluence, this speech was delivered by the economist, art patron and ex-Minister of National Planning, Chief (Dr.) Gbadamosi at the opening of the Yusuf Grillo Pavillion Saturday last week in Ikorodu.

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