NIGERIAN ART FROM NSUKKA VIA UNIVERSITY OF BAYREUTH TO GOETHE INSTITUTE NIGERIAN ART COMES TO GOETHE VIA BAYREUTH By margaretta wa gacheru. PUBLISHED IN BUSINESS DAILY MAY 31, 2013/// Ulli Beier is the esteemed German scholar who spent most of his life encouraging, documenting and promoting the early ‘schools’ of Nigerian art, both locally and globally. Best known for the work he did in Nigeria around Oshogbo, a city renowned for producing not only visual artists like Twins Seven-Seven, Bruce Onobrakpeye and Obiora Udechukwu, but also thespians like Duro Ladipo who’s considered one of Africa’s earliest professional playwrights. But Beier also worked closely with Nsukka artists, a loosely affiliated group who through Beier were associated with the University of Nigeria at Nsukka. It is their art, including pencil drawings and woodcut prints that are currently on display at Goethe Institute’s auditorium up until 7th June. Hand delivered from the Iwalewa-Haus School of Art at Bayreuth University, by the School’s curator, Dr. Ulf Vierke, the exhibition represents only a part of a larger collection of works by Nsukka artists which Beier had donated to Bayreuth. “The Iwalewa Haus was actually founded by Ulli Beier,” explained GI’s Barbara Reich who noted that the Nsukka artists are considered ‘pioneers’ in what Western scholars have defined as ‘the emergent field of contemporary African art and aesthetics.’ In the late 1960s into the 80s, Nsukka painters were among the first artists to serve as social chroniclers and critics of the Biafran War. The pain of that period is reflected in prints by Uzo Ndubisi such as Unknown Soldiers and Our Fallen Heroes which were drawn in 1986, almost twenty years after the war’s end. They reveal, just as Chinea Achebe did in his last memoir, There was a Country, that the Igbo people were not quick to forget the defeat and devastation that they incurred during their failed attempt to secede from the greater Nigeria. One of the most interesting prints in the whole exhibition is one called Barely out of the Whirlwind: Safe Ground by the Ghanaian artist who emigrated to Nsukka early in his career, El Anatsui. What makes the print notable, apart from its appearance as a giant circular scribble with a footprint on top, is that El Anatsui is currently the most acclaimed African artist in the West. That fact is sufficient to make one assume his print is the most valuable in the entire exhibition. Working these days as more of a sculptor and what Kenyans call a ‘junk artist’, El Anatsui’s massive hand-stitched scrap metal wall hangings can currently be found on walls in scores of museums and art centers all across the States and Europe. For instance, in the last year alone, he’s been invited to mount major one-man shows everywhere from New York and Los Angeles to London’s Royal Academy of Art. The Iwalewa Haus of Bayreuth may be less renowned than UK’s Royal Academy, but by Ulli Beier’s inauguration of it in the 1970s with his personal collection of works by Nsukka Artists, he ensured that the Nsukka School and Iwalewa Haus will retain a prominent place for anyone interested in contemporary African art. And like Oshogbo, Nsukka was not a town that only produced visual artists. Where Oshogbo also hatched playwrights and musicians, Nsukka produced poets and musicians like Obiora Udechukwu whose poetry covers one wall at Goethe Institute, illustrated by Kenyan painters Solo Seven and Gor Soudan. The exhibition itself is actually entitled ‘Poetic Line’, referring not only to Nsukka poets and printmakers; it’s a paraphrase of a previous exhibition mounted at the National Museum of African Art called ‘The Poetics of Line: Seven Artists of the Nsukka Group’, curated by an American anthropologist, Professor Simon Ottenberg, who like Ulli Beier devoted a big chunk of his life to working closely with pioneering Nigerian artists like those of Nsukka and Oshogbo. One of the most interesting features of Nsukka art that gets less attention is the fact that it’s inspired by uli art, the traditional wall and body painting of the Igbo, which is entirely the work of Igbo women. I don’t believe there is one woman artist in Poetic Line show, which is unfortunate, especially as it was women who made the natural pigments and collectively retained all the traditional uli symbols and designs. I wonder if this was an omission of Ulli Beier or was the Nsukka School just ‘gendered’ in favor of men? Either way, the show is a fascinating preview to a Pan-African exhibition coming up later this year, curated by the Nigerian art consultant Tosin Iroko and highlighting the implicit connection between East and West African art.


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