Tunde Odunlade and the Evolution of Nigeria’s Contemporary Art Scene

Tunde Odunlade

By Toyin Falola

Nigeria boasts of a considerably old and long history of art tradition–painting, sculpture, carving, weaving and poetry—with some, like the famous Nok culture (1500 BC), reaching back thousands of years. Other established antique art cultures from Nigeria include those of Igbo-Ukwu (900AD), Ife (1100-1450AD), Benin (1440AD), Esie (1200-1500AD) and Owo (1500AD). Together, these art cultures have inspired the creative energies of several generations of Nigerian artists and contributed to establishing Nigeria, and indeed Africa, as a center of ancient and sophisticated indigenous art traditions.
Photo: Tunde Odunlade Arts Gallery, Ibadan.

Notwithstanding the antiquity of Nigeria’s art cultures, they only came into prominence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when more discoveries and excavations were made of buried artefacts from various regions around the country, sometimes by accident. These discoveries occasioned a growing interest, especially amongst European anthropologists and archaeologists, in the artistic traditions of the peoples of the area, initially to ascertain their level of cultural sophistication. Notable amongst the crop of expatriate personnel at the forefront of this activity, who incidentally also set up early institutions for the study of Nigerian art, were Kenneth Murray, Bernard and William Fagg, and Thurstan Shaw. The activities of this group led to the establishment of a Nigeria Antiquities Service in 1943 and the founding of the Nigerian Museum in Lagos in 1957, which provided an early avenue to showcase Nigeria’s rich and sophisticated art traditions.

Odunlade’s works

Photo: Toyin Falola, Tunde Kelani and Alao Adedayo at the Tunde Odunlade Arts Museum in Ibadan, on November 20, 2021
Nigerian art has come a long way from the days of ground-breaking archaeological discoveries and excavations and has grown to occupy an esteemed position in the world of arts. This outcome is owed to the contributions of generations of Nigerian artists and art enthusiasts— Aina Onabolu, Ben Enwonwu, Yusuf Grillo, Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Dele Jegede, Jimoh Buraimoh, Twins Seven-Seven, Prince Taiwo Olaniyi and Rufus Ogundele, Samuel Ojo, among others—who are considered the fathers of modern Nigerian art. Building on successive achievements, these artists drew from various indigenous art traditions, combining traditional art forms with other modern influences to create a sophisticated Nigerian contemporary art culture that commands extensive international appeal and acclaim.
Particularly central to Nigeria’s contemporary art development is a tradition known as the Osogbo School. The Osogbo School of Art was an offshoot of the Mbari Mbayo Club of Ibadan, which was established in 1961 by a cluster of young writers with the assistance of a Jewish-German teacher at the University of Ibadan, Ulli Beier, and his wife, Suzanne Wenger. Its objective was to provide a platform for African artists, writers, and musicians to develop and showcase their skills to a more vast audience. Soon after, this concept was transferred to Osogbo, where the club expanded beyond its intended purview to accommodate “unemployed primary-school dropouts.”
Photo: Prominent elite, Dr. Samson Ijaola and his wife, Dr. Yemi Ijaola, at the Tunde Odunlade Arts Gallery, Ibadan
In 1962, workshops were held in Osogbo to train local artists who were also encouraged, through local patronage, to remain committed to their indigenous art traditions to prevent the indigenous art culture from degenerating, especially in the face of the attractions of an accessible tourist market. The success of this endeavor, in the long run, not only saw to a thriving local art scene, but it also provided the Nigerian contemporary art with consistent international appeal.
Today, Tunde Odunlade, a second-generation artist of the school, continuing in the tradition of the Osogbo School, has succeeded in reinforcing the esteemed place of Nigerian art in global rankings and breathing a new life into a neglected and struggling industry by displaying uncommon initiative, resourcefulness, and creativity. Through his numerous achievements, he has shown the endless possibilities available to young aspiring generations. A master in his rights, Tunde Odunlade draws from a rich Yoruba culture and history, combined with extracts from modern-day Nigerian experiences to create dynamic pieces. He has also displayed versatility with his craft, excelling as an actor, teacher, musician, and artist.
Odunlade, who creates textile and graphic arts, is especially renowned for his batik art tapestry and for developing a unique batik application process that he calls “flotograph,” which combines different textile print techniques—calligraphy, marbling and batik—to create organic abstractions. A believer in making “art with a purpose,” the artist has shown a laudable commitment to using art to bridge the gap between cultures and peoples and raise awareness amongst the people at home and in the international community about Nigeria’s plight and potentials. In this regard, he founded a non-profit organization, the International Campaign for Better Arts and Cultural Awareness (ICBACA), and a for-profit gallery, the Tunde Odunlade Artists’ Cooperative Gallery in Ibadan. He co-founded the Toki Memorial Art Centre in Ibadan, which has been instrumental in the discovery and nurturing of artists who have gone on to achieve international acclaim. He has also coordinated many workshops and exhibitions at home and abroad, engaging young people, adults, and fellow artists (colleagues). His 2001 art exhibition, “Together We Rebuild a Nation,” addressed the severity of the implications of Nigeria’s external debt and contributed to the Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala debt-relief campaign that resulted in Nigeria’s debt cancellation.
As a testament to the quality of Odunlade’s craft, his works have featured in numerous prestigious art shows and are displayed in many reputable institutions around the world, including the headquarters of the World Bank in Washington D.C; the Victoria and Albert Museum London; the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Pete, Florida, USA; the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum (DIA); the Northern Illinois University Museum (NIU); and the State House in Lagos, Nigeria. Some of his works have also made their way into the personal collections of many private individuals in Europe, North America, and, of course, at home in Nigeria.
Tunde Odunlade is a visiting lecturer and artist-in-residence at several universities in America, including the Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa; the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA); and the Michigan State University. He is a member of the Visual Artists Network (VAN) of the United States and the National Conference of Artists, New York State Chapter. He is a recipient of numerous awards and recognitions, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Award, Carnegie Foundation, Ford Foundations, Rockefeller foundations MacArthur Foundation, New York University NYC, and several other national, state and counties endowment for the arts.
As a result, there is no denying that Tunde Odunlade, like the great names before him, has rendered invaluable service to the development and sustenance of Nigeria’s contemporary art culture.
*Source: Toyin Falola Interviews, an FB forum