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  • From Primitivism to Pan-AfricanismRemaking Modernist Aesthetics in Postcolonial Nigeria
  • Jesse Weaver Shipley

National independence struggles across Africa, and the formerly colonized world, were accompanied by artistic revivals that linked local expressive styles to Pan-Africanism, Negritude, and global anticolonial movements. Artists and intellectuals reimagined an aesthetic that would refract new political identities and challenge simplistic, racialized dichotomies between European and African, West and non-West. They reassessed notions of the modern, the popular, and the traditional in calibrating racial, cultural, linguistic, and class-based affiliations in new national terms.

In the years around Nigeria's independence from British rule in 1960, the city of Ibadan, just north of Lagos, was at the center of one such artistic movement aimed at shaping the cultural terms of a new political sovereignty. This was an unusual moment of creative collaboration among rising visual, performance, and literary artists working across various media and genres from poetry to novels to painting to theater to television. Many earned national and international recognition as they challenged aesthetic norms. The high modernists, novelist Chinua Achebe, poet Christopher Okigbo, and dramatist Wole Soyinka, played with and debated the formal aspects of language use (Okeke-Agulu, 2015, pp. 263–265). Yoruba painter Twins Seven-Seven and composer-director Duro Ladipo blurred lines between elite art and popular music and theater. Cosmopolitan academic artists, such as African American Jacob Lawrence, Guyanese Dennis Williams, Ghanaian Vincent Kofi, and Sudanese Ibrahim El Salahi, came to exhibit and work with inexperienced artists in Ibadan and the nearby town of Osogbo.1 The development of new modes of curation, criticism, [End Page 140] and analysis reframed and valued these practices. Artists and critics came from across Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas, and Europe to work with this rising generation. Nigerians were particularly tuned into the global resonances of black expression; as Chinua Achebe recalls, he was listening intently as Ghana's leader Kwame Nkrumah, borrowing the terminology of early Pan-Africanist Edward Blyden, called for a new "African Personality" at Ghana's independence ceremony in 1957 (Okeke-Agulu, 2015, p. 93).2 The reflexive development of a field of artistic production, then, was intricately tied to the expansive transnational energies of the independence era, in which reshaping aesthetic and moral values seemed urgent in developing a national citizenry and a Pan-African polity.

In some measure, the efflorescent collective of artists and critics around Ibadan and Osogbo was initiated by the arrival in Nigeria in 1950 of an unusual European couple. Ulli Beier, a German Jewish refugee from Palestine via London, came to teach at University College, Ibadan, and reinvented himself as an art impresario and critic, creating spaces for art and literature to flourish. His wife, Austrian expressionist artist Susanne Wenger, dedicated herself to rebuilding the sacred grove of Ọṣun in Osogbo. Their art and criticism were indicative of a restless, rebellious spirit that permeated a small segment of European artists and intellectuals who fled the devastation after World War II, seeking new meaning and authenticity.

They came to Nigeria with notions of art shaped by a European modernism that fetishized the primitive as a source of true creativity untainted by urbanization, capitalism, and mechanized war. Like an earlier generation of primitivist artists, such as Paul Gauguin (1985), who went to Tahiti in 1891 to find rejuvenation from the exhaustions and alienations of modern life, Beier and Wenger aimed to leave behind the failures of Europe; aesthetics provided the language of this journey. They sought something authentic and meaningful in a romantic elsewhere framed against a nihilistic landscape of devastating violence and the collapse of imperial rule. But the Nigerian social, political, and artistic world they entered was far more complex than they had imagined.

In this paper, I explore how a rising generation of artists and critics in Nigeria reinvented an African modernism from the fragments of the contradictory projects of racist colonial art pedagogy and European modernist primitivism. In some measure, Pan-African contemporary art developed by transforming colonial-era art education, turning objectified primitive creative essences into celebrations of individual expression and intent. I [End Page 141] examine how a misguided European primitivist search for authentic African culture became...


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pp. 140-174
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