Featured Image: Women of Peace 2003 by Moyo Ogundipe, acrylic on canvas
Yet again, the Nigerian visual arts community reels from the news of the passage of one of its own. The deceased, the U.S.-based Moyo Ogundipe, was found dead in his office last Wednesday. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
“He died this morning.”
Moyo Okediji’s last Wednesday’s Facebook had the effect of a sucker punch on the reader. Death never ceases to spook. Nor amaze. “He drove himself to his university to teach. But when the janitors opened the door to his office, he was found slumped on his desk, unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital where doctors pronounced him dead on arrival.”
Thus, Okediji announced the sketchy details of the sudden passage of his namesake Moyo Ogundipe.
Ogundipe… Remember him? Just last year at Omenka Gallery, his most recent solo exhibition in Nigeria, Mythopoeia held from October 15 to 22. It was an exhibition of recent work by this leading U.S.-based painter, who likens the creative practice to mythopoeia: “an unending search for the meaning and reason and rhythm of life.”
Janine Systma, the exhibition’s curator said it “traces Ogundipe’s artistic development during the last 20 years as he moved between Nigeria and the United States and developed a mythic language to reflect the ever-changing global condition.”
“Viewers of the paintings presented [at the exhibition],” Systma added, “are cast in the role of protagonists and are invited to navigate the labyrinth of patterns and to unearth the treasures embedded within.”
Professor Ogundipe had his beginnings in Nigeria. Indeed, his Bachelor of Arts degree in fine arts was from what used to be called the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in Ile-Ife. Before leaving the Nigerian shores on self-exile, he worked as an art teacher, a graphic illustrator, an award-winning television producer/director and an independent filmmaker.
Later in the US, he would further burnish his academic credentials with a Master of Fine Arts degree in painting from The Hoffberger School of Painting, Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore.
The acclaimed Denver painter would later explain that he had fled the military dictatorship in the 1980s, because he hated the idea of hounding people into jails. Indeed, he couldn’t imagine himself realising his dreams under such conditions. Thus, his Nigerian dream, which he had nurtured while growing up in the 1960s, gradually turned into a nightmare. This was when it became evident that his country, which he had hoped would be as great as any country of the developed world, was sliding the cesspit of hopelessness and mediocrity.
True, Ogundipe’s works may not have put him in the bad books of the military dictators. Yet, activism simmered in his blood.
Flash-back to the late 1970s. The year precisely was 1978. He used to be a controller of programme with the N.T.A. (Nigerian Television Authority). Then, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was a virtual persona non-grata to the military authorities. Consequently, his work was anathema to the staff of the government-owned electronic media house.
But not to Ogundipe, who used his office, to dare the military regime, for whom he haboured total contempt. He had Fela’s Berlin concert aired unedited on the national television and was unfazed by reports that the secret service agents of what used to be called the Nigerian Security Organisation (N.S.O.) were after him. Of course, the tacit support of his then General Manager, Dr Yemi Farounmbi,had given himthe tacit encouragement that he needed.
But even before he left Nigeria, Ogundipe always considered himself first and foremost a visual artist.“People ask me why I make art. I say to them, why does a bird sing?” he was once quoted as saying.
He would later hold several exhibitions across Europe and the U.S., making occasional forays into theNigerian scene. In the U.S., he had held exhibitions at The Orlando Museum of Art, the Maryland Museum of African Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and, more recently, inAfrican Renaissance: Old Forms, New Images at the Denver Art Museum.
Ogundipe’s Yoruba roots may stare back at the viewer in his densely-patterned colourful paintings, which had been described as “hypnotic”, yet in them lurk the unmistakable elements of the influences of his Western education. Perhaps, that was why he would rather not be branded an “African artist”. For sure, he would readily acknowledge his African roots, but would rather be more specifically called a “Yoruba artist”.
Yet, he would insist that the art world changed when Western art, which used to be about designs and aesthetics, came in contact with African art, which has always favoured the abstract, philosophical and spiritual. For this reason, the recipient of the 1996 Pollock-Krasner Award believed African art should be acknowledged for its contributions to modern art.
While in the US, he realised the urgent need to reconnect with his roots again. His admiration of his native Yoruba sculptural works, especially those of the late Olowe of Ise, would chart a new course for his studio practice. Hence, he was so thrilled to have a show that featured the works of the late iconic sculptor.
Admired – or even celebrated – though he may have been in the U.S. and parts of Europe, Ogundipe’s name vaguely rang a bell among the aficionados in his native country. This explained his repeated forays into the Nigerian art scene, not only to give back to his roots, but also to avoid drying up like the proverbial stream that forgot its source.
For these efforts, the renowned art educationist, Dr Kunle Filani, hailed “Ogundipe’s visual articulation” as “summative of the meticulous intellectualisation of artistic forms by the Yoruba artists over the ages.”
“The penchant for perfect rationalisation of visual images seems ceaseless in the Yoruba creative regenerative continuum,” Dr Filani further explained. “From the ancient classical Ife bronze and terra-cotta sculptures, Owo art, and even the hybrid of Benin, Tsoedo, and Tada bronzes to the more recent exquisite Ekiti/Igbomina woodcarvings, there is a peculiar compact and sophisticated appropriation of forms that is unique in spite of the remarkable diversity of African art.”
Ogundipe’s works, each of which the artist once said took him at least six months to complete, proclaim his reputation as a detailed painter. In the viewers, they elicit diverse emotions, which rangefrom excitement to calmness. Even so, the viewers are urged to decide what to take away from them.
So, the artist, who 12 years ago was invited to become a member of Africobra – an organisation founded in the 1960s and whose membership is comprised of distinguished African American artists – departed this earth-life unsung.
Okediji ranked him amongst the “greatest painters ever produced by Africa”, lamenting: “The world of African art is a world of total ignorance. It is a world in which the blind is leading the deaf. That is the only reason for an artist of the calibre of Moyo Ogundipe to die, unknown, uncelebrated.”
Describing Ogundipe as a “perfect artist”, who “was never a hustler”, he continued: “He knew his job was to make art. He expected curators, art historians and dealers to do their [bit] by seeking out the greatest artists and promoting them. But he didnot realise that contemporary art is not about talent or brilliance: it is about who could shout the loudest, who sleeps with whom, who knows you, and who you know–it is about mediocrity, sycophancy and frivolity, wrapped in the cover of racial, gender and sexual discrimination.
“The death of Moyo Ogundipe makes me angry not just because he has passed. I am angry because of the unjust world of art that he served diligently till his last breath. But I’m happy because he has finally proven that the art world is full of back-slappers and ignoramuses. I’m happy that he left a treasure of work that represents his great stewardship on earth.”
Okechukwu Uwaezuoke is a respected Art writer, literary artist and journalist.
He writes from Lagos.