There are other reasons, besides his brief connection with the Zaria Art Society, why the reticent octogenarian artist Jimoh Akolo merits a seat of honour among Nigeria’s top modern and contemporary artists, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
Even after more than a half-century of hosannas, the aura surrounding the Zaria Art Society’s titans does not appear to be fading any time soon. That could explain why Jimoh Bola Akolo’s connection to this phenomenal group – once curiously tagged “Zaria Rebels” by the Ghanaian critic Kojo Fosu – seemed so crucial to kó, the gallery hosting his retrospective. To be sure, Akolo’s membership in the Society – which he left after three months “for personal reasons” – so to speak, gilded his already illustrious career. Moreover, seeing the works of this Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology (NCAST) alumnus and contemporary of such leading Zaria Art Society members as Yusuff Cameron Grillo, the late Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Emmanuel Okechukwu Odita, and Demas Nwoko is an added incentive for art enthusiasts hoping to grace the Cameron Road, Ikoyi-based art space.
Titled The Essential Jimo Akolo: A Retrospective of Drawings and Paintings from 1961 to 2015, the exhibition, which opens on Tuesday, February 15, will feature the artist in Lagos for the first time since 2018. That was the year that he was featured in Mydrim Gallery’s 25th-anniversary exhibition on Sunday, June 3 and Monday, June 4 held at Desiderata in Banana Island, Ikoyi alongside such industry luminaries as El Anatsui, Abayomi Barber, Jimoh Buraimoh, David Dale, Nike Davies-Okundaye, Bisi Fakeye, Yusuf Grillo, Gani Odutokun, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Kolade Oshinowo, and Muraina Oyelami.
According to information gleaned from kó’s official press release, the gallery will go to great lengths to celebrate this artist, who turns 87 on September 20. Over 31 drawings and paintings will be on display, some of which have been borrowed from collections both within and outside Nigeria. Besides, the exhibition catalogue will include images of the artist’s early works, which are housed in the collections of the UK’s Bristol Museum and the University of Sussex, as well as the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art at Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos.
Akolo’s reticence towards the Zaria Art Society’s “Natural Synthesis” ideology, which has been widely alluded to, appears to be more on paper than in reality. True, he was quoted as saying in an interview with the late Ugandan playwright and novelist Robert Serumaga that he didn’t “think that there should be any rules guiding African artists,” and went on to say, “They should do what they like. They are expected to produce. It’s not necessary to tell them what to think.” Yet, there were designs and patterns, which could have been influenced by Hausa architecture and art, evident in the works he produced during a short-lived experiment shortly after he graduated from the NCAST. This is likely what prompted Chika Okeke-Agulu, a Prince University professor of art history, to speculate in his book, Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria, that Akolo sympathised with the cause advocated by his former colleagues.
Before his time at NCAST, he studied art at Keffi Government College under Dennis Duerden, an education officer in the Nigerian Colonial Service, who not only exposed him to painting but also boosted his confidence enough for him to be included in the 1956 Keffi Boys exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
After graduating from NCAST, he went on to study at Hornsey College of Art in London and Indiana State University in Bloomington, USA. It was at the latter that he obtained his MSc degree in education in 1966 and eventually a doctorate in art education in 1982. In the meantime, he had joined Ahmadu Bello University’s education faculty in 1966, where he taught for over three decades.
The themes of his artworks, which revolve around indigenous cultural traditions and everyday life, attest to his commitment to a uniquely Nigerian aesthetic canon. Among his works that allude to his Northern Nigerian experience, are the oil on board works are “Test of Manhood” (Sharo) 1982, “Horn Blowers from Southern Kaduna Welcoming the Governor” 1984/1986, “Milk Maid” (Fura da Nono) 1998, “Man on Horse” 1996 and “War, Red War” 1996, the oil on canvas works “Dambe” (Native Boxing) 1998, “Mother and Child” 1998 and “Wrestling Match” 2000, as well as the pencil on paper, works “Horse Man II” 1995 and “Durbar”, among others. The influences are clearly Yoruba in oil on canvas works like “Owambe” 2013 and “The God of Thunder” 1964, as well as pencil on paper works like “The Model” 1961.
Interestingly, Akolo’s meticulous manipulation of colours—measured and calculated, some aficionados would wager—is linked to his earlier penchant for engineering. Indeed, it is believed that Duerden weaned him off engineering and directed his path toward the visual arts. Could this be why the oil on board painting “The Conspiracy” 2000 appears to be reminiscent of cubism?
Once described by the late German-born editor, writer, and scholar Ulli Beier – in a review of Nigeria’s Independence Exhibition – as the “coolest formalist among them”, he patented a stylised representational style in loose brushstrokes of matt, yet intense colours. This style appears to have reincarnated in works by Kolade Oshinowo, Edosa Oguigo, Alimi Adewale, and Abiodun Olaku.
Back to the retrospective exhibition at kó, curated by Professor Jerry Buhari of Ahmadu Bello University’s fine arts department. It also offers a recent video conversation with the artist at his hometown, the historic Kogi State town of Egbe, as well as scholarly tributes by people who have closely interacted with him. Among these people are Professor Sunday Ogunduyile (Vice-Chancellor, Ekiti State University), Professor Jacob Jari (Department of Fine Art, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria), Professor Tonie Okpe (Department of Fine Art, Ahmadu Bello University), Dr Simon Ikpakronyi, Director and Head of Curatorial Services, National Gallery of Art Abuja, Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya, his classmate at Zaria, Professor Adamu Baikie, his classmate and former colleague at the Faculty of Education, Ahmadu Bello University, Richard Deji, his only son, Mercy Feyisola Akolo, his younger sister and their youngest sister, Grace Yemisi Ukhueleigbe.
The exhibition, which closes on Saturday, March 12, reaffirms Akolo’s unwavering devotion to the principles of individual artistic independence, which does not have to conflict with the core principles of “Natural Synthesis”. Furthermore, its art-historical significance cannot be overstated, as the retired art education professor’s exploits in the art scene have previously received little public attention due to his natural aversion to publicity. This is even though one of his murals is permanently installed at the Northern House of Assembly in Kaduna State.
A recipient of Nigeria’s National Cultural Trophy, Akolo has also won several other prestigious awards, among which are the First Prize for Drawing and painting at the Northern Nigerian Self-government Celebration Exhibition in 1959 and The Best
Artist of the Year in Sao Paulo Biennial Mention of Honour in 1962.
The artist’s works have been sold at prestigious auction houses such as Arthouse Contemporary, Bonhams, and Sotheby’s, among others, and he has participated in several exhibitions both within and outside of Nigeria. The Commonwealth Institute in London in 1964, a group touring exhibition in London and Edinburgh in 1965, a solo show at the Nigerian Arts Council in 1970, the All-Nigerian Festival of Arts, Ibadan, in 1971, the Visual Arts Exhibition of FESTAC in 1977, and the second Havana Biennial in Cuba in 1986 are among these exhibitions.