Birth of Modern Nigerian Art: The Aina Onabolu Story

Check out the comprehensive biography of Aina Onabolu HERE

African modernism started with Aina Onabolu (1882-1963), painter, foremost art educator and father of modern Nigerian art. At that time, FH Howard, a Deputy Director of Education in colonial Nigeria, in his writings captured the colonial administrators’ views on the subject of Africans’ artistic ability,

There is one barrier he [an African] cannot surmount, one door he is unable to open; that in the sphere of [Western] art he is not capable of reaching even a moderate degree of proficiency.

But Aina Onabolu proved this wrong. After demonstrating his considerable artistic proficiency, he was recorded to have said,

I believe that a woodpecker in England is the same as the woodpecker in Lagos. Unless it is not a woodpecker, the Lagos woodpecker can knock its peck on a tree with the same maximum efficiency and determination which is also expected of an English woodpecker. Both can create holes that God has given them as natural habitats. All woodpeckers of the same biological endowment, whether in Nigeria or England, are the same. One woodpecker is not inferior to the other.

Onabolu became a self-taught artist with skills that rivaled those of Europeans with formal art training. And he single-handedly introduced Western art to Africa.

Now, whether Onabolu’s emphasis on Western art was to prove Africans’ competence in an area arrogantly thought to be the preserve of Europeans or was because he thought African art was crude and primitive is a purely academic question (I’ll like to examine it someday, though). The important thing is that he laid the foundation for modern Nigerian art and provided a springboard for a younger generation of artists including Ben Enwonwu and Akinola Lasekan.

Here’s a look at the fascinating life of this genius.


13 September: Birth of Aina Onabolu in Ijebu-Ode to Jacob Onabolu, a successful Ijebu merchant and Oshunjente Onabolu, a trader.


The isolationist territory of Ijebu-Ode is opened to European trade and missionaries after annexation by Lagos-based British military forces under the command of Governor Carter.

Following this annexation, Onabolu begins primary school at St. Saviour’s Primary School, Ijebu-Ode and around this time, he becomes enamored with photographs and illustrations in British magazines and books.

He starts learning to draw by imitating the magazines and books.

Onabolu changes his name to J. Aina Roberts—African converts were encouraged to take English names as a sign of their spiritual membership in the Anglican denomination in particular.


Aina Roberts at the age of 12 is a self-taught artist who designs charts and teaching aids for teachers, his first local audience.


He completes his primary school education in Ijebu.

He moves to Lagos to live with Dr. JK Randle, his father’s friend, and attends Caxton House School.


Aina Roberts completes his secondary school education.


He gets a job at the Marine Department of the Customs Office in Lagos.

Through advertisement in foreign newspapers and magazines, he makes contact with a London art shop to purchase art materials and various technical and historical art books. This London shop is his main supplier for the next four decades.

Portrait of Mrs. Spencer Savage, Aina Onabolu,
Portrait of Mrs. Spencer Savage, Aina Onabolu, 1906 (Credit: National Gallery of Art, Nigeria)


Aina Roberts exhibits his drawings, landscapes, still-lifes and portraits at JK Randle’s residence—his first art salon.

Following the success of his salon, Aina Roberts starts receiving commissions from Randle’s associates who were members of the upper echelon of Lagos society.


Aina Roberts makes a public demonstration of his artistic skills at Igbosere in Lagos—many European administrators in Lagos refused to believe he was the real creator of his works because he had no art training and the works he claimed were his were comparable to that of formally trained Europeans. Instead, they believed some European artist goes to his house secretly at night to help him produce the works.


He paints the work, Portrait of Mrs. Spencer Savage; a watercolour painting of Augusta Savage, a Lagos socialite. This work is considered a masterpiece of early modern African art by scholars.


He paints a portrait of his mentor, Dr. JK Randle.

Circa 1915

Colonial government rejects Onabolu’s application to teach art in schools without payment—he would later realize this was because he had no formal art education or certificate in art.

Unofficially, he starts teaching what he called ‘new art’ to children around him and in a few mission schools.


Twelve-year-old Nnamdi Azikwe is one of the children being taught by Onabolu. Azikwe would later ensure art is part of University of Nigeria’s programmes.

Circa 1917

Onabolu is asked to restore the ruined photograph of late Abraham Claudius Willoughby that had been hanging at the Glover Memorial Hall for about 26 years. To Onabolu’s dissatisfaction, the portrait looks more like a painting than a photograph after the rehabilitation.

When the Lagos Christian women asked Onabolu to retouch the enlarged coloured photograph of the late Rev. James Johnson that had just been acquired from England because the colour of his skin was all wrong in the photograph, Onabolu told them it was better left alone.

Instead, he paints a portrait of the reverend of his own accord (without a commission).

Dr. Sapara, Aina Onabolu, 1920,
Dr. Sapara, Aina Onabolu, 1920, Oil on Canvas (Credit: National Gallery of Art, Nigeria)


He paints his famous work, Dr. Sapara.

Aina Roberts changes his name back to Aina Onabolu (The Nigerian Pioneer article of 9 April 1920 announcing his exhibition referred to him as J. Aina Roberts but mentions that he recently changed his name to the Yoruba version, which means artist by way of God).

27-30 April: Onabolu holds his first solo exhibition titled Pictures of Onabolu at the Empire Hall, Lagos.

He publishes the treatise, Short Discourse on Art, as the accompanying catalogue for his exhibition.

2 May: Onabolu leaves Nigeria for a two-year course in Fine Arts at St. John’s Wood College, London, becoming the first African to study art in England.

Circa 1921

Onabolu wins an art prize at St. John’s Wood College, London.

He attends lectures for advanced students at the Royal Academy of Art in London.

He goes to France for further study in art at the Académie Julian in Paris.


Onabolu returns to Nigeria with a diploma in fine arts and a teacher’s certificate.

He continues his one-man campaign for formal art education in Nigerian schools, and he is given an appointment to teach art in King’s College, Lagos.

He also starts teaching art part-time in other schools including the CMS Grammar School, Wesleyan Boys’ High School, Eko Boys’ High School, and Christ Church Cathedral School.

Self-Portrait (Through the Mirror), Aina Onabolu, undated


He completes the gouache painting, Nigerian Weaver, for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. This was reproduced and sold as souvenirs at the exhibition.

He paints The Trumpeters, a commission by the colonial government that was later presented to Edward, Prince of Wales, and son of King George V.


He is commissioned by Retired Reverend I. Oluwole to portrait.


In response to Onabolu’s request for assistance with the art education programme, the colonial education department sends Kenneth Murray from England. Murray would take Onabolu’s dream of formal art education in schools to Western and Eastern regions of Nigeria.


Onabolu works with the Church of Christ in designing the pews of the new cathedral to be built in Lagos.


He gets approval for the art syllabus for secondary schools.


Onabolu’s achievement, introduction of arts into Nigerian school curriculum, is crowned with the establishment of the Department of Fine Arts at the Ibadan campus of the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST).

Portrait of a Man, Aina Onabolu, 1955
Portrait of a Man, Aina Onabolu, 1955


Onabolu paints Portrait of a Man


He receives Medal of the British Empire for fine arts education in Nigeria


Nnamdi Azikwe directs that Fine Arts should be included in the University of Nigeria’s curriculum when the initial draft of the University’s programmes was presented to him.


Aina Onabolu dies in Lagos.




Adekemi is a lawyer and writer with a passion for the arts, particularly African art history. She is dedicated to discovering and documenting the most excellent artworks of our time. Follow her on Twitter at adekemitweets.


  1. Artstrings
    3rd December 2018

    Thank you.

    29th November 2018

    nice one mam

  3. Artstrings
    26th November 2018

    Thank you. I totally agree.

  4. Ogunbona
    16th November 2018

    Nice article, well-done!
    We need to put more effort in documenting Nigerian creatives.

  5. Artstrings
    21st March 2018

    Your feedback means a lot to me. Thank you.

  6. Babatunde Edun
    21st March 2018

    Thank you so very much for this. Extremely informative.

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