They say great art is timeless. It assumes a new relevance to each generation. Now, if only the market would reflect this. At the 20th Modern and Contemporary Art Auction organized by Arthouse Contemporary Limited on 4 June 2018, I was asked to pick my favourite from the 104 lots on display. I instinctively said Hurly Burly by Gani Odutokun. By the time this work came on the block and sold for just ₦1,200,000 (it’s low estimate), I am reminded that auctions are not about art; they are about money. Gani Odutokun’s performance at the auction is no surprise. Though considered one of the leaders of 20th century Nigerian art, there seems to be a consensus that he is one of the most underrated in Nigeria.
Born in Ghana to Nigerian parents in 1946, Gani Odutokun’s family relocated to Nigeria after a slump in the Cocoa trade–his father was a Cocoa trader. Odutokun studied at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria (ABU) and graduated with first class honours in painting in 1975. He joined the Fine Arts department at ABU as a lecturer in 1976 and taught there until his untimely death in a car accident while returning from an exhibition in Lagos in 1995.
Odutokun was an experimentalist with an uncanny ability to paint in almost any style. Like most great artists, he sought to express his philosophy of life through his art. To him life was “an endless circle of oscillation between accident and design,” and art, he saw, as an extension of life, where accidents happen to thwart man’s attempt at designing his path. By 1977, Odutokun began experimenting with an inventive painting technique he christened colour liquidization—a process where he poured liquid oil pigments directly on canvas and allowed them to flow naturally, imitating the flow of a river, until they find their form. After this, he would embellish the work with designs, sometimes using brushes where necessary. The liquidized paintings, with somewhat abstract expressionist characteristics, created from this technique perfectly conveyed Odutokun’s Accident and Design ideology, and were his most successful pieces.
In Hurly Burly (1990), Gani Odutokun employs colour and line as design elements. The work has a simple but rigorous beauty that commands your gaze. The vivid colours, the semi-depiction of what looks like several tall buildings. Look longer, and it’s a city on fire. The colours coming out of the buildings are tongues of fire, and is that blood on the ground? Is that a river? A social commentator, Odutokun alludes to the state of the nation under the military regime at the time.
As head of department of fine arts at ABU, Odutokun shaped an entire generation of artists. He passed on to his students his quest for artistic freedom and encouraged them to find the style and technique that suit them best. Artists who cite Odutokun as their chief influence include Mu’azu Mohammed Sani, Jacob Jari, Ayo Aina, Lami Bature Nuhu, Jerry Buhari, Babatunde Babalola and Lasisi Lamidi. Collectively, their works form an important part of Nigeria’s recent artistic history. Gani Odutokun can be said to have set the stage for Nigeria’s abstract art. His Accident and Design ideology significantly influenced Nigeria’s contemporary art trajectory.