Born on this day, 9th August, in 1946, Gani Odutokun is celebrated mostly for conceiving the accident and design theory, which defined the Zaria Art School in the 1980s and influenced the course of contemporary art in Nigeria. Odutokun explained the theory thus,
The guiding light behind most of my work is the concept of ‘accident and design’. I see art as life and I perceive life as an endless circle of oscillation between accident and design. Man attempts to order the world around him through design. Forces intervene to aid or disrupt. In the end, what gets realized is hardly the precise thing the mind conceived. Man is never in control. I like my art to reflect the essence, for that is my perception of reality.
Like fate foretold, these forces intervened in his life too. At the age of 49, Odutokun was killed in a car accident while returning to Zaria from an exhibition in Lagos.
Dialogue with Mona Lisa (1991) is perhaps Gani Odutokun’s most iconic painting. At the time it was painted, Odutokun, who after completing his studies at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria had stayed on to teach there, was encouraging a generation of artists to find their individual paths to artistic expression, after years of watching the African artist struggle with the pressure to conform to certain foreign expectations. Dialogue with Mona Lisa was his symbolic depiction of the inequitable effects of the cross-cultural interaction between Africa and the West.
Unfortunately, only a few people have seen the original painting. On Odutokun’s first and only trip to England to attend an exhibition of his works at the Savannah Art Gallery, London in 1992, Odutokun took the painting with him. He left it behind with the owner of the gallery, Leroy Coubargy, and came back with several picture postcards of the painting. That was the last verifiable fact on the location of Dialogue with Mona Lisa. At some point, Savannah Art Gallery folded—likely after Odutokun’s death in February 1995—and Coubargy was said to have left England suddenly for Ghana with no forwarding contact details. It was suggested that the painting might have been part of the collection of Coubargy’s possessions auctioned off when the gallery went into receivership. But a witness to the auction claim it was not among the items presented for sale. The witness, John Picton, a professor of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, speculated that, being a gouache, the painting would have been destroyed by the London weather, if it had been among the things taken out of the building that housed the gallery and left outside months before the auction.
Deconstructing Dialogue with Mona Lisa
The key images are the Nimba sculpture, a headdress of the Baga people of Guinea, West Africa, which represents African art; Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, classical Western piece, embodying Western art, and Piet Mondrian’s abstract colour composition representing 20th century Western art.
The Nimba sculpture is shown painting the Mona Lisa with a brush. The act of painting connotes the addition of colour. In this case, it denotes the effect of African art on Western art as an additive that is utilized by Western artists to improve, give colour and make their art more dynamic. They used their knowledge of African art to enrich and develop their art. A good example is the recent discovery of the significant influence of Henri Matisse’s collection of African artifacts on his art.
On the other hand, the Mona Lisa is carving the Nimba sculpture, presumably to its specifications. This draws attention to the West’s continuing efforts to dictate the limit of what is to be considered African art, and the typecasting of African art as primitive, naïve and a phenomenon—enter the ‘artists’ who, without much formal education or informal training, were given materials, without technical instruction or interference, to produce masterworks which were then promoted as the best of African art. And complicit, are the Africans who advocate total rejection of Western influences or knowledge. To his students, Gani Odutokun advised,
Yes, you are Nigerian, and you must look to your culture, but there’s nothing wrong in taking from other cultures as well, and there’s nothing wrong with experimenting, even if it doesn’t work.
Piet Mondrian’s Colour Composition
On Mona Lisa’s chest is an abstract colour composition. While the Mona Lisa represents Europe’s art renaissance of the 14th to 16th centuries, Piet Mondrian’s abstract painting on its chest is of the 20th century. These two works represents the evolutionary trends of Western art from realism to abstraction. For Africa, no such evolution is recognized.