Tribute to the Father of Modern Nigerian Art, Aina Onabolu, on his 136th Posthumous Birthday

In the early 20th century, a Nigerian painter, Aina Onabolu, born this day, 13th September, in 1882 in Ijebu-Ode in present day Ogun State of Nigeria, was the first artist of his generation to deliberately and successfully break away from Abstractionism, the traditional art style of the African society at the time. He was the catalyst for Ben Enwonwu’s ‘unique form of African modernism’ and the Natural Synthesis ideology of the 20th century. He became the father of modern Nigerian art. Just as in the late 19th century, a French painter, Paul Cezanne, was the first artist of his generation to deliberately and successfully breakaway from Impressionism, the traditional art style of the Western society at the time. He was the catalyst for Pablo Picasso’s Cubism and the abstract art of the 20th century. And he became the father of modern Western art.

Self-Portrait (Through the Mirror), Aina Onabolu (National Gallery of Art, Nig.)

Arguably, the father of African modernism, Aina Onabolu’s artistic achievement was more remarkable because of the mental and physical obstacles he had to surmount to acquire his skill. At the time, the ignorant consensus of the Western world was that Africans were incapable of realistic representation. In the words of George Fowler, an English historian and archivist,

…teaching an African the art of a white man was not only a waste of time but also a misplaced value … for even if he has a moderate ability for this, he can only succeed in creating the tribal art of his people.

Onabolu, with no teachers or predecessors, taught himself to draw by imitating the photographs and illustrations in the foreign magazines and books he could lay his hands on. This led A.O. Dele Dosumu to write in the preamble to Onabolu’s A Short Discourse on Art,

There is a peculiar interest attaching to Mr. Onabolu and his words—which would have been the same if he were a European as he is an African—the fact that he had never received any training in Art. The amount of success which has attended his efforts will on the one hand be more appreciated by everybody and on the other hand be of greater value to Africans because his genius is essentially of Africa.

One unexpected fact I recently unearthed about Onabolu is his contempt for photographs. By the early 1900s, Onabolu was an esteemed portraitist. He had moved to Lagos and was living with J.K. Randle, a friend of his father who was a respected political activist. After his first exhibition at Randle’s residence, he started receiving commissions for portraits from Randle’s associates who were members of the Lagos high society. He was developing an exclusive and elegant portrait practice and, considering himself a history painter, he sought to record the history of his people and his heritage by representing the central figures through portraiture.

At that same period, advances in technology had made photography available to the African layman photographer. The medium’s ease of operation, fast result and inexpensiveness made it increasingly popular with the public and, ironically, for someone who had gotten his start from imitating photographs, his portrait practice was now threatened by photography. But Onabolu’s disdain stemmed from the poor quality and transient nature of the photographs, or so he said. In the catalogue for his 1920 exhibition, A Short Discourse on Art, ever the teacher, Onabolu admonished,

Now in this country, it is a blessing that we begin to value the portraits of our parents, of great men, and of those who are dear to us. Yet there is something wanting and that is, that we have not learned to distinguish painting from coloured photograph or the requisite qualities that make a good picture.

…let me here remind my reader that portrait painting is certainly the highest and the most difficult of Pictorial Art, requiring in its extended practice, at least, subordinate education in all other branches.

It probably did not help that Onabolu was sometimes commissioned to retouch or restore photographs. A case in point is the photograph of late Asst. Bishop James Johnson, a renowned nationalist and patron of J.K. Randle. His enlarged portrait had been commissioned from England by the Lagos Christian women, but it turned out to be a coloured photograph. The colour of Johnson’s skin in the photograph was not right so it was taken to Onabolu to retouch. In that instance, Onabolu declined the request. Instead, he offered to paint his own portrait of the Bishop at no cost. Possibly, he used the opportunity to reiterate his point on the difference between ‘true art’ and ‘weak substitutes’ like coloured photographs.

Shortly after, in 1920, Aina Onabolu traveled to England for a two-year course in Fine Arts at St. John’s Wood College, London, becoming the first African to study art in England. On his return to Nigeria, he commenced his legendary one-man crusade to establish formal art education in public school curricula. Earlier this year, I had the privilege of seeing this featured portrait of Mungo Park by Onabolu. It was an experience. I hope someone would have an exhibition of Onabolu oeuvre. I think it would be an amazing show. But in the meantime, a digital retrospective of his art might not be a bad idea.

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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.
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