Developmental history of landscape painting in modern Nigerian art: the Lagos State example.

Author:Ajiboye, Olusegun Jide


Art in any form or media is a device used for representing ideas, recording events, tracing physical advancements and capturing fleeting moments and feelings inspired by nature and human activities generally. In this regard, landscape art functions as a tool of historical documentation of the physical environment (and development) and validates the dynamics of human experiences and environmental changes overtime. Landscape painting, one of the visual art genres, is an art that dates back to the pre-independent era in Nigeria.

The story of landscape painting in Nigeria is encapsulated within the history of modern Nigerian art, which is traceable to the European influence on Nigerian visual expression. Europe, Britain precisely played a major role in the birth of landscape painting in Nigeria. This is because landscape painting is one of the components of easel painting which was never a tradition in Nigeria until the colonial experience. In addition, the early painters that could be considered as the forerunners of the art of landscape painting in Nigeria were trained in Britain.

It appears that several developments in different parts of Nigeria may have cumulated into the beginning of landscape painting in the country. According to (Ajiboye, 2005:48), John Rowland Ojo, an art historian and painter whose academic career was at the Obafemi Awolowo University spoke of a watercolour society which existed at his old school, Christ School, Ado-Ekiti in the late 1940s. The excerpt below vividly captured the picture of landscape painting in those early days in Christ School.

"In Christ School, Ado-Ekiti, I and my junior colleagues were introduced to landscape painting in water colours in the Wednesday afternoon hobby class by a geography teacher who came from England on six-month relieve duty. He painted the hilly country side, travelling as far as Idanre and Ikare; his water colours were in the best tradition of English landscape painting in water colour" (Ojo, 2002:2).

The exploits in landscape painting in Nigeria at these early times may not be limited to the aforementioned. There is however little record of the contributions of these earliest Nigerian modern painters to landscape painting in the pre-independent era in Nigeria except in few writings by foreigners like J. A. Danford, a colonial administrator and Uli Beier, a German ethnographer who was deeply involved in Nigerian art. Other writings similar to these are not commonly found in the body of literature on modern art in Nigeria. Definite records as to how and when the landscape painting tradition started in Nigeria are not easy to come by, as shown by the bulk of literature on the development of modern art in Nigeria.

The story of landscape painting, like that of modern Nigerian art, cannot be detached from the geographical and cultural dimensions of Lagos State. The State is usually considered as the orb of artistic activities and the most advanced in modern Nigerian art, both in practice and historically (Oyelola, 1998:21; Ochigbo, 2006:281; Spiesse, 2003:76; Babalola, 1995:8; Filani, 2005:26; Okeke-Agulu, 2011:13). Nigeria has produced many prolific landscape painters, and the most popular names in that genre are resident in Lagos State where they practice and have become well known (Okediji, 2012:34). Through literature, field study, interviews and purposively selected landscape paintings, this paper aims at constructing the early history of landscape painting in Nigeria using Lagos State as the basis. Also investigated are factors that have shaped the development of Lagos and contributed to the growth of the art genre.

Statement of Research Problem

The history of landscape painting in Nigeria is generally handicapped by inadequate literature. Most information on the genre is scattered in literature that are not intended for it; of which many are reports contained in pages or paragraphs found in different publications. Examples of such are Danford (1948), Beier (1960), Chukueggu (1998), Filani (2005), Konate (2008), Bosah & Edozie (2010), Egonwa (2011), Castellote (2012), and Ajiboye & Makinde (2011). Out of these, only Ajiboye & Makinde (2011) appears to have the most focused work on landscape painting. The work addressed the thematic foci of landscape painting in Lagos State and their influence on selected painters. With regard to the dearth of art historical studies on the commencement of the genre in Nigeria, this study therefore examines the development of landscape painting in modern Nigerian art. It however focuses its art historical lens on Lagos State, in addition to the causative agents responsible for the growth of landscape paintings in Nigeria.

Landscape Painting in Nigeria: A Historical Overview

Records of modern art in Nigeria point to the fact that what can be referred to as 'modern' in Nigerian art started in the pre-independent era with the practice of Aina Onabolu (1882-1963). He was unanimously regarded as the first recorded modern painter in Nigeria, whose practice and life was based in Lagos State from where he started laying the foundation for art education in Nigeria. Hence, the beginning of modern Nigerian art could be traced to the exploits and resilience of Aina Onabolu which dates back to the pre-independent Nigeria; precisely the 1900s. A picture of that time in the history of modern Nigerian art is vividly captured as follows:

"... in 1900, Aina started to practice as an artist, there was indeed not a single person known, nor any record of anyone who had practiced pictorial art in any scientific form. The pictorial traditions of Europe did not seem to have made any impact on the African mind in spite of years of trade between the peoples of Europe and Africa." (Onabolu, 1963: 295)

The reactions of Onabolu to the notion that the African cannot produce or appreciate art like the white people made him an advocate of naturalism (Oloidi, 1995:193). This, coupled with the exposure of Nigerians to European painting styles, influenced the naturalism observed in early works of modern Nigerian art.

The place of Aina Onabolu as an epochal figure in the developmental history of modern art in Nigeria, Africa inclusive, is affirmed by Oloidi (2011:20) who posits that "it has now become a historical landmark to know that Western art was introduced single-handedly and without any European assistance, to Africa by an African ..." It is on record that Aina Onabolu painted landscapes during his career (Ojo, 2002:2; Onabolu, 1963: 295). However, only his figure paintings which have survived are well recorded and studied. The fact that Aina Onabolu painted landscapes and there are no other records of established or known modern Nigerian painter before him makes it possible to strongly assert that landscape painting in modern Nigerian art must have commenced in the early 1900s with Aina Onabolu.

By 1940, Akinola Lasekan had distinguished himself as a self-taught nature painter (Oloidi, 1995:194). Adesanya (2008: 7) describes Akinola Lasekan as "more of a landscape and market scenes specialist and a cartoonist than anything else". His "Moremi" at the Obafemi Awolowo University library has a background of nature which gives an idea of the naturalistic landscapes of the pre-independent period. According to Okediji (1989: 8, 11), Lasekan also made several landscape views of the Obafemi Awolowo University during his sojourn in the school in the late sixties and early seventies. One of such is "The University of Ife settling down on its Home Campus" (plate 1) which was executed during his days as artist-in-residence at the defunct Institute of African Studies at the University of Ife; now Obafemi Awolowo University. The work depicts the workers off-loading furniture into the Humanities' Buildings with the environmental landscaping yet to be done. The work is dominated by the freshness of the light-brown soil around the buildings and the greys denoting the buildings, sky and the far distant vegetation. This and several other miniature landscape paintings further reveal him as a naturalist and well established landscape painter.

Close study of the earlier contemporary Nigerian artists that painted landscapes show a great flavour for naturalistic depiction of nature. This seems to have been the case from pre-independence as revealed in the pictures of 1948 Nigerian exhibition which accompanies the article on Nigerian art by Danford (1948: 157-158). The photographs of the paintings give one an insight into the style of early landscape paintings in Nigeria. The exhibition which was organised under the auspices of the British Council showcased various landscape paintings by Adeyemi Adenuga, E. Okaybulu and D. Ebanda among many other artists.

Adeyemi Adenuga's "Oyo-Agunpopo Hill" (plate 2) shows a good understanding of the watercolour medium in his work depicting the hill with fresh and free flowing strokes indicating the vegetation and the clear sky. Danford (1948: 156) attests to Adenuga's...

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