Sunday, March 5, 2017 8:15 pm
By Niyi Osundare
On the first day of March this year, the art world lost Moyo Ogundipe, one of Africa’s most gifted artists and original thinkers. Moyo was my class mate at Christ’s School, Ado Ekiti in the late sixties, and for the past 50 years this remarkable human being and I have been friends and fellow workers in the turbulent vineyard of art and culture. Generous, proud, humorous, amiable, easy-going, and refreshingly unconventional, Moyo impacted the world with the depth of his mind and genial currency of his spirit. Reproduced below (in a slightly modified form) is my contribution to his first major exhibition in Nigeria eight years ago upon his return to the country after many years of busy sojourn abroad. I can never get used to missing this kindred spirit and unique human being….
In one of our epistolary exchanges in the late 1970s Moyo Ogundipe explained why he had decided to quit a high-profile advertising job some had thought would be his ultimate answer to the challenge he had always craved. But that expectation fell flat after the first two weeks! Tired of the world of sound bites and pretty phrasing, of celebrated clichés and tendentious imaging, Ogundipe began to yearn for new frontiers where words and images roam and range, unencumbered by hackneyed lingo and special interest.
I was hardly surprised at his dissatisfaction with any preoccupation that would turn him into a ‘desk artist’. For Moyo Ogundipe has always been an ‘artist on the go’: restless, mercurial, dynamic, but also deep and rooted, playful and utterly serious, sometimes comically transparent, sometimes intimidatingly opaque. In whatever mood his Muse places him, in whatever medium he chooses for his expression, Ogundipe remains the quintessential myth-maker and poet, one who sees Word and Image in verbal and visual terms, and the space between. His words on the open page are as protean and seamlessly suggestive as his strokes on the canvas. His ‘pictures’ are visual proverbs with a sinuous lyricism and inescapable musicality. To merely see an Ogundipe painting is to do it an egregious disservice; you have to hear it as well. Then think it as you feel your way around it.
Ogundipe’s lifelong fascination with the word and the image began a long time ago. When I arrived for the Higher School Certificate course at the famous Christ’s School, Ado Ekiti, in January 1967, one of my first objects of curiosity was the school magazine. (My abiding interest in such publications began at Amoye Grammar School, Ikere, where I had been editor-in chief for the school magazine). I was impressed but not surprised at the quality and diversity of the contents of Christ’s School’s magazine, considering the high status of the school and the caliber of its students. What kept me completely engaged were the illustrations and cartoons by a young artist who signed his name as “Lancey M”. Page after page, these drawings served as visual reinforcements for the written texts, or curious representations of the young artist’s own unusual imagination. Almost instinctively, I knew this artist and I would soon find areas of collaboration and engagement, but I was not sure how exactly it was going to be.
But Fate has its own drama, complete with baffling plots and teasing serendipity. A few days later, I found that the person sitting next to me in Mr. S.A. Oloketuyi’s literature class was none other than the famous “Lancey M!” Thus began what has now turned out to be a lifelong personal and professional relationship. I soon found out that the artist whose ‘hands’ I had seen in the school magazine was also a budding poet with a deep and passionate interest in poetry and drama. We traded enthusiastic ‘gists’ about Shakespeare and Soyinka, Okigbo and Wordsworth, John Pepper Clark and John Keats. Even at this early stage, I discovered that Ogundipe adored Soyinka’s poetry, but was absolutely dazzled by Okigbo’s hypnotic lyricism. This lyricism, this running fusion of myth and matter, music and magic, became the hallmarks of Ogundipe’s poetry and, later, his works as a visual artist.
Soon, our classroom chattering blossomed into practical demonstration. With the encouragement of the school principal, Chief R.A. Ogunlade, we revived Agidimo, the school’s occasional magazine, with me as editor-in-chief and Ogundipe in charge of art and design. A drawing of Agidimo, the rhinoceros insect (namesake with the hill on which Christ’s School is sited), superbly done by Ogundipe, occupied the masthead of the magazine, providing an irresistible visual appeal. Buoyed by this impressively artistic cover and its insightful and lively contents, Agidimo caught the fancy of the characteristically critical Christ’s School readers and became the toast of the entire community.
Ogundipe’s artisitic talents took him straight to another stage, literally speaking. In 1968, he and I were involved in two major dramatic events. The first was the annual inter-house drama festival, a keenly contested and robustly inspiring competition for which Christ’s School was justifiably famous – and respected. With enthusiastic input from gifted members of our house, Dallimore House, I composed the two plays (one in English, the other in Yoruba), but it was in the English play that Ogundipe played a major role as Heir of a powerful but embattled Emperor (played by me). The same year, with the active support of the Principal and under the able and disciplined directorship of Mr. V.A. Daramola, the school’s Drama Group produced This Is Our Chance, undoubtedly the most frequently performed play by James Ene Henshaw, Nigeria’s late doctor-playwright. Again, Ogundipe played the role of Prince (while I played the role of King Damba). For many nights, this play set the stage of the school quadrangle aglow, and its success was so rapturous that the Principal encouraged the group to take it to neighbouring schools.
Without doubt, Christ’s School brought out the growing essence of Ogundipe the poet, the journalist, and the actor, but it was in his capacity as maverick artist that he made his name. Rebellious, sometimes mischievous, and suspicious of authority, Ogundipe was neither a law-breaker nor a passive genuflector at the altar of what he considered intemperate commandments. His love for freedom was passionate and intense. His impulse was ineluctably democratic, even demotic. Junior students threatened by campus bullies came under his wings, as did free rangers and would-be artists in need of a kind mentor. His bedside in Dallimore House was always thronged by a motley gathering of pilgrims from other houses, while his easy-going ways made him one of the most popular students on Agidimo Hill. Wherever he went on campus, a chorus of “Lancey M” from passers-by sweetened his passage. Even the birds in campus trees seemed to recognize the name.
Christ’s School had its own community of artists: talented, focused, proud, keenly aware of their special gifts, sometimes posing as the chosen tribe of the Muse. Under the tutelage of V.A. Daramola, a devoted teacher and art educator, a generation of future Nigerian artists and allied professionals fledged and soared: Macaulay Iyayi, Morakinyo Olugboji, Sesan Ogunro, Susan Ilugbusi, Funmilola Olorunnisola, Iyabo Oguntusa, Femi Mosuro… (To this list must be added the likes of Ben Tomoloju, one of the most richly talented artists and cultural impresarios in Nigeria today, who was many years Ogundipe’s junior). The incubating chamber and cluttered workshop was the Art Room, strategically sited on the upper floor of a tower-like structure which loomed like the lighthouse over the school quadrangle and the rest of the campus. What moments of admiration and envy for the rest of us as we watched the young artists going up and down the stairs that led to this tower, spattered with paint, their brushes held aloft like rainbow spears!
This was Moyo’s inaugural professional tribe, the first appreciators of his then precocious output. But the wider Christ’s School community sometimes had a glimpse of the artist at work as Mr Daramola stood with visible pride by his protégé and his prodigious explorations on the canvas. It surprised no one when Ogundipe emerged from the Higher School Certificate exam as one of the best Fine Arts candidates in West Africa in 1968, and was instantly snatched for the B.A by the then University of Ife. Thereafter, Ogundipe’s canvas became wider, his brush more adventurous, his insight more profound. Thereafter, he became an artist of the world… .
* * *
When Ogundipe left for graduate studies in the United States about a decade and half ago, many were afraid that this highly gifted artist might become a victim of the “immigrant disease”, that terrible affliction of the artist torn from his/her roots, now surrounded by the sights and overwhelmed by the sounds of another land. Would the deeply indigenous sound fade into a mongrel echo? Would erstwhile sharp and penetrating sights blunder into visual blurs? Would the pulsating hyperbole of the native idiom attenuate into a half-remembered hint? Just how would this artist survive the tempting, sometimes lucrative hype of the American system without losing his way in its “post-modernist, post-structuralist, post-hermeneutic, post-representational, post-industrial, post. . post. . “ maze and its literal, frequently modish presumptiveness? How would he draw from the astounding richness of the American world without losing his African soul in the process?
Ogundipe’s prolific output in the past two decades has given the lie these fears. Home is in the heart, Ogundipe often philosophizes during some of our many informal brainstorming sessions and reminiscences; everywhere you go, it never leaves its place in your chest. Every land has its song, but Humanity has a large choir. When the snail goes on a journey, it never leaves its home behind. And so Ogundipe has taken full advantage of the vast American space, tapped into its infinite possibilities. The result is an outpouring of an artistic genius that has been struggling for an outlet for many years and was happy to get one at last. The Agidimo Muse is on the ascent. . . .
That home that travels so ineluctantly in Ogundipe’s ‘heart’ frequently finds expression even in the strangest space. It is a home that is telluric in its tenacity, bristling with sound and silence, sign and sense, the ludicrous and the sublime, the apparently simple and the hermeneutically complex. It is an essentially plural home, whose mathematics works through the maxim of this plus that, whose matrix rests on the principle of rational inclusiveness. It is a complexly polyphonic, polyvalent, and polydimensional home which locates the specific in the general, the general in the specific. A home that is self-assured and tolerant, accommodating without losing the faculty of rational discrimination. That home derives from the Yoruba worldview which waters the very root of Ogundipe’s creative tree, bestowing the flair and freshness that looks so native to his art.
A sensitive apprehension of that worldview is necessary for an adequate appreciation of the predominance of what I call the forest idiom in Ogundipe’s works. Like a typical Yoruba forest, his canvas is thronged, haunting, and quick with surprises. The soil is moist with fecundity; undergrowths are thick with mystery; ropy climbers swing and interlock in every direction; the canopy lends a spell of brooding shadows. There are unmistakable hints and echoes here of Fagunwa, Tutuola, and Soyinka (especially the Soyinka of A Dance of the Forests and Forest of a Thousand Daemons). For Ogundipe, this wild and wondrous site, this intimidatingly promiscuous space, is the theatre for the real drama of existence, or oftentimes an alternative stage for the marvelously impossible. For in Yoruba belief, the forest is not simply the opposite of the cultivated city. In many ways, both sites are complementary and mutually reinforcing.
The forest is the abode of innumerable spirits, some benign and benevolent, others dangerous and forbiddingly mean. It is also the home of the dead and/or the living-dead whose communion with the world of the living – and the unborn – is considered vital for the sustenance and survival of all states and spheres of existence. Its essence is as plural as the leaves on the trees, its power as potent as the vital forces that populate its zone.
Intimations of the forest breathe through Ogundipe’s canvas – in the ubiquitous green, its dense and crowded ambiance, and the lines which criss-cross the space like traveling branches. But this forest is hardly ever a region of unrelieved darkness and monochromatic gloom. A playful yellow often lets in the sun, and there are times when a brown or bright orange lends the hint of the dry season. Dappled in their detail, arrestingly colourful, Ogundipe’s paintings remind us so forcibly of Ankara, that textile brand so beloved to people of West Africa. Jungle of Magical Feats vibrates with forest echoes, while in Emperor Sundiata’s Daughter (a painting whose subject possesses the stunning gaze and immortal poise of an African Mona Lisa), the background is lush like Ijesa-Isu forest in the rainy season.
Water and the water motif also capture our attention in these paintings. Here Ogundipe’s imagination waxes solidly liquid, and his images swim in a sweet, seductive blue. Mermaids are the predominant denizens of this zone (Queendom of Mermaids, The Memaid and the Piscean Princess etc). Here Ogundipe has invited us to the dance of deities: Olokun, Yemoja, Osun, Oya, all staple goddesses, invariably come to mind as we watch the Mermaid swing and splash across the canvas. There is a mythical boldness in these double-bodied beings that compels comparison with their pastoral counterparts in Three Negritude Princesses, the sassy debutantes in Three Lagos Socialites, and the regal, statuesque figure in Emperor Sundiata’s Daughter. From mermaid to madam, women throng Ogundipe’s canvas whether in their Negritude nudity or bejeweled modern mode. Critical spectators might see these women and marvel at their mythic grandeur while wondering why the woman that ‘draws the water and cooks the food’ never makes it to the artist’s canvas. They might be anxious to know why the ‘hue and cry’ of a harsh world hardly troubles the music of Ogundipe’s visual symphony.
Such spectators would be asking questions that are so fundamental to Ogundipe’s philosophy and practice of art. For his journey in these works is an essentially interior one, a journey into that world of endless transformations and magical mutations in which centaurs serenade the universe with saxophones, and the fumes from a smoking pipe morph into raging cobras. Perhaps these works are conceived as an imaginative escape from the ugliness of the world we know, a psychic journey into the universe of root and essence, into an African past whose value has been violated by reckless modernity, a quest for a vision that challenges contemporary blindnesses as a way of confronting them.
Indigenous laakaye, global flair, constant wrestling with memory and remembrance, lyrical celebration of nature and life; a bardic brush, a canvas bristling with incantations, a forest of endless music and marvel . . . these are some of the gifts presented here from the “sacred and secret territories of [Ogundipe’s] soul”. They are his ultimate testament, the unfolding narrative of his canvas of tales. From Agidimo’s budding artist to a global master; from Christ’s School’s quadrangle platform to the world stage, from “Lancey M” to “Moyo Ogundipe”. . . the journey has been long, frequently rough, colourfully impressive – but not yet complete. The works on offer here are from Ogundipe’s forest of a thousand wonders, his “painted harmonies” (to borrow Okigbo’s memorable phrase). They are music in motion, songs which thresh the colour of fertile dreams.