Aina Onabolu was the first Western-trained portrait artist in Nigeria. He also pioneered art education in the country.
Onabolu went to live in Lagos in order to study at Caxton House School. He finished his education in 1900 and began working at the Customs Department as a marine clerk. Onabolu did not give up his passion for art and studied on his own, teaching himself to paint in the European academic style.
Onabolu’s Views on traditional West African art
Aina Onabolu had no interest in studying the art forms that were indigenous to his region. His opinions on these subjects were influenced by his missionary education. Western missionaries saw African arts and craftsmanship as inextricable from the practice of “pagan” religious traditions. They saw the figures as idols that needed to be destroyed in order to ensure that the newly converted were loyal to Christianity. In 1910, Nigerian Railways official J. Holloway wrote to Onabolu, saying:
I am happy that you yourself realize the danger of going your forefather’s way…by creating the type of art that our church can quarrel with…I came back from Abeokuta a few days ago, and I must here bring to your knowledge what the Rev. in our church said. This Rev. gentleman strongly rebuked the congregation for their stubborn devotion to their idols which he regarded as heathen objects. They were considered ungrateful people who could not appreciate what God had done in their lives.
Onabolu also had contempt for traditional art forms because he saw them as primitive. At a time when his contemporaries, like Picasso, were being influenced by the simplicity of West African art, Onabolu rejected this style for the more realist depictions of figures in more traditional Western art. In his book, A Short Discource on Art, published in Nigeria in 1920, Onabolu writes:
What have we done to promote Art and Science? Our Geledes, Alapafajas, the Ibejis (sculptures) and our drawings are still crude destitute of Art and Science; our canoes remain as they were since the day, when first they came into use without the slightest improvement. Why! Are there not among us young men, or men of brain capable of improving our condition and surroundings? There are, I say emphatically a good number of young men among us with fine brain, but for want of self application and perseverance they cannot bring themselves forward, and therefore, remain unknown.
In contrast, at the time, a German anthropologist, Leo Frobenius , was visiting the regions of Yorubaland and Benin where he discovered traditional Bronze figures. These figures so struck him because of their complete lack of crudeness and the obvious knowledge of artistic techniques and science that would have been required for an artist to make them that he believed that they could not possibly be purely African in origin. He came up with the truly bizarre theory that these bronzes where Greco-Roman in origin and that their makers were the descendents of the lost island of Atlantis. The fact that this theory seemed more reasonable to him than to think that Africans could have had the intelligence and skill to design these figures all on their own demonstrates the intensity of the racist opinions held against African artists and their abilities. Frobenious lamented that these bronzes belonged to the Yoruba people. He said “I was moved to silent melancholy at the thought that this assembly of degenerate and feeble-minded posterity should be the legitimate guardians of so much loveliness.” It was these racist opinions that Onabolu wanted to disprove by showing that he could paint in the European style just as well as a White man.
In 1935, Aina Onabolu, was commissioned to construct pews for the Lagos Cathedral of the Church of Christ.
Onabolu died in 1963.
The Exhibition Hall of the Nigerian Gallery of Art is named after him.
to be continued
The intersection of modern art, anthropology, and international politics in colonial Nigeria, 1910-1914 by Olubukola A. Gbadegesin (essay available online)