The Woyingi Blog

Nigerian Lives: Aina Onabolu (1882-1963)

Posted in African Art, African Artist Profiles, Countries: Nigeria, Nigerian Art, Peoples: The Yoruba by the woyingi blogger on September 22, 2010

Portrait of a man 1954

Aina Onabolu was the first Western-trained portrait artist in Nigeria. He also pioneered art education in the country.

Early Life  Onabolu was born in Ijebu-Ode in 1882. He started painting at 12. His main sources of inspiration were Western art that he saw as a child in Nigerian magazines and missionary religious text.

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.

Adam and Eve 1955

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

Further Reading:

The intersection of modern art, anthropology, and international politics in colonial Nigeria, 1910-1914  by Olubukola A. Gbadegesin (essay available online)

Picturing the Modern Self: Politics Identity and Self Fashioning in Lagos, 1861-1934 by O. Gbadegesin (essay available online)

A “Rooted” Reading of Race in the History of Art by O. Gbadegesin (article available online)

Oniyemofe The Story of a Name

Posted in All About My Nigerian Father, Countries: Nigeria, Peoples: The Yoruba, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on June 3, 2009

When I was born the name on my birth certificate wasn’t name I have now. My father’s last name was Oniyemofe. When I was 5 years old, after my parents’ divorce and my father’s deportation, I was issued a new birth certificate with a new name, my mother’s.

My mother’s divorce documents as well as an intermediate Spanish textbook had my father’s name, Oniyemofe, on them so I was always aware that this name had once been mine.

As I grew older and learned more about Nigeria I became curious to know what ethnic group my father came from. I realized that the name Oniyemofe (which I had grown up pronouncing as O-nee-ya-moff but I would later learn should be pronouced as O-nee-yay-mo-fay) was the key to answering this question. So, I ask any Nigerian I ran into what the meaning of Oniyemofe was.

The first Nigerians I met in Ottawa were all Yoruba. This was a good thing as it ended up that Oniyemofe was a Yoruba name. However, finding out that my father was most likely as Yoruba if his last name was Oniyemofe just ended up leading to more questions…this time posed by the Yoruba themselves. You see Oniyemofe is not a real Yoruba family name. It is actually a sentence. I remember one Yoruba remarked accusatorily that Oniyemofe was a name created in order to sound like my family was royalty. I had to explain that as I had no real memory of my father and no contact with him or his family it obviously followed that I had absolutely no knowledge of the Yoruba language and therefore would not be able to fabricate a royal sounding Yoruba family name if my life depended on it.

The strangeness of the name Oniyemofe is what eventually led to me being able to find my father. The only Oniyemofes in the world are my father’s relatives. When I went to the Nigerian High Commission in my mid-twenties in order to see if I could find any documents relating to my father there the staff immediately recognized the name. It ends up my uncle Simeon was a career diplomat and so many other Nigerian diplomats knew of him and remembered this name. To make a very long story short, any Nigerians who had met an Oniyemofe remembered as it is such a peculiar name and eventually I was led to my father.

 It ended up that my father wasn’t Yoruba at all although he did grow up in the predominantly Yoruba state of Ondo. But his family was from the Arogbo Ijaw community. So why does he have a Yoruba last name?

It ends up that my great grandmother was Yoruba. She was purchased by my great great grandfather as a slave when she was still a small child. She was inherited by my grandfather and became his concubine. One of her sons, my grandfather, used to be called Oniyemofe by her as a pet name. Oniyemofe means “The person I love” in the Ijebu Yoruba dialect. Eventually, when my grandfather was an adult he helped his mother trace her origins to the Yoruba town of Imakun near Ijebu-Ode. My grandfather chose to take the name Oniyemofe as his family name out of the love and respect he had for his mother.

And that is the story of the name Oniyemofe.