ONA TRAJECTORY: The Disputable Claims of A Traducer
By Kunle Filani
“Titled Onaism, a lino print by Kunle Filani expresses in one
Image and one word, the most significant artistic movement
among Yoruba artists, especially since independence….
His instantaneous flash of genius reveals to us in one breath
and one stroke a rare insight into contemporary Nigerian
Moyo Okediji (in Kurio Africana Vol 1:2, 1990)
The self adulating essay “Beyond Dispute: Origins, Travails of Ona” written by Moyo Okediji and published recently in some Nigerian Newspapers sparked off series of enchanting on-line comments by informed scholars and artists especially from abroad. The article was designed to diminish the efforts of co-founders of Ona Group of Artists and attribute the founding, fostering and funding to himself.
Blinded by egotism, Okediji committed series of historical blunders. He presented fiction for fact, let out streams of invective on my person and indeed became spurious in his specious suzerainty claims. The essay ended up becoming parochial, pathetic and petty.
I was initially reluctant to join issues with Okediji whose contrivance was to belittle my efforts as a prominent pioneering member of Ona Group. I wanted to avoid seeming self glorification while recounting my contributions to the formation of Ona. Moreover, as a matter of principle, I have conceptually jettisoned competitive bravado; an act that conceits the soul. I am always conscious of the fact that winning a rat-race does not turn you to a cat. But as necessity would have it, I am compelled to intervene in the contestation of Ona formation having been implicitly drawn into the debate.
It was strategic to delay the rejoinder, not only because my present job is highly demanding both in ethics and time, but also to conciliate my response in difference to the appeals made by respectable scholars and connoisseurs. Most importantly, I needed to gather relevant materials to justify my role in the formation of Ona, thereby situating my narrative in appropriate historical context.
It must be clearly stated that I am not aversed to individual members innocuously proclaiming personal contributions towards the development of Onaism as an art movement. Each person’s case is bound to be peculiar but not necessarily pernicious. Indeed, pontificating through historical narratives should be limited to edifying purposes. It therefore behoves the five Ona pioneers to elucidate on the overriding impulses that characterised the emergence of Onaism as a definable movement in Modern Nigerian art.
ONDO BEGINNINGS: In My End Is My Beginning – T.S Eliot
“Recently ONA, another group of 7 practising artists emerged in
Ondo State. …. Among the ONA group, Kunle Filani’s art for
instance portrays linear characteristics, and is quite
different from Tola Wewe and Segun Adejemiluwa’s expressions
Donatus Akatakpo (Nigeria (sic) Art In Crisis of Identity – In
Newbreed, July 31st, 1988).
The above quotation in Newbreed, July edition 1988, emphasised that there was a group in Ondo State named ONA; the first time Ona Group of artists was mentioned in print media. Donatus Akatakpo was a 1979 graduate of Ife School and very close to Moyo Okediji, Tola Wewe and me. He obtained his MFA degree at the University of Benin, where Okediji and I also did, although in different classes in the early eighties. Akatakpo and I actually lectured together at Adeyemi College of Education, Ondo, between 1985 and 1986 when he resigned his appointment and took up a job in Lagos.
The import of Donatus Akatakpo’s article in the Newbreed Magazine is the indisputable documentation it offered about the place of formation, group name ad some members of the Ona Group. Indeed the initiating members were lecturers at the Adeyemi College of Education Ondo, and the then Ondo State College of Education, Ikere-Ekiti. The core ones were Kunle Filani, Tola Wewe, Bankole Ojo, Segun Adejemilua and Opeyemi Arije.
After the resignation of Donatus Akatakpo from the Art Department at Adeyemi College of Education, I facilitated the employment of Tola Wewe as a lecturer in 1987. Tola Wewe was a regular visitor to Ondo town while researching his M.A thesis at the University of Ibadan. As a 1983 graduate of Ife, he bonded with Akatakpo and I both as artist colleague and friend. He stayed with me while processing his employment and few months after securing the appointment, he rented a flat thereafter. It was around this period in 1987 that I initiated the need to form a group with him before inviting others to join.
It is crucial to differentiate the Ona Group initiated in 1987 from Atunda Group as not being the same as wrongly claimed by Moyo Okediji in his article. Atunda was formed in 1991 and led by Eben Sheba who was lecturing at Ikere-Ekiti. The membership did not include Kunle Filani and Tola Wewe. The claim by Okediji that Solomon Irifere (sic) was a member of Atunda is also false. Mike Irrifere championed the formation of another group named Wazobia in 1992 also in Ondo town.
In negation to the lackluster picture painted by Okediji that Ondo town in the eighties was uninspiring, and that those of us in Adeyemi College, Ondo were disgruntled with our job, Ondo town was indeed a boisterous cultural and social haven. Adeyemi College of Education that was established in 1961 in Ondo and later became a satellite campus of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, was very conducive for robust scholarship and radical creative tendencies. A cursory look into some of our activities in Ondo that served as impetus for creative groupings may be apposite.
In the mid-eighties, comradeship among some young and like-minded lecturers at Adeyemi College of Education, Ondo developed into bonds of affinity. The friendship metamorphosed into a coterie nicknamed Ilu. Ilu members often socialized together and engaged in illuminating critique of the unfortunate military leadership that pauperized Nigeria’s economy. The group became critical of the local academic and administrative hierarchies of the College, thereby attracting radical labels from Management, staff and students.
Ilu also aligned with a progressive group in Ondo town named Ondo Study Group, ably led by Dr. Olusegun Mimiko who is the current dynamic Governor of Ondo State. Ondo Study Group on regular occasions met and discussed the challenges of leadership in a developing political climate and the need for democratic ideals in Africa.
Ilu members equally challenged and encouraged one another to uphold the tenets of teaching, research and community service while engaging in best practices in their individual academic disciplines. The members were Kunle Filani, Tunde Babawale, Ojo Olorunleke, Gboyega Ajayi and Tola Wewe. There was no dull moment in Ondo, and we all consolidated on our socio-political experiences and used such to further challenge our academic and creative sensibilities.
It was within the Ondo milieu of dynamic engagements that Tola Wewe and I started Ona Group of artists. I articulated the group’s name by elaborating on the peculiarities of Yoruba artforms and motifs. I also justified the need to conflate the two since they are mutually embedded in Yoruba aesthetics. Noting that forms and motifs in various African traditions derived inspiration from similar circumstances, it became obvious that the appropriation of Ona visual philosophy was not limited in scope to the Yoruba only. Onaism therefore emerged as a platform where intrinsic Yoruba creative cultures could be interrogated by others. My drawings, prints and paintings in the eighties attested to the matching of the theory with practice. This was why Moyo Okediji in his article that I quoted in the beginning of this essay celebrated my 1986 Lino-print titled Onaism - Ija lo’de ti orin di owe - conflict breeds pejurative tenor to otherwise innocent songs.
During this period, my activism was not limited to Ona Group. I was involved in other professional and intellectual associations. For example I was the General Secretary of Ondo Resident Artists (1988 – 19991), the elected Assistant General Secretary and later the Acting Secretary of Nigerian Folklore Society ably led by G.G Darah and later S.O. Williams (1988 – 1994). I was also a strong member of Nigerian Society of Education Through Art (NSEA) and of course the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA). Okediji’s tenuous argument that “Filani, as a young man, was not disposed to the leadership commitments that he now seems to ably handle….” is visibly mischievous. As a matter of fact, in 1989, after the retirement of both Chief R.A Ajidahun and Mr. S.B. Faturoti (Those I described in a 1991 exhibition essay as Provincial Monuments) I was appointed the Head of Department of Fine and Applied Arts, a position I responsibly handled till I left for Lagos in 1992.
IFE CONFLUENCE AND MATTERS ARISING
It was not until February 1989, after an exhibition titled “Contemporary Ife” that some of us who were participants and alumni of the department started discussing the need to redefined and proclaim the emerging Ife School to a wider audience by coming together as formidable professional group. Since Tola Wewe and I had initiated the Ona group in Ondo, and Moyo Okediji was gathering materials for a new journal named Kurio Africana, it was convenient but not necessarily expedient to align interests by consolidating Ona group afresh and making Kurio Africana its official scholarly journal.
The inaugural exhibition titled “ONA I: Maiden Exhibition” was held in April, 1989 at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. The catalogue of the exhibition reflected the results of our collective deliberations as proclaimed in our manifesto. Five of us namely Moyo Okediji, Kunle Filani, Tola Wewe, Bolaji Campbell and Tunde Nasiru became the pioneering members of the new Ona Group. We agreed not to share executive positions, but rather share responsibilities based on the capabilities and capacities of individual members. Bolaji Campbell and Tunde Nasiru were Post-graduate students but later got employed as lecturers after completing their MFA programme. We were all alumni of O.A.U, Ife and we made Ife our official headquarters.
It is rather unfortunate that Moyo Okediji is now denying the obvious. His motive is still a mystery to me. I appreciate his significant roles as the most senior of the five, having graduated in 1977. I graduated in 1980 while Wewe, Campbell and Nasiru did in 1983 and 1984 respectively. Okediji was also a Graduate Assistant when I was in the final year. We were however contemporaries and by association became friends. He claimed that I played minor and peripheral role in Ona Group, and declared me as having “modest” talent! I will not be a judge in my own court, but Okediji should know better….. I graduated with a Second Class Upper in 1980 - a privilege he never had in 1977. My eventual creative and scholarly achievements are known to the unbiased researchers.
In order to further confute the fictitious claims of Okediji that he was the sole founder and sole financier of Ife Ona Group, it is worthwhile to ask some rhetorical questions:- If indeed he formed the Ona Group in 1986,
Ø What were the activities he carried out using Ona as a group name?
Ø Why hold the Ona maiden exhibition in 1989 with the catalogue proclaiming the pioneering members of five and the birth of Ona as a group?
Ø Was Okediji aware of Akatakpo’s 1988 article on Ondo Ona before he began his specious claims?
Ø Was he not the editor and writer of the ebullient comments made on my lino-print in his article in Kurio Africana Vol.1:2 of 1990?
Ø Why did Okediji in his 2002 book titled African Renaissance: devoted about five pages on me as an artist and recognized me as “a founding member of a group of artists named Ona?”
Ø Was his relocation to U.S.A fait accompli to the demise of Ona in spite of glaring continuing flowering and relevance of Ona artistic style and philosophy in Nigeria?
As a student of Yoruba language, Okediji should know that Egan o ni ki oyin ma’dun” - disdain does not diminish the sweetness of honey.
It was impossible for Okediji to single handedly fund the group with his “less than Nine Thousand Naira per annum”. One should wonder what Tola Wewe and I who also earned salaries were doing! As artists who participated in exhibitions, commissions and sales of art works in Ondo, Ife and Lagos, we were able to supplement our earnings. I recollect vividly that Bolaji Campbell who was a graduate student in 1989 often made significant financial contributions towards the running of Ona activities.
Our activities were quite dynamic and demanding. One person couldn’t have done it all alone! We contributed money, distributed responsibilities, received moral but limited financial support from the department of Fine Arts and especially from Senior Faculties such as JRO Ojo, Agbo Folarin, Ige Ibigbami, Ola Olapade, PSO Aremu and Lamidi Fakeye. There were other well wishers that assisted us. Tayo Ojomo – the painter/architect; Lade Adeyanju – art educator, and Moyo Ogundipe, whom we regularly visited during our activities in Lagos being a great painter and a 1974 graduate from Ife. Professor C.O. Adepegba warmly allowed us to use the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ibadan for an exhibition. It was there that Nkiru Nzegwu (who also graduated from Ife in 1976) saw our works and later did a remarkable joint exhibition titled Pushing the Limits of Vision in September, 1989. We also had the support of Janet Stanley of the Smithsonian Institutions who offered to print the proceedings of our conferences.
Moyo Okediji became ridiculous in his attempt to attribute a collective beginning to himself by using totalitarian and uncomplimentary words. He wrongly claimed to have “conscripted” Wewe and I having “feted” us to a point of “inebriation”. He also claimed that Tola Wewe more or less “dragged” me into exhibiting since I was “inclined to hang out with the rest”. Okediji in his irritable article claimed that in 1986, Fakeye lamented that the Ife Art Department lacked a body of rigorously committed scholars and artists to promote its flagging artistic image”. It is obvious that Fakeye could not have said such, considering the array of notable scholars and artists lecturing in the department in 1986. Prominent among the Professors were Babatunde Lawal, Abiodun Rowland, JRO Ojo, Agbo Folarin, Ola Olapade, Ige Ibigbami, PSO Aremu, among others. Okediji had earlier demonstrated impudence when he alluded to his senior colleagues and former teachers as “dormant after the departure of Rowland Abiodun and Babatunde Lawal”. He became suffused in egocentric euphoria and declared that “as the first product of Ife to also teach there, I received the mantle of leadership and Ona Movement emerged and marched forward, under my total and unquestioned command”. What an impetuous braggart!
I expected Okediji to be more circumspect in his writings and claims. For example he claimed that Ona Movement stopped as soon as he left Nigeria for the United States in 1992. This is implausible in the face of overriding facts of robust continuity of Ona activities till date. The truth is that my efforts and that of Tola Wewe encouraged many artists especially Ife and Ondo graduates to imbibe and internalise the principles of Onaism. Solo and joint Exhibitions were held to consolidate and espouse the fundamentals of Onaism. Those that explored Ona stylistic tendencies in their works since the middle and late 90’s included Tola Wewe, Kunle Filani, SCA Akran, Tunde Ogunlaye, Idowu Otun, John Amifor, Don Akatakpo, Rasheed Amodu, Victor Ekpu, Wole Lagunju, Deji Dan, Ademola Ogunajo, Mufu Onifade, John Tukura, Steve Folanmi, Segun Ajiboye, Abiodun Akande, Kunle Osundina and a host of others from Ife and even other schools.
The Best of Ife yearly exhibitions that I started and organised with Donatus Akatakpo in 1993 promoted the Ona spirit in many enduring ways. It flowered into a significant rallying point among Ife art graduates. Those that nurtured it apart from me included Victor Ekpuk, Tola Wewe, Rasheed Amodu, Wehinmi Atigbi and more than others Mufu onifade who elevated the Best of Ife from mere yearly exhibitions to include intellectual debates and symposia.
The five founding members of Ona started shifting base from Ondo and Ife in 1991. This made it difficult to hold regular meetings and pursue activities. Tunde Nasiru was the first to relocate to the USA, while Tola Wewe moved to Lagos in 1991. I also moved from Ondo to Lagos in April 1992 to start a new Art Department at the Federal College of Education, Akoka. Okediji left for U.S in late 1992 and Campbell also relocated to the U.S in 1994. We never dissolved the group because Okediji left Nigeria as he said. Bolaji Campbell continued editing Kurio Africana while Wewe and I focused on uniting Ife graduates in Lagos. Bolaji Campbell always came to Lagos to meet with us before he eventually travelled.
Moyo Okediji and Tola Wewe did joint exhibitions in 2004 and in 2011 without informing me at all. I was even in London when the recent one held and was unaware of the furore created by Janine Sytsma and Mufu Onifade’s writings. It is therefore ridiculous for Okediji to claim that I wasn’t included in the exhibitions because I claimed “not to have time to make art”. In spite of my busy schedule as Provost and Chief Executive of a tertiary institution in Nigeria, I have held two Solo exhibitions within four years and participated in several joint ones at home and abroad. True, my production slowed down because of the exigencies of my office; however I have continued to practise, teach, research and promote art internationally. I consciously decided to overlook conspiratorial exclusions since the creative and intellectual field is wide enough for all to explore.
My dynamism was not only defined by Ona membership. For the records, I also initiated the coming together of art graduates of the University of Benin when Akin Onipede joined me to organise an exhibition tagged Ekenwa Art Graduates in 1996. We feted Prof. Solomon Wangboje and I was glad to have gingered up the formation of Association of Wangboje School of Creative Arts (AWANSCA) by Frank Ugiomoh soon thereafter. I have played more vigorous roles as a member and pioneering President of Culture and Creative Arts Forum (CCAF) - a proactive group of artists/scholars that was initiated by Ademola Azeez in 2000.
In conclusion, I consider the on-going debate as a good opportunity to enlighten the arts community about the formation, articulation and dynamism of Ona Group and Onaism as a definable art movement in Nigeria. I have given my honest version and I have documents to support all my claims. It is important to note that the space for scholarship and artistic creativity is wide enough for all to travel without injuring collective sensibilities. It is unhealthy to cast aspersions and vilify others because of surreptitious gains.
At older age, Moyo Okediji shouldn’t have allowed default emotions, spiced with malice to over flow at the expense of collective heritage and long standing comradeship. For now, the rest is silence.