Saturday 6 July 2013

Four decades on...echoes of Mbari Mbayo pulsate

By Tajudeen Sowole
About 50 years of art appreciation-seed sowed in Nigeria and blossomed in the U.S. has been revisited when artists and connoisseurs hosted American art teacher, Mimi Wolford in Lagos and Ibadan.

During one of her schedules in Lagos hosted by master printmaker, Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya, Wolford disclosed that the promotion of Nigerian and African art in general, started by her parents Richard and Jean Kennedy Wolford, has been taken to higher level in the U.S. courtesy of her initiative Mbari Institute for Contemporary African Art (MCAA), Washington DC, U.S.
The institute is a continuation of an earlier project of her parents, Mbari Art established in 1970 for promoting cultural exchange, via collecting works from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the U.S.  Richard and Jean were American cultural officers in Nigeria during the 1960s.
The institute, Wolford hoped, will be a museum, as it has volumes of collection of works of Nigerian and other African artists, spanning over 50 years. Some of the works, she stated, were the early collections by her parents during Richard’s  foreign service in Nigeria.
Visiting founder of Mbari Institute for Contemporary African Art (MCAA), Washington DC, U.S Mimi Wolford during a workshop at University of Lagos {Unilag}.
Since she left Nigeria in 1969, Wolford did not return until his visit few weeks ago courtesy of a US Department of State Speaker Travelling Program.

Ahead of her visit to Onobrakpeya’s Gallery and Studio, Papa Ajao, Mushin, Lagos State, Wolford was a special a guest at a three-day event at Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos, including workshops and Art Talk courtesy of Dr Peju Layiwola. She was also a guest speaker at a lecture organized by Omenka Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos. 

More importantly, the visitor, with the aid of Layiwols visited Institute of African Studies University of Ibadan. (U.I). The U.I. visit was significant, given the fact that the whole concept of Mbari Mbayo germinated there { then University College, Ibadan} after it was started in the eastern part of the country as Mbari {recreation centre) in igbo language.
 It wii be recalled that renowned German linguist and teacher, Late Uli Beier had started the Mbari workshop from eastern Nigeria. But when he brought the idea to Osogbo, western Nigeria, it changed to Mbari Mbayo. The change, according to Onobrakpeya, was important for acceptability among the Yoruba.
And as Mbari became popular among creative professionals across informal and formal settings, spreading to Lagos, Richard and Jean appeared to have keyed in and formed Mbari Art. Taking it from where her parents left over 40 years ago, Wolford established MICAA. What exactly is the attachment to ‘Mbari’, even 40 years after?. “The name means so much to me,” she disclosed. It’s a name synonymous with good, of which art represent, Wolford enthused and explained: “Mbari Mbayo means ‘I see and I am happy’.
Over 40 years after she left Nigeria, the spirit of Mbari continued, and it’s like she never missed anything. Reason: at MICAA, she has been receiving quite a lot of Nigerian artists, and also exhibited others. The Mbari institute, she said also organises cultural events such as drama and gender specific art exhibitions “to celebrate African female artists”.

A not-for profit organization, MICAA, according to Wolford is solely financed “out of my pocket” from earning as a teacher at Georgetown Day School. 

Since Wolford founded MICAA, about quite a lot of art exhibitions have been organized for African artists, featuring Moroccan Hamid Kachmar, Kenyan Sane Wadu, Senegalese, Rackie Dianka and Abdoulaye Ndoye; Nigerians Twins Seven Seven, Jimoh Buraimoh and Bruce Onobrakpeya Isaac Ojo, Peju Layiwola, Yinka Adeyemi and Wole Lagunju; Ugandan  Sanaa Gateja; Togolese Bethel Aniaku and Mozambican  Valente Malangatana. 

One of the artists who benefitted from the MICAA exhibitions, Layiwola, recalled how she met Wolford about ten years ago and was privileged to exhibit in the U.S and South Africa. Layiwola added that she had a talk on her solo art exhibition Art and the Restitution Question, held “early this year, MICAA.  “Her Institute plays hosts to several African artists from the continent”. 

And still collecting more works, the ultimate goal of MICAA, Wolford assured “is to keep the collection as safe as possible,” and perhaps in the future, it could turn into a big modern museum of contemporary African art if the necessary funding is available.

Among several achievements of her parents in promoting African art is a book by Jean, New Currents, Ancient Rivers: Contemporary African Art in a Generation of Change, (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992). “My mother died in 1991; she never lived to see the book published”. 

And having felt the pulse of Nigerian art – with her return to the country – about 22 years after the book was published, Wolford could not hide her joy on what she argued as impressive growth of Nigerian art. “I am so happy to see that Nigerian art has grown; so many art galleries everywhere”.

Onobrakpeya recalled how Richard and Jean spurred the growth of art patronage in Nigeria. The couple, he explained “used to organise what was known then as ‘Thursday art shows’ inside their residence where artists come and display their works for visitors to appreciate”. The weekly salon exhibitions, he disclosed were the first experience he had in art patronage and appreciation “where visitors buy works of artists”. He said the salon shows “encouraged some of us to conclude that we can live on our art”. Prior to that, it was common for young artists to look forward to teaching in school after graduation, Onibrakpeya said. 

Still on the Mbari spirit, Wolford’s visit to Ibadan wing of her schedules included the popular Aso-oke market in Oje, Mapo Hall, among several other places of nostalgic relevance. Others included visits to Chapel of the Resurrection where the carving of Ben Enwonwu titled the Risen Christ done in 1954 was still standing; sculptures of Susanne Wenger created in her honour at the Institute the Institute of African Studies, UI; and Women and Youth Art Foundation. 

Mimi’s parents were known to have been apprentices under renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  One of the couple’s work, a house in Southern California “is now a historic location in Highland Park, Los Angeles.”  

Richard joined the U.S. Department of State and was later, in 1961, transferred to Nigeria where the Wolford family lived for seven years.
In Lagos, the Wolfords got involved with the local artists, particularly the Osogbo groups, organizing weekly art exhibitions every Thursday. 

Aside Osogbo artists, the couple also worked with Onobrakpeya, “developing a deep-etching technique”, of which the latter is renowned till date.

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