Monday 25 April 2022

For Akinola Lasekan, book on '...Nationalism At The Dawn Of A New Nigeria' celebrates satirism

SATIRISM from visual perspective cannot be downplayed in documenting events of Nigeria's nationalism of the 20th century. Most recent, perhaps, unprecedented documentation on the Nigerian subject, is a book titled Akinola Lasekan Cartooning, Art And Nationalism At The Dawn Of A New Nigeria, edited by dele jegede and Aderonke A. Adesanya. Akinola Lasekan (1916-1972) is widely regarded as a pioneer newspaper cartoonist in Nigeria.

jegede is professor emeritus of Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, U.S. Adesanya is Professor of Art History at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, U.S.

The book is dedicated to Dr Caroline Olusola Dublin-Green (nee Lasekan, 1949-2019) and OmoOba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon.

Published in January 2020 by Bookcraft, the 298-page book highlights cartoons from Lasekan's studio, both as documentation of history and studies in the genre of satirical contents. Curiously, works of Lasekan and that of other cartoonists used as illustrations in the book, indicate that the much-talked about 'good old days of Nigeria', perhaps, hardly existed or an exaggerated narrative. The critique or analysis of the situations then, inspired by contents of the cartoons referenced in this book, could have been in the current state of Hobbesian Nigeria.

The book also attempts to draw a honest line between art and cartoon. Also of interest, it drags, into the cartooning study net, the contemporary Nigerian satirical space in continuation of the nationalism critique works of Lasekan generation of artists.

Divided into Parts One and Two, the book has contributions in critical texts from jegede, Adesanya, Ola Oloidi, Perrin M. Lathrop, Olawole Famule, Etiido Effiongwilliam Inyang and Frank A. O. Ugiomoh, Francine Kola-Bankole,  Olatunji Dare, Akinwale Onipede, Ganiyu Jimoh, Stephen Folaranmi and Soiduate Ogoye-Atanga, Others include Adeboye Gbenro, Mike Asukwo, Mustapha Bulama, Tayo Fatunla and Franklin Oyekusibe, with each a dedicated chapter under Part Two, in which they share their experiences as cartoonists.

With 15 chapters for Part One and five under Part Two, the book takes off, essentially, with the early years of Lasekan through the reviews of writers of that era. In chapter 1, with the heading 'From Lasekan To Later Nigerian Cartoonists: beyond Amusement - Satirists Poke British  Colonial Power the Colonised, and a Post-Colonial Society', Adesanya, among other observations, notes that Lasekan, in his early career was known more as a painter. She cites J A Sanford's Art In Nigeria, in which the colonial era writer did not offer much depth beyond seeing Lasekan as a promising artist. 

In a sub-heading, Nationalism, Activism, and Humour In Post-Lasekan's Era, Adesanya argues that the zeal for national interest set by the generation of cartoonists of Lasekan "possibly set the tone for later traditions." She however notes that, generally, nationalism was stronger, among  Nigerians of the colonial years compared to the contemporary generation. 

Specifically, Adesanya writes that cartoonists of Lasekan era and later generations "share deep interest" collective efforts for nation building, "however, they deal with topicalities and audiences." The difference, she explains, are basics such as confronting colonialism and post colonial developmental challenges. 

The volatility of using cartoons to stir unrest gets attention as Adesanya brings in Patrick Chappatte, a guest speaker on TED Talk show. Chappatte, according to Adesanya, made reference to the controversial Danish drawing, which, supposedly, depicted Prophet Muhammad. As much as an artist has freedom of expression to depict whoever, discretion should form part of the ethics, so a section of the chapter argues. 'A Danish cartoonist told me he was one of the 24 who received the assignment to draw the prophet - 12 of them refused,' a sub-paragraph of the chapter reads on page 34.

Chapter 2 of the book was written by Ola Oloidi (1944-2020), with a heading Akinola Lasekan: The Unrivalled Creative Versatility of a Pioneer Nigerian Artist. Oloidi tracked Lasekan's early life, through his basic primary education to being a professional artist.

And under a sub heading The Creative Versatility of Lasekan, Oloidi recalled how the artist "had the monopoly of book illustrations in the 1940s and 1950s." Listed among such illustration works of Lasekan were books published by CMS Bookshop, Oxford University Press, Thomas Nelson and Sons, and Longmans Green and Company Ltd.

As a historian who has written and spoken extensively about Lasekan, Oloidi, in this book asserted his knowledge of the legendary cartoonist. Under another section 'Lasekan, Nnamidi Azikiwe and University of Nigeria, Nsukka', Oloidi captured how the friendship between an artist and a politician blossomed on the common passion of nationalism. 

In chapter 3, under the heading 'The Artist at work: Akinola Lasekan's  Colonial Networks', Perrin M. Lathrop also writes about the pioneer cartoonist's sojourn as a book and magazine illustrator. Lathrop notes, among others, that as much as Lasekan's cartoons in the editorial of The West African Pilot was critical of the colonial government, he was among the beneficiaries of the publishing industry then, dominated by foreigners.

Still on the pacesetter status of the late cartoonist, jegede expands the scope in Chapter 4, 'The Epic of Lasekan: Pioneering Against the Odds'. In five pages, jegede writes extensively about the relationship between Lasekan and Nnamidi Azikiwe, mounting the shared passions of the artist and the politician on the pedestal of nationalism. Specifically, in additional two pages, jegede explains the "Epic" in Lasekan: "Akinola Lasekan was the epitome of ideation, industriousness, forthrightness, and creative strategising. He was a shrewd entrepreneur who took bold and risky decisions, which ultimately paid off handsomely for him." 

Perhaps, the earliest focus of the book, on his work, across genres, comes in Chapter 5, 'Akinola Lasekan in Modern Nigerian Historiography'. Written by Olawole Famule, the chapter of about nine pages travels through the cultural lane themes of Lasekan in paintings and drawings, as the writer concludes: "With Lasekan's political cartoons and portrait painting as being a product of two —   is African visual tradition meshed with the European visual culture —  he successfully reinvented Yoruba art and inserted the new idiom into Modern Nigerian art."

The Lasekan factor, and as a subject of the book, creates windows for other top cartoonists to be viewed. Such inclusiveness methodology of the book comes in quite a number of chapters. 'The Cartoon Form and the Quest for Nigerian Unity: Rhetoric and Dialectics in Akinola Lasekan's 'United Nigeria' and Franklin Oyekusibe's 'New Political Oasis', written by Etido Effiongwilliam Inyang and Frank A. O. Ugiomoh, in Chapter 6, brings the two artists into analytical juxtaposition with colonial and independence Nigerian governance. 

 "Lasekan and Oyekusibe feature in this chapter, as a foil to interrogate the encumbrance of a nation that has been in search of a prop to unite it," Inyang and Ugiomoh write as part of the introduction pages of the chapter. 

Also, in the inclusiveness mode comes Chapter 7, 'Traffic, Trash, and Trauma in the Editorial Cartoons of Josy Ajiboye, 1972-2006', written by Francis Kola-Bankoke. The first sentence of the introductory page, which places "laughter and immediate gratification" as basic qualities of "a good editorial cartoon," could be tested on the scale of critiquing art. However, the writer's argument that Ajiboye has produced, among others, most hilarious cartoons in the Nigerian newspaper space cannot be faulted. Deep into the chapter, Kola-Bankole appears meticulous enough to treat each of the key words 'Traffic' 'Trash' and 'Trauma', in details.

Still on enriching the book, beyond Lasekan as a pioneer  cartoonist, but within the press contents as central subject, comes Chapter 8, 'Journalism in the Time of Repression: The Nigerian Press Under Military Rule, 1984-1999', written by Olatunji Dare. 

Although this book was published two years ago, and perhaps, Dare wrote his contribution much earlier, the contents are most relevant, currently; when some Nigerians, on social media, are celebrating military take over of governments in parts of West Africa. Dare starts with a Nigerian press that had freedom to criticize the governments, even during the civil war, to the era of repression, then 'Respite Without Reprieve' and adds 'Strategies for Survival.'

He concludes, among others, that "the story of the Nigerian press in the fifteen years covered in this review is a story of persecution and perseverance."

In Chapter 10, 'Akinola Lasekan: Giving them Wahala with Heroism, written by dele jegede, the journey of cartooning in Nigeria is revisited, in quite a depth. The spot of Lasekan in history inspired quite a number of categorisations, which jegede analyses in the chapter.

Works of quite a number of generation of cartoonists after Lasekan are used by jegede in his categorisations of cartoons. More interesting, artists' styles or choice of "Typology", are quite vast enough to make one subject for a book.

Akinwale Onipede in Chapter 10, 'Akinola Lasekan: Cartoonist, Critic, Crusader' captures a triptych image of an artist whose career set the texture of editorial cartooning in Nigeria. Tejumola Olaniyan, Dublin-Green, among others, are referenced by Onipede. "The frequency of his criticism is also attested to by Olaniyan and Dublin-Green who observer that from 1944 to early 1966, Lasekan produced editorial cartoons daily in the West African Pilot newspaper," Onipede writes on page 158, under the heading, 'Laseken the Critic. "Such prolific output from a trailblazer who had no antecedent locally and had only himself to look up to is a pointer not only to his role as critic, but also to his creativity."

From the beginning of this book to the end, nearly every cartoon of either Lasekan or other artists used in illustrations as well as critiqued or analysed suggests that there was never a time that could be described as 'good old days' in Nigeria - pre and post-independence. For example, confirming that Nigerian workers had a rough time under the colonial era is Chapter 11, 'We Want More COLA: Akinola Lasekan and Nigerian Colonial Realities', written by Ganiyu Jimoh.

The writer, like others who contribute to the book, brings a good depth of Lasekan's background, in relation to Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe. Recalling one of the challenges of the colonial government, Jimoh cites how Lasekan captured the then labour crisis of 1945. "Pertinent among the event that shook the colonial government was the general workers' strike of 1945, which brought tension between All Nigeria Technical Workers' Union and the colonial government," Jimoh writes in page 168 of the chapter. "The immediate cause was the agitation for an increase in the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA), when the prices of basic needs soared higher than income (Fig.4)."

 In the referenced Fig. 4, Lasekan's capture of the situation portrays protesting workers who carry a banner with inscription 'WE WANT MORE COLA. WE ARE BADLY HUNGRY,' while two figures in British colonial attires look on. The cartoon plays a key role in history, informing the people that between 1945 and currently, nothing has really changed, so it appears, as labour crisis persists from one government to another.

 Stephen Folaranmi writes Chapter 12, Lasekan: The Western Region Years, in which he builds his writing on Lasekan's works of mostly Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife origin. FolaranmI highlights Lasekan's activities as a Research Fellow in Art and Art History at the university's Institute Of African Studies; and his input as curator of the Ori-Olokun Cultural Centre, among others. 

Interestingly, Lasekan used his vantage position in the academic at Ife to take interest in key political and cultural events in the western region and documented same in his paintings. From quite a number of paintings dated 1967/1968, about how the university's physical structures emerged, to his artistic impression of Moremi, and portrait of Adekunle Fajuyi, Folaranmi explains how Lasekan's works provided a great depth in documentary. Quite a number of the Lasekan's works, Folaranmi writes, were donated by the artist to University of Ife, University of Lagos and National Gallery of Art (NGA).

In Chapter 13 'Identity, Retrospection and Decolonisation Rhetoric in Nigeria: An Analysis of Akinola Lasekan's Cartoon Pampheleteering on the 'Zik of Africa' Press Propaganda', Etiido Effiongwilliam Inyang and Soiduate Ogoye-Atanga escalate the narrative of camaraderie between a politician and an artist. Citing theoretical works of different critics on how identity is given a lift by perception of the public, the writers note that an artist's construction of identity needs the collaboration of viewers to gain effectiveness. "Thus, for the construction of Zik's identity by Lasekan to gain currency, an active, conscious interpretative agenda within the populace in line with the qualities which Zik embodies is crucial for a broad acceptance of his identity," the chapter explains in page 185.

Extending the Lasekan identity beyond cartoon art, jegede, in Chapter 14 'Lasekan's Modernism: A New Tradition', revisits the influence or otherwise of colonial perspective on African modern art. Within the identity crisis of African art dilemma, Lasekan, according to jegede, seemed to have enough of a fresh texture into the colonial era of African art.

"Through Lasekan's work in this category, we are able to see pieces in which aspects of indigenous customs, religious traditions, and folklore are animated in terms of compositions, emphasis, and faithfulness to the cultural tenets prevailing at the time they were produced," jegede writes under the heading Cultural Paintings. "Among aspects of Yoruba culture that fascinated Lasekan were the various dances of diverse ethnic groups of the Yoruba and neighbouring Edo cultures."

Chapter 15, which is the last of Part One, 'The Fly on the Nose of a King: Cartoonists and Hegemonies', written by Aderonke A. Adesanya prepares readers for the chapters of Part Two. Adesanya builds her thoughts about cartooning on the audaciousness of artists who create satirical forms. She further drags into that audacity the metaphor of fighting a stubborn fly that perches on a prey that sees the insect as irritant. The chapter is populated by quite a volume of cartoons, mostly of post-Lasekan generation to support the complexity of cutting the wings of an irritant 'fly.'

 Adeboye Gbenro, Mike Asukwo, Mustapha Bulama, Tayo Fatunla and Franklin Oyekusibe, each has a dedicated chapter under Part Two, in which they share their individual experience. 

And in one sentence: the book, Akinola Lasekan Cartooning, Art And Nationalism At The Dawn Of A New Nigeria, is not just a celebration of the index subject, Lasekan, it's an unprecedented convergence of satirical artists and hiatorians across generations.

 -Tajudeen Sowole is a Lagos-based writer on The Arts.

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