How modern African Art was born at Ahmadu Bello University Nigeria

John Otim

* is the Editor of Nile Journal

A classroom in the northern city of Zaria in colonial Nigeria. Outside the union jack flutters in a bitterly cold wind. A group of students begin to sketch and experiment using African motifs. This was new and this was strange. It was the kind of thing their teachers scorned.

To these people African art was a closed world far away from their Anglo Saxon world. They were amazed at what they saw their own students doing. What has come over them? They marveled. “Wonders will never cease!”

The Africans, as the teachers called them, hailed from all parts of their large country. Among them were Igbos, Yoruba, Ijaw, and others. Some thirty odd students or more, gathered in that classroom. Now each one of them began to apply the use of symbols and images from his own tradition. For they were all male. Things they knew from their own childhood in the scattered towns and villages of Nigeria. Masked and dancing figures, royal beads worn by chiefly figures, calabashes and guards, wood carvings and clay figures, scenes from new yam festivals, and others. In the process “the Africans” arrived at their own unique art form. The art that would eventually assume the appellation, The Zaria School.  

 modern african art

The truth of their condition as Africans, practicing art in Africa, had come to them unexpectedly and, one would say, in mysterious ways. These were the same people that had all along been content with the diet of the colonial art school. Still life. London bridge. Daffodils. Scenes from the famous Lake district. Their contemporaries in literature, in drama, in history, in geography, were all alike, acclimatized to the Eurocentric world of colonial education.

These art students followed a three-year program. Destined to earn them a diploma in Fine Art. A qualification that would immediately place them at the top of the colonial world they inhabited. Colonialism despised Africans. It placed all manner of obstacles in the path of African progress. But it lavishly rewarded those few that crossed the bridge.

Somewhere in the middle of their three-year stay, something came over them. Many of them had traveled long distances to come to Zaria to study at this prestigious colonial college. The Zaria College of Arts Science and Technology. Soon to become the Ahmadu Bello University. Now slowly, by stealth, almost mysteriously, something came over them.

For the vast majority of them, the college was a long way from home. They missed the life they left behind. The ceremonies, the rituals, the festivals, their women and girlfriends. Memory can work wonders! Memory lit a fire inside them. Slowly the fire began to show in their work. They began to curve, to paint, and to mold in the light of the life they knew and lived at home. They had no clear idea of what it was they were doing. They had no clear agenda. They simply wanted to practice their art as the spirit took them. And so, they did.           

Their skeptical teachers soon took note. “Yes,” they eventually agreed, “This is art. It is different. But it is art!” So was born in Zaria a new art form. It differed from the art of Europe. It spoke in the idiom of Africa, using familiar objects, familiar symbols, and local events. But it was not the old art of Africa either. This was modern African art.