Asiru Olatunde (1918 – 1993) was one of a small group of artists in the 1960s who were part of a creative community known as the Oshogbo School. The Oshogbo School is important because it was at the start of modern art in Nigeria and it helped preserve a place that is now a recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is characterised by stylised figures and unusual and diverse media.
The Oshogbo School or movement developed in the town of Oshogbo in the 1960s. At the time Oshogobo was a market town on the cross roads of road, river, rail connections and a population of about 120,000 people. The town had a tradition of music, wood and stone carving, brass and iron work, and two storey houses with elaborate balustrades.
The Oshogobo movement started when a group of people began to repair local shrines. Encouraged by the German artist Susanne Wenger and her husband the linguist, Ulli Beier who emigrated to Nigeria in 1950s. It was a response to the desecration of the Osun-Osogbo Grove in the 1950s. The Yoruba river and love goddess Osun is the patron of the town. Her festival his held in the last two weeks in August each year. In 2005 the Osun-Osogbo Grove was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Asiru Olatunde was from a family of blacksmiths. He had learnt ceremonial drumming as a boy, but was forced to give it up by his Muslim father. Later he took it up again; playing the talking drum every four days at the shrine of Obatala in Osogbo. Considering the recent conflict between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria Olatunde’s life and art are worth considering as a more sophisticated and creative response to cultural tensions. He was a Muslim who supported local Yoruba festivals and did commissions for Churches.
Olatunde had a ‘heart disease’ (another source claims it was tuberculosis). The illness prevented him from working as a blacksmith but allowed him to be an artist. It was an ‘illness’ as a transformation is a shamanic aspects to the identity of the artist. Please forgive this digression into a structuralist analysis and not discounting the facts of Olatunde actual medical condition. Was this structurally, not pathologically, the same kind of illness that struck down Paul Cézanne and prevented him from following his father into banking. Or the many others who became artists after illness? This point has to be made as there are several illnesses and transformative cures in this story. For Susanne Wenger Iwin Funmike Adunni contracted tuberculosis in Nigeria and she turned to the Yoruba religion and became an Osun priestess. A protege of Ajagemo a priest, she promised him to build dwellings for each of the Yoruba pantheon, a task she completed. She lived for 94 years.
At first Olatunde made jewellery, before hammers his art onto copper panels and then aluminium panels. A nail punch produced a circle for the background. Another larger one struck circles that would become eyes. Straight lines were scratched into the panel before being followed and then decorated with a straight edged tool. It is not repoussé, reverse hammered panels as some commentators have written. The design was roughly scratched onto the front and then hammered from the front. The dented background was beaten back making the foreground stand out.
Hammering and drumming to a rhythm, Olatunde beat the metal to create lively scenes. Dance scenes, scenes of hunting, Biblical scenes, as in Adam and Eve, or Yoruba stories, as in Animal Tree or Tree of Life. These scenes are surrounded by a border that fills in gaps in the design with decorative triangles and hemispheres.
I have been looking at two aluminium panels by Olatunde that were purchased at an exhibition of Oshogobo Art held at the British Council Centre in Ibadan June 23 – 28, 1969. Also exhibiting were Jimoh Buraimoh, Muraina Oyelami, Rufus Ogundele, Twins Seven Seven, Asiru Olatunde, Jacob Afolabi, Buraimoh Gbadamosi, Jinadu Oladepo, Adebisi Fabunmi, and Samuel Ojo. In the catalogue there was a short biographies of the artists; Olatunde is incorrectly identified as born in 1932. Part of his biography reads: “… was prevented by ill-health from taking up the profession of his forefathers. He became a drummer, but could not cut himself off entirely from Ogun, the God of Iron and began supplementing his income by making panels from beaten copper and aluminium.” It also claims that Susanne Wenger discovered his work rather than, as is more commonly reported, Ulli Beier.
Are these panels made of recycled materials? Did Beier encourage him to recycle scrap metal? Did Beier help fund materials? Stories of apprentices filling in areas or doing the ‘heavy work’ suggest that either Olatunde was working as a blacksmith with apprentices or that he was taking on apprentice artists. There is so much that remains unknown and uncertain about this artist.
During his lifetime Olatunde had many exhibitions. In 1965 he had a solo exhibition Viruly Gallery Amsterdam. He was also exhibiting at the IMF headquarters in Washington, in Prague, and in 1967 group show Contemporary Art from Africa – Institute of Contemporary Art in London. He has work in the collection of the Smithsonian Institute, Museum of African Art and DePaul Art Museum Chicago, the University of Bristol and the University of Tasmania. For more read Molara Wood blog on the exhibition at John Martin Gallery in 2005.