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22 years after, the humanist Wangboje lives on

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Solomon Irein Wangboje

Art, in Nigeria, no doubt, is experiencing an explosion. And one of the master artists, who created a path for the visibility, which art now enjoys, is the late Prof. Solomon Irein Wangboje.

On August 16, 2020, Wangboje, Nigeria’s first Professor of Fine Art and the former Deputy Vice-Chancellor University of Benin would have been 90 years. He died 22 years ago at 68.

The COVID-19 pandemic would not provide the kind of ambience that marked his 66th birthday celebration in 1996. The art feast, which held at the VIP Lounge, National Arts Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, featured some of his old students, relations and professional associates. At the event, members of the University of Benin Arts Graduates Association (Ekenwan Art-Grads) celebrated his contributions to the contemporary Nigerian arts.

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The association, which was coordinated by Dr. Kunle Filani, thereafter, declared every August 16, as ‘Artgrads Day’ to be marked by exhibitions, workshops, conference and seminars and other activities that may be considered from time to time.

The association also held a group show on October 12, 1996, at Wangboje’s Art Gallery, Osborne Road, Lagos, followed by a conference on “Art and Art Education” at the University of Benin auditorium.

Wangboje was one of the pioneer academic trained artists in Nigeria has passed through the Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology (NCAST), Zaria from 1955 to 1959 with reputable artists such as Bruce Onobrakpeya, Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko and others.

‘Zaria’ has since become synonymous with a significant new direction in the history of contemporary Nigerian art, with the formation of the Zaria Arts Society in 1958, whose members included, Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Yusuf Grillo.

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The Society sought to reconsider the relationship between academic Western art and indigenous art traditions, calling for the merging of Western artistic techniques and local inspirations, often environmental.

Their accompanying theory of ‘Natural Synthesis’ became pivotal to the development of contemporary art in Nigeria and the Art Society strove to give Zaria the ideological, nationalistic direction it lacked, in contrast to the imposed colonialist educational agenda.

Though associated with Zaria and loosely with the Society, Wangboje represents an earlier period, before Zaria had this specific ideological direction, though he was instrumental in its future.

As an academic, he was a leading light especially in the area of art education. Wangboje was a phenomenon in contemporary Nigerian arts education, as he became the first Nigeria academic professor of art in 1973 at the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, having researched and lectured at the then University of Ife, Ile-Ife now Obafemi Awolowo University. He obtained a doctorate degree in Art Education in 1968 after he bagged a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in printmaking. He was an artist, educationist, administrator, scholar and humanist.

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He was the architect of the Department of Fine Art/Applied Art, Ekenwan Campus, University of Benin. As Head of Department, he had a vision of making the Benin Art School one of the best art institutions in the world. He contributed immensely to the development of printmaking in Nigeria through the application and exposure of various themes, techniques and media in his creative works.

Wangboje, who rose to the peak of his career at a time art was less attractive, often urged the younger generation artists to show commitment and dedication to the profession in order to raise the bar. He once said in 1995 that “now that we are no longer anonymous, let’s see what we have done. Let us shift emphasis from making art. Rather, we should be talking about it.”

Wangboje is considered one of the first modern printmakers in Nigeria, but his interest in printmaking was more technical than conceptual. The unobtrusive use of readily available scenes and humanscapes, such as workmen, milk-selling maidens and quotidian subject matter “heighten the desired appreciation of medium and technique, and celebrate form. Thus, his themes or subject matter areas far-ranging as his formal presentation…If Wangboje appears to lack stylistic direction it is possibly because the Zaria of his time stressed the striving for technical mastery of medium and process over and above any profound inquiry into questions of artistic identity and formal style,” noted Chika Okeke-Agulu.

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Until his death, he created a great number of prints, employing different techniques like woodcut and linocut, which are relief-printing techniques.

Most of his works are influenced by his experiments and events around him. The Creative Arts Faculty at the University of Benin, according to Wangboje, was founded primarily to project the African arts in the African way. Wanting a departure from the European approach, he modelled the faculty to accommodate music, painting, theatre and other departments of Creative Arts.

Though his works focus on people, places and events, as expressed in Desert Journey II (1964), Portrait of a Labourer (1964), and idle boats, he locates the African motifs and symbols in most of the works. Perhaps, a continuation of the philosophy of the “Zaria Rebels” others like Music Maker (1964), By the light of the moon (1962) and At the Wharf (1964) remain symbolic in his collection.

Wangboje finds mask as inseparable from African art and did highlight the mask’s expressive and aesthetic values in his retrospective exhibition.

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On the state of the contemporary Nigerian art scene, he said: “In developing countries like ours, where the artist is just coming into his own, trying to make a statement that the audience should appreciate and understand, you require a third party to be able to serve the link between the artist and audience. The critic or art writer is crucial in the understanding and propagation of the art in our society.”

According to his daughter, Mrs. Iwoje Wangboje-Eguavoen, a lawyer and gallery owner, Prof. Wangboje’s strong passion for helping young art enthusiasts started when he introduced a programme entitled, TV Model Club on NTA Benin in the 1980s. “He saw the importance of training children in art early, hence Children’s Art Classes, which were free,” noting that Wangboje’s legacy of the workshop was well known in his Ori Olokun project at the University of Ife, Ile-Ife.

In continuation of that legacy, Iwoje initiated the Wangboje Children Art Competition, a yearly art competition organised by Wangboje Art Foundation for children under 10 years in 1998. It was held at Wangboje Art Gallery at Ikoyi, Lagos attracting no fewer than 150 school entries from nine schools on the theme, Romance of the Head Load, which is one of Wangboje’s works.

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