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The essential Jimo Akolo, reluctant ‘Rebel of Rebels’

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
06 February 2022   |   4:02 am
Born in Egbe, Kogi State, on September 20, 1935, Jimo Akolo is synonymous with the ‘Zaria Rebels’, but he is one rebel, who is reluctant.

One of Akolo’s works

Born in Egbe, Kogi State, on September 20, 1935, Jimo Akolo is synonymous with the ‘Zaria Rebels’, but he is one rebel, who is reluctant. He is one of the artists at the Nigerian College of Arts Science and Technology Zaria, 1957 to 1961, who redefined art history in the country. They set the stage for the ensuing creative departure that was to occur at NCAST, now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, between 1958 and 1961.

Starting from 1958, under the aegis of the organisation, which they had formed, the Zaria Arts Society, these student-artists began to agitate for a change in the curriculum of the arts programme from its essentially Eurocentric aesthetic position to integrate African aesthetic praxis as part of its offering.

Nicknamed the ‘Zaria rebels’ by Ghanaian-born art historian, Kojo Fosu, the society was a conscious movement fuelled by the first generation graduates of the college (1958 – 1961).

This group later went on to influence every sphere of visual arts in Nigeria.

For the first time this week, from February 15 to March 12, kó Gallery will be presenting the work of this rare Zaria Art School graduate of 1961, in Lagos.

Considered by some scholars as a rebel of the ‘rebels’, over 31 drawings and paintings of in his collection will be featured in a show that has been titled, The Essential Jimo Akolo: A Retrospective of Drawings and Paintings from 1961 to 2015.

The exhibition is a retrospective and seeks to capture comprehensively the life and works of the artist, it is complemented with a video conversation recently held with the artist at his home town in Egbe, and with scholarly essays and reflections of people who have walked and worked closely with him.

Some of these include, Professor Sunday Ogunduyile (Vice Chancellor, Ekiti State University), Professor Jacob Jari (Department of Fine Art, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria), Professor Tonie Okpe (Department of Fine Art, Ahmadu Bello University), Dr. Simon Ikpakronyi, Director and Head of Curatorial Services, National Gallery of Art Abuja, (Dr.) Bruce Onobrakpeya, his classmate at Zaria, Professor Adamu Baikie, his classmate and former colleague at the Faculty of Education, Ahmadu Bello University, Richard Deji, his only son, Mercy Feyisola Akolo, his younger sister and their youngest sister, Grace Yemisi Ukhueleigbe.

“Because the exhibition is a retrospective and seeks to capture comprehensively the life and works of the artist, it is complemented with a video conversation recently held with the artist at his home town in Egbe, Kogi State, and with scholarly essays and reflections of people who have walked and worked closely with the artist,”
the organisers said in a statement.

AKOLO is a compulsive draughtsman and obsessed with painting, especially outdoors painting after the impressionist tradition. “Almost every weekend off Zaria-Kaduna Road, you would see the top of an easel protruding off the savannah grass of the outskirts of Zaria city, it would be Akolo deeply engaging with the enchanting Zaria city scenery, drawing, or painting,” said in a statement.”

The show also has works loaned from some private collectors in Nigeria that are included. In addition, images of his early works in the collection of Bristol Museum, the University of Sussex, in Britain, and Yemisi Shyllon Museum Nigeria will be included in the well-illustrated catalogue to give the art community a rare glimpse into the artist’s creative oeuvre and his unspoken place on the stage of contemporary Nigerian art.

Akolo, a retired professor of art education, combined art teaching, administration, and a vibrant art career like any of his contemporaries, because of his quiet personality and shy of public attention, his works and life as an artist received little public exposure.

This is one of the reasons kó Gallery decided “to put together a show in his honour and for the art community in Lagos and around the world to experience and share in this visionary visual creator who lived a life of quiet but vibrant art practice,” said the gallery.

He started his education in Lagos in 1942, later, at Sudan Interior Mission (S.I.M.) School Egbe, 1946. He was at Government College Keffi 1955 and it was there that he had a defining moment in his career.

Akolo studied under Dennis Duerden, an education officer in the Nigerian Colonial Service at Keffi Government College. During this period, he started painting and was included in the 1956 exhibition Keffi Boys at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Later at Keffi, with his encounter with the famous expatriate educator, Duerden, his interest in engineering was shifted to art. He, however, brought with him, the compositional strategy of engineering in his paintings.

His paintings can be observed to contain a system of carefully constructed figures, objects, and spaces in compact picture planes where figure and ground are brought to harmonious equilibrium. Akolo has had several exhibitions in Nigeria and abroad. A few of them are worth mentioning here. On the international scene, he was honoured with a solo art exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute London in 1964, participated in a group touring exhibition in London and Edinburgh in 1965, and also participated in the Second Biennial Arts Exhibition in Havana, Cuba in 1986.

In Nigeria, he had a solo show at the Nigerian Arts Council, 1970, participated in the All-Nigerian Festival of Arts, Ibadan in 1971, and Visual Arts Exhibition of FESTAC 1977.

Akolo’s artistic talent won him several prestigious awards. For example, he won the First Prize for Drawing and Painting at the Northern Nigerian Self-government Celebration Exhibition in 1959 (it came with cash) and The Best Artist of the Year in Sao Paulo Biennial Mention of Honour 1962.

He proceeded to Indiana University Bloomington U.S.A., where he obtained a master’s of science in education in 1966 and a doctorate degree in art education in 1982.

He joined the staff of Ahmadu Bello University in 1966 and retired in 1998. Because of his invaluable service to the University, he was requested to take on a contract appointment, which he accepted and voluntarily disengaged after three years to return to Egbe, his hometown. His artistic disposition was sparked-off by his grandfather, a master weaver of exquisite baskets at Egbe.

Akolo’s artworks focus on indigenous cultural traditions, and the depiction of everyday life. Working predominantly as a painter, Akolo’s work is influenced by designs and patterns reminiscent of Hausa architecture and art.

Renowned for his unwavering adherence to the principles of individual artistic freedom, Akolo deeply engages with the enchanting Zaria city scenery, landscapes and its people with refreshing aesthetic, and philosophical perspective.

Other subjects of interest are horse riders at festivals, and at war, festive dancers, and sportsmen, all rendered in loose brushstrokes, yet intense colours. His drawings are expressed in strong and bold contemplative lines. His practice has often looked beyond this country’s shores for inspiration, drawing from a wide cultural milieu that combines the sacred and profane for bitingly political works that address issues of black culture in Britain.

According to the show organisers, “Akolo’s drawings are expressed in strong and bold contemplative lines, like Leonardo da Vinci, engaging the viewer to participate in his creative process. His subjects are familiar models around him. His academic orientation is clearly revealed in these drawings, demonstrating experimentation, adventure, and a quest to explore and expose not only the formal but also the spirit and moods of his figures.” The northern Nigeria landscape and peoples have not only become his interest but his artistic fascination, where he draws his inspiration and creative energy: Ordinary people doing ordinary things and subjects such as the Fulani herdsmen and culture have preoccupied his interest. And, he would return to these subjects over and over again with such a refreshing aesthetic and philosophical perspective.

“Looking at his Fulani today, like other ordinary minority peoples of the country, we are suddenly confronted with a people whose transforming lives weave around ours that we often neglect, which often become a source of national concern and crisis,” the organisers noted.

Other subjects of Akolo are horse riders at festivals and at war, festive dancers, sportsmen, and landscapes. He is also fascinated with subjects of traditional heritage and religious worship. When he takes on these subjects, they are interpreted in simple coloured planes in most interesting designs, yet composed in a complex cubic style that may betray his love of engineering design.