ART OF THE MATTER: Ulli Beier: Unfulfilled dream of a true Africanist
The day broke last Sunday with the news of the death of Ulli Beier. While the nation was entangled in the election cancellation, the Visual Arts Community was engrossed in the search for truth about unbelievable news of the demise of a man whose contribution to the development of Nigerian Art remains unsurpassed. Was he truly dead? When exactly did he die? What killed him? How authentic was the news? These and more questions begged for answers and when such answers came, they were yet received with doubts.
When a man is too resourceful, his death naturally becomes doubtful. When received, it is with a wish that he still be alive and active like an energetic youngster. We all seemed to have temporarily forgotten that Ulli Beier wasn’t a young man at all. At 88, with a life totally dedicated to, first and foremost, the theoretical and practical development of Nigerian Art, nothing can be more fulfilling. All the same, no one ever wished him dead, but the truth is, while he battled his protracted illness in Sydney, how many of us sought him out? He had spent the most resourceful and productive stage of his life in Nigeria, working hard to ensure that an authentic Nigerian art was brought on world stage for global awareness, but how much of compensation was returned to him?
News from Iragbiji
Unlike the version of a rumour by a popular Nigerian art patron who insisted that Beier had been dead three weeks earlier, he actually passed on, on Sunday evening (Australian time), which was early morning in Nigeria. He died in his Sydney home in Australia. As at 4pm on Sunday, the likes of Segun Olusola who had spent time with Beier at Ibadan in the 60s, was still at loss regarding Beier’s death. It took a firm confirmation from Muraina Oyelami, one of Beier’s many artistic children. Although based in Iragbiji, an ancient town ten minutes drive from Osogbo, Oyelami seemed to be on top of the news ahead of all others. So, he became a rallying point of information dissemination. From the way he went about letting the cat out of the bag, the emotion in his voice was enough to show that indeed, a giant tree had fallen in the forest.
While we mourn and wear long faces, wallowing in painful loss of a bright star in Nigerian art development, the stark reality stares us in the face. The man died. The man has passed on, leaving us to carry the burden of our unfulfilled promises. The elephant is fallen and the weight of its body becomes a burden to the hunter. Ulli Beier had worked tirelessly and passionately to uplift the soul and spirit of Osogbo, but what did he get in return? The legacy bequeathed to our nation has aided our rating in the arts circle, but how much of appreciation did we bequeath to him?
Ulli Beier was born in Germany to a German Jew father, a medical doctor by profession, in 1922. An art scholar of note, he came to Nigeria with Susanne Wenger, popularly known as Adunni Olorisa, in 1950. It was in the course of his artistic/scholarly sojourn in Nigeria that he had his first contact with Georgina who later became his wife. The meeting occurred between 1961 and 1962. Beier had been part of the Mbari Writers Club in Ibadan in the late 50s, which had provided a melting port for like minds in the literary circle. Wole Soyinka, Segun Olusola, Christopher Okigbo and a host of other brightest literary minds in Nigeria were part of this development until Beier’s visit to Osogbo, where he finally had an ally in Duro Ladipo to start a completely different experiment at the dramatist’s resort centre/guest house, called Mbari-Mbayo Artists and Writers Club.
Beier’s meeting with Georgina would naturally spur a companionship devoted to a new direction in Nigerian art. An art workshop was organised in 1962 which put to trial the possibility of extracting creativity from the vacuum. The 1963 experiment which became much more successful than the previous one, was able to set in motion the process of luring non-artistic candidates to turn out creative products with the naivety of their knowledge and understanding. The experiments produced candidates that later became world beaters in art: Jimoh Buraimoh, Muraina Oyelami, Taiwo Olaniyi (Twins Seven-Seven) and many others.
The beauty of the experiments could be traced to the fact that most of this “unschooled artists” were artisans. Jimoh Buraimoh was an electrician and a performing member of the Duro Ladipo Theatre. Muraina Oyelami was a petrol attendant who worked in a petrol station situated very close to Mbari Mbayo. The persistent melodious sound of drums and songs had attracted him to jettison a lucrative job of attending to the petrol needs of motorists. He joined the Duro Ladipo Theatre Group, became a drummer and actor, which made it easy for him to join in the experiments. Taiwo Olaniyi was a singer, dancer and acrobat, and like his other colleagues, became an international visual artist courtesy of Ulli Beier’s vision and experiments.
Ulli Beier’s resourcefulness was not limited to visual art only; he also assisted Duro Ladipo in redefining his Theatre. As the son of a clergyman, Ladipo’s drama, like his arch rival, Hubert Ogunde, began in the church and the focus was purely on biblical or Christian stories. It was Ulli Beier who advised Ladipo to research into indigenous stories, thus leading to many epic plays, the most successful being ‘Oba Koso’, which was taken to England as Nigeria’s entry in the Commonwealth competition in 1965. Despite the fact that the language and the music of the play were composed in Yoruba, it went on to win the first prize! Many other traditional plays would soon follow: ‘Moremi’, ‘Oba Moro’, ‘Eda’ and so on. In summary, apart from his vision and passion for the sustenance and dissemination of information on Yoruba oral history, Ulli Beier had contributed immensely to the Osogbo School of Art even though he was neither a painter nor a sculptor. He is survived by two male children, Sebastian and Tunji, both working and living in Australia. Georgina, their mother, certainly in mourning, also lives in Australia. She had spent her entire years with Beier with whom their two children were raised.
Beyond the rite of passage otherwise called Artist Nite, which the Osogbo artists are now planning to celebrate his life and times, were Ulli Beier’s dreams fully fulfilled? The answer is no. He had spent his most productive years developing Nigerian art, creating an unexpected market through which Nigerian economy was developed; through which lives of many Osogbo artists have been transformed, through which he had been able to augment Government efforts at developing and promoting creativity. His greatest dream was to return to Nigeria and possibly die in Nigeria. He needed a permanent home to achieve that, but all those involved in that process of producing a befitting abode for him did not live up to their promise and responsibility. And so, the man died in Australia, leaving behind an unfulfilled dream.