All rephotography by Adeyemi Akande, Black & Loud Photography, Yaba, Lagos; and Christian Scully, Design Imaging Studios, Providence, Rhode Island
I had an amazing experience today. A senior colleague who I met at a conference asked if I was related to “the Osayimwese who went to Zaria.” It took me some time to figure out what he was talking about. “There was an Osayimwese who went to Zaria?” I replied. “She was short, fair, hmmmm, rather substantial in stature.” I grinned at this typical Nigerian turn of phrase.
—Itohan Osayminwese, personal journal, Brooklyn, March 21, 2014
The “Zaria Art Society” carries a lot of weight in Africanist art history circles. It was the name of a club founded by students at the first Western-style formal art program in Nigeria, the fine arts department at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology (NCAST) at Zaria (now Ahmadu Bello University). Led by painter Uche Okeke, the Society critiqued the colonial thrust of art education that taught Nigerian artists to draw snow and sculpt like Michelangelo (Okeke 1998a: 57–59). Instead, in the face of antipathy from some faculty and students, Society members articulated a new program for Nigerian art. They called their program “natural synthesis,” a framework for filtering appropriate elements of Nigerian cultural traditions into contemporary Nigerian cultural production and synthesizing “old and new” and “functional art and art for its own sake” (Omezi 2008: 34–45). Although individual members of the Society interpreted this guiding principle in different ways, they shared a commitment to identifying an artistic language to embody the emerging modern nation.
The precise composition of the short-lived (1958–1961) Zaria Art Society has been widely debated. Though the group was barely in existence long enough for its membership to consolidate and its founding ideas to take root, the subsequent and longstanding success of members has created incentive for the membership net to be cast wide and for the group's influence to “metastasize” (Ugiomoh 2009: 7, Ogbechie 2009: 9; Gbadegesin 2009). Perhaps we can understand this “posthumous” growth of the Society in the Bourdieuan sense of the role played by educational credentials and other nonmaterial forms of value—cultural capital—in social reproduction in capitalist societies (Bourdieu 1977; Sullivan 2002). If we understand the Zaria Art Society as the product of a new system of Western art education in Nigeria, then it should come as no surprise that affiliation with or proximity to the group bred cultural capital. Through publications, exhibitions, and workshops organized primarily by a network of European artist-scholars who saw the continent as an ideal site for alternative artistic practice (Probst 2011: 37), Uche Okeke's vision of the Society and its history was established as the canon of modern Nigerian art. Much subsequent scholarship on the topic has built on histories written by Okeke, whose own narratives were likely shaped by an all-too-human desire to center his own interventions (Ugiomoh 2009: 7).
Most accounts of the Zaria Society agree, however, that its members were all men, with the exception of a lone woman who joined the Society near the end of its life. Little seems to be known about this woman, whose name is given variously as “I.M. Omagie” and “Ikponmwosa Omagie/Omigie” (Dike and Oyelola 2004: 11, 17, 73, 77; Ikpakronyi 2004: 22; Omoighbe 2004: 179). When discussed at all, she is dismissed: “She was a young member. She wasn't terribly active. If I see her today, I may not be able to recognize her” (Okeke 1998b: 52). Who was this woman and why do the scholarship and the historical record appear to be silent about her? Because of its now-iconic status as an instrument of decolonization and founding institution of postcolonial Nigerian culture, the Zaria Society is an ideal launching pad for a consideration of the art and life of this specific pioneering woman artist as well as of the role of women in modern Nigerian art in general.
AFRICANIST FEMINIST ART HISTORY AND ORAL HISTORY
The answers to these questions are implicated, not surprisingly, with gender and its particular valencies in the history of Nigerian art. Indeed, the absence of women in academic histories of art in general has long been debated in the Anglo-American academy. Feminist art historian Linda Nochlin wrote in 1971 that the problem stems from a false understanding of art as a “free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, ‘influenced’ by previous artists” (Nochlin 1988: 158). But in the 1980s, the idea of women's agency came under attack as part of a wider poststructuralist critique. In Griselda Pollock's words, the concern was now about how women were refracted in the “web of psycho-social relationships which institute a socially significant difference on the axis of sex” (Pollock 2012: 47). Lisa Tickner argued that the question was no longer “why are there no great women artists?” but “how are the processes of sexual differentiation played out across the representations of art and art history?” (Tickner 1988: 106). After decades of deemphasizing the work and agency of individual women artists for fear of falling into the trap of essentialism, since the 1990s, feminist art historians have again focused on identifying the agency of specific women, the subversive power they actually exercised, and the unremitting disruptive pressure that their agency has exerted upon culture (Broude and Garrard 2005: 3). Feminist oral history, which challenges the principle of objectivity promoted in positivist research, emphasizes connections between public and private worlds, highlights the subjectivity and intersubjectivity of the researcher and subject, and offers a basis for a potential paradigm shift in art history that enables us to finally see women artists (Gluck 2008: 118–20; Pollock 2013, 2008; Cvetkovich 2013). As a clearly defined methodology with critical implications, oral history has become a legitimate tool for inquiry in feminist scholarship but has only slowly made inroads into mainstream art history (Reading 2014: 207; Brucher 2013). Similarly, since the 1960s, historians of Africa have found oral history useful because it has the potential to fill gaps in the canon and transform historiography in the process. In 1965, Jan Vansina revolutionized African history by positing oral traditions (the performed telling and retelling of oral histories) as plausible historical sources. Oral history has since served as an important although not primary method in Africanist historiography (Doortmont 2011; Vansina 1996; Cooper 2005). Lessons from African history have perhaps finally transformed Africanist art history in Rowland Abiodun's (2014) call for a new paradigm based on understanding African cultures (specifically, Yorùbá culture) as integrated wholes often housed in oral and linguistic discourses.
Building on its possibilities in women's history, African history, and art history, I use oral history as my primary method in this article. To learn about the work and life of this pioneering woman artist—positively identified as Josephine Ifueko Osayimwese Omigie in the following pages—I have interviewed her family members, colleagues, and students. I understand the outcomes of these interviews as coproductions that say as much about my relationship to the interviewees and the selective and synthetic character of human memory processes as they do about “what actually happened” (Grele 2007: 49, 53, 59). These newly created texts are as much performed acts as they are static “evidence.” I combine interpretations drawn from these new texts with formal analyses of Omigie's few extant works, most notably a resist-dyed wall hanging she likely designed in the 1970s (Fig. 1). Indeed, the significance of oral history to this project is illustrated by its inception story quoted at the beginning of this article.
“She studied textiles.”
I started to think out loud: “Could it be my Aunt Josephine?” “Yes, Josephine! How is she? She was my classmate. A very diligent student. She was very good.”
“But I didn't know she went to Zaria.”
Even as I said this though, some old memory sparked.
As this first-person narrative explains, the project grew out of my encounter with one of Osayimwese Omigie's former university classmates. Initially, I experienced the encounter as a classic clash between my subjective experience and my academic disciplining as a historian. Academic disciplines are not only about the circumscribed bodies of knowledge generally accepted as constituting each discipline, but also about the rules governing these bodies and the ways in which scholars are socialized to approach their work. Generally, to preserve the fiction of objectivity, historians do not write histories of themselves. Certainly as a relative of Osayimwese Omigie's, I have privileged access to material that has been difficult for other researchers to uncover. And this personal relationship and the oral history methodology that it demands are arguably susceptible to the same self-serving impulses that shaped Osayimwese Omigie's exclusion in the first place. As gender studies scholar Ann Cvetkovich suggests, however, including oral history excerpts within historical and analytical writing itself foregrounds subjectivity and intersubjectivity as opportunities rather than problems. Analyzing these excerpts can provide an opening to “invent vocabularies” for social formations that combine the intimate, social, informal, and institutional in novel ways that are particularly relevant to women artists (Cvetkovich 2013: 127).
Philosopher Nkiru Nzegwu (1999) has hypothesized that gender has had a unique effect in Africanist art history. She conceptualizes “gender transmogrification” as the “grotesque” and systemic distortion of the role of women in creative production in African societies as a result of biases inherited from cultural anthropology and Western feminism. The result is a sexist flattening of complex social realities and artistic histories. Here, the typical negative framing of African histories—underpinned by asymmetrical power relations—is layered over with gender ideologies that code women's art as inferior, domestic, personal, derivative, passive, and ultimately, invisible. Nzegwu's arguments are useful for understanding Osayimwese Omigie's erasure from the scholarship on postcolonial modernist art in Nigeria.1
Also associated with this expurgation of women is the issue of marital name change as an element of Christian practice and of the nuclear family ideal promoted by European missionaries in Nigeria (Suter 2004). In the context of modern English law, marriage naming practices are closely associated with the patriarchal concept of woman-as-property and thus with women's ability to claim rights associated with personhood. When introduced to Nigeria, these ideas sometimes contravened existing cultural norms, such as Yoruba customary laws that recognized married women's right to own property, but did not automatically endow a single wife and her children with the right to inherit all of a man's earthly possessions upon his death (Mann 1982; Otite 1991: 33). It seems likely that in Nigeria, as in Europe and North America, the perceived legal and social impact of marriage on women's identities has often made it difficult to trace their agency and write their histories.
A PRELIMINARY BIOGRAPHY
Though the lone woman in the Zaria Art Society is often noted as “I.M. Omagie/Omigie” in existing literature, no such person attended the Department of Fine Arts at NCAST between 1958 and 1961. Instead, we find a “J.I. Osayimwese,” a name that like “Omagie/Omigie” is of Edo extraction. Both family history and university records confirm that Josephine Ifueko Osayimwese matriculated to NCAST in 1958 and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in textiles in 1963 (Ahmadu Bello University 1990:16).2 Osayimwese was born on July 2, 1936, in Ibadan, Western Province. She attended C.M.S. Girls' School in Benin City from 1946 to 1952, and was one of few girls in the country to go on to a secondary education, which she received at the newly opened, government-sponsored, and highly selective Queen's School Ede from 1953 until 1957. After a gap year, she gained admission to NCAST, where she remained for six years. After an additional year of study, she obtained a Postgraduate Art Teachers' Certificate. Upon graduation, she embarked, in October 1964, on her teaching career at Edo College, Benin City. She had only been at Edo College for a few months when she married Mr. F.N. Omigie and relocated to Lagos, where he worked for the Nigerian Railway.
Between 1965 and 1970, she gave birth to three children. But she also taught art at Lagos City College, Yaba College of Technology, and Queen's College, Yaba. In 1974, she joined the Arts Division of the Federal Ministry of Education and later moved to the Scholarship Division. She relocated to Benin City when her husband retired from the railway in 1978. In Benin, she was appointed vice principal of the recently opened Federal Government Girls' College (FGGC), where she served as principal from 1980 until 1985. Between 1985 and her death in 1997, Osayimwese was the Coordinating Inspector, Inspectorate Division, Federal Ministry of Education, Benin City.3 Though mourned within the community of Nigerian women educators, her death went largely unnoticed in the larger network of artists and former Zaria classmates:
“She died. Of cancer. Some time ago,” I said.
I was certainly not expecting his reaction. He stopped in his tracks. His face fell.
“Ó ti kú (she died)?!!!”
My heart thudded in my chest. He banged his head against the wall. Grimaced.
“Ó ti kú o! Ó ti kú.”
It is at the moment of marriage and childbirth that Osayimwese Omigie's art historical biography goes awry. Her first child, a son, was named Ikponmwosa. It is telling that her name, “Josephine Ifueko,” has somehow been supplanted by her son's name in some published sources. While the slippage might be attributable to a simple typographical error, it also illustrates the dynamics at work in her exclusion: in the minds of some of her male colleagues, Osayimwese Omigie's role as a wife and mother displaced her from consideration as a serious artist. The colloquial practice of calling Nigerian women by their first child's name may also have contributed to this mix-up. In many precolonial Nigerian cultural traditions, reproduction was one of the primary purposes of marriage and a woman's social status was closely aligned with her reproductive power. These ideas still exerted a strong influence among educated urban men and women in the 1960s and beyond. To her neighbors, friends, and family then, Osayimwese Omigie became “Mama Ikponmwosa.”
As is wont with such errors, subsequent publications have perpetuated the misidentification of Osayimwese Omigie. The fact that variations of her married name rather than her premarital name have been retained even though she was unmarried at the date of her involvement with the Society also supports my hypothesis that her male peers saw marriage and motherhood as defining and limiting factors in her life. Alternately, it indicates that Osayimwese Omigie was known in artistic circles or at least maintained contact with some former Society members after her marriage—which was in fact the case, as I will show. In an effort to suture the threads of her life story back together, reclaim her subjectivity, and highlight her agency, I have chosen to use her unmarried and married names simultaneously throughout this article.
TRADE AND EDUCATION: ROUTES FOR WOMEN'S SELF-DETERMINATION IN WESTERN NIGERIA
Of the small collection of Osayimwese Omigie's works that are available, the earliest known dated piece is a glazed ceramic bowl, inscribed with her name and the date “14.11.1958” (Fig. 2).4 This was the year that she gained entrance to NCAST. The bowl has the attributes of a school assignment: the uneven circumference of its base and bumpy excrescence of superfluous glaze that surround it suggest a developing competence with the potter's wheel and glazing techniques. Yet the bowl's careful balance between the buff color of its interior and near-translucent green glaze of its outer surface, the careful articulation of a heavy dark green line of the dripping glaze below the rim followed by row of crescent moons, indicate an emerging aesthetic position situated neither in the female-dominated pottery traditions of Nigeria such as the geometric and stylized naturalism associated with the Gwari nor the minimally decorated utilitarian vessels and ornate anthropomorphic and zoomorphic ritual pottery of the Yoruba, among others. Neither does it fit into the purely derivative European practices and forms typically associated with colonial schooling or in the colonial nativist reinvocation of tradition that Chika Okeke-Agulu argues was becoming the official line in art teaching in Nigeria in the 1950s (Harrod 1989; Okeke-Agulu 2015). Pottery was among several basic subjects of study that made up the four-year curriculum offered by the Department of Art after 1955, so it is possible that Osayimwese Omigie created this piece soon after her arrival in Zaria. A rare photograph from her archive shows Osayimwese Omigie sculpting a nude seated figure on a tilt-and-turn table in the sculpture studio at NCAST in 1958 (Fig. 3). What factors converged to lead Osayimwese Omigie to Zaria?
Osayimwese Omigie's unusual academic success as a female in 1940s–1960s Nigerian can be attributed in part to her upbringing. She was the eldest child of progressive Christian parents (Fig. 4). Her father traveled the country in his role as an accounting clerk for the British colonial government, leaving a matrifocal family to develop back in Benin City. Josephine likely visited him in locations as diverse as Port Harcourt and Ibadan. Due to this itinerant lifestyle and the family's Edo-Akure heritage, Josephine was fluent in Yoruba, Edo, and English, but she and her siblings found it difficult to understand their maternal aunt, who only spoke Akure Yoruba (Akintoye 1969).5
According to family lore, Josephine's mother, Madam Margaret Jose Omozuwa Osayimwese, was of the ilk of self-determining Nigerian women who traded beads, textiles, and other goods in order to gain socioeconomic power and access to public life. As part of her diversified business activities, Margaret Jose tailored and sold school uniforms and was treasurer of an esusu (an informal credit institution or savings club famously associated with Yorubas) (Adebayo 1994: 393–96).6 There was, however, significant precedent for Margaret Jose's participation in the public sphere. Since precolonial times, Yoruba women were renowned as successful entrepreneurs who traded, locally and across long distances, in goods such as palm oil, dye, ceramics, and textiles that they or their family members manufactured. Through the capital they accumulated, these women could become extremely wealthy and advance their political and social status (Oladejo 2015: 7; Falola 1995; Ogbomo 1995; Kriger 2006: 44). Furthermore, following Rowland Abiodun, we could argue that the (woman-centered) activity of dyeing was vital because it was associated in Yoruba language and philosophy with communicating the essence of an individual's existence, character, or being (Abiodun 1990: 67). To the southeast of the Yoruba, Edo women were also involved in trade, and in spinning, dyeing, and weaving textiles both at home for household use and in a public context as members of the royal weavers' guild (Mba 1982: 18–20; Ben-Amos 1995: 17, 1978: 51–52). Over the course of the colonial period, Yoruba and other southern Nigeria women used these traditional routes to financial independence and self-determination as an effective platform for political action. Their activities significantly shaped the face of Nigerian politics in the run-up to independence in 1960.
As an Edo-Akure, Margaret Jose may have drawn on these models of women's activity, and her activities may have shaped her daughter's own interests and choice of profession. Margaret Jose herself had been forced to abort teacher training in order to take the reins of the family after her parents were murdered. She undoubtedly believed in the value of education for both her female and male children and, like many colonial-era urban Nigerian women, worked hard to fund their education and run her household from her own earnings. As historian Abosede George contends, urban elite women in 1940s Nigeria formulated a vision of modern Nigerian womanhood in which education was a means to economic, political, and social participation and full citizenship (George 2014: 7, 213).
1950S EDE: CRUCIBLE OF A NIGERIAN CULTURAL RENAISSANCE
It is in this context that we must situate Osayimwese Omigie's entry into Queen's School Ede. Arguably, her experience in Ede was instrumental in her pioneering presence on the arts scene in Zaria. When she arrived in Ede in 1953, the town was blossoming under the enlightened leadership of the famed timi (king), Oba John Adetoyese Laoye I (1899–1975). A British-trained pharmacist, Oba Laoye became king of the old Yoruba town of Ede (northeast of Ibadan) in 1946. He pursued two simultaneous and mutually supportive programs during his reign. On one hand he was determined to modernize Ede by establishing schools in collaboration with Baptist, Catholic, and Seventh Day Adventist missionaries. He also conceptualized the construction of a large dam—the ultimate modernization project undertaken by soon-to-emerge postcolonial nations. It was through Oba Laoye's initiative that Queen's School—one of the few girls' secondary schools in the country established as part of a state-sponsored (rather than mission-funded) initiative to improve girl's education—came to be established in Ede in 1952. Oba Laoye's wife, Flora Ebun Laoye, would further cement these foundational ties through her teaching appointment at the school.
On the other hand, Oba Laoye, who descended from a lineage of drummers and was an accomplished practitioner of the Yoruba talking drum, cultivated a renaissance of Yoruba culture through his promotion of drumming and dance via performance, writing, public speaking, and radio broadcasts in Ede, throughout the Western Region, and at international venues (Adekilekun 1987: 17; Kehinde 2016). In a sense, Laoye offered a living model for balancing the seemingly competing agendas of modernity and tradition.
Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, who arrived at Queen's School at the same time as Osayimwese Omigie, recalls these exciting years in Ede. As one of only a handful of Igbo and Edo girls at Queen's School, Okonjo Ogunyemi and Osayimwese Omigie spent many hours traveling together on government lorries between Ede and Benin City before Okonjo Ogunyemi journeyed alone on the final leg of her trip home to Ogwashi-Ukwu. According to her classmates, Osayimwese Omigie was a good student whose seriousness, good leadership, and likeability earned her a prefectship. Fine art (taught by a European woman) was a required subject at the school. According to another classmate, Rachel Adegboye (nee Oye), the school was so impressed by Osayimwese Omigie's developing skill that they sent one of her artworks to England for a competition.7 A similar practice of sending student work to England has been noted among some progressive male English art teachers, like K.C. Murray, working at boys' schools in Nigeria in the 1920s and 1930s (Harrod 1989: 148). To Adegboye's knowledge, nothing came of this submission, but it certainly serves as early evidence of Osayimwese Omigie's aptitude. Indeed, art was one of six subjects in which Osayimwese Omigie sat and passed her school leaving examinations in 1957.
Her training in the classroom may have mingled with varied external stimuli. Okonjo Ogunyemi notes that the girls at Queen's School were suffused by Laoye's project of modernization alongside his affirmation of Nigerian cultures. With the help of the school lorry that drove them into Ede proper, Queen's School girls visited and participated in celebrations and saw colorful masquerades, like Egungun, hosted by Laoye. The Oba also performed at school for the girls, who welcomed his presence and composed songs praising him. This is particularly noteworthy, since modern European schools in Nigeria typically took a hard line toward local cultural practices. For example, almost every student in colonial Nigeria was familiar with the stricture against speaking any language other than English at school. Okonjo Ogunyemi confirms that this rule was strictly enforced at Queen's School as well. This kind of “linguistic violence” has of course provided fertile ground for postcolonial theorists trying to understand the insidious mechanisms of colonial hegemony and their postcolonial legacies (Fanon 2008: 8; Mazrui and Mazrui 1998). By contrast, Queen's School's purported openness to Laoye's cultural experiments seems to contradict longstanding colonial education policy and highlights Ede and its oba as harbingers of a new epoch.
The school lorry also drove the girls to nearby Osogbo, where they met the Austrian artist Susanne Wenger, who would soon become known for her attempts to revive Yoruba religion through art. This must have been soon after Wenger arrived in Osogbo after an earlier sojourn in Ede itself and in nearby Ilobu (Probst 2011: 48).8 Wenger left a significant impression on the girls, since she was the only white woman they had met who was “neither Catholic nor Anglican.”9 It was clear to these girls that Wenger was defiant in the face of societal expectations about her personal and professional life. As Okonjo Ogunyemi put it: “She recognized art in objects that no one else saw as art. Pots of different kinds, calabashes, and so on adorned her walls. No one did that back then.”10 Okonjo Ogunyemi's comments are particularly interesting in light of the cultlike status that Wenger acquired among a certain segment of the Nigerian intelligentsia, beginning in the 1960s and continueing unabated even after the artist's death in 2009. And Okonjo Ogunyemi's narrative of Queen's School's early years is undoubtedly also shaped by her own foundational 1980s contributions to theorizing “African womanism,” an autonomous alternative to Western feminism that contextualized the criticism of gender relationships in relation to African specificities (Arndt 2000; Ogunyemi 2006). It is notable that Wenger was still married to the expatriate literary and cultural critic Ulli Beier during this period. Indeed, it was Oba Laoye in Ede who introduced Beier and Wenger to aspects of Yoruba religion and its associated arts and thus laid the foundation for their subsequent deep engagement with Yoruba traditions (Okeke-Agulu 2015: 302; Oyeweso 2017: 35). Beier would later “discover” and canonize the work of Zaria Art Society members like Uche Okeke. It seems highly likely, then, that Osayimwese Omigie met Beier and was introduced to the idea of a modern Nigerian art rooted in but different from indigenous artistic traditions almost ten years before he visited NCAST in Zaria in 1960. For her, Ede, rather than Zaria, was the birthplace of a postcolonial modern art.
Meanwhile, Wenger had gone through a spiritual and artistic conversion of sorts. She was initiated into the worship of several Yoruba deities. In response, she created large, brightly colored, expressionist oil paintings that, in her own words, captured the violence of human experience. At the same time, she began to find solace in another type of painting. Under the tutelage of an unnamed Yoruba woman in Ede, she learned the technique of adire eleko—a method of dyeing textiles using painted starch, practiced by women. While indigo textile dyeing dates to at least the ninth century in West Africa, adire eleko itself is a fairly recent development that owes its origins to the Atlantic trade on the Guinea Coast that introduced new materials, patterns, and techniques (Kriger 2006: 120). Though adire making is said to have started in Abeokuta, Ede is remembered as a major supplier of the dye itself to Abeokuta dyers. Indeed, Olugbemisola Areo and Razaq Kalilu point out that Ede's oriki (citation and attributive poetry) links the city to “Iya Mapo, the Yoruba goddess of creativity, who is revered as the protector and guardian of all female crafts and [is] believed to be the first dyer” (Areo and Kalilu 2013: 357; see also Abiodun 2014: 324). Thus, along with Abeokuta, Osogbo, Ibadan, and Ondo, Ede was a historical center of adire production.
Looking back at the years in Ede and Osogbo, Beier explains that Wenger found the slow and disciplined nature of this technique calming and was drawn to the “organic” nature of Yoruba art production in place of the isolation of the European atelier. In order to gain more flexibility with colors, she switched from this local technique (which allows the artist to use only one color) to an imported wax-based process (generally called “batik” today) which soon spread, under her influence, to Yoruba artists in Osogbo and the region. Her work from this period not only represents a change in media but also reveals new motifs and subjects. Specifically, contrary to Beier's characterization, I would argue that Wenger occasionally borrowed Yoruba forms. Classic adire eleko patterns like Olokun often use grids as the basis for “translation symmetry” or repeating geometric arrangements that extend to infinity. Additionally, certain design elements, including spinning tops and diagonal subdivided checkerboards, were standardized within configurations like Olokun (Kriger 2006: 159). Wenger borrowed the grid, top, and checkerboard elements in batiks like Obatala Catches Sango's Horse (1958) (Fig. 5). She uses them in expected ways to create a grid, but this grid remains only a frame to larger, more important elements in the center or offset on the side of the batik. The Yoruba motifs also serve as building blocks for these larger elements—anthropomorphic figures and objects that float on circular or rectangular blank fields.11 Their large, angular limbs are engaged in energetic and sometimes tortured movements that suggest expressionist inspiration but also embody narrative—specifically her interpretation of Yoruba mythology. With this, Wenger developed a new artistic language grounded in Yoruba traditions (Beier 1975: 25; Drewal 2003).
Osayimwese Omigie probably saw some examples of Wenger's textile work during school visits to her workshop. But it is even more likely that she encountered numerous examples of the work of local aladire (female adire practitioners) from the ranks of the seventeen historic indigo-dyeing families of Ede and observed their mysterious indigo vats, the careful, almost meditative painting of patterns onto undyed fabric, and long arrays of dyed cloths drying in the sun. Between Oba Laoye's efforts to modernize Ede and simultaneously renew Yoruba cultural practices, the dynamic indigo-dyeing woman-led industry of the town, and Wenger's artistic experiments in and around Ede, Osayimwese Omigie was well-placed to develop and pursue an interest in both modern and traditional Nigerian arts.
NIGERIAN WOMEN LEARNING AND TEACHING ART: THE ZARIA DAYS
An undated silkscreen preserved by Osayimwese Omigie's family may offer some insight into the artist's early work. Two versions of the piece are known: a small piece of white yardage (about 82 cm × 43 cm) with a print replicated three times side-to-side (Fig. 6), and a single red and blue print of the same pattern set in canvas and wood frame. In the unframed version of the work, two partial lines of triangles define the long edges of the pattern module. Though they are reminiscent of the diagonal subdivided checkerboard Olokun square motif, Osayimwese Omigie broke with convention by stringing the constituent elements of the checkerboard into an insistent horizontal line. Between the triangular frame, two large “eyes” dominate the composition. The first eye is built up by concentrically replicating the lines of a double-pointed oval. The final lines of this form are distorted so that they no longer form a point but remain open and bent. The second eye is created in the same way but is slightly smaller and rotated forty-five degrees. These curved lines set the tone for the rest of the piece, which consists of globular shapes and curved areas between them, so the entire piece is a series of curved lines and fields that appear to connect seamlessly with each other. To fill in the fields, Osayimwese Omigie used a basic vocabulary of dots and diagonal lines. Perhaps we can recognize the basic circular adire motif with its star-shaped center produced by tying raffia fibers around seeds or small pebbles in Osayimwese Omigie's dot element: tiny dots near the center of the piece quickly transform into larger round forms with empty centers that themselves twist and stretch into a new vocabulary of fill. Meanwhile, the diagonal lines that fill the fields between the curves create the illusion of three-dimensional depth in some areas of the piece. The resulting work achieves dynamic movement and repose at the same time. Together, its forms suggest a certain anthropomorphism even as they resist representationalism—both attributes found in the work of other Zaria Society artists.
It has gone completely unremarked in existing scholarship that Osayimwese Omigie was the only woman to graduate from the Fine Arts Department at NCAST in the first five years of its existence (Ahmadu Bello University 1990: 15).12 How did the overwhelmingly male faculty and student body receive her? Family and friends recall that Josephine was deeply involved in student affairs during her Zaria years. She participated in elegant evening parties as well as dramatic performances and costumed parades. According to her obituary, “she was entrusted with the welfare of her fellow students and ensured that the students were properly fed … For this, she was affectionately called ‘Seriki Tuwo’ (leader of porridge).”13 This nickname suggests that her classmates envisioned her in a nurturing role. Preserved photographs do not necessarily substantiate this image, however. Though she is frequently the only female student depicted in photographs of Art Department events, she appears self-assured and at ease among her male colleagues. In addition, several photographs show Osayimwese Omigie with a small group of female friends—always the same faces—implying that she created a network of women colleagues from elsewhere on campus who provided companionship and support.
Given Western art's predilection to view women's artistic work as craft, one also wonders if Osayimwese Omigie had complete freedom of choice in her area of specialization in the European-style curriculum at NCAST. Her class (1963) was the first to include a textile design specialization (Ahmadu Bello University 1990: 15; Okeke-Agulu 2015: 73). In addition to her as the lone female, four men graduated with this specialty. Thus, by this time, British colonial discourse had successfully transformed what it formerly marginalized as a traditional female activity into an acceptable male occupation. At the same time, the fact that the first female fine arts graduate of NCAST specialized in textiles may indicate that the association between textile work and women lingered. Nike Davies-Okundaye—the most successful woman artist to emerge from the Osogbo workshops operated in the 1960s by Ulli Beier, Susanne Wenger, and Georgina Beier (Beier's second wife) in collaboration with local performance artist Duro Ladipo—described how the predominantly male Osogbo artists-in-training coopted the artistic knowledge and labor of their wives, which was grounded in traditional Yoruba division of labor in the home (Vaz 1995). The emergence of textiles as a concentration at NCAST can perhaps be understood as the result of a similar process of appropriation of traditionally female Nigerian labor and knowledge.
Similarly, in modern Western culture, teaching is figured as a female occupation. Most attempts to understand the dearth of women in the history of modern Nigerian art point to the tendency of female art school graduates to pursue teaching careers. According to Simon Ikpakronyi (2004: 22), the pioneer Nigerian woman artist Clara Etso Ugbodaga-Ngu failed to have as much of an impact as her male colleagues because she became an art teacher. Art historian Pat Oyelola (2004: 142) applies the same logic to Osayimwese Omigie: “Omigie's area of interest was art teaching so it is not surprising that she did not become a full-fledged studio artist.” Similarly, in his discussion of Nigerian women visual artists, Kolade Oshinowo (2004: 144) contrasts “enduring professional studio practice” with other kinds of artistic practice associated with women.
The implication that teaching art does not constitute a valid form of art practice needs to be challenged. Arguably, the ability to teach art is contingent on knowing how to make art. One is hard-pressed to envision a teaching studio in which the art teacher does not strive to demonstrate a command of their media (jegede 2001; Oloidi 1986: 108). This mastery-based model of teaching seems to have been employed at NCAST itself and would therefore have been familiar to Osayimwese Omigie. There are certainly differences between the two modes of art practice as the gradual separation of professional art training from art education training at NCAST over the course of the late 1950s suggests. Conventionally, as Roy Barker, former chair of fine arts at NCAST, contended, an artist becomes a true artist only if he possesses that illusive “spark” of genius, rather than as a result of his training (Okeke-Agulu 2015: 73). Barker's conception of the new Nigerian artist is problematic on at least two counts: his resolute understanding of artists as male, and his assumption that genius is innate rather than socially constructed.
Indeed, the distinction between studio practice and teaching seems to be in part an artifact of art historical scholarship. Many Zaria Society artists became teachers. Solomon Wangboje, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Yusuf Grillo, and even Uche Okeke had long careers in art education that did not prevent them from being perceived as artists (jegede 2001; Oyelola 2004: 143). Indeed, as she hopped from school to school in the early years of her career, Osayimwese Omigie followed in the footsteps of Nigeria's first formally trained teacher of art, the pioneer “itinerant” instructor and artist Aina Onabolu (Oloidi 1986: 112). Her practice therefore referenced a model that preceded the studio-based ideal promulgated by Zaria Society chroniclers. Yet, when women are discussed, teaching art is suddenly read as a sign of unfulfilled potential.
At the root of this contradiction lies a corpus of strongly held views about the nature of Nigerian women and their role in society. These views amount to a negative essentialism that sees gender as biological rather than socially constructed: women are nurturing by nature, ergo, their role is to mother children or serve in some other nurturing capacity, like teaching and nursing, that is by definition inferior to more “rigorous” pursuits (Cortina and San Ramon 2006; Denzer 1994; Fuss 1989). For example, in a book dedicated to reclaiming a space for women in the history of Nigerian art, contributors attribute the dearth of woman artists to a disconnect between women's “gentle disposition” and the “physical and mental demands of studio work” (Oshinowo 2004: 147; Buhari 2004: 174). In response to feminist critiques like that of Nkiru Nzegwu, contributors to the volume argue that Western feminist analyses cannot adequately account for gender relations in African contexts. Rather, they propose to replace Western feminist critique with “positive gender concepts” built on indigenous African principles (Ikwuemesi 2004: 164; Aniakor 2004: 158; Buhari 2004: 174).
However, the charge against Western feminism has arguably been resolved by the emergence of disciplinary perspectives known loosely as African feminism. Some scholars have noted that African feminism is “distinctly heterosexual, pro-natal, and concerned with many ‘bread, butter, culture, and power’ issues,” but is also “prodemocratic” and politically active (Mikell 2003: 109, 1997:4). Unlike Western feminism, African feminism concerns itself with “multiple oppressions,” which it responds to by emphasizing “cultural linked forms of public participation” over “individual female autonomy” (Mikell 2003: 105, 1997: 4; Steady 1996). Indeed, African feminism scrutinizes both recent legal constructs and indigenous cultural norms to evaluate whether they actually benefit African women.
African feminism can therefore offer a useful counterpoint to the familiar argument that women have never been central to artistic production in Nigeria. This claim invokes indigenous norms in two ways: 1) by arguing that men in Africa are the traditional producers of art, and 2) by asserting that media in Africa are gender-specific. Sociologist Oyeronke Oyewumi decisively debunks this argument for at least one Nigerian cultural tradition when she shows that “anatomical distinctions in Yoruba culture are incidental and do not define social hierarchy, occupations, or functions” and “gender dichotomies are not inherent in any art form; rather gender models are part of the critical apparatus” inherited from Western intellectual traditions (Oyewumi 2012: 165; Bakere-Yusuf 2003). Oyewumi goes on to assert that, while motherhood is paradigmatic of gender in “gendercentric” worldviews, in the Yoruba tradition mothers represent universal human attributes and motherhood is both “earthly” and “otherworldly, pre-earthly, pregestational, presocial” (Oyewumi 2012: 171). Historically, for the Yoruba, motherhood and its attendant characteristics and activities have been anything but disadvantaged and subordinate. The absence of women in histories of Nigerian art cannot therefore be automatically explained away by reference to the constraints imposed by traditional gender roles.
A “gender-conscious” rather than “gendercentric” perspective may help us make sense of Osayimwese Omigie's case. By contrast with the restrictive narrative of encumbering motherhood that has marginalized Osayimwese Omigie until now, the artist's daughter remembers accompanying her mother to various art exhibitions in Lagos in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Kaplan 1997, 1993; Lopasic 1997).14 Given her Zaria pedigree and presence in Lagos, it seems likely that Osayimwese Omigie would have been involved in some of the early initiatives to professionalize Nigerian art that started in that city, including the Nigerian Council for the Advancement of Arts and Culture and the Society of Nigerian Artists (itself populated originally by former Zaria Society artists) (Okeke-Agulu 2015: 227).15 Several photographs from the family's collection depict Osayimwese Omigie showing her work at (unnamed) exhibitions and conferences in the 1970s. We can picture this “short,” “plump,” “fair skinned” woman visiting the long-awaited Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977 with her three young children in tow.16 Indeed, her visit is recorded for posterity by two matching wood carvings—replicas of the iconic Edo ivory mask-shaped hip pendant of Queen-Mother Idia that had been chosen as the symbol for the festival—that she brought home and presented to her brother. These would not have been simple souvenirs for Osayimwese Omigie, who may have identified culturally with the mask, seen it as a potential example of traditional Nigerian art ripe for reintegration into modern Nigerian aesthetics, and been aware of the controversy surrounding the British Museum's refusal to repatriate the mask (Apter 2005: 62).17
Osayimwese Omigie participated in exhibitions but she also socialized with other artists. Illustrious NCAST fine arts graduates and fellow teachers and artists like Onobrakpeya and Wangboje were regular visitors to her homes in Lagos and Benin City and were known to members of the extended family. Though her friendships with these men may be attributed to their shared presence at NCAST in the 1950s and their common Edo-related cultural identities, it is equally likely that they shared a vision for a contemporary Nigerian art. Indeed, Onobrakpeya gifted his former classmate a signed etching, Emedjo, dated 1974, that hangs on a wall in the family home today. Like much of his art from this period, Emedjo invokes Urhobo and Benin folktales and mythological creatures and places. Nephew Omozuwa Osayimwese recollects that an average visit to Osayimwese Omigie's house during school vacations between the late 1970s and mid-1980s meant watching the artist carefully dip textiles into buckets of dye and then spread them on clotheslines strung across her backyard.18 This is not the profile of a woman who was prevented from sustaining her artistic practice by marriage, motherhood, or domesticity. Rather, Osayimwese Omigie's case offers a picture of how the progressive feminist vision of modern Nigerian urban womanhood that emerged in the 1950s may have functioned on the ground.
Though her forms were generally nonrepresentational, her choice of medium and technique, in the context of both Nigerian and Western practices, privileges womanhood. In terms of content, only one work identified so far is explicitly about women. This wax-resist wall hanging or batik depicts two women (Fig. 1). The woman in the foreground occupies almost the entire height and width of the fabric. She is shown in partial profile, sitting or kneeling. Her upper torso is bare, but a wrapper (or multiple strings of beads) hides her lower body and a gele (headtie) encircles her head. Behind her and to her right is a much smaller figure whose wide hips, narrow waist, and pointed chest suggest a female body. Her arms reach up to support a large object balanced on her head in the time-honored pose of the African woman carrying a calabash. But there is no realism here: the larger woman's arm splays out unnaturally below the elbow to curve into her lap and the background figure has almost as many arms as a spider. Typical of the wax-resist technique, the major lines and important shapes of this batik have been left a crackled white while the large fields of space and background have been dyed an indigo-purple. But these dark fields are almost entirely filled in with lines, dots, scales, and triangles in crackled white and smooth pink that follow the contours of the sitting figure and frame her in a sea of activity. Because of its strong directional orientation and centralized elements, this piece, even more than the silkscreen in Figure 6, is meant to be experienced frontally as a two-dimensional, wall-hung work of art. What is astounding about this work is the way in which the curvilinear lines that define the sitting woman appear to flow continuously into all other lines in the piece. Almost nowhere does a line end abruptly. Everywhere is calm, graceful movement.
Who are these women and what is their significance in this artwork? The kneeling bare-breasted woman is a standard trope in Yoruba wood sculpture. Moyo Okediji points out that the nude kneeling woman was a common motif on the divination tappers of Ifa priests, where nudity served as a means of communication between humans and the gods by referencing the solemnity and sacredness of the moment of creation in the posture of a woman in labor (Okediji 1991: 34; Akinyemi 2016: 342). The adornments of Osayimwese Omigie's seated woman offer additional clues. Clearly incised and highlighted in pink on her cheek are the three narrow vertical scarifications often associated with Yoruba identity (Ojo 2008: 367; Drewal 1995: 83). Conversely, the two horizontal lines that encircle the bare-breasted woman's forehead are not known to correspond with any particular Nigerian ethnic tradition of body art. In the nineteenth century, body markings had served as markers of ethnic identity, aesthetic statements, and, in certain forms, as medicinal and spiritual media. But scarification declined from the late nineteenth century as the Yoruba political situation stabilized and Western influence recoded body markings as “backward” (Nevadomsky and Aisien 1995: 62). Was Osayimwese Omigie reclaiming this practice and transmuting it into the modern media of wall-hung art?
Below the scarified face, Osayimwese Omigie renders her bare-breasted woman's neck and arms with lines interspersed with dots that evoke beaded necklaces. Her color palette of muted pink and white on an indigo-purple background recalls what art historian Bolaji Campbell has described as the typical deployment of the three Yoruba chromatic categories in shrine painting and the use of color as a tool to communicate, transform, and elevate in Yoruba aesthetics in general. Similarly, dots are a common Yoruba strategy for “communicating with the divine” but are also a creative device for harmonizing and enhancing a work (Campbell 2008: 41). Here, too, by refusing to apply these dots within the segmented geometric framework typical of adire and many Yoruba decorative arts, Osayimwese Omigie imaginatively reclaims a Nigerian aesthetic tradition for a modern purpose. Furthermore, the fact that Osayimwese Omigie's figures are engaged in everyday activities suggests that they represent generic female ideal types like the wise old woman and the young woman hard at work rather than specific people or mythological beings or deities.
If Osayimwese Omigie included distinct ethnic markers and cultural motifs in this work, then she did so largely to signpost its Nigerian-ness rather than to replicate traditional art. Thus the nationalism typically identified with Zaria Society works is also an element of Osayimwese Omigie's oeuvre. It is possible that her deep commitment to Christianity prevented her from fully embracing elements of traditional Nigerian culture in her art to the same extent as her Zaria Society colleagues.19 In Onobrakpeya's Ahwaire in the Spirit World (1961), for instance, non-Christian references are very clear in the anthropomorphized figure of a tortoise facing a shrine. Onobrakpeya has written several times about how he had to fight against the Nigerian public's perception of his work as non-Christian “fetish” (Singletary 1999: 41, 336). Peter Probst (2011: 43) has written about how parental concern about “pagan practices” slowed Jimoh Buraimoh's affiliation with the new movement in Osogbo. And Richard Singletary (1999: 10) has shown that European figurations of Nigerian art as “pagan” created some tensions in the early years of missionary and colonial development of formal art education in Nigeria. It is likely that similar concerns affected Osayimwese Omigie.
Certainly, Osayimwese Omigie's batiks from the 1970s suggest some allegiance to Wenger, especially in their large lines and use of basic elements like dots familiar from adire. Yet Osayimwese Omigie's works contain few overt gestures to Yoruba, Edo, or other Nigerian traditions even as they reference everyday activities and motifs grounded in Nigerian experiences. Under the combined influence of Oba Laoye, the adire makers of Ede, Edo textile trading traditions and Margaret Jose Osayimwese's own trading activities, Susanne Wenger, and Ulli Beier, Osayimwese-Omigie may have already realized that the future lay in some kind of synthesis of the old and the new and the indigenous and the foreign. As Chika Okeke-Agulu has argued for the emergence of an avant-garde at Osogbo in the 1960s, any notion of a unidirectional vector of influence from “primitivist” European art workshop teachers to naïve African students is oversimplistic. This applies equally to understanding the Zaria Society and conceptualizing the work and life of Josephine Ifueko Osayimwese-Omigie (Okeke-Agulu 2013: 154, 2015: 154). The case of the invisible Zaria Society woman supports the argument that modernism in Africa was a byproduct of colonialism and of a modernity experienced simultaneously across multiple geographies (Salami 2010; Okoye 2008).
BEYOND ZARIA: TEXTILE ART AND FASHION
That was one of her classic designs. With the thing around the neck. Like lions' teeth. You could not buy this in the market. You could buy adire, ankara, akwete, and lace. Occasionally you could buy a special print. Like what that woman in Osogbo did. Big figures all over. I made a dark colored dress out of that cloth. But that was unusual. Most of the prints had designs all over. It did not matter how you sewed them. With Josie's cloth, you had to arrange the design. You could also buy that print with what looked like diamonds in the front and at the back. They called it “Africa print.” But it did not have the designs around the neck like Josie's cloth.
Dennese Clarke Osayimwese, interview with author, Providence, RI, May 2018
Between the early 1970s and the mid-1990s, Osayimwese Omigie created numerous textile designs in batik and tie-dye for family and friends who transformed them into apparel. Extant examples of these works like that in Figure 7 are useful for reconstructing her practice. The argument that only textiles that are framed and designed to be viewed frontally are worthy of being designated as art is problematic (Ikpakronyi 2004: 35). For one, it implies that the transformation of carefully woven and dyed textiles into clothing is a new phenomenon. Oral traditions and archaeological evidence prove otherwise. Secondly, the notion that textiles must be wall-hung to be understood in aesthetic terms completely ignores a growing body of scholarship that looks at clothing and fashion as intertwined aesthetic and social forms in historical and contemporary Nigeria. In her analysis of traditional Northern Edo textiles, Jean Borgatti (1983) writes that cloth and clothing “amplify” the wearer's presence and structure behavior. Historically, they functioned as individual aesthetic enhancements as well as markers of sacred space. Likewise, Yorubas, she says, have long understood cloth as an outward expression of one's station in life. For them, clothing has been the most significant form of aesthetic expression (Ben-Amos 1978: 52). Rowland Abiodun goes even further by asserting that cloth (aso)—everything that is worn, including the outward appearance of objects—is the ultimate agency of regeneration among humans and the orisa (Abiodun 2014: 176). As Judith Blyfield and Elisha Renne, among others, have argued, the significance of the link between apparel, aesthetics, and social expression only expanded in the late-colonial and independence years (Borgatti 1983: 10; Nevadomsky and Aisien 1995; Byfield 2004: 33; Renne 2004). More recently, fashion is being recognized as an important aspect of African artistic expression that can offer insight on local histories as well as global networks and changing conceptions of tradition and modernity (Rovine 2015: 7; Rhodes and Rawsthorn 2007). Approaching textiles from this altered perspective will go some way toward filling in gaps in the history of the Nigerian women artists (Filani 2004: 151).
And so we can look at the boubou (a long, wide gown worn in much of West Africa) in Figure 7, tailored by Osayimwese Omigie's sister-in-law using a batik given to her by the artist in the late 1970s, as a work of art and a functional object embedded in a number of overlapping cultural systems. In this batik, Osayimwese Omigie adheres to the standard of using two color groups—white and blue in this case (Mijer 1925). She used factory-woven yardage as the base on which she drew and dyed a design of narrow and wide bands and crackled triangles that are mirrored biaxially to create modified starburst shapes. Unlike traditional Yoruba adire, which consists of orthogonal units repeated to create all-over patterns that have no focal points, this batik has distinct and multiple focii (Kennedy 1971: 24). After their (re)introduction under the influence of nationalist politics in the 1950s, popular expansion under the influence of Folashade Thomas-Fahm, Nigeria's first modern fashion designer newly returned from London in 1960, and concomitant shaping by the spread of black American soul culture and its rediscovery of African cultural forms, clothing styles created from African fabrics—style and cloth both often reinvented to reflect modern tastes—became increasingly popular among the Nigerian elite and expatriates (Denzer 2010).
Caftans, boubous, and zippered A-line skirts replaced imported Western-style skirts and blouses and the cumbersome traditional iro (waist wrapper) and buba (T-shaped top) for women. Yet, as the epigraph at the beginning of this section suggests, there was something distinctive about Osayimwese Omigie's cloth and the outfits created using it. As was typical, the designer of Osayimwese Omigie's boubou carefully cut and laid out the pattern of the dress to maintain the continuity of the fabric's pattern and highlight particular moments—in this case, the axis of the starburst aligns with the axis of the boubou and of the female body it adorns. Yet Osayimwese Omigie maintains a connection to the adire tradition not only through the indigo that marks the darkest elements of her composition, but because her design almost reads as a scaled-up version of a single element in a geometrically patterned adire square, such as the diagonal lines, chevrons, triangles, and stars of the pattern called “Olokun” (Borgatti, 1983: 53; Picton and Mack 1989: 156). Though the batik is strongly abstract and geometric, its angular lines are softened by the occasional bleeding and erosion of color and line that the batik technique produces. Perhaps it is this softness that allows us to identify a highly abstracted human figure with a pointed head and arms and legs akimbo as one of the focal points of the composition. This figure may generically invoke some indigenous representations of the human figure such as the twelfth–fifteenth century conical terracotta head from Ile-Ife or the white-cloaked, hat-wearing Eyo masquerades of Lagos, but it is certainly not figural and referential in the manner of the contemporaneous Osogbo School (Abiodun 2014: 25; Probst 2011). Unlike Osogbo School works—especially those by Twins Seven-Seven and Jimoh Buraimoh that were characterized in part by their lyrical portrayal of elements of traditional Yoruba history, religion, folklore, and contemporary experiences (Probst 2011: 77)—in this work Osayimwese Omigie does not appropriate any particular Nigerian cultural mythology. Her approach is much more restrained and in line with achieving a synthesis with rather than a renewal of Nigerian traditions—a principle that has often been used to distinguish the Zaria and Osogbo Schools.
A series of eight undated black-and-white photographs of neckline and hem designs indicate that Osayimwese Omigie took textile design for clothing and fashion very seriously (Fig. 8). The photographs are stamped with the name of the studio at which they were shot, Sunny Decent Photographs on Apapa Road in Lagos, and were therefore likely taken before she moved to Benin City in 1978. Indeed, Osayimwese Omigie's papers are replete with photographs primarily of women but also of men and children—including herself, family members, and friends—wearing her textiles in the form of boubous, caftans, and dansiki (a short-sleeve, hip-length tunic with wide arm holes). Her focus on necklines and hems in this series indicates that she was conceptualizing her designs as three-dimensional clothing rather than two-dimensional textiles that could be later converted into clothes. A common strategy is visible across all eight designs: necklines are emphasized with two to four concentric rows of decoration, while hemlines are embellished with three to six parallel rows in the same style. A variety of simple, geometric shape and line combinations—including a scallop and line, linked oblong dots, diamonds, hollow circles and concentric circles with solid centers—make up the building blocks of these neck and hemline designs. A complimentary pendant design hangs from the center of each neckline. In three cases, these pendants are zoomorphic or naturalistic. In the other cases, they are geometric patterns created by repeating, rotating, and translating the basic neck and hemline motif. Crackled lines are clearly visible in the white fields that make up the solids in these figure-ground designs, suggesting that these are photographs of actual batiks rather than pencil sketches or initial designs painted on paper.
Though these photographs do not communicate color, other color photographs and oral testimony confirm that Osayimwese Omigie's palette often revolved around blue and white tones, perhaps in homage to the indigo traditions of adire and earlier indigenous Nigerian textiles. Likewise, the use of color to create contrast and of continuous geometric shapes and linear patterns as decoration brings to mind historical textile West African textile design techniques such as brocading and embroidery.20 In archetypal boubou styles in West Africa, laborious handmade embroidery enhances necklines, yokes, chests, and backs with complex motifs based on elements of natural world, such as cat's eyes, and motifs from Islamic history and belief, such as the magic square (Rovine 2015: 49). Iconic Yoruba garments such as the agbada (a large, ankle-length gown with mostly open sides worn by men) were inspired by Hausa garments in the Islamic regions north of Yorubaland at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but the Edo and other non-Islamic ethnic groups only adopted these garments late in the twentieth century. In all their forms, the ornate patterning and voluminous size of boubous communicate success and power. Osayimwese Omigie's painted neckline, pendant, and hem designs invoke these messages but translate them into a modern, less-labor-intensive idiom. In her boubous, as in traditional boubou types, these patterns are activated by the movement of the wearer. Where a magic square embroidered onto a Malian tilbi-style boubou21 projects its protective power once it makes contact with its wearer, Osayimwese Omigie's patterns draw subtle attention to the movement of human limbs beneath. Jewelry—layers of beaded necklaces crucial to Yoruba and Edo body ornament and dress—becomes almost redundant around her embellished necklines, and her ornate hems beautify the wearer's feet no matter what shoes they wear.
It may be useful here to consider art historian Victoria Rovine's distinction between classical and conceptual African fashion design. Classical design refers to “forms that evoke traditional cultures: the objects, practices, and histories that serve as symbols of indigenous culture and local histories.” Conceptual design, on the other hand, uses “indirect allusion rather than stylistic resemblance” to assert its African-ness (Rovine 2015: 110). As a garment consisting of a particular physical form, aesthetic, mode of construction, and set of associations, the boubou, with its origin in Islamic West Africa, represented continuity with the past when it entered modern Nigerian women's fashion in the 1960s and 1970s. Thus the physical form and mode of tailoring of Osayimwese Omigie's boubous can be designated as classical. However, allusions to local cultures and histories are much less direct in her designs for boubou fabrics—putting them into the category of conceptual African design. Her boubous blend classic and conceptual approaches to African fashion.
A 1995 photograph of Osayimwese Omigie wearing a boubou and gele of her own design shows that the artist continued to work with the same basic vocabulary almost two decades later (Fig. 9). The design is in indigo, light blue, and white wax resist. Here, she merges what had been two distinct approaches in her 1970s designs: the neckline designs seen in Figure 8 and the full gown patterns of the boubou in Figure 7. For this neckline, she created two rows of “teeth” in a vertical scallop and line combination. Below, on the body of the gown, two sets of sweeping, broad, slightly curved, and tapered lines in white and light blue frame a central, large curvilinear element. This, quoting sister-in-law Dennese Clarke Osayimwese, is Osayimwese Omigie's “classic” design. To speak of an artist's work as classic is to submit that the artist has developed a distinctive, highly recognizable style over a lifetime of artistic practice. Similar designs could not be purchased in the market. Nor are they seen in the work of the few well-known Nigerian women artists who worked in the textile medium. Art, for Osayimwese Omigie, was vocation and avocation.
By way of conclusion, I return to my hypothesis that one of the reasons academic art history has failed to identify “great” Nigerian women artists is because we have been looking for the wrong thing in the wrong places. As I have argued in this article, art education—where artists like Osayimwese Omigie found their calling—has been considered an inferior form of art practice. That Osayimwese Omigie spent a significant part of her life teaching girls is notable and may account in part for her absence in the historiography and canonical memory of Nigerian art. It may be the case that there existed a network of Nigerian women artists that functioned in parallel to the male network. This network would have been nurtured through academic teaching on one hand. But it may also have been enabled by local practices in which women passed down their accumulated arts knowledge and vocations to their daughters (Areo and Kalilu 2013: 351; Olowu, Layiwola, et al. 2003). Perhaps we should look for our elusive Nigerian woman artists among the “daughters” of pioneering women artists like Josephine Ifueko Osayimwese Omigie.
I thank Rowland Abiodun, Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, and Isoken Omigie Odukogbe for their assistance with this research.
In addition to Osayimwese Omigie, no serious scholarly histories have been written on such well-known women artists as Clara Etso Ugbodaga-Ngu (b. 1921) who was the first Nigerian art lecturer of any gender at NCAST, Afi Ekong (b. 1930) who was the first director of the Lagos gallery of the Nigerian Council for Art and Culture and the only founding female member of the Society of Nigerian Artists in 1963, and the NCAST alumna and self-declared surrealist painter who made a splash when she arrived in Lagos in the 1960s, Colette Omogbai (b. 1942).
“Late Deaconess Josephine Ifueko Omigie, Burial Service, 1st November 1997, 2:00 pm, Outing Service, 2nd November, 1997, 10:00 am.”
“Late Deaconess Josephine Ifueko Omigie, Burial Service, 1st November 1997, 2:00 pm, Outing Service, 2nd November, 1997, 10:00 am.”
Most of the artworks discussed in these article are unsigned and thus cannot be definitively attributed to Osayimwese Omigie. However, they are taken largely from a collection held by her family, who attribute them to her: Josephine Ifueko Osayimwese Omigie collection, held by Isoken Omigie Odukogbe, Anthony Village, Lagos, Nigeria. Information on some details of the artist's life comes from documents also held by the family.
The Edo-Akures (Edo ne Akure, Edo n'ekue, Ado-Akuree) are people of mixed Yoruba and Edo ancestry who reside in Benin City and its environs and in certain districts in Akure as a function of the Benin Kingdom's incursions into Yorubaland since the fifteenth century.
Dennese Osayimwese, interview with author, June 30, 2016; Omozuwa Osayimwese, interview with author, June 30, 2016.
Rachel Adegboye, interview with author, June 27, 2016.
The chronology here is not definitive, as different sources indicate slightly different dates. Wenger may have arrived in Ede as early as 1951 or 1952, moved to Ilobu ca. 1955–1956, and to Osogbo sometime between 1956 and 1958 (Susanne Wenger Foundation n.d.).
Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, interview with author, June 27, 2016.
Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, interview with author, June 27, 2016.
This strategy becomes less and less visible over time in Wenger's batiks.
According to the list of Art Department alumna (Ahmadu Bello University 1990), Osayimwese Omigie was the only woman among the first fifty-seven graduates of the department.
“The World's Greatest Mum,” 10th Anniversary Eulogy for Josephine Ifueko Osayimwese; “Late Deaconess Josephine Ifueko Omigie, Burial Service, 1st November 1997, 2:00 pm, Outing Service, 2nd November, 1997, 10:00 am.”.
The Yoruba concept of motherhood described by Oyewumi may be partially applicable to Osayimwese Omigie, since her maternal family was Edo-Akure. Edo approaches to motherhood are also applicable.
Though she is not listed among the founding members of the Society of Nigerian Artists who held their inaugural exhibition on January 16–22, 1964, it is possible that she joined the organization at a later date and participated in exhibitions that included work from a broader range of categories including textile design (Society of Nigerian Artists 1964).
Rowland Abiodun, interview with author, August 17, 2016; Rachel Adegboye, interview with author, June 27, 2016. Osayimwese Omigie's classmates repeatedly describe her in these terms.
The British, who looted the mask from Benin in 1897, famously refused to lend it to Nigeria on the occasion of FESTAC. A guild-trained Edo artist, Joseph Alufa Igbinovia Obayagbona, carved the replica mask that became the symbol of the event.
Isoken Odukogbe, interview with the author, June 28, 2016; Dennese Osayimwese, interview with author, June 30, 2016; Omozuwa Osayimwese, interview with author, June 30, 2016.
This deep commitment is noted by family members recalling Osayimwese Omigie's later years and may or may not have been a factor during her youth.
In brocading, “weft threads that are supplementary to the threads that form the basic ground structure of the fabric” are used to create patterns. Whereas embroidery takes place after the fabric has been woven on the loom and involves embellishments made by sewing stitches with a needle and thread (Kriger 2006: 181, 182).
A tilbi is a Malian boubou style made of fine cotton or damask in muted colors and embroidered with a range of standardized symbolic abstract motifs in silk thread (Rovine 2015: 49).