all photos courtesy of the estate of Moyo Ogundipe

For Moyo Ogundipe (1948–2017), as for many contemporary African artists, the global condition has been experienced through the prism of migration. Disillusioned by political turmoil in Nigeria, he fled the country shortly after Sani Abacha assumed power in the early 1990s and settled in the United States, returning only in 2008. At that time, he joined a small but ever-growing returnee community in the southwest of the country and, as a mature artist, invented himself anew. In this article, I argue that the experience of migration, and particularly the experience of displacement (or sense of isolation from both a homeland and a new land) that so often accompanies migration, became the catalyst for his creative practice. He worked within the dynamic tradition of mythopoeia—what he conceived as poetic mythmaking—and produced an imaginative new body of work designed both to make sense of what he often described as “this inexplicable world” and help chart his course forward in the multicultural global sphere.1

In his self-described exile in the United States, Ogundipe was overcome by nostalgia for his Yorubaland, even while eager to take advantage of the professional opportunities that existed abroad and to carve out a space for himself in the international art arena. He accordingly grounded his work in Yoruba culture and re-presented archetypal characters from the extensive corpus of classical Yoruba mythology—in effect, transposing concepts contained within past myths into a contemporary global context for reference. On his return, Ogundipe took stock of the problems in the country, but, still eager to put down new roots, he attempted to reconcile his imagined homeland with his present-day experiences. In a series of returnee paintings, featuring a new cast of characters based loosely on the women he met in southwest Nigeria, he envisioned a possible, even if by no means certain, future in which past social codes continue to provide the bedrock of an increasingly diverse society.

The primary intention of this article is to illustrate that, as a mythopoeic painter, Ogundipe produced a multidimensional mythography related to the global condition and his varied experiences with displacement during his exile and on his return. The study also acknowledges that he often deliberately transcended the geopolitical moment in which he worked to visualize the beauty in this infinite universe and to examine more fundamental mythic questions related to the nature of the cosmos and human existence. I begin with a discussion of Ogundipe's early career, addressing the implications of the sociopolitical landscape in postcolonial Nigeria for his early career and subsequent migration. I then trace the subtle changes in his approach to mythopoeic painting over his long career as his orientation on the global stage shifted.

THE IFE ART SCHOOL YEARS

As a student at the University of Ife between 1968 and 1972, Ogundipe built on his cosmopolitan upbringing in colonial southwest Nigeria to develop a distinct postcolonial art practice. (For accounts of Ogundipe's early upbringing in southwest Nigeria, see Okediji 2002: 100–109; Sytsma 2008: 29; Filani 2017: 3). He originally planned to follow in the footsteps of Victor Daramola, his art teacher at the prestigious Christ's School in Ado-Ekiti, and to study fine arts at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) in northern Nigeria (see Osundare 2008: 14 for an account of Ogundipe's early training at Christ's School). The country's unstable political conditions, however, compelled him to reconsider. By the time he was to enroll, a few decades' worth of ethnic tension had erupted in a bloody civil war, commonly referred to as the Biafran War, making travel around the country increasingly dangerous. He decided to remain in the southwest and, since that region did not have a university with a fine arts program, he elected to pursue a degree in art education at the University of Ife (what is now Obafemi Awolowo University) on the new campus in Ile-Ife.2

The art education program at the University of Ife provided an ideal complement to his secondary school art education at Christ's School. While it was similarly based on British models, with course offerings in drawing, sculpture, ceramics, graphic design, and art history, it was uniquely administered by research fellows in the Institute of African Studies and accordingly had a distinctly African slant. The research fellows were investigating various aspects of Yoruba history and culture and urged students to complete courses in African history, philosophy, and literature in addition to art education and to draw on African, particularly Yoruba, sources in their work. Students also found inspiration in the sacred city of Ile-Ife and were able to attend African theater, film, dance, and music productions at the Institute's Ori Olokun Cultural Center throughout the year (including during the annual Ife Festival of the Arts) and view the rich collection of ancient Yoruba art in the National Museum in Ile-Ife. (For a more complete discussion of the art education program at the University of Ife at this time, including an examination of both its advantages and disadvantages, see Sytsma 2016).

As a student at the University of Ife, Ogundipe expanded on his early Western art training at Christ's School and, according to Rowland Abiodun, his mentor in the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ife, he introduced “a modern African dimension to painting.”3 In 2015, Ogundipe reflected:

I knew that I had grown up in an environment that was very rich in its lores, in its history, and in its visual arts. I had been part of the celebration of this rich heritage for years. It was all around me. I saw what contemporary artists were doing and I knew that I had to use Yoruba culture as a source.4

He thus became part of what he has described as “a grand experiment,” which developed alongside postcolonial politics, beginning in the late 1950s. At this time, members of the Zaria Art Society employed the concept of “natural synthesis” (combining local and foreign artistic sources) in the spirit of nationalism. Continuing into the next decade artists then reevaluated the objectives of this theoretical model in light of escalating interethnic conflict in the country.5

The discursive environment of the early postcolonial era provided the context for Ogundipe's artistic engagement. To be sure, Ogundipe had embraced nationalism as a child in the mid 1950s when Nigeria was preparing for independence from Great Britain. As the son of one of twelve inaugural senators for the Western Region, he believed that with independence Nigeria would unite across ethnic lines, and he was optimistic about the country's future. Nonetheless, his worldview had changed by the time he entered the University of Ife, and the outbreak of the civil war brought into sharp relief the continued ethnic tension in the country.6 At that time, Ogundipe rejected the nationalist paradigm of early postcolonial modern art espoused by the Zaria Art Society, choosing instead to employ the concept of hybridity as the basis of a highly personal artistic exploration shaped by his diverse encounters in cosmopolitan southwest Nigeria.

Ogundipe's art practice of this period expanded on earlier examples of postcolonial Nigerian modernism. He was influenced by the now internationally known Osogbo artists Jimoh Buraimoh, Adebisi Fabunmi, and Muraina Oyelami (who were associated with the Institute of African Studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s and who assisted Solomon Irein Wangboje in his weekly workshops at the Ori Olokun Cultural Center). He similarly grounded his work on existing forms of Yoruba cultural production while pursuing the rigorous experimentation of Western modernism, and in paintings such as Drummers and Dancers (1972) (Fig. 1), he adapted an enduring Yoruba convention which Henry Drewal and Margaret Thompson Drewal (1987) term “seriation,” and methodically filled the space surrounding the group of performers section-by-section with a series of angular brown, black, and ocher planes.7 Even so, Ogundipe worked within a distinct academic tradition more in keeping with that adopted by members of the Zaria Art Society, and his paintings increasingly expressed an arguably more deliberate engagement with Yoruba art and philosophy along with a deeper understanding of their correlations with broader contemporary global art discourse.

1

Moyo Ogundipe Drummers and Dancers (1972) Acrylic on paper; dimensions Private collection

1

Moyo Ogundipe Drummers and Dancers (1972) Acrylic on paper; dimensions Private collection

THE PLEASURES AND PAINS OF EXILE

When Ogundipe graduated from the University of Ife in 1972, he believed that, with the harsh ecopolitical climate of the period, a career in the arts in Nigeria was not a viable option. After a successful joint exhibition with recent ABU graduate Kolade Oshinowo that year, he pursued alternative paths, first as a television producer and later as a filmmaker, always with the intention of returning to his painting once the situation improved. Regrettably, under the military regimes of Generals Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, and Sani Abacha, conditions turned from bad to worse. The Structural Adjustment Program reforms introduced in the mid 1980s failed to revive a stagnant economy and made daily life in Nigeria a constant struggle. The military rulers used coercion to maintain power, imprisoning those who posed potential threats to their authority and severely restricting press freedoms. Businesses closed, unemployment grew widespread, and crime rates across the country, particularly in cities, drastically increased.8

It was therefore only in the United States, two decades later, that Ogundipe fully committed himself to his art career. Disheartened by the state of affairs at home and eager to experience what George Lamming (1960) has described as the “pleasures of exile” and to, in his own words, “compete with the best in the world,” Ogundipe joined the mass migration of Nigerians in 1994, settling in the United States for nearly fifteen years.9 His first five years were spent in Atlanta, Georgia, where he was the artist-in-residence for the City of Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs. Upon completing the master of fine arts program at the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1999, he accepted a one-year residency at the Denver Art Museum, during which time he shared a studio with then-curator of African and Oceanic arts and longtime friend, Moyo Okediji. Years later, Ogundipe reminisced that this was a “beautiful time.”10 The two painted together daily in the studio, exchanging ideas on art and life and listening to the music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Miles Davis, B.B. King, and others.

In exile, Ogundipe often grappled with the experience of isolation. He would indeed subsequently recall that the condition of displacement gave rise to broader metaphysical questions related to the nature of existence and the universe, and he looked to Yoruba myth and related oral traditions for the answers.11 According to Ogundipe, “In the course of my long journey to self-discovery as an artist and as a human being, it became necessary for me to go back to my roots and the ancient culture of my origins for artistic and spiritual nourishment.”12 In works from his first five years in the United States, he consequently grounded his practice heavily on archaic Yoruba cosmogonic myth, as he continued to cultivate his intellectual curiosity and experiment with new forms of artistic expression. In one of his earliest such mythocosmic paintings, Detonation of Cosmic Seeds (1995) (Fig. 2), for example, he methodically filled the canvas, section by section, with multicolored acrylic paint, as he had in earlier works from Nigeria, to visualize the universe at the “rudimentary stages of creation,” and to capture the “essence of life” in abstract form.13

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Moyo Ogundipe Detonation of Cosmic Seeds (1995) Acrylic on canvas; 85 cm × 110 cm Private collection

2

Moyo Ogundipe Detonation of Cosmic Seeds (1995) Acrylic on canvas; 85 cm × 110 cm Private collection

According to Yoruba myth, the universe comprises two distinct realms: the invisible spiritual world of run and the tangible physical world of ayé. At the intersection of these two realms are numerous autonomous forces that regularly intervene in human affairs. On one side are the òrìà (the divinities), the ará r un (ancestors), and other forces that generally protect human interests and contribute to the well-being of the community. On the other side are the ajogun (enemies of humanity) that constantly disrupt social harmony and bring about destruction in the world. As Wande Abimbola (1997: 3) explains, “There is no peaceful coexistence between the two powers. They are always in conflict.” In the Yoruba worldview, participation on the mythic stage thus must be approached with considerable dexterity. To overcome hurdles in life and maintain peace in society, individuals must learn to harness the à, or generative force, given to them in the breath of the supreme being, Olodumare, and cultivate wisdom (gbn), patience (sùúrù), and caution (s).

This conception of a universe is commonly represented as a spherical calabash bisected along the horizontal axis (Drewal, Pemberton, and Abiodun 1989: 14, Lawal 2008: 25–29, Campbell 2008: 29–30). In examples such as the frequently cited gourd from the Museum Fünf Kontinente (Fig. 3), the interconnected realms of rún and ayé manifest as upper and lower hemispheres held tightly together, and the forces that populate the two realms are recorded in the surface patterning. As Drewal and Drewal (1987: 244–49) argue, the “seriate” (segmented) design commonly found in the visual arts mirrors a universe made up of numerous equal but independent forces, giving visual expression to the Yoruba proverb “good and bad coexist in the world” (tíbí tire la dá ilé ayé). The design expands to fill the space available. The patterns are generally distributed relatively evenly across the surface, so that focus is more or less diffused, and each motif, whether representational or nonrepresentational, is clearly delineated from others in the composition. Furthermore, the continual juxtaposition of opposites in the visual arts simulates the constant interplay between contending forces. In the case of cosmic gourds (along with other forms of cultural production), this interplay is found in the combination of smooth and textured surfaces and organic and geometric forms. In the case of the shrine paintings scattered throughout southwest Nigeria, it is in the combination of colors from different chromatic groups. Moyo Okediji argues that color is “an intrinsic expression of potent cosmic forces which permeate the whole of Yoruba culture” (1991: 21). Bolaji Campbell (2008: 32–33) similarly observes that, in the shrine paintings, the constant balancing of different chromatic groups exemplifies the complex Yoruba cosmology.

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Calabash Artist unrecorded, Oyo-Region, Yoruba, Nigeria, 19th century Carved gourd; D: 24.75 cm Collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich, inv. no. 18-22-15.

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Calabash Artist unrecorded, Oyo-Region, Yoruba, Nigeria, 19th century Carved gourd; D: 24.75 cm Collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich, inv. no. 18-22-15.

In Detonation of Cosmic Seeds and other early exile works, Ogundipe re-presents the seriate design typically found on the spherical cosmic gourd, along with various Yoruba ritual objects, in acrylic paint on canvas using the expressive language of abstract expressionism.14 He starts with a series of pencil lines that extend in different directions across the surface of the canvas and intersect at various points to create an intricate mesh armature. Using a fine-tip brush, he then methodically fills each section with brightly colored acrylic paint patterns before proceeding to the next section in seriate fashion. The resulting cosmographic paintings transcend the experiences of the physical world to open space for metaphysical inquiry. Distinct multicolored chevron and semicircular motifs appear to splay out in different directions across the canvas to produce an all-over quality that is conceptually indebted to Yoruba aesthetic principles but also recalls Jackson Pollock's famous “action paintings” from the late 1940s and early 1950s, which Ogundipe greatly admired. Reflecting his interest in working at the intersection of global cultures, there are also multiple frames of reference for this work. In a foundational sense, I believe, Detonation of Cosmic Seeds resonates with Yoruba mythocosmic principles and, as in much Yoruba ritual cultural production, visualizes a vast universe populated by numerous conflicting autonomous forces. Yet, the work also evokes the prevailing scientific cosmology, the big bang theory, which theorizes that in its infancy, the universe consisted of giant clouds of subatomic particles.

It bears repeating that, despite the conceptual parallels between Ogundipe's early paintings and Yoruba ritual cultural production, the two have distinct functions. Drewal and Drewal explain that in Yoruba ritual arts, “seriate composition is a formal means of organizing diverse powers, whether verbally or visually, not only to acknowledge their autonomy but, more importantly, to bring them into actual existence, to marshal them, and to set them into action” (1987: 249). Likewise, Rowland Abiodun observes that, when the à⋅ė of these powers is activated through ritual, the work in question is alive and is able to respond, or to j and dáhùn (Abiodun 1994, 2014: 273–75). Working outside the realm of ritual in the contemporary global artistic sphere, Ogundipe has no intention of ritually activating the powers. He instead offers this contemporary cosmic paradigm for reflection. The kinetic quality, resulting from the juxtaposition of patterns of roughly the same size and intensity, can disorient viewers, making them newly aware of their environment and enabling contemplation of the composition of the universe. In the painting, the independent contending forces in the cosmos are held in equilibrium, even if only temporarily, to convey stability and peace. The segments are spread relatively evenly across the canvas, such that no single segment commands viewer's full attention, and the hot (pupa) and cool (funfun) chrome patterns are juxtaposed according to the Yoruba aesthetic criterion for balance (ìdgba).

THE MYTHOPOEISM OF EXILE

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ogundipe expanded on this early series with a body of large-scale mythographic paintings. In examples such as Soliloquy: Life's Fragile Fictions (1997) (Fig. 4), The Serenade (1999) (Fig. 5), Shrine of Love (2001) (Fig. 6), Celestial Migrants (2002) (Fig. 7), and Women of Peace (2003) (Fig. 8), he continued to ground his practice on Yoruba artistic principles and, as part of a nostalgia exercise, he re-presented archetypal characters from Yoruba myth (along with, on occasion, characters from ancient Roman and Greek myth that he had discovered as a child in his father's book collection) on densely patterned mythocosmic stages replete with flowers, birds, chameleons, snakes, butterflies, and fish. The resulting paintings envision what Salman Rushdie (1991) provocatively termed an “imaginary homeland” and what Ogundipe himself described as the “lost glory of Africa.”15 They contain no sign of the civil unrest and economic disparity that existed in Nigeria and elsewhere during this time. Instead, they impart a peace and tranquility that belies most lived experience.

4

Moyo Ogundipe Soliloquy: Life's Fragile Fictions (1997) Acrylic on canvas; 126 cm × 197 cm Collection of the Denver Art Museum

4

Moyo Ogundipe Soliloquy: Life's Fragile Fictions (1997) Acrylic on canvas; 126 cm × 197 cm Collection of the Denver Art Museum

5

Moyo Ogundipe Serenade (1999) Oil on canvas; 181 cm × 242 cm Collection of the Denver Art Museum

5

Moyo Ogundipe Serenade (1999) Oil on canvas; 181 cm × 242 cm Collection of the Denver Art Museum

6

Moyo Ogundipe Shrine of Love (2001) Acrylic on canvas; 186 cm × 252 cm Private collection

6

Moyo Ogundipe Shrine of Love (2001) Acrylic on canvas; 186 cm × 252 cm Private collection

7

Moyo Ogundipe Celestial Migrants (2002) Acrylic on canvas; 171 cm × 237 cm Private collection

7

Moyo Ogundipe Celestial Migrants (2002) Acrylic on canvas; 171 cm × 237 cm Private collection

8

Moyo Ogundipe Women of Peace (2003) Oil on canvas; 197 cm × 302 cm Private collection

8

Moyo Ogundipe Women of Peace (2003) Oil on canvas; 197 cm × 302 cm Private collection

Even so, it would be a mistake to dismiss Ogundipe's mythographic paintings from exile as unmediated retrievals of the past or as wholly escapist exercises. With this body of work, Ogundipe aligned with prominent contemporary mythologists who conceive of mythic revival as a fundamentally progressive act. Joseph Campbell (1991: 38–39) informs us that ancient myths were designed to evoke a sense of awe in and enable a deeper understanding of the universe. To ensure that these myths continue to captivate an ever-changing audience, stimulate contemplation, and contribute to the shaping of the collective worldview, mythmakers engage a practice of mythic revision (McNeil 1992: 39–40). They poetically reassemble the segments of past myths to produce what French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1966: 32–33) terms a new bricolage and, using a dialogical method, they translate archaic myths into modern languages. Michael Bell thus explains that, while the practice of mythopoeia involves the recovery of past myth, it should not be considered regressive. The recovery process, he observes, is “more commonly, and subtly, a matter of reculer pour mieux sauter” (Bell 1998: 2). In mythic revision, the essence of the archaic myth is carried into the present, where it is offered as a new possible paradigm for society.

There is precedent for such revisionist mythopoeia as this in the Yoruba tradition from which Ogundipe derived much of his influence. Indeed, in Yoruba culture as in other world cultures, past myths are adopted as frames of reference for the present. Margaret Thompson Drewal explains, for example, that in masquerade performances, like in Ifa divination, past myths are re-presented “through the fragmentation of its narrative structure” (Drewal 1992: 90). These fragments are designed to evoke entire narratives, for according to one maxim, “Half a word will suffice for the wise (ààbr ni à ń s fún ⊙m⊙lúwàbí).” The result is a multilayered ritual present in which varied myths combine serially. According to Drewal:

When reenacted, the precedents documented in myth are carried into the present and are brought to bear on the current situation much in the same way as legal precedents direct court action. The notion is that patterns from the past, restored through performance, establish the terms on which the desired consequences can be negotiated (1992: 91).

Simply said, in Yoruba ritual, the complex ancient cosmological and sociological concepts that are recorded in myth are ritually revived in performance, where they provide critical departure points for society.

In paintings from the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ogundipe worked within this ongoing and dynamic tradition of mythopoeia, creating critical models for an increasingly globalized public sphere. Each painting is essentially a bricolage that combines in seriate fashion imagery from Yoruba mythography and related folktales. Recalling mid-twentieth century Yoruba woodcarvings, the principal characters in Ogundipe's contemporary paintings are not bound by a single narrative, even when they are represented within the same frame—a fact that Ogundipe stresses by limiting the interaction between them. Instead, they function autonomously as independent actors on the mythic stage, between the invisible, spiritual realm of ⊙rún and the visible, physical realm of ayé. The works constitute mythic storehouses in which each character has the capacity to invoke multiple myths, or as Kunle Filani describes them, “open visual librar[ies] that contain multiplex narratives” (2017: 4). Still more important to this study, since the works are grounded on enduring Yoruba artistic criteria, they evoke the longstanding cultural values that are recorded in archaic myths as conceptual frameworks.

Ogundipe derived the characters for his paintings from different sources. In cases in which there was precedent in Yoruba woodcarvings, he simply translated the characters in acrylic or oil paint on canvas. In Celestial Migrants, he included a reproduction of one of Olowe of Ise's beautifully carved verandah posts (Fig. 9), which reminded him of those he first encountered at the palace of the Ogoga of Ikerre while accompanying his father on the drive from Ado Ekiti to Ise-Emure Ekiti in the 1950s and which he rediscovered during his residency at the Denver Art Museum. Likewise, in Soliloquy: Life's Fragile Fictions, he represented a priestess kneeling in supplication, roaster in hand, in the tradition of the Olumeye woodcarvings, popularized by Lamidi Fakeye and other Ekiti woodcarvers in the mid to late twentieth century (Fig. 10). In cases in which there was no precedent in Yoruba cultural production, Ogundipe freely appropriated his characters from elsewhere. In Serenade, for example, he featured a stylized half-human, half-equine centaur from Greek mythology alongside a half-human sea creature that he identified both as the Pan-African water spirit Mami Wata and by the Western designation of mermaid.

9

Olowe of Ise House post, late 1920s Wood; 175 cm Collection of the Denver Art Museum, Funds from 1996 Collectors Choice and partial gift of Valerie Franklin, 1996.260

9

Olowe of Ise House post, late 1920s Wood; 175 cm Collection of the Denver Art Museum, Funds from 1996 Collectors Choice and partial gift of Valerie Franklin, 1996.260

10

Lamidi Fakeye Olumeye (1960) Wood; 19 cm × 9 cm Collection of Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology, Donated by Mr. and Mrs. Lucien Gaco, Catalogue no. E427918

10

Lamidi Fakeye Olumeye (1960) Wood; 19 cm × 9 cm Collection of Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology, Donated by Mr. and Mrs. Lucien Gaco, Catalogue no. E427918

11

Moyo Ogundipe Three Lagos Socialites (2008) Oil on linen; 93 cm × 131 cm Private collection

11

Moyo Ogundipe Three Lagos Socialites (2008) Oil on linen; 93 cm × 131 cm Private collection

In either case, Ogundipe adhered to enduring Yoruba artistic criteria, making minor adjustments that reflect his early training in academic British traditions, the greater flexibility of the medium, and his distinct artistic sensibility. Notably, he depicted the characters at what Robert Farris Thompson describes as the midpoint mimesis, “between absolute abstraction and absolute likeness” (1973: 32) and in the prime of life.16 In instances such as in the equestrian warrior in Soliloquy: Life's Fragile Fictions, he also sometimes employed a symbolic proportion, placing emphasis on the head, the site of human consciousness in Yoruba thought, and whether or not he adopted this form of proportion, he portrayed men and women frontally with weight distributed relatively equally along a vertical axis to convey symmetry.17 Represented in accordance with convention, the characters embody core Yoruba values, past and present. They are, for example, characterized as physically fit and mentally strong, equipped, as it were, to marshal the àṣė in the world to compete on the stage of life. Similarly, they are depicted with a balanced disposition (ìwà pl) and thus prepared to successfully navigate the complex cosmic mesh represented in the multicolored and patterned seriated backdrop.

The animal motifs that accompany the principal characters further extend and deepen mythic thought. Yoruba people have long understood what Levi-Strauss (1967: 89) famously observed in the 1960s—that “animals are good to think with”—and they have incorporated them in their rich literary corpus. Ogundipe appropriated animals from existing Yoruba cultural production, in effect calling forth age-old proverbs as reference. For example, the chameleon motif (alagemo) in Celestial Migrants conveys the importance of invoking the past to determine the best course of action to prepare for the future, with eyes that operate independently of each other, allowing it to look backward and forward simultaneously. The snake motifs (ejò) found in works such as Soliloquy: Life's Fragile Fictions provide a powerful metaphor for regeneration, since a snake regularly sheds its skin. The less common butterfly motif (labalábá) in Shrine of Love exemplifies the transience of existence and stresses the importance of searching for the beauty that exists alongside the hardship.

As a whole, the works serve as departure points for philosophical inquiry into the nature of human existence and the ever-changing global condition. According to Moyo Okediji, Ogundipe “turns the spectator into an active participant in the creative process” (2008: 27). Viewers are able to explore the labyrinth of patterns, unearthing the treasures embedded within, and to look beyond that which is immediately visible to discover the subterranean layers of meaning, for according to the Yoruba axiom, “ohun tí ó wà lyìn ffà, ó ju òje l⊙” (“what follows six is certainly more than seven”). Reflecting on this issue in 2003, Ogundipe noted:

I want people to enter my paintings as if it is a room full of a million delightful objects. I want them to begin to touch and feel and see and explore and excavate the many treasures in this magic room. I want them to respond with their instincts, with their feelings, and with their emotions.18

His self-described “songs of exile,” these paintings were born from his eagerness to both retain his Yoruba culture while abroad and continue the journey of life in the United States and on the global stage.19 In the resulting utopian spheres, the values inscribed in archaic Yoruba myth and related oral traditions are re-presented, and the possibility of transcending the ceaseless conflict in the world is made manifest.

RETURNEE MYTHOPOEISM

Ogundipe always conceived of his exile as temporary. Like many of those who fled Nigeria during the early to mid 1990s, he planned to return once the civil unrest had dissipated. While the possibility had seemed remote during his first decade abroad, the tides started to turn by the early 2000s, making a return more feasible and indeed more appealing. During the Fourth Republic, the sociopolitical climate in Nigeria gradually improved, and meanwhile, Ogundipe was growing increasingly disheartened by his career prospects in the United States. He was an artist of international repute, whose work had been featured in major exhibitions such as Transatlantic Dialogue: Contemporary Art in and Out of Africa (1999–2001); African Renaissance: Old Forms New Images in Yoruba Art (2002–2003); Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (2004); and Mami Wata: Art for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas (2008–2009). Nonetheless, Okediji explains that “his work was treated with romantic condescension by the press” in Denver (2011: 148). A professorship at the University of Colorado at Denver, where he taught for several years, never materialized, and as the years passed, he became dispirited by his repeated encounters with racism.

In May 2008, Ogundipe returned to Nigeria, where he became part of a small but ever-growing returnee population. He rented a small, two-bedroom house in a densely populated neighborhood in the bustling city of Ibadan and, after a successful homecoming exhibition at Lagos's prestigious Terra Kulture Gallery, he accepted an instructorship in the Department of Mass Communication at Bowen University in the rural town of Iwo. During his first year, he resided in Ibadan and made the one-hour commute to Iwo to teach his classes. In 2009, he then moved into a house a short drive from campus and procured a studio space in a nearby hotel. I argue that the work he produced during his first five years after returning are products of a returnee consciousness. He was aware that Nigeria had changed dramatically in his fifteen-year absence. In his mind, it fell short of the homeland he had envisioned as a child and continued to imagine while in the United States, and he regularly lamented the ongoing erosion of cultural values and what he described as the “absolute confusion in the country.”20 Still, he was overjoyed to be back in Nigeria, which he often expressed still retained the essence of home.21

Works from his early return, such as Three Lagos Socialites (2008)(Fig. 11 and Cover); Two Jolly Friends (2009) (Fig. 12); and Four Market Women (2011) (Fig. 13) emerged from his efforts to reconcile his excitement to partake in the daily performance of Yoruba culture in the southwest of the country and his frustration with the persistent economic disparity and nationwide government corruption.22 In these examples, he introduced a new set of characters, replacing the nude goddesses and equestrian warriors with contemporary women based loosely on those he met in southwest Nigeria, and as in the United States, he engaged in a practice of mythic thinking and reimagined his surrounding landscape in Nigeria using enduring mythopoeic practices. His returnee works, like his exile works, constitute imaginative new mythic worlds, only in this case these worlds relate more directly to contemporary experiences and capture the tension between what is and what could be to envision a potential, if unknowable, future.

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Moyo Ogundipe Two Jolly Friends (2009) Acrylic on canvas; 95 cm × 62 cm Collection of Prince Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon

12

Moyo Ogundipe Two Jolly Friends (2009) Acrylic on canvas; 95 cm × 62 cm Collection of Prince Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon

13

Moyo Ogundipe Four Market Women (2011) Oil on canvas; 50 cm × 39 cm Private collection

13

Moyo Ogundipe Four Market Women (2011) Oil on canvas; 50 cm × 39 cm Private collection

The early returnee works feature small groups of women from diverse social strata set against seriated cosmic backdrops made up of complementary colors. Ogundipe initially employed the same level of precision as in the United States and expanded on a series that he initiated during his last few months in exile with Two Lagos Socialites (Fig. 14). Three Lagos Socialites similarly features fashionable Lagosian elites wearing matching bùbá (blouses) and gèlè (head wraps) in three-quarter length view; and Two Jolly Friends, from a year later, depicts full-length views of two more realistic, full-figured women, whom Ogundipe describes as “educated, professional, married women on their way to an all-night party.”23 After accepting the instructorship at Bowen University, he loosened his brushstroke, adopting a more impressionistic style, and he expanded his repertoire to include the working-class women with whom he regularly interacted in rural Iwo. For example, Four Market Women (2011) features four simply dressed hawkers congregating in the market, with nondescript wares on their heads, also in full-length views.

14

Moyo Ogundipe Two Lagos Socialites (2008) Media; 75 cm × 60 cm Private collection

14

Moyo Ogundipe Two Lagos Socialites (2008) Media; 75 cm × 60 cm Private collection

Notwithstanding the new cast of characters, Three Lagos Women, Two Jolly Friends, and Four Market Women remain grounded in a mythopoeic tradition. On his return to Nigeria, Ogundipe employed many of the artistic principles he had put into practice in exile. He worked conceptually, allowing his imagination to dictate the process, and he represented the contemporary characters at a midpoint mimesis with just enough detail to impart gender and class. Thus, even if inspired by specific women in southwest Nigeria, they are typographical and able to stand in for entire classes of people.24 The characters operate in a metaphoric space, and like the nude goddesses and equestrian warriors of earlier works, they evoke entire myths, folktales, and legends, along with the ethical codes embedded within these parables. The paintings are the equivalent of mythic repositories, referencing multiple stories simultaneously to create multidimensional moral narratives. Moreover, owing to that fact, they fulfill one of the primary functions of myth and related oral traditions to provide critical paradigmatic models.

Within the multidimensional narratives of the paintings, various themes repeat. Ogundipe's early returnee works notably evoke the corpus of oral material dedicated to egalitarianism—from the Yoruba creation myth, in which Olodumare imbues everyone with the life force of àṣė that they can harness to marshal the forces in the cosmos and influence their course of life, to more recent folktales that stress the importance of fluidity and dynamism in society. Ogundipe's works similarly form new egalitarian models in which the unique potential of every member of society is realized. He adheres to convention, characterizing both the urban elites and the market women with the vitality of youth—what Robert Farris Thompson (1973: 56–58) describes as ephebism—and as such, with the generative power of àṣė. In addition, Ogundipe continues to strive for balance, making only minor modifications to suggest greater naturalism; for example, in Four Market Women, two women each raise one arm to balance the wares on their heads. In his mythographic paintings, all members of society, regardless of social strata, can, in Ogundipe's own words, “hold their heads high,” poised as they are to navigate the web of forces manifest in the seriated backdrop and to excel in this ever-changing transnational world.25

His early returnee paintings are neither wholly realist nor wholly escapist. In a departure from realism, Ogundipe refrains both from capturing the egregious abuses of power by some urban elites in paintings such as Three Lagos Socialites, and from highlighting the the plight of market women who sell wares in the hot sun for little profit in paintings such as Four Market Women. At the same time, he does not deny the inequality that persists in the country as an escapist measure. Ogundipe assumes a shared awareness of the economic disparity, and he poetically reimagines the sociopolitical landscape in the country. Speaking of the market women, for example, he explains that, while aware that the women are poor, he strives to suggest that there is nonetheless “a kind of fullness in their lives.”26 Although the strategies differ, his contemporary mythographic paintings, like works in the realist tradition, are designed to compel social justice. The paintings reflect the ambivalence that resulted from his combined joy of being back in southwest Nigeria, surrounded by the parade of Yoruba culture, and his continued longing for the utopian homeland that he first envisioned as a child in the early postcolonial era and continued to imagine in the United States. He presented a blueprint for contemporary society in which longstanding shared values, inscribed in the archaic myth, are adapted to the current situation.

THE RETURN TO THE METAPHYSICAL

As the years progressed, Ogundipe continued to grapple with the condition of displacement. Unable to reconcile his hopes for the country with the hardship around him, he eventually withdrew from contemporary life. In his Iwo studio, he turned inward and began to explore the recesses of his mind. He concluded the series of market women because—as he put it, evoking one of his favorite musicians, B.B. King—“the thrill was gone” and returned his focus to the metaphysical concepts that had underpinned his works since his arrival in the United States, if not before.27 He distilled his experiences, reducing the things he had seen and heard to their essence, and he worked with a scaled-down repertoire of geometric and organic motifs.28 Accordingly, later returnee paintings, such as Cotyledon of Songs (2014) (Fig. 15), contain no literal representation of the sociopolitical landscape in Nigeria at the time. His collective encounters in life and with myth are instead abstractly encoded in the dense web of multicolored patterns.

15

Moyo Ogundipe Cotyledon of Songs (2014) Mixed media; 58 cm × 81 cm Private collection

15

Moyo Ogundipe Cotyledon of Songs (2014) Mixed media; 58 cm × 81 cm Private collection

The paintings recall earlier work from his exile, such as Detonation of Cosmic Seeds, with a few exceptions: His later paintings were more bold, dense, layered, and complex. Speaking about the shifts in his works Ogundipe explained, “I think I was (formally) too rigid in my understanding and interpretation of life. With maturity, I am a little more relaxed, a little more willing to take risks.”29 In the works created between 2012 and 2016, he relinquished much of the control exerted over his process earlier in his career and allowed the recent paintings to emerge largely of their own accord. As previously, he began with a multitude of intersecting lines, but in these cases, he elected not to adhere to the resulting armature. Instead he allowed washes of paint to flow beyond the pencil borders and added additional layers of black ink patterns and translucent paint washes.

As a mature artist with a lifetime of experience on the global stage from which to draw, he abandoned earlier attempts to distill order from the incipient chaos in the universe and embraced the chaos as a critical ingredient in life and a component of the beauty in the world. Ogundipe sometimes adopted scientific cosmology as an interpretive lens, describing the patterns as atomic particles, and explained that while they appear chaotic when viewed under a microscope, they combine to form a beautiful symphony that “pulsates with energy” when the perspective was expanded.30 Other times, he referenced Yoruba mythocosmology and in his descriptions alludes to the interplay between the forces in the cosmos and the related joys and tribulations in life. According to Ogundipe, “The paintings represent the vastness of the world and human experience. They represent a complex and infinite universe in which everything is interrelated and interdependent.”31 The conflict present in the transnational global sphere is manifest in the works but, as in life, it is still possible to observe beauty that exists within the chaos.

CONCLUSION

Kiln of Creation (2016) (Fig. 16), one of the final works Ogundipe created while preparing for his exhibition Mythopoeia: Recent Paintings by Moyo Ogundipe at the Omenka Gallery in Lagos in November 2016, provides an apt metaphor for his mythopoeic painting practice. In it, three beautiful nude women, taut with life, and a newborn child are represented on a densely layered and patterned cosmic stage. The two fuchsia birds near the bottom of the painting—ubiquitous symbols of the spiritual power of women in Yoruba culture—fill the composition with the animating force of àṣė (see Campbell 1992: 54–69 on the association between birds and the spiritual power of women in Yoruba culture). The abstract sun motif sits at the highest point in the sky, directly over the head of the newborn child, and the pale pink flowers circling the two birds are in full bloom.

16

Moyo Ogundipe Kiln of Creation (2016) Mixed media; 132 cm × 124 cm Private collection

16

Moyo Ogundipe Kiln of Creation (2016) Mixed media; 132 cm × 124 cm Private collection

With this work, Ogundipe draws productive parallels between the process of ceramics production and mythopoeic painting: like a West African potter who incorporates grog (created from pulverized fired clay, usually from old pots) in clay mixtures to ensure greater durability, he adopts age-old Yoruba mythopoeic principles as the basis for a new body of experimental paintings. In early examples from the United States, he brings together archetypal mythic characters from diverse sources, and in later examples from Nigeria, he replaces the Yoruba gods and goddesses with a new troupe of contemporary women, represented with the same generalized treatment, such that they are able to stand in for different classes of people. In works that emerge from his proverbial kiln, the various concepts encoded in past parables are restored in the present and, functioning like a metaphoric grog, they provide critical frames of reference. Kiln of Creation and other works from his long career contain no evidence of the economic disparity or political instability that exists in the world. In the mythic worlds he creates, hardship dissipates to create space to imagine new possible realities.

Notes

I would like to thank Moyo Ogundipe for his many years of friendship and support. He often reflected that, as an artist, he wanted to sing full-throated like a bird without a cage. I am immensely grateful to him for sharing his songs with me over the years. The paper builds on a series of interviews I conducted with Ogundipe between 2006 and 2016 with the support of a Fulbright-Hays DDRA Fellowship and a CIC-Smithsonian Institution Predoctoral Fellowship along with supporting research for his final exhibition, Mythopoeia: Recent Paintings by Moyo Ogundipe, held at the Omenka Gallery (Ben Enwonwu Foundation) in Lagos, Nigeria in 2016. I would also like to express my gratitude to Drs. Henry Drewal and Freida High W. Tesfagiorgis for offering feedback on early versions of this article and to the School of Art at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville for supporting my travel to Lagos for the opening of the exhibition, at which time I completed my final interviews with Ogundipe.

1

Moyo Ogundipe, interview with author, October 17, 2016.

2

Ogundipe, interview with author, September 14, 2011.

3

Rowland Abiodun, interview with author, July 24, 2013.

4

Moyo Ogundipe, interview with author, July 31, 2015.

5

Ogundipe first described this history as a “grand experiment” in a 2006 interview. Ogundipe, interview with author, July 12, 2006. For additional information on the history of the Zaria Art Society and the concept of “natural synthesis,” see Okeke 1960/1995: 208–209, 1982: 1–2; Dike and Oyelola 1998; Egonwa 2001; Okeke-Agulu 2015: 88–99. For discussions of the shifts in the practice, see Ogbechie 2008: 171, 178; Okeke-Agulu 2015: 259–89.

6

Ogundipe, interview with author, September 14, 2011.

7

Ogundipe, interview with author, June 31, 2014.

8

In 1974, he accepted a position at the Western Nigeria Television Service, where he spent six years, first as an assistant producer, and, upon acquiring his certificate in television production from the BBC Television School in 1976, as principal producer (1977) and controller of programs (1978–1979). He then enrolled at the University of Syracuse to study film, completing one year of a two-year program, and returned to Lagos to establish a film production company. His first film, titled The Songbird, debuted in the mid-1980s, and he began production of a major documentary on Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti. However, he had to abandon it two short years later when General Muhammad Buhari's military administration instituted the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) and devalued the naira. The capital Ogundipe had raised to finance the film was no longer enough to cover the production costs, and it grew increasingly difficult to find new investors.

9

Ogundipe, interview with author, June 31, 2015.

10

Ogundipe, interview with author, June 31, 2015.

11

In an interview, he explained “a man living in exile tries to examine his place in the world, especially if he is an artist. He tries to answer so many questions, question so many answers.” Ogundipe, interview with author, June 31, 2015.

12

Ogundipe, lecture for the Alumni Association of the University of Denver, Denver, CO, April 26, 2003.

13

Ogundipe, interview with author, June 31, 2015.

14

Ogundipe provocatively describes the works as Abstract Expressionist Fields of Ankara—composites in which patterns from various Nigerian art forms—including the relatively recent ankara cloths that were introduced to Nigeria through trade with Holland and incorporated into Egungun costumes—flood Abstract Expressionist frames.

15

Ogundipe, interview with author, June 31, 2015.

16

In 1971, Thompson described it as “relative mimesis.” but he eventually replaced it with the term “midpoint mimesis.” See Thompson 1971: chap. 3, pp. 1–2, 1973: 31–32.

17

On the Yoruba preference for symbolic proportions, or what Robert Farris Thompson describes as emotional proportion, see Thompson 1973: 42–45. On the preference for balance, see Thompson 1971: chap. 3, pp. 2–3; Drewal 1980: 15.

18

Ogundipe, lecture for the Alumni Association of the University of Denver, Denver, CO, 26 April 2003.

19

Ogundipe, lecture for the Alumni Association of the University of Denver, Denver, CO, 26 April 2003.

20

Ogundipe, interview with author, June 31, 2015.

21

Ogundipe, interviews with author, December 11, 2008, July 1, 2015.

22

Soon after he returned, he expressed his excitement to paint contemporary Nigerian women, and by March 2011, he had started planning his paintings of market women carrying wares on their heads, which he would begin later that year. However, he later explained that these works resulted from “artist's block.” Ogundipe, interviews with author, March 11, 2011, June 31, 2015.

23

Ogundipe, interview with author, July 23, 2010.

24

My discussion of the typological representation draws on Henry Glassie's interpretation of Prince Twins Seven-Seven's work. See Glassie 2010: 268.

25

Ogundipe, interview with author, May 25, 2011.

26

Ogundipe, interview with author, July 1, 2015.

27

Ogundipe, interview with author, July 1, 2015.

28

Ogundipe, interview with author, June 31, 2015.

29

Ogundipe, interview with author, June 31, 2015.

30

Ogundipe, interview with author, June 31, 2015.

31

Ogundipe, interview with author, June 31, 2015.

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