Hidden activism of ‘unsung’ artist, Ogundipe
As the creative communities, at home and in the Diaspora, mourn the death of a Denver, U.S-based Nigerian artist, Moyo Ogundipe, the rarely told activism part of his career creeps in.
Born in 1948, Ogundipe was said to have been ‘found slumped on his desk, unconscious,’ Wednesday, March 1. He was later pronounced “dead’ on arrival” at a hospital.
After what seemed like two decades of self-exile, Ogundipe, in 2008 visited Nigeria to have his first major solo exhibition at home titled Kaleidoscope Of Life at Terra Kulture, Lagos.
A few days before the opening of the show, Ogundipe and I had a chat about his U.S sojourn. At every point of the interview, the artist’s emotion as a betrayed Nigerian, who was dehumanised by recurring tragedy of his country’s lack of leadership value kept dominating the chat. In fact, he described his sojourn in the U.S. as :”self-exile.”
Ogundipe recalled how he was ‘totally saddened,’ for examples, by the dictatorship of the former Heads of State, Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sanni Abacha.
“Growing up in the 60s here, I thought Nigeria would, by now, be as great as other developed nations,” he recalled. “But the 80s pushed me out to go and fulfill my dreams outside the country.”
Long before then, Ogundipe who, as a staff of Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) in the 70s once dared the military government. He actually had a window to express himself with the work of an equally rebellious icon, Fela Anikulap Kuti. It was in 1978, a period when government, exclusively owned and controlled all TV and Radio stations in Nigeria. Officially, Fela’s music was outlawed on all radio and TV stations. As the then controller of programmes at NTA, Ogundipe did the unimaginable. “I was a very rebellious man. I showed Fela’s performance in Berlin, on NTA, unedited. I could do that because I had a smart and charismatic General Manager, Dr. Yemi Farounmbi,” he recalled. But how did Ogundipe and his boss, Faroumbi get away with that? “I heard that the SSS were looking for me, but that didn’t bother me a bit,” he said.
Ogundipe had a Bachelor of Arts degree in Fine Art from the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University ) Ile-Ife, and a Master of Fine Art degree in Painting from The Hoffberger School of Painting, Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, U.S.
What texture of art was Ogundipe known for? Between his two exhibitions, Kaleidoscope of Life in 2008 at Terra Kulture, and the last Mythopoeia at Omenka Gallery, 2016, there blossomed an artist whose detailed touch in stylised realism, deodorised Lagos art landscape with Yoruba mythology fragrant.
What makes or who validates contents of modern or contemporary African art was also part of our chat in 2008. For an artist that had practised across the geographical divides of Africa and the west, Ogundipe argued that period, rather than the artist’s environment determines the identity. “First and foremost, I am an artist. I happen to come from Africa, a continent rich in art that it helped change Picasso’s art for good. I don’t see myself as an African artist, but a Yoruba artist because that is my identity. You may refer to people like Picasso as modern artist, while contemporary artists are those that are still living,” he said.
Being in the U.S, perhaps afforded him an opportunity to appreciate his Yoruba value more; particularly, the people’s art and culture. For example, his love for one of the most gifted and biggest African export to the west, the sculptor, Olowe of Ise (circa 1873-1938) was rewarded in the U.S. Coincidentally, the two artists showed in the same space in U.S, shortly before Ogundipe had his solo in Nigeria.
There was a spiritual connection between the two artists who lived generations apart. “Though I traveled out of the country, but not without the spirituality of African art. I needed to be in touch with home. I could have been on Mars, and yet remains an Ekiti man, a Yoruba. In fact, I got amplified being away. I had always admired the Yoruba native sculptural works, the spirituality, the egungun masquerades and the dialogue between our ancestors and the living. So, while there, I had a show that featured works of the late Olowe, and I was so thrilled,” he disclosed.
His colleagues in the Diaspora will surely miss him. Artist and Art Historian, Dele Jegede sent a few words. “It is immaterial how it came, neither did it matter what you had wished. In its inexorable lethality, death does not offer us mere mortals any bargaining chips,” Jegede, a lecturer at university in U.S., said few days ago.
“Ogundipe, a quiet, but profoundly creative spirit, a dedicated gentleman who breathed and created art, succumbed to the stealthy visitor on a rueful day. But the victory was Moyo’s: he answered the call right in his own office; that was bravery, that was dedication, that was a paean to immortality. My condolences to his family in Nigeria and the blacks in the Diaspora.”
Ogundipe as an artist betrayed by his generation was highlighted in another tribute. “One of the greatest painters ever produced by Africa dies, unsung,” Moyo Okediji had announced the passing of his colleague. “The world of African art is a world of total ignorance. It is a world in which the blind is leading the deaf. The perfect artist, he was never a hustler. He knew his job was to make art. He expected curators, art historians and dealers to do theirs by seeking out the greatest artists and promoting them.
“But he did not realise that contemporary art is not about talent or brilliance: it is about who could shout the loudest, who sleeps with who, who knows you, and who you know –– it is about mediocrity, sycophancy and frivolity, wrapped in the cover of racial, gender and sexual discrimination.
“The death of Moyo Ogundipe makes me angry not just because he has passed away. I am angry because of the unjust world of art that he served diligently till his last breath,” he lamented.
Beyond the lamentation, Okediji took solace in what he described as Ogundipe’s career that exposed an unjust world of art. “But I’m happy because he has finally proven that the art world is full of back-slappers and ignoramuses. I’m happy that he left a treasure of work that represents his great stewardship on earth,” he noted.
Ogundipe exhibited in Nigeria, Europe and the U.S. Some of his exhibitions held at The Orlando Museum of Art, the Maryland Museum of African Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, and, African Renaissance: Old Forms, New Images at the Denver Art Museum.
In 1996, Ogundipe was awarded the Pollock-Krasner Fellowship, and in 2005, he was invited to become a member of Africobra, an organisation founded in the 60s, whose membership comprise distinguished African American artists.