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ART-NIGERIA: Gani Odutokun Retrospective Hailed in London

Beverly Andrews

Feb 15 2000 (IPS) - A retrospective exhibition here of the most famous works of the late Nigerian artist Gani Odutokun has reaffirmed his place as one of the most respected artist to come out of Africa this century.

Titled “Accident and Design”, the exhibition which is currently at London’s Brunei Gallery is the result of the determination of friends, admirers and students to create something positive out of the tragedy that took Ganis life in 1995.

Not only was his work internationally acclaimed but as head of the fine arts department of Nigerias renowned Ahmadu Bello University he has been responsible for shaping an entire generation of artists.His tragic death in 1995 was major blow to the Nigerian contemporary art scene.

“Accident and Design” not only presents Gani’s most famous works but several stunning pieces from many of the artists who cite him as their chief influence.

Paintings by former students such as Mu’azu Mohammed Sani, Jacob Jari, Ayo Aina and Lami Bature Nuhu (the only female), as well as works by the sculptors Babatunde Babalola and Lasisi Lamidi (Gani’s nephew) are also on display.

John Hollingwoth the Brunei museum’s curator said the exhibition was the most successful exhibition of contemporary art that the musuem has hosted.

Annabello Nwankwo, one of the show’s curators recalled that “anyone who was lucky enough to have met Gani was changed somehow by the experience. Beside his extraordinary talent , we were all struck by his quiet humanity which seemed to inform everything he did. To me it seemed like his love for mankind spilled over into every aspect of his busy life.”

That unquestioning love and kindness which Nwankwo speaks of is instantly apparent in Gani’s work.

It is in his touching portrait of abandoned children in “The Orphans” or his disturbing depiction of a mind at war with itself in “Man Surrounding By His Dreams”.

His works are also characterised by his extraordinary technique which shows an ability to paint in almost any style.

From the wild, sweeping, lines of “The King, The Queen and the Republic” to the surrealistic simplicity of “Segregation Even at 12.01”, Gani had an almost uncanny ability to adapt his work to any style, although perhaps he is best known for his liquidized paintings– a technique in which he would permit paint to flow down the canvas until it naturally found its form.

This unusual technique formed not only the basis of much of Gani’s work but also a life philosophy that out of accident came a useful design be it a visual manifestation or some life changing event.

He also appeared to reject western categories which often he felt confined artists to a style or technique which made them famous.

His work appeared almost like a quest to find the method best suited to the particular subject he was painting at the time. This desire for a kind of artistic freedom was something he felt was paramount to pass on to his young students.

Nwankwo states: “He always wanted his students to find the style and technique which best suited them. He was often criticized for not producing artists who painted exactly like him. But that was very much against Gani’s principles.”

Gani was aery concerned about the pressure on African artists to conform to the demands of the European art scene.

He felt that this imposed parameters and had the power to destroy artistic creativity which in turn caused artists to produce soulless work, devoid of meaning.

Gani Odutokun was born on August 9, 1946 in Ghana to Nigerian parents. His parents were originally from Offa but had gone to Ghana when the cocoa business was thriving.

His father made a comfortable living in Ghana until the government decided to nationalize all the country’s major industries.The cocoa business collapsed leaving Gani’s father’s business in ruin.It was also around this time that Gani’s mother died.

As his father’s fortune as well as his health deteriorated the family was forced to return to Nigeria.

After attending school, Gani took a job as a clerk at the Nigerian Breweries. He might have remained there were it not for his passion for drawing.

Friends and colleagues recognized his talent and encouraged him to study art. This he did eventually attending the University of Nigeria the year of his father’s death and then going on to the legendary fine arts department of Ahmadu Bello University where Gani flourished and eventually received a first class degree.

The key events of Gani’s early life were the main influences on his work, say those who knew him: His mother’s early death, his father’s economic difficulties and the family’s forced relocation seemed to instil in Gani a sympathy for the dispossessed.

This compassion also extended to his students. One former student, Jacob Jari who is both co-curator and exhibitor at the show, recalled Gani’s caring attitude towards him when, as a young artist, he was going through a rather bleak period.

Gani not only maintained close contact but eventually recommended him for a teaching post at his university after graduation. “To this day I’m sure he did this just to keep an eye on me and make sure I was O.K.”, Jari said.

Many viewers of this stunning exhibition appeared to be overcome by a feeling of sadness for the loss of such a great man, but also grateful for having an opportunity to see such breathtaking work.

Reflecting the views of many who have seen the exhibition Gary Grant, a local artist described the range and diversity of African art on display as “quite spectacular”. It also showed “how one man’s philosophy in his work has influenced so many. It is quite inspirational.”

The London exhibition will run until the 17 of March after which it will go on a international tour.

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