Aina Onabolu was a pioneering Nigerian modern art teacher and painter who was the primary force behind the introduction of arts into the curriculum of secondary schools in Nigeria during the early part of the 20th century. In addition to his educational impact, he was also a major promotor of the then-novel approach of drawing environmental forms in a verisimilitudinous style. Onabolu is likely best known, however, for his early modern work in portraiture.
When the colonial government in Nigeria took control of formal education in 1916, the national curriculum was redesigned with the aim of training clerks for the colonial administration. There was little thought or regard given to arts education in secondary schools apart from a little-known report released by Onabolu in 1918 that recommended the teaching of indigenous hand craft art as a way to develop and maintain distinct Nigerian cultural identity. Prior to releasing this report, Onabolu had formally presented requests for the introduction of modern art education in secondary schools for years, but his efforts were repeatedly rejected by the colonial education officers.
Despite Onabolu’s desire to develop and maintain Nigerian cultural identity through the arts, an unfortunate reality of this era was that Eurocentric beliefs and worldviews made it so that it was often necessary, if not downright essential, for African artists to receive training in Europe in order to prove their merit. Because of this, he spent three years in London and Paris studying European painting techniques and the characteristics of European art education, returning to Nigeria in 1922. Upon his return, interest in Onabolu’s initial 1918 proposal began to grow, in large part due to Onabolu’s burgeoning professional career. Almost immediately after returning home, he was recruited to teach at many of Lagos’ top schools such as King’s College and the National Latin Grammar School.
One controversy that still surrounds Onabolu’s legacy was his early encouragement of the hiring of European art teachers in Nigeria instead of native Nigerian teachers. Despite Onabolu’s advocacy of foreign art instruction, he remained steadfast to his commitment to promoting indigenous African arts and ascetically drawing from only the native repository of knowledge. In response to this modern criticism of Onabolu’s hiring of European art teachers, Onabolu’s supporters point out that his approach did yield early dividends, as the number of Nigerian art instructors increased over time and that knowledge of traditional works likely became even more pronounced than they would have otherwise.
The tragedy of it all, however, is that Onabolu’s efforts ultimately meant little as Nigeria’s colonial rulers decimated Nigeria’s cultural institutions through attrition and neglect. Sadly, Onabolu’s worst fears in large part came to pass, and he was forced to watch the gradual erosion of Nigerian artistic identity over the ensuing decades. With this said, an ironic twist of fate did lead to the preservation of some of Onabolu’s efforts. In the 1930s and 1940s, African artwork, including that from Nigeria, was increasingly brought back to European museums as colonists were expanding through sub-Saharan Africa. In a growing climate of interest in Africa, artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse began to look toward African artwork as inspiration for some of their work. One wonders whether Onabolu took any pleasure in knowing that Europe’s (and likely the world’s) most famous artist, Picasso, was looking to his country’s art for inspiration.
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