Akinola Lasekan (1916-1972), one of the pioneers of Nigerian modernism, is one of the least-known great artists and art educators of Nigerian history. In the early 1940s, Aina Onabolu’s vision for formal art education was in full swing: the artists who had studied under Kenneth Murray—the art teacher from England sent by the colonial education department to assist with Onabolu’s art education programme—had become Nigeria’s first set of formal art educators and were teaching in government colleges and mission schools all over the country. At the same time in Lagos, Akinola Lasekan, a largely self-taught artist, was up to something similar. But unlike Kenneth Murray’s artists who were teaching only students in certain schools, Lasekan, who also taught in schools, attempted to democratize art training by providing art correspondence courses through his Lash Studio Correspondence School. Lasekan had gotten his art education through correspondence courses provided by foreign schools due to difficulty in accessing art training in Nigeria at the time. He sought to remedy this by organizing diploma art training courses via correspondence. The school became the springboard for a number of notable artists, including Uche Okeke.
Akinola Lasekan was born S. A. Oladetimi (he changed his name to Akinola Lasekan in 1941) in Owo, Ondo State in 1916. A student of Aina Onabolu, his talent for visual art was evident from an early age. He began his career as a textile designer with Compagnie Française-Africaine Occidental in 1935. From 1936 to 1940, he worked with Church Missionary Society Bookshop, Lagos illustrating Bible stories and calendars. During his time at CMS bookshop, he took correspondence courses in fine art, art illustrating and cartooning, and earned a diploma in fine art from Normal College of Art, London and another diploma in advance drawing, illustrating, commercial art and cartooning from Washington School of Art, United States. In 1940, Lasekan started the Lash Studio Correspondence School which provided diploma art training courses in book illustration, commercial art, colouring, landscape, element and figure drawing.
Akinola Lasekan was also Nigeria’s first political cartoonist. He joined the West African Pilot—a newspaper established by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and a principal weapon in the fight for African emancipation—in 1944. Identifying with the Nationalist movement and their call for independence, his cartoons condemning colonialism and sensitizing Africans were acerbic and so effective that they were considered significant contribution to the fight for independence. In 1961, Lasekan joined the faculty of the newly established School of Fine Arts (now Department of Fine & Applied Arts) at University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
When it came to his painting, Lasekan developed his own distinct naturalist style that was characterized by attention to detail and elegant use of colour. With an emphasis on Yoruba myth and culture, he depicted landscapes, market scenes, motor parks and events happening around him. Akinola Lasekan’s role in establishing pictorial naturalism, especially through his correspondence courses, cannot be discounted. His works have had tremendous influence on generations of Nigerian artists, including Abayomi Barber and his School, whose surrealism is rooted in Lasekan’s realism.
This article was first published on 5 July 2018 on Artstrings.Africa