Pioneers of Modern Nigerian Art: Biography of Aina Onabolu

[Onabolu’s work is] clear, marvelous vindication of our struggle—a manifestation of our much repeated feelings that Africans are capable politically, intellectually and creatively.

Herbert Macaulay, London, 1920

The development of modern Nigerian art can be attributed to Aina Onabolu (1882–1963), who by teaching himself to draw without any formal art education proved that Africans are capable of producing academic and naturalistic paintings, contrary to general misconceptions at the time. In this way, he introduced Western art to Africa without any European assistance. He also held the first art exhibition in Nigeria and was the first African to study art in England. But most importantly, he singlehandedly introduced formal art education to Nigerian schools and laid the foundation for a younger generation of artists to build on. He is rightly regarded as the father of modern Nigerian art.

Painting by Aina Onabolu
Self Portrait (through the mirror), Aina Onabolu, 1947, Pencil on Paper/credit: National Gallery of Art

Ijebu Ode: 1882 – 1894

Aina Onabolu was born on 13 September 1882 in the isolationist territory of Ijebu-Ode, Ogun state in Nigeria, to Jacob Onabolu, a successful Ijebu merchant, and Oshunjente Onabolu, a trader. He did not go to school until the annexation of Ijebu-Ode by Lagos-based British military forces under the command of Governor Carter in 1892; at which time he started primary school at St. Saviour Primary School, Ijebu-Ode. Then, African converts were encouraged to take English names as a sign of their spiritual membership, especially in the Anglican denomination. It seemed that the Onabolu family changed its surname to Roberts, at some point. In primary school, Aina Onabolu was known as J. Aina Roberts.

Early 1890s, Onabolu discovered photographs and illustrations in European magazines and books. He was captivated and started learning to draw by copying illustrations in foreign textbooks and newspapers. By 1894, at 12 years old, Onabolu had become a competent illustrator who designed charts and visual aids for school teachers.

Relocation to Lagos: 1895

From 1895, Onabolu attended Caxton House School in Lagos. He lived with Dr. JK Randle, the medical practitioner and political activist. Randle, who was assistant colonial surgeon at the Colonial Hospital in Lagos (1888-1893), most likely became friends with Onabolu’s father during periodic tour postings to Ijebu-Ode. Living with Randle, Onabolu is exposed to the political activities of Randle and his associates, and is influenced by Randle’s anti-colonial leanings. In Onabolu, Randle found a protégé whose seemingly natural talents demonstrate Randle’s beliefs of the potential of African intellect and capacity for sovereign rule.

Sisi Nurse, Aina Onabolu's Painting
Portrait of Sisi Nurse, Aina Onabolu, 1922/credit: Arthouse Contemporary Ltd

Onabolu completed his high school education in 1899 and, the following year, he got a job with the Marine Department of the Customs Office in Lagos. He continued perfecting his artistic skills in his free time. To arm himself with tools needed to become a professional artist, he made contact with a London art shop, through advertisement in foreign newspapers and magazines, to purchase art materials, and several technical and historical art books. This London shop remained his main supplier for the next four decades.

First Salon and Public Demonstration: Circa 1901

Onabolu held an art salon at JK Randle’s residence in 1901. His exhibition, which consisted of drawings, still-lifes, landscapes and portraits, was received with enthusiasm and he began receiving commissions from Randle’s associates, who were mostly members of Lagos elites.

His successful exhibition, which showed his artistic skills were comparable to those of Europeans with formal art training, brought him to the attention of the colonial administrators, who refused to believe he was the creator of such representational works. Rather, they believed some Europeans go secretly at night to Onabolu’s house to help him with the works. This led to his public demonstration of his skills, where he painted a piece from scratch, at Igbosere, Lagos in 1904.

Portrait of Mrs. Spencer Savage: 1906 

Painting by Aina Onabolu
Portrait of Mrs. Spencer Savage, Aina Onabolu, 1906/credit: Olubukola Gbadegesin

Onabolu’s first commission is said to be the portrait of a director of public works, but no reproduction of this painting can be found. In 1906, he painted a portrait of Augusta Savage, a Lagos socialite. The watercolour titled Portrait of Mrs. Spencer Savage shows her in a white dress with long sleeves, a black belt around her waist, a massive dark ribbon at her breast and a necklace with a large pendant worn on top of the high neck of her dress; she is holding a spray of flowers and standing beside a chair with upholstery. Despite Savage’s head being out of proportion with the body in the painting, it is deemed a masterpiece of early modern African art.

Application to teach art: Circa 1915

Onabolu started his campaign to introduce art education to schools in Lagos around 1915. Although his application to teach art (without remuneration) was rejected by the colonial administrators, he started teaching what he called ‘new art’ to the children around him and unofficially in the few mission schools that allowed him. This was how he came to teach 12-year-old Nnamdi Azikwe in 1916. He later realized his application had a better chance of being approved if he had formal art training or a certificate in art and he started working towards this.

First Solo Exhibition: 1920  

1920 was an eventful year for Onabolu. From 27 to 30 April 1920, he held the first major exhibition titled Pictures of Onabolu at the Empire Hall, Lagos. This exhibition of paintings he made from 1909 to 1919 was accompanied by the treatise, Short Discourse on Art, a publication that was more than just an exhibition catalogue—it was a statement of his art preferences, his hopes for Nigerian art and plans for formal art education in Nigerian schools.

A few weeks before this exhibition, Onabolu who had been going by the name Aina Roberts changed his name to Aina Onabolu. The newspaper, The Nigerian Pioneer, in an article on the exhibition on 9 April 1920 referred to him as J. Aina Roberts, but stated that he recently changed his name to Onabolu.

Portrait of Dr. Sapara and other notable Commissions: 1920

Painting by Aina Onabolu

One of Onabolu’s noteworthy early commissions is the portrait of Dr Oguntola Sapara (1920), a medical pioneer who is best remembered for his campaign against secret societies that were spreading smallpox in Epe. The composition of this watercolour is somewhat similar to that of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503-06). The similarities referred to are the depiction of the subject in three-quarter profile, sitting sideways in an armchair, but looking directly at the observer. Also the sitter is set in front of an imaginary landscape, with the artist creating an illusion of distance by the use of aerial perspective. It is a sample of Onabolu’s brilliant foray into the art historical legacies of Europe to recast African artistic practices as equivalent, rather than inferior, to that of the West.

Onabolu painted several other portraits of notable individuals including a portrait of his patron, JK Randle, in 1910, the Portrait of the Right Reverend I. Oluwole (1925) and a portrait of the European priest, Bishop Melville-Jones in 1935.

Formal Art Training in London and Paris: 1920 – 1922

The exhibition, Pictures of Onabolu, took place practically on the eve of Onabolu’s departure for a two-year course in Fine Arts at St. John’s Wood College, London. He left Nigeria for London on 2 May 1920. He was the first African to study art in England.

At St. John’s Wood College, Onabolu distinguished himself as a practised artist. He won an award for second place in an art competition in drawing classical figures of Greece and Rome, and got the opportunity to attend lectures for advanced students at the Royal Academy of Art in London. He also travelled to France for further study in art at the Académie Julian in Paris.

It is worth mentioning that Onabolu was visited in London by Herbert Macaulay and some members of African Congress, including Amodu Tijani—the Chief Oluwa of Lagos, Bankole Bright and J. E. Casely Hayford who noted that “Onabolu’s art … will be an additional weapon needed to confront the mental and psychological imprisonment of our people back home…” These and other statements by members of the African Congress expanded the scope of Onabolu’s achievements, beyond his personal ambitions or his aspiration for art education in Nigeria, into the sphere of the pan-African struggle for recognition and sovereignty.Nigerian Weaver, Aina Onabolu's Artwork

Return to Nigeria and teaching art: 1922

In 1922, Onabolu returned to Nigeria with a diploma in fine arts and a teaching certificate. He resumed his campaign to introduce art education to public schools and got an appointment to teach art at King’s College, Lagos immediately. A couple of months later, he started teaching part-time in some other schools, including Eko Boys’ High School, CMS Grammar School, Christ Church Cathedral School and Wesleyan Boys’ High School. He would be the only art teacher in Nigeria until 1927.

Settling down to life as an art teacher in Lagos, Onabolu continued to entertain commissions. Notable among these are the gouache painting for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, Nigerian Weaver (1924)—this was reproduced and sold as souvenirs at said exhibition and The Trumpeters (1924), commissioned by the colonial government and later presented to Edward, Prince of Wales, son of King George V.

Arrival of Kenneth Murray: 1927

In 1926, Onabolu requested for an art teacher to assist with his art teaching programme in Lagos schools, and in 1927, the colonial education department sent Kenneth Murray (1902–1972) from England. Murray would take Onabolu’s dream of formal art education to the Western and Eastern Regions.

Murray moved to Ibadan College in 1933. His students included Uthman Ibrahim, Christopher I. Ibeto and Ben Enwonwu (1917-1994). But “where Onabolu called for a complete break with the traditional arts of Nigeria and the production of a modern subject through the new medium of academic easel painting, Murray argued for a return to the glories of traditional art against the onslaught of modernity and artistic modernism.” (Chika Okeke-Agulu in Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria).

Introduction of art curricula to Nigerian schools and Affiliations

Onabolu continued teaching in several schools in Lagos and, in 1932, he obtained approval for the art syllabus he drafted. In 1953, the Department of Fine Arts at the Ibadan campus of the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST) was established. And in 1955, it moved to Zaria as the first formal art school in the country. On this expansion of the art program in Ibadan into a full Department of Art in Zaria, Chika Okeke-Agulu wrote in his book, Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria:

The transformation from an art-education institution (the model of art pedagogy established by Kenneth Murray a few decades earlier) to an academy for professional artists and designers became complete in 1957, when the program phased out the three-year Teacher’s Certificate course. This shift is crucial, for it signaled an important makeover of colonial art education, one emphasizing the training of teachers rather than professional artists. To press this concept further, it meant the final realization of Onabolu’s (no doubt inflexible) vision of a Nigerian art academy; but whereas Zaria’s orientation did not align with the strictly British Reynoldian Royal Academy model, it did serve as an advanced program for many students already introduced to rigorous art-making procedures, either in the studios of Aina Onabolu or Akinola Lasekan (1916–1972) or in the art clubs.

Mungo Park, Aina Onabolu's Painting
Mungo Park, Aina Onabolu

In 1957, Onabolu was awarded the Medal of the British Empire for fine arts education in Nigeria. And in 1958, Nnamdi Azikwe, who attended Onabolu’s informal classes in 1916, directed that Fine Arts be included in the University of Nigeria’s curriculum when the initial draft of the University’s programmes was presented to him.

Onabolu was appointed member of the council board of The Nigerian Council for the Advancement of Arts and Culture (NCAAC), along with Ben Enwonwu, T. K. E. Phillips, Cyprian Ekwensi and others in 1959. NCAAC was established by the federal government to preserve, revive, develop and encourage arts and crafts, music and traditional culture.

Also he was elected president of the Nigerian Art Academy that was inaugurated on 18 November 1961 following a meeting arranged by Uche Okeke and Ben Enwonwu, and attended by other artists, including Felix Idubor, Demas Nwoko, Simon Okeke, Yusuf Grillo, Festus Idehen, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Afi Ekong, Clara Ugbodaga-Ngu, Jimo Akolo, Erhabor Emokpae, T. A. Fasuyi, J. Nkobi, and M. A. Ajayi. In August 1962, Onabolu submitted a memorandum on the teaching of art in schools and colleges to the Nigerian Council for Art and Culture.

Death of Aina Onabolu: 1963

Onabolu died in Lagos 3 February 1963 at the age of 81. In his studio, he’s said to have left an unfinished portrait of Adebayo Doherty he was working on at the time.



List of info sources:

  • ‘Picturing the Modern Self: Politics Identity and Self Fashioning in Lagos, 1861-1934’ by Olubukola A. Gbadegesin
  • ‘Art and Nationalism in Colonial Nigeria,’ Nsukka Journal of History Vol.1, December 1989 by Ola Oloidi
  • ‘Aina Onabolu’s Dr. Sapara and Reverse Appropriation’ by Dr. Onyema Emeni
  • Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria by Chika Okeke-Agulu
  • Nigerian Artists: A Who’s Who & Bibliography compiled by Bernice M. Kelly

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