Thursday, July 26, 2012

Happy Birthday Pa Willy! Yes, Environment is very powerful...

‘Environment is very powerful’
Says 65-yr-old Ademola Williams, who holds thanks-giving in Osogbo on Aug 5 after bowing out of UNIBEN
Mr. Ademola Williams, fondly called Pa Willy. Photo: MAURICE ARCHIBONG. All Rights Reserved

Artist and lecturer at University of Benin (UNIBEN), Mr. Ademola Williams (fondly called Pa Willy), has invited friends and well-wishers to Sacred Heart Cathedral, opposite Osogbo Grammar School in the Osun State capital on August 5; for Thanks-giving.

In our continent, where the average life-span for men is below 50; Mr. Williams truly has cause to thank God for living to attain 65 years of age today (July 26, 2012). Interestingly, this date is not just significant as Pa Willy’s birthday; it also marks his retirement from UNIBEN, where he served as Senior Lecturer and Head of Textile Unit since 2009.

Pa Willy joined the staff of UNIBEN in March, 1982. Earlier, he had worked as a non-academic staff at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria. But, after bagging a Diploma in Art (the equivalent of BA, he was quick to point out), specialising in Art and Design; from Bradford College, UK; Pa Willy moved on to join the academic staff of UNIBEN.

Expectedly, his fellow lecturers and countless students would miss the company of this strict yet amiable elder, whose decades-long sojourn in the academia actually began at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria; some 30 years ago. Recently, we had embarked on a tour of two major art departments; of University of Benin and Auchi Polytechnic; and, Pa Willy is one of a dozen artists we engaged during that expedition.

However, our very first encounter with Pa Willy goes back 20 years; during a workshop at Creative Arts Centre, Owoseni Street in Benin City in 1992. This Creative Arts Centre, owned by Prof Solomon Irein Wangboje (now of blessed memory) served as venue of a curriculum review symposium jointly organised by the Federal Ministry of Education, University of Benin and Prof Wangboje’s centre.

It was in the course of our interaction with other participants, we encountered Ms Evie Laden, a white American and Fullbright Scholar at Uniben. Watching Ms Laden, clad in indigenous Edo costume, wiggle like one of the locals to traditional Bini performances was an unforgettable spectacle for me.

So, after the performance, we had engaged the lady for a chat; whereupon she revealed Benin City was like home to her and that local aborigines actually believed her first name Evie, could well be taken for Ivie, the Edo language word for coral beads, which has become an inextricable part of traditional dressing.

By some coincidence, in 1996; a few years after Ms Laden’s stay in Nigeria under the Fullbright programme, Mr. Williams would go over to the US as a Fullbright scholar too. After that sojourn in the US, Williams had an exhibition on his Fullbright Experience at the USIS (United States’ Information Service) office on Broad Street in Lagos.

And, as staff writer of Daily Times, covering; in particular art, culture and entertainment; we had met Pa Willy again. However, more than a decade had rolled past between that encounter and when we set out to meet Pa Willy et al again last December.

We needed to engage some artists at University of Benin and Federal Polytechnic Auchi as well as other institutions because of crises facing the nation through a disturbing decline in the study and promotion of art.

We must remind that this frightening development had emerged as dominant discourse at Tai Solarin University of Education (TASUED), during a conference on the Review of the Visual and Creative Arts Curricula, which took place from 11 to 13 November 11, 2008.

Today, almost four years after that conference, which revolved around the theme, Designing suitable creative arts curricula for Nigeria’s development in the 21st century, with sub-themes including Museum Education Curriculum, Ceramics Curriculum, Sculpture Curriculum, Photography Curriculum and Painting Curriculum; things have simply got worse as far as art education and promotion are concerned in Nigeria.

Whereas the house people live in is all about art because architecture is incomplete without art, and; our everyday living, even in the utensils we use at least twice a day; like bowls, cups, plates and other kitchen items are all pieces of sculpture, which revolves around art; this subject has been assailed by wanton ignorance on the part of successive governments at all levels.

Unfortunately, educationists, who should know better, have been egging ignorant politicians on; through the inherently flawed curriculum they draw up, revision after revision. This is why we went to meet Pa Willy and others. To be candid, like Nigerian politicians’ attitude to art; which call for urgent unravelling, some curios also embellish Mr. Williams’ entry into the art profession; too.

Moreover, textiles; which is his area of specialisation, posts more curios because the industry is little scrutinised and ill-understood; despite its potential to turn around any nation’s economy for the better. Clothing is a primary need of man: in fact, of the three basic needs of every individual, food, cloth and shelter; it must be pointed out that a homeless and/or hungry person can freely walk the street. But, not so a naked one.

So, the clothing industry must be a most-important one indeed. The clothing industry revolves around textiles; weaving, dyeing and eventual sewing or fashion design. Like food, dress is not only a compulsory need, it is also a daily requirement; therefore, the textiles industry must be a very lucrative one since the world has to be clothed.

The modern clothing industry yields staggering billions each year: China, for example, grossed US$250 billion from its textile and apparels as well as knitting industry in 2011! This means that collectively, some countries’ generate trillions of dollars annually from their clothing industry.

In India, for example; 35 million people make their living working in the textile and apparel industry. In fact, the textile and fashion sectors of any economy is so important that many states protect theirs jealously because clothing doesn’t only generate income but provides jobs for countless people that would otherwise have been unemployed.

Sadly, Nigerians do not seem to understand or have forgotten the important role textile can be deployed to play in a nation’s economic and social life. This depressing situation is pointedly driven home by the fact that, there were only two final-year students of textile art at the University of Benin (UNIBEN) for the 2011/2012 academic session.

In a developed society this should worry most leaders, but in Nigeria the situation is almost completely unnoticed or ignored. When asked to give a rough idea of prospective textile majors among several dozens of students in the outgoing BA Fine Arts class, this is what Mr. Williams had to say: “We have five final-year students specialising in textile”.

Confounded, we blurted out, “Could this be true”?

“Yes”, Williams reaffirmed; and, went on to add: “This number is not sufficient for a large country like Nigeria and an old university like UNIBEN. Government policy is not in favour of fine arts in education. There are reasons to worry, because in the whole Edo State; there are less than 60 art teachers. And, they are teaching only JSS students”.

Further probe of the situation led to the discovery that “A few years ago, our department (Fine Arts) admitted only three students because there weren’t more applicants. This is because of flawed government policy. Government has forgotten that there’s art in every other subject. If you are good in art, it would help you in engineering, biology, even in catering. You can’t do without art. You need Fine Art in furniture-making and, in fact, in everything you do”.

Some of the problems plaguing the study of art at UNIBEN, we found out, are external. Pa Willy again: “UNIBEN is a federal institution, so the department, on its own, cannot introduce pre-degree programme in fine art”.

Curiosly, to lure students to fine art, authorities resorted to what we may describe as latent career circumlocution. “What we have is to play down on fine art as a core to attract students from other areas, like sociology or philosophy, international relations, law et cetera. So, prospective students that cannot find placement in some other areas; we encourage them to come to study fine art”; this was the shocking revelation by Pa Willy.

But, such was the road a student like Miss Efie-Oviahon Oduware, now a textile major, was forced to travel. Although she did fine arts up to JSS 3, while a student at UNIBEN’s Preparatory School; eventually studying art to degree level and settling down as a career artist must have been among the farthest things in her mind.

Hear her: “Initially, I wanted to read Law; but, somebody checked my post-UME result for me and came back with the information, that I had been admitted to study fine art. I remember I cried a lot that day. I cried and resolved not to take the offer. However, I was advised to, because I had passed my first attempt at university admission”.

Secretely, however, the young lady still yearned to read Law. Miss Oduware again: “Even into my Third Year as a Fine Arts undergrad, I was still writing JAMB to see, if I get admission to read Law”. However, after passing into her final year for BA Fine Arts, Miss Oduware has finally decided to live with art.

There is also the experience of Odomele Uche, who had secondary education at Command Secondary School Lagos. It was at that Command Secondary School in Nigeria’s Centre of Excellence, Odomele Uche was introduced to Fine Art during her JSS classes, but; due to pressure to get into university, Uche was veered toward Fine Art.

It is worth pointing out that Uche had since settled in and was enjoying her studies and looking forward to vibrant and successful practice after graduation; when we met.

“But, I want to point out that, the majority of such students eventually end up successful in their own right. That’s why I believe the environment we grew up in or are living in is important, when it comes to one’s choice of occupation or profession. Whatever condition you find yourself in, just be sincere to yourself and try to get the best out of it”, Pa Willy mused.

This brings us back to how Pa Willy himself got into the art profession, first as an artist and later as art educator. “I came into contact with Art in my street in Osogbo, which is the home of Art. Although, we have Osogbo School, I was not part of that Osogbo; but, I lived in Osogbo and it was my workshop experience that made it possible for one to be engaged by ABU (Ahmadu Bello University).

“You see, the environment is stronger than everything, even talent. The environment, where I grew up had tremendous impact on all of us. Exposure and what you studied are the things that make or mar one’s life”.

After secondary school at United College of Commerce, Warri in 1967; young Ademola Williams returned to his home-town, Osogbo. During his childhood days in Osogbo, Williams’ friends included Muraina Oyelami, Jimoh Buraimoh and Rufus Ogundele.

“They were my childhood friends and we all grew up in different homes along the same Gbeemu Street, near Duro Ladipo’s house, where Mbari-mbayo started from in Osogbo. I was informed about the Ori-Olokun Art Workshop in Ife, organised by the Institute of African Studies at then University of Ife (now OAU), under the leadership of Prof (Solomon) Wangboje in 1968.

“That was my first contact with Wangboje. But, that experimental workshop was not based on visual arts alone; it embraced Music, Art and Drama. Ola Rotimi was in charge of Dance, Akin Euba was in-charge of Music, while Agbo Folarin was in-charge of Costume and Prof R. O. Ojo in-charge of Gallery. Akinola Lasekan also taught us briefly before his death.

“As you can see, the exercise accommodated every aspect of the Creative Arts. It was a collective of the Creative Arts and our training was a very thorough one. Usually, there was a Dance Lesson by 6am followed by Music Lesson from 9am till 10am, before art workshop starts with Wangboje.

“Then by 5pm, Ola Rotimi will take over and his teaching period seemed to run indefinitely. Sometimes, our dinner was of gari and suya inside the theatre; and, sometimes we left the theatre by 12 midnight”.

Pa Willy recalled that Uli Baier actually entered the picture later and that Wangboje was Director of the IAS at the time. When asked where his artworks first went on view and what the title of that exhibition was? Mr. Williams recalled: “My very first exhibition was at USIS, Cocoa House, Ibadan in 1969.

There was no title for that show, which was just an exhibition of prints. It was a group exhibition, and four of us; Gbade Akintude (sculptor), Peter Badejo (choreographer), Rufus Orisayomi (cinematographer) and myself; were those that showed our works”.

Never mind that this quartet’s outing had no title, the show was opened by a personality the entire world would later come to know: Pa Willy again: “The exhibition was declared open by Wole Soyinka, but; he was not yet a professor, then”.

Reminiscing further, Pa Willy added; “The exhibition, which featured the first Ori Olokun artists; later travelled around Nigeria. It was presented at USIS Kaduna, Ahmadu Bello Way; at State Library, Jos; and, another library in Kano”.

Interestingly, there was no admission fee; and, who could forget: “Sale was very good, even though we were selling one work for four guineas. Four guineas or four pounds and four shillings was a lot of money those days; yet people bought”, Pa Willy recalled with nostalgia.

As to his premiere as a solo artist, Pa Willy remarked: “My first solo exhibition was at British Council, Ibadan in 1971”. Like his group show with Ogundele and others; the British Council Ibadan outing almost ended without a title; but, for the fact that it was tagged: An exhibition of prints by Ademola Williams.

Again, he recalled: “Sales were very good”.

Apart from selling, did the show get any mention in the media? “Ah, yes. The Sketch, Tribune and other press houses reported on the exhibition. In fact, one Mr. Kayode Awe (pen name Awe), was very keen about my work and wrote a review, which was published in The Sketch.

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