Mbari Club Ibadan

The period between the late 1950s and 1970 was crucial in the development of modern art and literature in Africa. The political, cultural, ideological, aesthetic, and philosophical environments that inspired the development of modern art in Africa were essentially the same milieu that incubated modern literature on the continent. This period also saw a unique intellectual tradition of cross-fertilization of ideas between visual artists and writers.

This exciting collaboration germinated in Ibadan with the Mbari Club. The Club, loosely associated with the Black Orpheus magazine, also acted as a publisher during the 1960s — producing seventeen titles by African writers. These publications had artworks screen-printed directly on the covers, beginning with Bakare Gbadamosi’s Oriki. Léon Damas’s African Songs of Love, War, Grief, and Abuse featured the work of Georgina Betts on its cover. John Pepper Clark’s play Songs of a Goat included profuse illustrations by Susanne Wenger in almost all the pages. Wole Soyinka’s Three Plays had drawings by Uche Okeke and Ibrahim El Salahi.

Curating the John Randle Centre’s exhibition revealed some of this relationship between artists and writers that has existed for over six decades in Nigeria. The camaraderie developed in the Mbari club, and the success of combining art and literature in its publications foregrounded a new symbiotic relationship between artists and writers in Nigeria, beyond Ibadan. While on the one hand, artists such as Bruce Onobrakpeya, who had previously made visual narratives of folklore, explored this new relationship, using the works of novelists, poets and playwrights as a fountain of inspiration; on the other hand, the writers sought the artists to communicate their ideas and engage readers. 

This new approach advanced one of the major genres of modern art in Africa: printmaking. Printmaking became popular and increased the possibilities of artist-writer collaboration through book illustrations. The new interactions of visual art and literature also hatched a radical approach to comic illustrations, going beyond superhero themes to become narrative paintings with sociopolitical underpinnings. Artists not only co-create images with authors but also engage with the visual intellection processes of illustration,  emphasizing directness of execution and the economy of form, as well as a visual language with linear rendering of subjects in such a way that less is said, and more is yet said. Processes like interpretation, condensation, simplification, distillation are highlighted. 

Bruce Onobrakpeya deftly condensed the ideas of several writers into prints and lyrical drawings. Researching for the John Randle Centre’s exhibition, I spent some time with him, exploring his portfolio of art and literature. This portfolio contains illustrations or visual interpretations of poems, short stories and folk tales by pioneer writers in Nigeria, mostly from the Mbari Club. Beyond the portfolio, some other works draw on a vivid imagination which he fuses with inventive forms of abstraction to give life to the Yoruba folklore-inspired works of Wole Soyinka, D.O. Fagunwa and Amos Tutuola among others. He established a new artistic vocabulary – combining Urhobo alphabets with a unique printmaking technique in a surreal style. In other instances, the works of these writers found familiar expressions in his linocuts and plastographs.

Working on the John Randle Centre has heightened my interest in how artists respond to literary narratives and issues embedded through the visual and the sonic, the plastic and the performative. And I believe there are more conversations to be had on this not-so-discussed relationship between literary and visual arts.

©Will Rea
©Will Rea
©Will Rea