Fifty years ago four young men responded to flyers posted around the old town of Osogbo, Nigeria calling for people to participate in an experimental art workshop. They were Adebisi Fabunmi, Muraina Oyelami, Jimoh Buraimoh, and Taiwo Olaniyi (known as "Twins Seven Seven"). The workshop was held in the Mbari Mbayo club, a building owned by Duro Ladipo, the director of a popular theatre company. Ladipo was a friend of the expatriate history professor from the University of Ibadan, Ulli Beier, who organized the workshop.
Unlike most expatriate teachers who had come to Nigeria to impart the benefits of Western "civilization" to the "natives", Beier and his wife, Austrian artist Suzanne Wenger, recognized the depth and richness of Yoruba culture. Later they were joined by British artist, Georgina Betz, who taught the workshop referred to above and who became Ulli's second wife. They understood that centuries of colonialism had suppressed the genius of a people and that the coming of political independence and freedom was beginning to unleash a new era of innovation and creativity. As it turned out, they were the right people at the right place and the right time.
Other artists emerged from the workshops and went on to establish successful careers including Isaac Ojo Fajana, Jinadu Oladepo and his daughter, Kikelomo, Ashiru Olatunde, Jacob Afolabi, Rufus Ogundele, Isaac Ojo, and Samuel Omonaiye. A second group who began practicing in those early years focused their energies on the reconstruction of the sacred shrines and the revival of traditional religious practices and festivals; they included Buraimoh Gbadamosi, and Adebisi Akanji.
Confronted by a lack of infrastructure for exhibiting their work, the Oshogbo artists developed their own marketing strategies. An expatriate American woman who lived in Lagos, Jean Kennedy Wolford, hosted a monthly open house where artists and collectors came together. As interest grew in this new, distinctively Nigerian art, an informal system of apprenticeship based on traditional practices developed. The Nike Centre for Art and Culture is prominent among the organizations that have grown up to foster the movement and educate succeeding generations in the methods and achievements of the Oshogbo movement.
The fact that most Oshogbo artists had little formal education and were largely self-taught suggests that they could be considered “folk artists”. Indeed their work has been collected by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. Their work has a freshness that is prized in folk art, but it also has a degree of self awareness, sophistication, and innovation that is identified with contemporary “fine art.’
However critics and historians eventually agree to categorize it, the original Oshogbo artists gave expression to a tumultuous time in African history; they synthesized an ancient culture with the colonial experience and moved the vision of their people forward and outward. They a recognizable style that accommodates individual self expression and continues to inspire young artists. The National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian mounted an Oshogbo exhibit in 2000 called “Concrete Visions” and thus gave major official recognition to their achievement which continues to grow. The town of Oshogbo continues to be the African "city of art."