A Pathfinder Into Our Cultural Consciousness: Kunle Filani at 60, By Toyin Falola
…Personified in this man who is being celebrated this month is the critical perception, innovation, insight, dedication, and necessary hard work to forge new pathways for the expressivity of the rich cultural heritage of Yoruba, Nigerian, and Africans in a modern and global culture. His hard work on the Onaism movement has opened new ona, pathways for us to look within our cultural consciousness…
Let me start with two well-known Yoruba words that will form the base of this piece. Please keep them in mind as we go along:
Ọnà (tone mark, re-do). Meaning: artistic design, pattern, ornamentation, design, aesthetic conceptualisation, adornment, enhancement, embroidery, garnishment, form, and composition. Or, broadly expressed, aesthetics.
Why are these two words the key to understanding the life and contribution of artist and teacher, Kunle Filani, who is being celebrated for attaining 60 years on earth? Beyond the mere turn of language, how does Ọnà, the conceptualisation of art and design, relate to pathways, especially the ones that navigate through life? We will get to the answer eventually but to do so, I will take you through the longer path of narrating his life and history as an artist at the end of which, we shall see, how Ọnà and Ọnà interweave into a symmetrical pattern of this man’s artistic career.
African political philosophy, as well as other African cultural movements, have gone through many phases of indigenisation, rejection of Western ideologies, and the embrace of a local philosophy or more organically generated processing of ideas. From Négritude to Ujamaa to Ubuntu, there has been a conscious attempt to recover the African self from under the pile of Western ideals and ideologies. Through the years, there have been similar iterations in social culture and history, making similar attempts to look inwards and establish more African-oriented ideas in African lives and culture. The questions have been, how do we look inwards and use the threads and the aesthetics of our indigenous culture to transcend the mimicry of Western ideas and philosophy? In the arts sector, the questions were similar: How do we use our indigenous mode of aesthetics to weave patterns of art and culture that speak of us to us? Beyond a mere nostalgic cavort into the African past, how can we form new arts and patterns with all the repertoire of knowledge of the structure of composition and its intricate system of symbols and motifs?
How do we infuse elements of our indigenous and contemporary history, culture, and worldview into art to create a distinct artistic pattern that is both innovative and compelling enough to launch local ideas into the universe of global art and design techniques? And, how can these local art patterns and designs fashion the philosophic contours of social, political, economic thought that form the baseline of our culture to launch more productive practices and acts that can generate development for our society?
Filani combines theory with practice, and his works espousing Onaism have been significant for delving into Yoruba’s rich artistic visual heritage to recover modes of patterning, decorative motifs, symbols, and overall creativity to forge models of aesthetic that transmit knowledge, history, and cultural forms of Yoruba subjectivity.
These and more were the questions that occupied the mind of young artists and scholars from the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Ile Ife, a place we must note, is the “spiritual home” of the Yoruba and it is no coincidence that the spiritual and cultural ambience provided a backdrop for these young artists searching for a formalistic model for Yoruba indigenous art. These Ife artists founded the Onaism art movement in 1990 as a project of political aestheticising, the process of projecting Yoruba/Nigerian/African culture to the world by creating art with diverse motifs and patterns that has roots in Yoruba artistic concepts of Ọnà.
One of the artists involved in this project was Kunle Filani, who I have known since the 1980s, in the company of the young talents of the era—Tunde Babawale, Akin Alao, Ajayi, Moyo Okediji, all of whom eventually grew to become major figures of note and fame; and later on some of their students, notably Victor Ekpuk, on who I did a book that misfortune has prevented for three years from being printed.
Filani’s artistic and intellectual contribution to the Onaism cultural movement has been of immense value in launching Yoruba creative heritage onto the world repertoire of art through experimentation with new forms of Ọnà in contemporary art-making. One of his initial Ọnà experimentation was a piece of heavily decorated adire shirt that he gave me, which I wore for over a decade until I eventually donated it to a museum, as part of my small unspoken efforts to give African art pieces to those who seek them. The world does not know my side as a collector and donor, but one day the secret will be out.
I know Filani and his work like knowing my palm and its unique lines. Filani combines theory with practice, and his works espousing Onaism have been significant for delving into Yoruba’s rich artistic visual heritage to recover modes of patterning, decorative motifs, symbols, and overall creativity to forge models of aesthetic that transmit knowledge, history, and cultural forms of Yoruba subjectivity. As an artistic form, Onaism is a creative concept that was engineered based on the revived traditional Yoruba concept of Ona which I earlier defined to mean the artistic process of designing, patterning, form, and composition of art. Onaism, building on Yoruba heritage of Ona, thus plays with the creation of new forms, motifs, and symbols to create a system of symbols and patterns. According to art historians, Onaism is “characterized by the use of significant symbols charged with related motifs to give verbal luminosity in such a manner that there is scarcely any surface of the picture plane without action. It is pattern oriented with ornamentation, which is dominant in Ona art, giving attention to details. Furthermore, it is built up with symbolic images that convey several meanings which are often masked away from the viewers at first glance. Motifs from which patterns/designs are made could be derived from geometric, organic, technomorphs, animals and bird motifs. Others include motifs derived from nature, utilitarian objects, lettering and sculptural forms.” [Godwin Ogheneruemu Irivwieri, “Onaism: An Artistic Model of Yoruba Civilization in Nigeria.” African Research Review 4, no. 3 (2010)].
Filani has also been an administrator of note, and the record of his career is full of medals that prodigiously testify to this aspect of his glorious career. I was with him when he served as a provost at Osiele, and it came as no surprise when he was voted as the country’s best provost during his tenure.
Onaism, therefore, gives a visual language to the expression of Yoruba art stylistics that enhances the aesthetic experience of viewing the artworks.
Filani, on his part, has been credited with being not just an artist and founder (or one of the co-founders, as Professor Moyo Okediji initiated a contentious debate on claims and counter claims of the originators) of the Onaism movement, but with being the leading theorist for the Onaism movement. This aspect is no surprise as he has been a distinguished scholar who has combined the craft of the hands with that of the mind. He has not only achieved the highest certifiable academic attainment, he also bagged several laurels in the process. As a scholar, he has written more than 120 scholarly materials on aesthetics and Nigerian art. Throughout his notable career, he has been awarded prizes in both national and international art competitions, and he has a meritorious record as a teacher. Filani is, therefore, not just a successful artist and intellectual, he also embodies the nobility of teaching and mentorship. He has many awards of fellowship from reputable organisations that range from the academic to professional. Filani has also been an administrator of note, and the record of his career is full of medals that prodigiously testify to this aspect of his glorious career. I was with him when he served as a provost at Osiele, and it came as no surprise when he was voted as the country’s best provost during his tenure.
As an artist, he has had many exhibitions of his work in Nigeria, Africa, USA, United Arab Emirates, and parts of Asia. With his multiple caps as a teacher, artist, scholar, administrator, critic and art historian of over 35 years, he has made marvelous contributions to art and scholarship in Nigeria.
Now, let me circle back to where I started. What is the relation of ona (design aesthetics) to ona (paths and pathways), and how do both connect to the life, work, and art of Filani? Personified in this man who is being celebrated this month is the critical perception, innovation, insight, dedication, and necessary hard work to forge new pathways for the expressivity of the rich cultural heritage of Yoruba, Nigerian, and Africans in a modern and global culture. His hard work on the Onaism movement has opened new ona, pathways for us to look within our cultural consciousness to search for those motifs, ideas, styles, insights, philosophies, and aesthetic ideals that we have inherited and which we can use as material for self-fashioning and cultural propagation. Onaism has travelled round the world through the pathways he created through both his artistic creations and through the knowledge embodied in the people he has trained and mentored over the years. His works, both the theories and the practice, are being taught in classrooms all over the world. Thus, he has found new Onas (pathways) for Yoruba art stylistics through his perspicacity and zeal.
Toyin Falola is the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities and University Distinguished Teaching Professor, The University of Texas at Austin.