The Punch

Monday, April 4, 2011

German in skin, African at heart, Ulli Beier bids the world bye


Legendary artist and promoter of Yoruba and other African arts, Ulli Beier, dies at 90 in Sydney, Australia, but his legacies straddle Nigerian cultural space, writes AKEEM LASISI Two years after the benevolent priestess of Osun Osogbo, Susan Wenger, passed on, her former soul mate and European icon of Yoruba culture, Prof. Ulli Beier, is dead.

German in skin, African at heart, Ulli Beier bids the world bye


The German scholar and writer, who was instrumental to the emergence of renowned Yoruba artists such as Twin Seven Seven, Yemi Elebuibon, the late Duro Ladipo and Kola Ogunmola died on Sunday afternoon in Sydney, Australia at 90.

Where some white folks, including Joseph Conrad, disdained African history and culture at the dawn of their contact with the continent, Beier played a pioneering role in developing visual arts, literature, drama and poetry in Nigeria and in Guinea - alongside his wife, Georgina. He helped to power literary criticism, which also helped in the growth of early generation Nigerian writers such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and J.P. Clark.

Ulli Beier was also known for his efforts in translating African works. He emerged as one of the scholars who introduced African writers to a large international audience by translating plays of dramatists that included Duro Ladipo of the Oba Koso fame. He also published Modern Poetry, an anthology of African poems, released in 1963

Then as a lecturer at the University of Ibadan in 1961, he co-founded the Mbari Artists and Writers Club. Located in the Oyo State capital, Mbari became a place where new writers, dramatists and others met, performed or showcased their works. In 1962, he also co-founded (with Ladipo) Mbari-Mbayo, Osogbo. In the early 1980s he founded and directed the Iwalewa Haus, an art centre at the University of Bayreuth in Germany.

The fact that Beier also partook in the writing of African stories further exemplifies his love for the culture. Yet, more instructive is the fact that he arguably pioneered the use of pseudonyms in Nigeria when he published The Imprisonment of Obatala under the name, Obotunde Ijimere - two names referring to two members of the monkey family.

But what appears to be his most worthwhile legacy is his rich collection of photographs of cultural symbols such as traditional rulers, traditional architecture, artistes, hairstyles, drums and dresses native to Osogbo areas, which now provide a basis for understanding Yoruba history, politics, culture and anthropology.

As part of his love for Nigeria, Beier, in 2009, entrusted the stock to the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding, Osogbo. Although he was paid some $600,000 by the Olagunsoye Oyinlola government for the photos, Beier had cited the bond that existed between him and the former governor's father, the late Moses Oyinlola, as the primary motivation for returning the photos to the country. He and the senior Oyinlola, who was the Olokukuku of Okuku, were close friends.

The plan to return the collection to Nigeria had generated a fierce controversy as it coincided with the time former President Olusegun Obasanjo was rooting for the hosting of the Category Two Institute of Culture at the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library in Abeokuta, Ogun State. In the course of ratification of the establishment of the institute, as well as the Centre for Black Culture, in Nigeria by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, claimed that he got information that Obasanjo was scheming to have the Ulli Beier's photos diverted to the presidential library, which the quintessential writer had described as an empty shell. The controversy not only threatened the success of the bid for the institute, it also drew Soyinka and Oyinlola into a battle fiercely fought in the media. The former governor felt it was unthinkable for anyone to think he could trade the materials away for anything.

Eventually, UNESCO gave a nod for the establishment of the institute, while the Beier's photos now wholly reside in the centre in Osogbo. It is, therefore, not surprising that the news of his death was officially broken to the centre's Executive Director, Prof Wole Ogundele. According to him, Ulli's son, Tunji Beier, broke the news to him at about 3 pm on Sunday, in a telephone call. Reacting to Beier's death, Oyinlola, who is the Chairman of the centre's Governing Board, described it as a great blow to him personally and to all lovers of Yoruba culture in general.

In a statement signed by his former Chief Press Secretary and Special Adviser on Media, Mr. Lasisi Lagunju, Oyinlola said Yorubaland and the academic community owed Beier a lot for his great efforts in intellectual preservation of several aspects of the Yoruba culture that would have gone extinct. He noted that Ulli Beier had described Yorubaland as a place where he discovered his own spiritual essence (ori inu), adding that his death had made the race poorer.

Beier was born in Glowitz, Germany, in July 1922. His father was a medical doctor and an appreciator of art who raised his son to embrace the arts. After the coming of the Nazi party to power, the Beiers, who are non-practising Jews, left for Palestine. In Palestine, while his family were briefly detained as enemy aliens by the British authorities, Ulli Beier was able to earn a BA as an external student from the University of London. However, he later moved to the British city to earn a degree in Phonetics. A few years later, after his marriage with Wenger, he was given a faculty position at the University of Ibadan to teach Phonetics.

Internet sources adds that while at the University, Beier transferred from the Phonetics department to the Mural Studies department. It was at the Mural Studies he became interested in Yoruba culture and arts. Even as a teacher in Ibadan, he ventured outside the city and lived in nearby cities of Ede, Ilobu and Osogbo and this gave him an avenue to see the spatial environment of different Yoruba communities. In 1956, after visiting the First Congress of Negro Artists and Writers organised by Presence Africaine at the Sorbonne, in Paris, Ulli Beier returned to Ibadan and founded the magazine "Black Orpheus." The name was inspired by Jean Paul Sartre's famous essay "Orphée Noir". The journal quickly became the leading space for Nigerian authors to write and publish their works. It became known for its innovative works and literary excellence and was widely acclaimed.

Although he left Nigeria in 1968 for New Guinea, where he, among other efforts, organised the country's first exhibition, he intermittently returned to Nigeria for brief periods of time for lectures, exhibitions and other programmes.

Meanwhile, other stakeholders have started mourning Beier. Among such is another veteran Osogbo artist, Yemi Elebuibon. In a telephone conversation with our correspondent, the performing poet, dramatist and writer described the deceased as a worthy mentor to culture workers from the region.

"When Prof. Beier was conducting research in Osogbo area, he would ask me to help collect the information and materials he needed," Elebuibon recalls. "I collected oriki, the Yoruba praise name for him, for instance. More importantly, he played a major role in the development of artists in the Mbari Mbayo group. He showed us the light."

He adds that he caught the art of writing from the scholar who he describes as a lover of Yoruba culture, art and religion.

Putting such a role in perspective, a former President of the Association of nNigerian Authors, Mr. Odia Ofeimun, describes Beier as a cultural entrepreneur, saying he turned indigenous art into something to be taken seriously.

Ofeimun says, "Whether within the country or outside, whatever Beier did was about Yoruba and Nigerian culture. He helped to create the first generation of Nigerian writers. He worked for them. He slaved for them."