Nigeria’s first professor of fine art and former deputy vice-chancellor, University of Benin, Prof. Solomon Irein Wangboje (1930-1998), would have been 90 years in August, but the wicked hands of death took him 22 years ago at 68.
Until his demise, he was a bundle of kindness and humility. Yet, Prof Wangboje was a phenomenon in contemporary Nigerian arts as he became the first Nigeria academic professor of art in 1973 at the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, having researched and lectured at the then University of Ife, Ile-Ife now Obafemi Awolowo University. He was one of the pioneers of academic trained artists in Nigeria having passed through the Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology (NCAST), Zaria from 1955 to 1959 with reputable artists such as Bruce Onobrakpeya, Uche Okeke and Demas Nwoko among others.
He obtained a doctorate degree in art education in 1968 after he bagged a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in printmaking. He was an artist, educationist, administrator, scholar and a humanist. The late Prof. Wangboje was the architect of the Department of Fine Art/Applied Art, Ekenwan Campus, University of Benin; a great administrator of impeccable quality and vision. As head of department, he had a vision of making the Benin Art School one of the best art institutions in the world. He contributed immensely to the development of printmaking in Nigeria through the application and exposure of various themes, techniques and media in his creative works. And in appreciation of these, he was inducted posthumously into the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) Hall of Fame for distinguished service to the country and for dedicating his life and career to the mission and values of the Society. Until his death in 1998, he was a founding member of the SNA.
As an academic, he was a leading light especially in the area of art education. As a pioneer artist who rose to the peak of his career at a time art was less attractive urged the younger generation artists to show commitment and dedication to the profession in order to raise the bar. He once said in 1995 that ‘now that we are no longer anonymous, let’s see what we have done. Let us shift emphasis from making art. Rather, we should be talking about it.’
At his 66th birthday celebration in 1996, humility ruled the VIP Lounge, National Arts Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, venue of the event, which featured some of his old students, relations and professional associates. Members of the University of Benin Arts Graduates Association (Ekenwan Art-Grads) organizers of the event extolled the virtues of the master print-maker.
In commemoration of his lofty ideas and contributions to the contemporary Nigerian Arts, the association which was coordinated by Dr. Kunle Filani declared every August 16, as “Artgrads Day” to be marked by exhibitions, workshops, conference and seminars among others. At the birthday bash, Prof. Wangboje was also unanimously appointed as the life patron of ‘Ekenwan Art Grads.’
The association also lined up a group art exhibition on October 12, 1996, at Wangboje’s Art Gallery, Osborne Road, Lagos, followed by a conference on “Art and Art Education” at the University of Benin auditorium on a later date. A large size painting, CELEBRATION by Akin Onipede, one of the old boys was presented to Wangboje as birthday gift.
Like a happy father, he commended the association for the honour but charged them to start on a very strong note, stand together and work harder in order to make their own presence felt on the art scene.
“We are very individualistic in our arts and life and for anybody wanting to group artists he stands for a very herculean task and journey. “My hope is that when this group gets together, they must start on a very strong note, stand together and work harder” he advised.
On the state of contemporary Nigerian art scene, he said: “In developing countries like ours, where artist is just coming into his own, trying to make a statement that the audience should appreciate and understand, you require a third party to be able to serve the link between the artist and audience. The critic or art writer is crucial in the understanding and propagation of the art in our society.”
The late Prof Wangboje who hailed from Avbiosi, Owan-West Local Government Area of Edo State was a lover of children.
According to his daughter, Mrs Iwoje Wangboje-Eguavoen, a lawyer and gallery owner, Prof. Wangboje’s strong passion for helping young art enthusiasts started when he introduced a programme entitled TV Model Club on NTA Benin in the 1980s. “He saw the importance of training children in art early, hence Children’s Art Classes, which were free,” noting that Wangboje’s legacy of workshop was well known in his Ori Olokun project at the University of Ife, Ile-Ife.
In continuation of that legacy Iwoje initiated the Wangboje Children Art Competition, a yearly art competition organised by Wangboje Art Foundation for children under ten years in 1998. It was held at Wangboje Art Gallery at Ikoyi, Lagos attracting no fewer than 150 school entries from nine schools on the theme, Romance of the Head Load, which is one of Prof. Wangboje’s works.
Until his death, he created great number of prints, employing different techniques like wood-cut, and lino-cut which are relief printing techniques. Most of his works are influenced by his experiments and events around him. The Creative Arts Faculty at the University of Benin, according to Wangboje, was founded primarily to project the African arts in African way. Wanting a departure from the European approach, he modeled the faculty to accommodate music, painting, theatre and other departments of creative arts. Though his works focus on people, places and events, as expressed in Desert Journey II (1964), Portrait of a Labourer (1964), and Idle Boats, he locates the African motifs and symbols in most of the works. Perhaps, a continuation of the philosophy of the “Zaria Rebels” others like Music Maker (1964), By the light of the moon (1962) and At the Wharf (1964) remain symbolic in his collection. Wangboje finds mask as inseparable from African art and did highlight mask’s expressive and aesthetic values in his retrospective exhibition.