These days when dele jegede – the highly respected and famous Nigerian cartoonist, Painter and Art historian – encounters his canvas, a plethora of emotions rush to the fore. It is often hard to sort out what his philosopher-mind and fecund imagination, will brew forth in a conspiracy of reflective/creative cogitation. The brush plies the universe of thoughts, memories – bright and boisterous; angst – latent and poised; grief – deep and searing. Suddenly these peregrinations of his experiential mansions, come through in lines and colors of roaring threnodies for a nation lost, a continent betrayed. But on Saturday September 21, he was summoned to a feast of honors led by Professor Toyin Falola, the Frances Higginbotham Nalle Centennial Professor in History at the University of Texas at Austin and a Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters. The feast was a conference on “Art, Social Struggle and the Nation-State” bringing together a coterie of top scholars, artists and associates of dele jegede drawn from Universities across the United States. They gathered to celebrate and examine jegede’s work and his outstanding personal pedigree. Convened by the Department of History, The University of Texas at Austin, the John Warfield Center for African and African American Studies of the same University and the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBACC), Lagos, Nigeria, the event also marked the presentation of a book “art, parody and politics: dele jegede’s creative activism, nigeria and the transnational space” a collection of essays around dele jegede’s works.
To many Nigerians dele jegede is best known for his cartoon strips ‘Kole the Menace’ of the seventies through the late eighties in the Sunday Times. Reviewing jegede’s extensive inspirational and exemplary career, Professor Tunde Babawale – Director General of the Center for Black African Arts and Civilization (CBACC), Lagos, Nigeria, cited jegede “as a painter who employs a variety of media to inveigh against economic constructs that perpetuate the subaltern condition of the underclass. As a cartoonist, he dresses acerbic issues in palatable coats for public consumption, as is often at the expense of the powerful. As an educator, he relishes motivating students to be respectful in the essence of divergency, even as they seek to contribute to knowledge”. jegede’s excursions, “generally attempt to rupture the boundaries that are installed in the way that we construct and affirm selfhood”, surmised Babawale.
In the keynote lecture Salah Hassan Professor and Director of the Institute for Comparative Modernities at Cornell University, argued forcefully against traditional intellectual and political precepts that center ‘modernity’ as the sole property of the West. He traced a history of African modern art through Earnest Mancoba, the South African sculptor/painter, who was forced out by apartheid into exile in France and Denmark, where he joined with a few other artists in 1948 to found CoBra – the widely successful Avant gard art movement in Europe. Salah Hassan supported his position with Stuart Hall’s studied observation that “the world…can no longer be structured in terms of the center/periphery relation. It has to be defined in terms of a set of interesting centers, which are both different from and related to one another” – like Africa, Europe and the United States of America. “The most exciting artists” Hall stated further “are those who live simultaneously in the center and at the periphery. We are embarking on a hundred different ideas of “the modern”, not one, and therefore, of a thousand practicing modern artists”. It is in the group of these artists ‘who live simultaneously in the center and at the periphery’, artists who draw, paint, sculpt, teach, curate and even mentor in national and transnational spaces and realities, that dele jegede is found exuding excellence.
Beyond the Daily and Sunday Times, Jeged was a part of the creative vortex at the Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Lagos between 1997 and 1993. There he worked in the company of some of the very best artiste scholars that Nigeria will ever know – Akin Euba – composer/ethnomusicologist, Bode Osanyin – Playwright/Director, Laz Ekwueme – Composer/Conductor, Joy Nwosu – Singer/Composer, Abayomi Barber – Painter/Sculptor, Actors and Poet Larry Williams, Femi Robinson, Master Drummer Ayantunji Amoo, Dancer/Choreographers Charles Somade and Olu Okekanye, Lighting and Scene Designer Duro Oni (now Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Lagos) among others. The role of Oba Alaye – the tyrant King of the world – in The Shattered Bridge a play by Bode Osanyin, would become his signature role on stage and television. In his role as Director of the Center, he would lead the highly successful University of Lagos Popular Nigerian Music Festival, featuring the likes Chief Osadebey, King Oliver de Coque, Alhaji Sikiru Ayinde Barrister, Chief Ebenezer Obey and ‘Prof.’ Ayinla Kollington to list a few.
By his side all these years and through this painting of honors for dele jegede was his ever self-effacing wife, whom he affectionately calls Ajoke. Amidst this gathering of outstanding scholars, friends and associates, basking in the rejuvenating energies of love and honor, jegede renewed his manifesto for the world. “My art is cathartic” – he says. “It is an averment of my personal aesthetics: an articulation of the pangs and anxieties, the socio-cultural bemusements and conflicts, and the political conundrums and economic predilections that have continued to assault my sensibilities… My canvases function as receptacles: archives for deeply personal visual soliloquies that are uttered on those occasions when the need for visual pungency trumps the desire for the promulgation of beauty… a platform for parsing the anguish that is a concomitant of the aborted dreams that Nigeria emblematizes.”
Jegede is a scholar of exemplar credentials – a first class degree from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Fulbright Scholar – Spelman College Atlanta, Director of the center for Cultural Studies, Unilag, Professor and Chair, Department of Art Indiana State University, Chair, Department of Fine arts, Professor and Chair, Miami University, Ohio and Curator for the Smithsonian Museum of Art in Washington DC among many laurels. But he is also a man, a Nigerian who has lived with and through the painful abrasions of life and also the bright lift of hope, success, happiness, acts of kindness, generosity and the majesty of life’s great joys and accomplishments. It is, however, with his art, his creative and intellectual gifts that he is able to straddle the indeterminacy of social change and personal evolution. He affirms a vision that “a critical ingredient in the arsenal of any artist of integrity is imagination. It is a paean to the criticalness of an idea, which aerates powerful visions of nationhood, infusing it with a desire to mobilize the citizenry towards the attainment of fictive subjectivities. Imagination encapsulates and inspires compelling dreams around which cascading nuggets of ideas coalesce, and spurs individuals (and nations) to creative heights”
Where is this imagination in the governance of our country and our continent, one wonders.
—Segun Ojewuyi – Southern Illinois University, Carbondale Illinois, USA