Prince Tunde Odunlade is the founder and CEO of Tunde Odunlade Arts and Culture Connexions, Ibadan, Nigeria, a foremost tourism center that embodies an art gallery, crafts & books store, and space that celebrates a plethora of cultural activities. Prince Tunde Odunlade has several decades of a successful art career, and he continues to thrive. His body of works is dialogue-provoking pieces that boldly display culture, history, the reality of our society, and the possibilities of the future. He’s a masterpiece, a custodian of culture and history that pours life unapologetically into his craft. Whether he is speaking, acting, writing, or creating, he is a jack of all trades who has mastered all. Enjoy this interview with him, curated by ‘Yemi Olakiitan.
Please tell us about you, your family background, and your upbringing.
My full name is Samuel Adeleke Babatubde Odunlade; I am from Ile Ife, Odogbon’s compound, which is one of the seven ruling compounds under the Ogboru dynasty, which qualifies me as a Prince in Ile Ife. Both maternal and fraternal sides of my family are royal families. I could say this is why culture and arts have always been my life. When I was born, on the eighth day, according to the custom of “jálá mòsò” which is a eulogy for newborns, mine was Ládìre (one who owns or makes àdìre) and textile happens to be my niche as an artist.
It continues with ají d’àgbà bi ògèdè (one who grows in knowledge like the plantain tree), a pé l’ájò ma j’àsán (one who travels far and never lacks), ó t’ilé ara eni re bi (one who goes on a journey, prepared from his home), o l’òde (one who sees the world as his constituency), à kò kí (one who you meet and wish for more), Jìngbìnì bi àte àkún, l’ádéjokùn oòni, and it goes further as the personal oríkì given to me. Additionally, there are more from my family relations.
How did you become an artist, was it predestined, or as a result of where you were brought up or a career you fell into along the way?
You see, it is unfair to say that because I was born with all those eulogies which imply that art is innate for me as a natural intuition in me that makes me an artist today, it would be unfair. I had an encounter with an artist, Yinka Adeyemi whom I doff my art (removed his fila to take a bow). I apprenticed under him for 18 months and the training I had under him was enough to make me a bona fide, full practicing artist. I later enrolled in the Oguntimehin Art Workshop which was created by the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) as an affiliate for another 18 months, supported by the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundations, and others who sponsored art and culture disposition in Nigeria in the 1950s.
I moved to Ibadan to join the Ademola Onibonokuta group which was an affiliate of the University of Ibadan Theater Arts department. This exposed me to theatre at its finest by mingling with the likes of Uncle Tunji Oyelana, Uncle Jimi Solanke, Professor Osofisan, Professor Dapo Adelugba, and a host of others, and that was what led to being a part of the Festival of Art and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977. I was auditioned and selected as one of the 160 members of the group that performed the play Lángbodó as the drama entry for Nigeria, directed by Professor Dapo Adelugba.
So, it was a progressive lineup of training and productions that formed my career. I was part of a Pantomime in Manchester, the United Kingdom in 1989 and also took part in some Hollywood productions in California, hobnobbing with Hollywood actors and so on. I have written up to five plays and five music albums. Also, taking different courses in the US, teaching and doing residence in universities such as UCLA, visiting Emory University, Bowie State University, George Washington State University, Iowa State University, and other institutions of higher learning in the United States. So, this is me.
Being born at that time, and exposed to some grooming in art, can you please briefly highlight what the art scene was like in Nigeria?
The art scene in Nigeria is broader than we can ever think of. The average Nigerian is exposed to art every day, they just don’t see it. In our style of dressing, the colors we wear glamorously, the intuitive dances to tunes that we hear. This is not natural to the white man who has to take dance classes to make coordinated dance moves, unlike a Nigerian. Since I was born, and growing up I have always been exposed to art, and the different kinds of festivals; ojúde oba, egúngún festivals, and others make us artistic, cultured, and brilliant individuals that can compete culturally, artistically, and socially in any part of the world.
It seems to us that it is the white folks who supported the growth of art in Nigeria but before they came, the royal families supported arts, the chiefs, and kings. A lot of what you see in the Nok culture, Ife art, and terracotta were patronized by royalties. They would commission artists to do artworks and adorn their palaces with them. Like a song the Late Pa Adebayo Faleti taught us during FESTAC that goes thus; K’á re ilé oba, òpó f’èyìn pon mo, K’á re ilé oba, òpó f’èyìn pon mo, àrà tí a ò rí rí ni Adejumo ndá, K’a re ilé oba, òpó f’èyìn pon mo, which translates into “Let’s go to King Adejumo’s house to see pillar posts with a child on its back” These pillar posts are carvings commissioned by the King in those times. This is to prove that Africans have always supported the arts.
When the white man came and saw what we were doing they condemned our arts as idols and cajoled us, taking the best of our arts to adorn their museums over there with them. Yet, our people are seeing arts as a fetish, something must be wrong with their minds, not sorry to say. How can you condemn the self-expression of a man’s intended purposes, his tangible taken from the intangible either in form of painting, drawing or even in textile? So, we need to stop all these stereotypic inferior behavior in other to have a well-rounded society.
We are here now, and you are a renowned international artist, still practicing arts, what would you say has changed at this time?
What has changed is that back in the 50s and 60s, the white folks also supported was what called Contemporary Nigerian Art, especially at the inception of the Osogbo Art Movement which began in the early 1960s, Before then, there were Nigerians who had had European training, that is they had been to Nigerian universities such as Ahmadu Bello University, Obafemi Awolowo University, University of Ibadan and some other polytechnics who had trained to become artists in the European style. But what you want to call Nigerian Art, stemming its way from the traditional art, took its root in Osogbo in 1962, and I make bold to say that it was an offshoot of the Mbari Club which began around 1961 when the likes of Professor Wole Soyinka, Bruce Onabrakpeya, Chief Ullie Beier, Uncle Tunji Oyelana, Uncle Jimi Solanke, Christopher Okigbo, and a host of others came together to make Ibadan the melting-pot where the contemporary art of Ibadan took its root.
It was this that gave the impetus to why Chief Duro Ladipo created Mbari Mbayo as a result of a play on the word Mbari, an Igbo word that means “the beginning”. There’s still a Mbari Collection today somewhere in the East. The Rockefeller Foundation and Ford Foundation supported the Mbari Movement that gave birth to the Contemporary Nigerian Art today from people like Chief Muraina Oyelami, Chief Jimoh Buraimo, Prince Yinka Adeyemi, Tijani Mayakiri, Jacob Adebisi, Chief Taiwo Olaniyi (Chief Twin Seven Seven), and Rufus Ogundele.
Chief Ogundele happens to be the first among them all. They were artists known for pioneering authentic Nigerian contemporary arts with deep roots in tradition compared to the artists we have had in the past such as Aina Onabolu, Ben Nwowu, Kolade Osinowo, and others who were European-trained artists. At the initial stage, a lot of academics condemned Osogbo artists that their art is not the way to create art. However, they experimentally started creating arts, with art materials spread out on the table, converting dramatists of the Duro Ladipo theatre group into visual artists without formal training, no instructions, and no rules to be broken and they went on to produce arts intuitionally.
In the long run, they became the first generation of artists to come out of that experiment, and I am the second generation having apprenticed under Prince Yinka Adeyemi. Culture is dynamic; even some artists that studied arts in a formal education found their way to the Osogbo artists who were groomed practically at that time. So, now we have had this fusion of modern European art and traditional art which has brought about a lot of changes. Also, a lot of Nigerian folks with disposable income now collect arts such as Engineer Prince Yemisi Shyllon who is the largest collector of arts in Africa, and the largest collector of African arts in the world.
Sam Olagbaju, and Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, are supporting Nigerian arts by collecting them. As a result of this, there’s no auction of international repute that you would not find in Nigerian arts. Oluwole Omofemi, coming out of Ibadan, is now a world-renowned artist, recently commissioned to paint the Queen of England as part of the 100 years celebration of the Queen. He’s a friend of this art gallery. There’s no artist of substance today that did not pass through Ibadan in one way or the other, and I am happy that I am part of that story, having Tunde Odunlade Arts and Culture Connexions to remind us of what Mbari Club was in those days.
In light of this, can you predict the trajectory of arts and artists due to the changes our society is experiencing?
Whether we like it or not, one major way by which Nigeria will really become more relevant culturally and economically would be by realizing that its prowess lies in its arts. Look at what Nollywood has been doing, they’re showing their movies all around the world. There is no major museum in the world today that does not have Nigerian arts in them. The only finished product taken out of Nigeria is art, when my art is purchased and taken overseas; you don’t have to do anything to it other than maybe frame it, hang it for aesthetics, or use it to teach history, morality, ethnicity, and development of man in the higher institutions as part of many purposes of art.
However, religion is not helping. I have never seen a country so endowed culturally and artistically as Nigeria, we take pride in everything we do, and how we do it. It is evident in the way we dress and how creative we are. The vitality in which we pursue our culture in dressing, art, in Nigeria, and Africa, and how we carry ourselves as opposed to the boring culture of the other countries that we regard so highly. The 2000s Nigerian arts are highly cerebral collections, to the amazement of the white men who couldn’t believe that Nigerians did them until they started seeing Nigerians doing it.
Scientifically, it has been proven that it takes a high degree of an intelligent mind to produce a piece of art that would be intelligible to onlookers. So, Nigerians have highly contributed to the development and civilization of mankind through arts, if you know where to look, you’d agree with me.
Having enjoyed a robust career in art, at home, and abroad, what are the factors that have shaped your career in both places?
Where I was born, the way I was raised, the environment where I grew up, Ife culture, and the entire Yoruba culture. In Nigeria, we have this exuberance, vibrancy, and richness in our day-to-day life, even though I have regrets that a lot has changed in the upbringing of Nigerians due to the so-called civilization which I call “pollution”. Whereby you jettison what you know that is of good quality to something of lower quality. That is wrong. Look at the dos and don’ts that make up my upbringing, the moonlight entertainments which have now shrunk into television. You would see a lot of African stories in productions from all over the world, including China, Japan, the United States, etc. They refine, reform, and retell our stories, evident in the tunes of children’s gadgets that are manufactured internationally such as I have heard from my granddaughters.
The question is, for how long are we going to keep wandering around, ignoring our roots? Thank God that nowadays some youths are becoming to be more aware and taking strong interests in our arts and culture. This gives me joy that with all the camouflage, make beliefs, and deceit that the colonial masters have planted amongst us in the name of religion, young people are now starting to see for themselves the reality and splendor of our culture. In addition to this, my eulogy on the eighth day also contributed to my career in a way, but it’s not enough. If I don’t have the kind of environment that I grew up in, the exposure to arts, and the training that I had, I may not make the most of my eulogy. So, it’s a string of circumstances.
There is still a wide gap between artworks, the artists themselves, and the people, in the sense that a lot of people still don’t understand or want to associate with arts for one reason or the other. How do you suggest we can bridge that gap?
The way to bridge the gap is that we don’t stop. Quitters don’t win, and winners don’t quit. Some religious people insinuated that the genesis of Nigeria’s problem is because we hosted FESTAC in 1977. You can’t argue with that kind of foolish thought. We can only keep doing what we are doing, and they would later come around to realize that they have had the wrong notions. I am a practical person, talk is cheap and anyone can open their mouth to say anything, but I don’t join that bandwagon. My own thing is that, what can you do to change things, and there’s no better way than to put it into practice, that is why I opened Tunde Odunlade Arts and Culture Connexions.
As the founder of Tunde Odunlade Arts and Culture Connexions, what is the motivation behind the founding of the center?
Well, even though most of my career life has been outside Nigeria, in America & Europe, I still make Ibadan my base. No matter what, I still make Ife my signatory identity, if you read my biography anywhere, it would say that I live in Ibadan. My family is here and no matter where I go, I still come back to Ibadan. By opening this gallery, it means that I am giving back to Ibadan, the place, the society that made me. I am rejuvenating the society that I have taken from. Ibadan is a place that accommodates, it is peaceful with a good atmosphere and creativity thrives here. I am happy that a lot of people are relocating here, and there’s room for them but they need to behave themselves (smiles).
Can you please share the reality of your experience running the Art Gallery as a tourism center, the visitors, activities, and the business in the city of Ibadan?
I can go on and on talking about it. Tunde Odunlade Arts and Culture Connexions is committed to arts and cultural enhancement, enabling us to develop culture, tourism, and arts in their true sense. It would be a terrible oversight to leave tourism out of arts and culture. The arts, culture, and tourism of Ibadan are on their highest pedestal because people come from all over Nigeria, and from around the world to see the gallery. By extension, I let them know other places of interest to visit in Ibadan such as Bower’s Tower at Oke Aare, Cultural Center, Mokola, and the building inside Dominican University at Samonda where the church is, which is one of the 1000 places in the world you must visit before you die, a lot of people don’t know this. I inform visitors about it now and then. It was designed by Demas Nwoko, an artist of note and an architect of the highest order. He also designed the Oyo State Council for Arts and Culture commonly called Cultural Center at Mokola which unfortunately is lying fallow now.
Everything doesn’t have to be government, I am waiting for some entrepreneurs who see the potential and invest there. Private partnerships can meet with the government to invest and make that place a foreign exchange spinner for Oyo State. I am waiting to see that. Imagine people coming from all over to watch theatre there, it was happening before until that place was run aground. I look forward to seeing it come back to life again. I see myself as more than a visual artist and this is reflected in the activities of the gallery. In the gallery, we have musical performances and a recurring one on Sundays tagged as Orijinal Highlife with Femi Ajayi, AJ Sequential as the lead musician, and Asa N Tiwa who comes to render chanting. We have literary engagements regularly, Associations of Nigerian Authors, ANA Ibadan Chapter also have their monthly meetings here. We have a lot of artistically engaging activities here at the gallery regularly.
As an embodiment of talents, you are a visual and performing artist, and writer among other things, which means a lot of work has gone into becoming who you are, what are the nuggets you can share with creatives out there who are looking to also make a name for themselves in the creative business?
Firstly, patience, consistency, and absolute dedication. I am a visual artist, a dancer, and a singer. I compose songs and play musical instruments. I also have broadcasting as part of my ongoing career. I see all of these as interwoven. My advice to the younger generation is that they shouldn’t see an artist and be like they want to be like that artist but they need to also look at what the artist has been involved with, they should see other artists as an inspiration to spring forth but not be envious of them. See them as role models and use them to figure out how to become what you want to become. That’s how you can make yourself a worthy substance in the art niche. There’s no place anyone has ever been that others cannot go beyond. As I always say, if you can’t try the absurd you can’t achieve the impossible