Remembering Solomon Wangboje, artist, teacher, humanist

by Araayo Akande

Thomas Campbell’s “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die” remains valid for academic, artist, administrator, trailblazer and humanist, Solomon Irein Wangboje, 22 years after his passing.

Though Nigeria’s first Professor of Fine Art and former Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Benin (UNIBEN), died at the relatively young age of 68 in 1998, his works speak and live after him. 

Indeed, the tears have not stopped flowing for the outlier who would have clocked 90 years in August. Prof Wangboje, who hailed from Avbiosi, Owan-West Local Government Area of Edo State, was a phenomenon in contemporary Nigerian arts.

He became the first Nigerian Professor of Art in 1973 at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, after having worked at the then University of Ife ( now Obafemi Awolowo University).

He was among the pioneer academic trained artists in Nigeria. He was educated at the Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology (NCAST), Zaria from 1955 to 1959 with reputable artists including Bruce Onobrakpeya, Uche Okeke and Demas Nwoko among others.

Wangboje gained a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in printmaking, before capping it off with a doctorate in Art Education in 1968. He was a visionary artist, educationist, administrator, scholar and humanist. 

The great administrator of impeccable quality and vision was the architect of the Department of Fine Art/Applied Art, Ekenwan Campus, University of Benin. As Head of the Department, he had a vision of making the Benin Art School one of the best art institutions in the world, and he succeeded, to a large extent. 

The founding member of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) contributed immensely to the development of printmaking in Nigeria through the application and exposure of various themes, techniques and media in his creative works. In appreciation of his sterling achievements, 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. 

As an academic, Professor Wangboje was a leading light in the area of art education. He rose to the peak of his career at a time art was not very attractive; he never relented in asking younger artists to raise the bar through commitment and dedication to the profession. 

“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,” he once observed in 1995

Some of his old students, relations and professional associates, loudly extolled his virtues, including his profound humility during his 66th birthday celebration in 1996 at the VIP Lounge, National Arts Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos. Members of the University of Benin Arts Graduates Association (Ekenwan Art-Grads), organisers of the event, fulsomely praised the master print-maker.
The Association coordinated by Dr Kunle Filani declared every August 16, as
“Artgrads Day” to commemorate his lofty ideas and contributions to contemporary Nigerian arts. It would be marked by exhibitions, workshops, conferences and seminars, among others. Prof. Wangboje was also unanimously appointed the life patron of ‘Ekenwan Art Grads’ at the celebration.

That wasn’t all. The Association also held a group art exhibition on October 12, 1996, at Wangboje’s Art Gallery, Osborne Road, Lagos. It was then later followed by a conference on ‘Art and Art Education’ at the University of Benin auditorium. A large size painting, ‘Celebration’  by Akin Onipede, one of the old boys, was presented to Wangboje as a birthday gift.  

The happy father commended the Association for the honour and charged them to start on a firm note. He asked them to stand together and work harder to make their presences felt on the art scene.

“We are very individualistic in our arts and life. Anybody wanting to group artists is in for a very arduous task and journey. My hope is that when this group gets together, they must start on a firm note, stand together and work harder” he advised.

He also commented on the then state of contemporary Nigerian art. “In developing countries like ours, where the 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,” he said.
Apart from his passion for art and education, Prof Wangboje was also a lover of children. His daughter, Mrs Iwoje Wangboje-Eguavoen, a lawyer and gallery owner, notes that his 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,” she says. Iwoje adds that Wangboje’s workshop legacy is well known in his ‘Ori Olokun project’ at the University of Ife. 

In continuation of that legacy, Iwoje initiated the Wangboje Children Art Competition, an annual art competition organised by Wangboje Art Foundation for children under ten years in 1998. It was held at Wangboje Art Gallery at Ikoyi, attracting no fewer than 150 entries from nine schools on the theme, ‘Romance of the Head Load’ one of Prof. Wangboje’s works.  

Diligent and meticulous, Prof Wangboje, until his death, created several prints employing different techniques including wood-cut, and lino-cut, which are relief printing techniques. His experiments and events around him influence most of his works. 

The Creative Arts Faculty at the University of Benin, according to Wangboje, was founded primarily to project African arts in the African way. Wanting a departure from the European approach, he modelled the faculty to accommodate music, painting, theatre and other 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 in continuation of the philosophy of the ‘Zaria Rebels’, other works like ‘Music Maker’ (1964), ‘By the light of the moon’ (1962) and ‘At the Wharf’ (1964) remain symbolic in his collection. 

Wangboje found masks inseparable from African art and highlighted its expressive and aesthetic values in his retrospective exhibition.  

Though he became an ‘Ancestor’ 22 years ago, Professor Solomon Irein Wangboje’s works live after him. He remains much beloved. 

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