Friday, July 15, 2011

Tribute to Ulli Beier By Segun Sofowote

On Saturday, July 2nd in the Osun State capital of Oshogbo, was held an event to ‘Celebrate Ulli Beier'. The event was attended by notable artists and several well wishers, many of whom had been associated with the Great Ulli Bier, who passed away at the ripe age of 88. Among those present were: art patriarch Segun Olusola; artist Bruce Onobrakpeya; and veteran broadcast person Segun Sofowote who gave a tribute to Ulli Bier. Please find the full text of Segun Sofowote's tribute to Beier.



OSOGBO, JULY 2, 2011

As the host on Artists Showcase, which was regarded as the definitive Art and Culture programme on the Nigerian Television Service (NTS) Lagos in the decade from the mid-nineteen sixties to the mid-nineteen seventies, I once asked Ulli Beier a question which I should not have been obliged to pose.

He had lived and worked in the country for two decades. During that time he had cultivated quite a wide local circle of friends, a circle however that hardly extended beyond the interesting mix of the culture crowd, traditionalists, writers, dramatists, painters, sculptors and other categories of artists, many of them in their youth and fired in their creativity by the new nationalism of the period. So ubiquitous was Ulli Beier within the immediate space of his cultural field that if you were ever involved to any significant degree in some artistic expression, you were virtually inescapably bound to cross paths with him.

This fact underscores one of the essential features of the Ulli Beier agency in unveiling to the outer world in the second half of the 20th century the cultural realism of the land in which he operated. He beheld intently and recorded a lot. He had been hired to come and work in Nigeria’s premier tertiary institution of academic learning – the University College of Ibadan as it then was. But it must have clarified inside Ulli Beier either at the time he took up the appointment or pretty soon after that he was not the usual strictly curriculum- or lecture room-bound, campus-dwelling kind of creature. There was by far more town in him than gown. UNESCO, conceivably, would have been a more logical employer of his genre.

He was a lot more restless and more earthy than was regular in the exalted profession of tutoring young people in the appreciation or criticism of great works and great observations which have been captured in books and learned publications. Rather Ulli Beier was by inclination essentially a practitioner or, at the least a front-row spectator of events and practices as they unfolded in the groves, the shrines, the workshops, the smithies, the looms, the dyeing pits, the marketplace, the streets and the home. For his own personal fulfilment he needed to know names, hands, minds, myths and products that were not essentially used in the university.
That his was not the dabbling interest of a dilettante with touristic exploits or material exploitation on his mind is reflected in his path which led him to his soulful haunts and abodes and the company that he kept at Ibadan, Ilobu, Ede, Osogbo and all other locations in Nigeria and indeed the world, and what he then did with the cultural milieu and artistic setting that he came into.

His relating to what he found was not with a scalpel and forceps and such other clinical tools – if he were ever capable of that kind of relationship at all. Rather he used his cutlery and heartily partook of what was served up in this encounter. Indeed, figuratively speaking, he actually discarded such exotic picking tools and fed himself full with his fingers in the tradition of the culture that inundated his soul. In many aspects, small or big, he depicted the toiler’s status in which he had fixed himself within that culture.

In his total self-recast as a Yoruba person, as a result of which, for example, he was never again to be seen in the usual Western mode of dressing, he did not see himself in the flowing robes of the affluent ones (or pretenders to that status) or in the ceremonial paraphernalia of chiefs and titled personages. Ulli Beier never used any of his titles and never cared to look any grander than his stylised buba or dansiki could make him. And concerning such essential matters as his creative writing, quite objectively I have to say, I once remarked as director in a production of one of the plays which he wrote behind the literary mask of Obotunde Ijimere that he created the drama of an Ijaw myth with an incurable Yoruba mind.

Anyone who is so unfamiliar with the facts as to consider that observation a bit of grandstanding only needs to be factually informed that beyond Woyengi, Ulli Beier is quite consistent with that strain in the whole lot of his works, especially those standing in the names of his alter egos. Such a doubter would also have to be reminded of the way this aspect partly accounts for the compatibility between Ulli Beier and Suzzane Wenger, with whom he had started out on this journey into trans-racial self-discovery and the well-known fact of Adunni Olorisa drinking herself to complete immersion into the Osun deep.

How did the two surmount such mountainous notions as ‘fetish’, ‘primitivism’, ‘mumbo jumbo’ etc to become capable of resonating with the tones, rhythm and values which others from their background usually fail to perceive in technology-deficient cultures? It must have to do with a kind of seeing through the opacity of that background and a personal fascination with the quality of the unmechanised human essence that they encountered. They found traditional arts and crafts talking intelligibly to them.

Further, they recognised creativity in people who had not presumed to attract a lot of attention to themselves. In Suzzane Wenger’s case, it was enough for her that she was welcome and that she could freely unwrap her soul and bare her artistic insight in this environment. On his part, as far as Ulli Beier was concerned, he had found a head-shrinking rationality from which he had to offer the world another hue and taste of culture and creativity.

Having remarkably deepened himself in this culture in the manner, and to the extent to which, very few of the active and enlightened generation of the heirs of the culture themselves ever cared to apply their creative and intellectual faculties to do, Ulli Beier extensively documented, created, motivated, managed, organised, promoted and networked, all to see indigenous expressions of culture and creativity set on a footing that is self-assertive. Today the hub of cultural expression that Osogbo represents in the perception of the world cannot be divorced from the one-time synergy of activism on the part of Ulli Beier, Suzzane Wenger and Georgina Betts, later to become Georgina Beier.

Certainly a lot of reference must be made on this occasion to the historical theatre of Duro Ladipo, the new art of the set of Muraina Oyelami, Jimoh Buraimoh, Twins Seven-Seven, Rufus Ogundele, Nike Okundaye and the others, the peculiar stone accompaniment of Ademola Onibon-Okuta’s music, the widely patronised Ifa consultation and facilitation of Yemi Elebuibon etc, etc. Naturally a lot will be said about how much the emergence of Osogbo as the base of all these owes to the exegetic and analytical pen of Ulli Beier, his ever clicking camera, his cultural zeal, his knack for conceptualisation, his organisational ability and his international connections.

To all this I shall now add one more account which you may not be familiar with. It is about a unique entity, a world first. The inventive conceptualisation involved Segun Olusola and Ulli Beier. It was christened by me as Theatre Express. In concept it was a theatre group entirely made up of three persons. This unique concept was inspired by the chance assemblage at the time of three young theatre men who related, each in his own way, to the Nigerian Television Service (NTS) Lagos where Segun Olusola was the Controller of Programmes.

At the birth of Theatre Express in 1965, Wole Amele after studying drama at the University of Ibadan was in employment as a set designer for television; Wale Ogunyemi had just started work in the same station as a typist fresh from Ibadan and with significant theatre experience on the cusp of Wole Soyinka’s 1960 Masks transforming into Orisun Theatre; I was back in Lagos working by choice as a non-staffer broadcaster on radio and television after my years on the staff of WNBS-WNTV Ibadan and with a theatre experience that included having been a member of the 1960 Masks right from its inception. It is relevant to mention here that Wale Ogunyemi later returned to Ibadan and his place in Theatre Express was taken by Segun Akinbola, another product of the University of Ibadan who came to work in NTS Lagos.

Without any immodesty, Theatre Express is enough subject for a book or books. Similarly Ulli Beier’s support can be more copiously documented than this occasion can accommodate. Still we can voice briefly an appreciation of Ulli Beier for a number of specifics.

Though itinerant, Theatre Express was Lagos-based. That base was sourced by Ulli Beier. It was at Mbari Mbayo House where Mr & Mrs Tayo Aiyegbusi were our kind and accommodating hosts.

In contemporary times you can easily search the internet and come up with a long list of two- or three-character plays. Curiously though, that is not known to have resulted in a proliferation of three-man theatre groups. In its days Theatre Express was considerably challenged in regard to repertoire. Apart from what the likes of W. B. Yeats and Anton Chekov yielded us for adaptation, and Wole Soyinka’s The Trials of Prophet Jeroboam (for which we had to have recourse to a few guest actors), we had to depend on ourselves to come up with our own plays and sketches.

In this regard, the earliest pieces written by me and by Wale Ogunyemi were soon in print, published by Ulli Beier along with two others sourced by himself, one of which was written by him purposely for our repertoire. He called the collection the Theatre Express Sketches.

But his help with our repertoire was by no means limited to all that. As resourceful as ever, he also sourced two- or three-character plays for us from non-English dramatists who were as at that time yet unfamiliar. It was a task that involved him in translating such works from German – and maybe Portuguese too, actually.

Theatre Express was frequently on the road. With Ulli Beier’s unflagging support, Osogbo was the most constant stop in our itinerary. And Ulli it was also who made all the arrangement for the Theatre Express tour of Britain in 1967. Indeed so fond was he of this successful theatre innovation that when the time came for him to go away after more than two decades here, he endowed Theatre Express with his Citroen truck, thus giving my trusty Volkswagen beetle (my dearly loved LG 1630) a much deserved break from so much country road run.

On one of his few visits after he had departed from Nigeria the second time, he heard as Georgina and I were chatting and discovering that we were born around the same time – about the beginning of the Second World War. We then compared our experiences and perceptions of life in our different locations in the world at the time. It was enough to give Ulli one of his well-known brainwaves. “Segun,” he said, “why don’t you and Georgina write down these separate accounts in full! Together,” he added, “they’ll make such an interesting book.” There is no doubt that he would have got such a book into many a world reading list if we had obliged him.

Why do I recall this now? It is to substantiate that Ulli Beier was that kind of a tireless cultural worker, an artistic workaholic who never allowed any creative impulse to go to waste – whether his own or somebody else’s.

Well, yes, there was that question that I posed to him in my television programme, the one that I wish I did not have to ask him. It was about what a very few but quite vocal ones of the new intellectual elite of the period had started saying, to the effect that what the likes of Ulli Beier were doing was meddling in indigenous artistic traditions and that was creating a distortion in the normal development. What would he say to that, I asked him. In doing so I was only engaging in the best media practice of course.

One of the aspects of media practice that I like most is that it is not for the ignorant or the uninformed. In taking on an expert or specialist in any discipline for example, an interviewer would quite rightly declare himself a layman. In the best practice however, he ought to have taken the trouble to educate himself on the subject matter far beyond what a layman commonly knows. That is the only way he can adopt the layman’s position, assume the layman’s posture and employ the layman’s parlance to plumb the depths of his subject thus serving the best interest of both layman and expert. Quite often he plays the devil’s advocate and deliberately rocks the boat to test the stability of the expert’s vessel and/or demonstrate the same to any doubters.

So it was that I suddenly sprang this question on Ulli. I had hoped that it would provide him with one opportunity to enlighten all such cynics. But I had miscalculated! What did Ulli do? He simply waved it off and dismissed any obligation to engage in a response! Well, one is not unfamiliar with the disposition of people who are not inclined to talk about themselves, which would then make it necessary for one professionally to chip in here and there with subtle bits of the much that one knows of them. That skill was needed on that occasion and one had to steer shrewdly away from a dead end… Interestingly however, many of those who posited that way at the time are known to have since turned into avid collectors of the works of those Osogbo artists who had their technical initiation from Georgina Beier and were so actively promoted by Ulli Beier.

And now Ulli has aged and gone, the one who gave that institution in Bayreuth, Germany set up for African creativity the name of Iwalewa Haus, a name that resounds in the tones and ethos of his soul’s favourite place on earth. It cannot be doubted that Obotunde Ijimere, or Tunji Sangodare, or Ulli Beier, father of Tunji Beier would have preferred to live his last years here, for his soul to depart the earth from here and for this land to have his bones. As to why that was not permitted to be, only those who saw to it can answer.

But his extensive and priceless artistic and archival collection of Nigeriana, Africana and Oceania is firmly in our hands. So this is not in the nature of an isipa ode, or in the tradition of burying treasures with their noble collectors. We keep those treasures and send after Ulli Beier our deepest wishes that his ever active spirit will continue to mature towards an eternity of joy, unfettered by any kind of jingoism.

Good bye, Ulli.

1 comment:

  1. Not Suzzane Wenger, but Susanne_Wenger
    and for Georgina Beier: