Goodnight, Ola Oloidi, patriarch, pioneer of art criticism


I saw him. Well, not him, him. It was his picture. Attired in his patented sartorial outfit of batik advertising a philosophical stance that privileges indigenous designs, he holds a microphone—the simple tool with which he has continued to assert his erudition at numerous symposia and lectures that became a habitual feature of his scholarly regimen since he retired from the academe in 2012.

It was his picture that I focused my gaze on. Has anything changed about my friend since we met in 2015 when he delivered the keynote address at events marking my 70th birthday celebrations in Lagos? As I continued to admire the picture, I also embarked on my customary banter and harassment of the image, much in the way I would if he were right before me: “Hmm. Ọmọ Oloidi funra ẹ̀!” (In real life situation, this would instantly elicit a customary heckle of “Ọmọ jẹgẹdẹ! Stupid Boy!” Just then, I searched for the text accompanying the picture. And then. And then…. The world froze. It stood immobile. As I read the debilitating text announcing the passing of Ola Oloidi, I experienced thunderclaps. A sweltering air enveloped me. Oh! My world! My academic soulmate is gone! At 73, Oloidi has answered the call.

He was a proud and unabashed academic who exuded an irresistible joie de vivre that many who knew him would miss. His peers, students, artists, the news media, and the cognoscenti of the art world among others have just lost a gem of a scholar. For Oloidi was an astute scholar, indefatigable researcher, and a charismatic teacher. My casual acquaintance with him occurred at the Yaba College of Technology in the late 1960s. By the time we met again—at the 1978 Society of Nigerian Artists Conference which took place at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN)—both of us had completed additional studies: He at Howard University, Washington, DC and also Northwestern, Chicago; and I at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.

It was to this time that I would date the emergence of Oloidi’s mesmerising persona. With a flavor for American panache, which was exemplified by his prewashed, double-stitched Denim top that revealed a tight, gypsyish beads strung tightly around his neck, Oloidi carried himself in an unmistakably self-assured poise. “I’m handsome,” he would proclaim, unprovoked and beaming.

And, indeed, my beloved friend was. There was nothing supercilious or narcissistic about this proclamation. It was often said in that boyish, take-a-look-at-me swagger by a young intellectual who suspected, and rightly so, that he was cut out for something extraordinary. In the 1970s, we all lived in a Nigeria where we dared to dream. Oloidi’s handsomeness essentialised the active element in the Yoruba idea that celebrates the essence of character: “Ìwà lẹwà.” Oloidi emitted a harmless arrogance, a charming and playful coquettishness that jelled over the years, crystalising into an inimitable quiver for his many playful arrows.

Oloidi was a great admirer of Zik, whose command of the English language provoked a deep-seated quest for learning among many kids growing up in the bucolic environments of Ekiti in colonial Nigeria. In his hometown of Igede, as, indeed, in many Ekiti towns and villages in Oloidi’s boyhood years, education was the only industry. Oloidi had an abiding interest in the intellectual (as distinct from the political) Nnamdi Azikiwe, whose ornate prose was often delivered in memorable elocution.

When he left Northwestern University where he had begun his doctorate studies under Frank Willett, one of the most respected archaeologists/art historians of his age, Oloidi arrived at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. That was in 1976. It was sheer serendipity that pushed this budding art historian into the intellectual and creative orbit of Uche Okeke, under whom his study of modern Nigerian art history took off. Oloidi was one of the few friends in whom I confided as I planned my trip to Indiana University for my doctorate degree in 1979. You could not have had a better cheerleader and trustworthy friend. By the mid-80s, Oloidi had established himself as inveterate scholar and quotable authority on modern Nigerian art. He developed a compelling narrativity on the art of pioneer Nigerian artists, thus charting a path that many scholars on this topic cannot sidestep. In addition to a slew of scholarly publications on Nigerian modernity, Oloidi championed the cause of art criticism by turning his attention to what he saw as wimpy and effeminate jeremiads that passed as art criticism in many Nigerian newspapers of the 1980s. He turned art history into a sexy course of study at the University of Nigeria, where he retired in 2012, having supervised no less than 30 doctoral students.

He was as loving as he was generous. He specialized in making friend—in reaching out to touch somebody regardless of the situation and context. Femi Oloidi, his son, recalled an aspect of his father’s kindness that only very few people would know. He writes: “I stumbled on his diary, and I saw names and account numbers of more than 50 people that he normally sends money to everyone month from his pension. I noticed that more than half of the people were also pensioners like him.”

That is the source of Oloidi’s unbridled magnanimity. He would stop at nothing to extract a smile from you. Here is an anecdote by Femi, which attests to his father’s benevolence:

One day, at the Nsukka park, we were about to pay for the transportation fee. There was a huge tall man also about to pay for his own fare. He looked terribly tired and wore a huge frown.

Immediately my father paid our fare, he turned and said to the man who looked even more dejected, “Hey! You, why are you frowning?” The man frowned harder and said with a snag; “You have no right to ask me that, sir. None of your business.” Furthermore, he raised his shoulders like he was ready to pounce on my father as he continued to say; “You can’t bring back the dead. When I am done with you, you will learn to mind your business.”

The man kept shouting to the ticket seller about my father, “Better tell this mad man to leave here. I go tear am o.

The ticket seller kept smiling and staring at my father who wore the calmest face you will ever see.

They all waited in anticipation of what my father would say. Meanwhile, I was waiting to kick the huge man on his balls, because that was the only way one could disarm such a giant.

My father walked up to the raving man and said, “I know I can’t bring back the dead, but I will give you fifty naira if you can just smile for me.”

The man was stunned and wore a “this-man-is-really-mad-o” look.

My father said again, “Ok, I guess the money is too small. I will make it ten naira so you can smile better.” Everyone burst out laughing.

This forced the ticket seller to say to the angry man who was already smiling slightly, “You no know Prof. The man na very playful and good man. ”I was shocked when the giant of a man didn’t even wait for the ticket seller to be done with his introduction as he rushed to my father and placed his right huge palm on my his shoulders, saying, “I am so sorry, sir, Prof. I was not myself. I just lost my wife yesterday night. And I am rushing back to see her and my kids. So sorry, Prof.”

I was shocked.

Ola Oloidi combined erudition with distinction as an academic. He was the go-to guru on modern Nigerian art. His passion for a new episteme will undoubtedly grow as his students spread out to disseminate the gospel according to St. Oloidi.

Ola Oloidi died in his sleep on November 2, 2020. He is preceded in death by a son, Kolawole, and survived by his wife, Jumoke and two sons, Olu, and Femi, and a daughter, Kemisola.

May the Oloidi family find solace in the indelible attainments of their patriarch.

• Dele jegede, Professor Emeritus, Miami University, Ox• ford. Ohio. U.S.A.