Asiru Olatunde 1918-1993
"Asiru’s work was not concerned with realism. His line was sensitive, the mood poetic. His repertoire was limited but his work never became stale. There was always a peaceful warmth about his work that reflected the personality of the artist himself."
About 20 years ago, visiting a small auction, I came across an extraordinary aluminium panel telling the story of Adam and Eve, the temptation and expulsion from paradise, watched over by an image of God, dressed as an African king and sitting in a throne. In one corner, the artist had hammered his name, Asiru Olatunde and on the reverse was written ‘property of Ulli Beier, DO NOT SELL’. Someone at some point had ignored this entreaty, I bought the panel which set me on a fascinating trail which eventually led to an entire exhibition in 2005 devoted to the work of Asiru as well as a brief encounter with one of the world’s most remarkable and inspiring art teachers, Ulli Beier, founder of the magazine Black Orpheus in Nigeria in the 1950s and one of the great champions of artists and writers from Africa and latterly, Papua New Guinea, where he moved after the Biafran civil war in 1966.
Ulli, who died in 2011 was then living in Sydney and who was not only delighted that I had discovered his Asiru painting, but then generously helped me with other loans from private collectors as well as from the collection of the Iwaliwahous in Bayreuth, an institution Beier had established in Bayreuth devoted to African art and studies. Held 13 years after Asiru’s death, the resulting exhibition, ‘Chasing Dreams’ was the first to be devoted to the work of Olatunde and proved a highlight of the Africa05 season. With the kind help of one of Asiru’s biggest collectors, we hung the whole gallery in purple, hand-printed idire cloth over which the aluminium and copper panels shone out. It was a regret that Ulli was not able to attend but I still treasure the introduction he wrote, as I do the Garden of Eden, from which the adventure began.
In his catalogue introduction, Beier wrote of ‘the sad, gentle man’ sitting amongst the blacksmiths in a forge opposite his house whose poor health had prevented him continuing to work. Though the two soon became friends, Beier had no inkling of his talents until 1961 when he discovered a little lion, cut out of thin copper plate, lying in the sand in front of his house. It was just 2 cm long and beautifully crafted. The lion’s mane, eyes and mouth had been incised into the copper. When Beier was informed the lion had been made by Asiru Olatunde, he immediately urged Asiru to make more of these as earrings which he could sell to his friends at the University of Ibadan where he taught.
Encouraged by this immediate success Asiru began to work with enthusiasm; Beier bought big sheets of aluminium for him from a saucepan manufacturer and now working on a larger scale his panels became more complex. They revealed an artist of breathtaking originality: not only for a technique that was entirely his own invention but with a wide-ranging imagination which easily furnished his ambitious narrative schemes.