ULLI BEIER: EXIT OF A CULTURE ICON
Foremost literary scholar, artist and culture icon, Prof. Ulli Beier, has passed on. The consummate arts connoisseur, who took deep interest in the study of Yoruba cultural motifs died in Sydney, Australia after a protracted illness. His death has robbed the country of a strong cultural ally and patron.
Born in Germany in 1922, Beier came to Nigeria in 1950 as a staff of Extra Mural Studies at the then University College Ibadan, which later became the University of Ibadan (UI). Though, appointed to teach phonetics in the English Department of the premier institution, Beier and his then wife, the late Susan Wenger, traversed other Yoruba towns organising classes for students. After a stint in Ede and Ilobu, the duo later settled in Osogbo where they groomed many artistes such as Twin Seven Seven, Yemi Elebuibon, the late Duro Ladipo, Kola Ogunmola, and many others.
Beier, who has been described as a black man in a white skin due to his love for African culture and religion, played a pioneering role in developing visual and performing arts as well as literature. He served as Director of the Institute of African Studies at the then University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, before leaving Nigeria for Papua New Guinea alongside, Georgina, who he married after separating from Susan Wenger. There, he also championed the cause of the arts and literature.
Beyond his cultural and artistic exploits, the deceased influenced Nigeria's pioneer writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, J.P. Clark, Mabel Segun, Demas Nwoko, and others. These writers were part of the Mbari Artists and Writers Club at UI. Mbari, under Beier, became a place where new writers and dramatists performed their works. Later, he extended this creativity with the formation of Mbari-Mbayo in Osogbo.
He founded and directed the Iwalewa Haus, an art centre at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. The cultural house still hosts scholars in different areas of African Studies. He wrote the Imprisonment of Obatala under the pseudonym, Obotunde Ijimere and Yoruba Myths. He, with Gerald Moore, co-edited Modern Poetry from Africa. His most profound work was a collection of photographs of cultural symbols such as traditional rulers, traditional architecture, artistes, hairstyles, drums and dresses of Osogbo people, which led to a deeper understanding of Yoruba history, culture and anthropology.
However, Beier gave these collections to the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding, Osogbo, and was paid $600,000 by the Osun State Government, under former Governor Olagunsoye Oyinlola, for the good gesture. There is no doubt that Beier will be missed by Nigeria's culture and arts community where he made indelible marks on the sands of time. Though white, Beier was a Nigerian at heart. He helped in developing our arts and literature. His contribution to the development of literary criticism in Nigerian literature is remarkable.
We urge Nigerians to emulate Beier's good example in cultural studies and strive to appreciate our culture, instead of treating it with contempt. It is noteworthy that Beier saw something worth celebrating in Nigerian arts and culture. Throughout his life, he was consistent in upholding African culture which many of us, due to foreign religious influence, daily denigrate. In fact, the attitude of some Nigerians to our culture is appalling.
If a foreigner like Beier could appreciate our culture, we should look inward to see what we can celebrate in it. Perhaps, some of our existential problems can be solved by consistently tapping the positive aspects of our culture. Most of the scientific developments in other lands today have some cultural influence. We may find it difficult to develop, technologically, without factoring in some of our positive cultural practices and motifs. Let us take a cue from Beier.
We commiserate with the arts community and his family and friends in Nigeria, Australia and Germany on this sad loss. May God grant his soul sweet repose.