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In memory of Ulli Beier


By Eckhard Breitinger

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 73 (December 2011), pp. 67-69]

[In Bulletin No. 66, 2004, we carried a review of Omoluabi: Ulli Beier, Yoruba Society and Culture by Wole Ogundele, published by Bayreuth African Studies (No. 66, 2003), commenting on ‘a splendid and informative tribute to a very remarkable man’. Below we offer an obituary notice of Ulli Beier by the editor of the Bayreuth series, Professor Eckhard Breitinger. Bayreuth African Studies have also published ed. Wole Ogundele, The Hunter Thinks The Monkey Is Not Wise (No. 59), being a collection of Beier’s essays, and eds. Beier et al Yoruba Poetry (No. 62).]

In memory of Ulli Beier
by Eckhard Breitinger

Ulli Beier was born into a Jewish middle class family in Chotwitz (today Poland). His father was a medical doctor and like many Jewish professionals, the family moved to Berlin in the hope for better opportunities and less discrimination than in the rural community. After Hitler’s takeover in 1933, the family decided to emigrate to Palestine.  In the process, the Beiers’ were forced to sell their property and pay cut-throat  ‘Reichsfluchtsteuer’  (emigration tax), - the Nazi version of expropriating Jewish property.

Palestine did not prove to be the promised land. Ulli Beier was interned as an enemy alien by the British, and put into a camp where he worked as stable hand on a dairy farm. He was not admitted into the secondary school system, but managed to acquire the school certificate as external student (self-taught). Trying to get into university, he experienced again the severe restrictions against foreigners. The only course open for foreigners was the University of London Phonetics programme directed by Daniel Jones. With the London degree in Phonetics he got a job at Ibadan University College, where he experienced again at close range the elitist and colonialist attitudes within the educational system of the colony. Beier teaching Nigerians to speak the Queen’s language “real proper”, made him part of the colonial project, and this in a highly ironic way (German native speaker). There seem to be two formative experiences which shaped Ulli Beier’s life and attitudes. One is a deep distrust in the practices of official institutions, public administration and educational institutions. Closely connected to this, Ulli Beier learned to distrust the rigidity of formal education, particularly in the arts. In later years, he always favoured the self-taught, the autodidactic artist over the academy trained “scholarly” artist. He was particularly distrustful towards colonial institutions and he therefore created platforms for those informally trained artists.

1957, one year before Achebe’s Things Fall Apart came out, Ulli Beier launched Black Orpheus together with the German Négritudinist Janheinz Jahn. Black Orpheus figured as a journal for creative and critical writing with a distinctly pan-African approach, including the diaspora. In 1961, editorship of Black Orpheus was taken over by Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo and J.P. Clark. To control the temperament of these three, Ezkiel Mphahlele, exile from Apartheid South Africa functioned as editor in chief. Black Orpheus became the leading forum for intellectual and literary critical debate – next to Transition from Makerere University, Uganda. To start a critical journal at a time when the output of Anglophone African literature was still relatively slim, shows Ulli Beier’s vision and his strong belief in the future potential of West African intellectuals.

For visual arts, Ulli Beier created a parallel institution – the Mbari Club. Again, Ulli Beier pursued an unobtrusive but decidedly liberative policy. Traditional art should be liberated from the control of anthropologists and collectors of  ‘tribal art’, but rather re-establish itself as a living art form that can hold its place outside the ethnographic museums. On the other hand, academically trained artists should be inspired by a liberating impetus to leave behind the aesthetic norms of the great European art schools, and engage in a dialogue with traditional aesthetics to create  new and modern forms of indigenous art. This is best shown by the Oshogbo artists who treat indigenous topics and religious concepts which they present in a style of a visual Yoruba magic realism (e.g. Twins Seven Seven). Ulli Beier’s first wife, Austrian artist Susanne Wenger became an influential force in this artistic movement: After Ulli left his position as Extra Mural Teacher in Oshogbo, she created the shrine and holy grove for the river goddess Osu in that Yoruba religious expressionist style.

Shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War 1967, Ulli Beier left with his second wife, Georgina for Papua New Guinea, a challenge to build up a new independent artistic movement – another form of cultural nationalism for an emergent independent nation. Taban lo Lyong from Sudan/Uganda accompanied Beier to the South Pacific. The impact in PNG was not as strong as in Nigeria, although artists there adopted some of the typical Beier techniques like the aluminium sheet reliefs. Easy availability of the material and technical simplicity to work, the aluminum sheets spoke for the pragmatism of Beier’s approach.  In Australia, Ulli Beier again pursued the same strategy, engaging with Aboriginal artists, creating platforms for them to exhibit their work also internationally.

The last 25 years were divided between Bayreuth, Oshogbo and Sydney.

The new university of Bayreuth, located in a secluded corner of the Western world directly facing the Iron Curtain, established an Africa centre as part of its international profile. The university could offer Ulli Beier the old Mint of the principality to house a collection of African art, create a centre for multicultural interaction. This brainchild, Iwalewa Haus, appears as sustainable institution celebrating its 30th anniversary later this year (2011). The other important project was the Oshogbo archives. The ruler (Ataoja) of Oshogbo purchased a substantial part of Ulli Beier’s archive, in particular the extremely rich photo archive and provided the facilities where these treasures could be presented and preserved.

This points to two aspects of Ulli Beier’s activities that are hardly ever mentioned. One is Ulli Beier as photographer. With his double lense Rolleiflex  Ulli Beier shot the most amazing portraits of traditional rulers, healers, priests. His photo documentation of the patients of the Lantora Mental Hospital in Abeokuta ‘Luckless Heads’ became legendary. Theatre photographs of Duro Ladipo’s plays in Nigeria and on international tours made theatre history. Ulli Beier’s photos are a unique documentation of the dignitaries, the artists, the intellectuals, and commoners in the Nigeria of the 1950 and 60s – pictures without the ethnographic gaze. But Ulli Beier was also involved in theatre and radio drama as script writer, director, translator. Play scripts translated from Yoruba into English, German into Yoruba, Yoruba into German, were for a time Ulli’s daily bread. Under the pen name Obotunde Ijimere he produced the highly successful Obatala plays, including an adaptation of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Everyman (1911) (the favourite of the Makerere Travelling Theatre audiences) and for Nigeria Broadcasting he translated radio plays by the later Nobel Laureates Böll and Grass,but also Enzensberger and Günter Eich.

Ulli Beier saw himself as a mediator, a translator and facilitator of mutual cultural inspirations. Arranging and accompanying Duro Ladipo with his Oba Koso (reworked by Soyinka as Death and the King’s Horseman) to the Berlin Festival in 1964 was such an out-dooring of Yoruba performing arts in Europe. On the other hand, Ulli Beier arranged in the Mbari Club in 1962 an exhibition of woodcuts by the German expressionist painter Schmidt-Rottluff. He was one of those artist inspired by African art  as seen in the European museums and celebrated in Carl Einstein’s seminal essay on African Masks. Posters for exhibitions at the Mbari Club by Bisi Fabunmi or Georgina Beier display the circular cross fertilisation African art, German expressionism, modern African artists.  Ulli Beier’s merits as cultural pioneer, as facilitator who opens doors, paves the way for new moves in aesthetic cross-  fertilisation  is undisputed.

Ulli Beier died on April 3rd 2001 in Sydney, Australia, aged 89.

Eckhard Breitinger
Bayreuth African Studies

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