On the first day of freshman year at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, I met artist Caryl Henry. She came from suburban New Jersey; I had been driven just a few hours south from Cleveland Heights. Growing up in the shadow of New York City and defiant by nature, she had already been a working artist for many years. I, arriving at college, had very little idea who I wanted to be in life. I will write about Caryl and her work another time. My point now is that at 17 years old I began to learn, from her, to see the world as an artist does; and to know what it is to demand the rights, as well as shoulder the responsibilities, of being an artist.
In 1981 I went to Nigeria to stay with my Aunt Leon, who lectured in Language Arts at the University of Ibadan for the better part of two decades. She introduced me to textile artist Tunde Odunlade, a member of the Oshogbo school of art founded in Ile-Ife that was largely responsible for the explosion of creative contemporary art then and still emanating from Nigeria. He was about 27 years old, the age-mate of the group of us young people then circling in my aunt’s kindly, professorial orbit. He would spread out his batiks on the floor of the flat to display them, tell the stories of each work, often setting the context using one of the thousands of Yoruba proverbs. For a few hundred naira we could get one of those early batik panels. Thank goodness I did.
Today, Tunde’s work hangs in the collections of institutions including the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art; the Victoria and Albert Museum; the World Bank Headquarters; the MacArthur Foundation Collection; and the State House in Lagos, Nigeria. He also has many private collectors in North America, Europe, and Africa.
Yet he remains the itinerant. Since 1996 when Tunde got his first visa to leave Nigeria he has been the proverbial itinerant salesman, literally pushing his wares around the globe, making friends and influencing people. The works are fabric, paper, paint and mixed media; his own and those of many other Nigerian artists whom he has exposed to the international art world. His singular pleasure is being with people. Connecting. Exchanging. Teaching. Training. Encouraging more and more people from every walk of life to dig into artmaking, to get their hands dirty, to give themselves over to free and unconstrained self-expression.
Real artists, I have learned, will jump in and explore any medium they find themselves presented with. Tunde has become a musician and composer along the way, producing sophisticated Nashville-produced tracks.
An insatiable zest for life and a complete embrace of other human beings are the secrets behind Odunlade’s tremendous success. He has never met a stranger, and people from all walks are drawn to him.