Natural talent

Entering Migila House, there is a sense of stepping into another world. The rich earthy tones of African and Papua New Guinean art objects merge, and vibrant, intensely coloured oil paintings contrast against the off-white walls.

Migila House in Sydney is the home of English-born artist, Georgina Beier, and her German-born husband, Ulli Beier—writer, editor and professor of literature. They are a couple whose international literary and artistic achievements are extensive, but it is their life-long commitment to fostering Indigenous writers, artists and musicians—which began in Nigeria, a decade prior to Independence—that is just as impressive.

In 1950, when Ulli first arrived in Nigeria to lecture in phonetics and English literature, he was shocked to discover that across the university there was ‘no reference to anything African’.

‘We are here to impose British standards’, he was informed matter-of-factly by the Vice-Chancellor. Ulli however, felt that he wasn’t there to impose anything on anybody. ‘I was willing to be totally surprised’, he says.

And surprised he was, when only weeks later, during a lesson on Hamlet, a student raised his hand to ask: ‘Excuse me sir, I’m somewhat confused. Is that a true story?’

It was only then that Ulli realised he had not spoken to his students about theatre, about the kind of performance they were accustomed to, and that no-one from the university had bothered to study their culture and backgrounds.

That innocent question prompted a change in Ulli’s courses as he incorporated the world his students inhabited. This also marked the beginning of Ulli’s own immersion into Yoruba culture. (A transfer between university departments, into adult education, allowed him to develop courses unimpeded by regular academic constraints.)

If the university was hardly impressed when Ulli’s first course on West-African culture began, the local king was. He attended regularly, for an entire year. That example encouraged others to follow, and royal consultation soon became integral to course planning.

But it was the summer schools that allowed Ulli the curricular and cultural freedom he desperately sought. Exploratory by nature, the summer schools embraced topics such as kingship, music, art, oral tradition and women, from the perspective of Ashanti, Yoruba, Dahomey and Benin kingdoms. These courses provided students with an opportunity to rediscover aspects of their own culture which ‘they had been educated away from’. Other courses of a more political dimension were offered in journalism, local government and democracy in West Africa.

Poetry, Ulli says, had its place too. ‘This was very important because children went through schools and thought poetry was an English invention, because whatever poetry they had, was seen as “pagan superstition” … There were a lot of misconceptions, so we had to do a lot of undoing of prejudice absorbed from the colonial mentality.’

Ulli Beier, now 82 years of age, passionately recounts his years in Nigeria. One can imagine the spontaneity with which he engaged in Yoruba culture, as teacher and lecturer, but most of all, as learner.

During his initial 16 years in Nigeria (1950–1966), Ulli founded and edited the influential journal Black Orpheus, the first English language magazine for African writers and artists, and provided a forum for emerging writers in post-Independence Africa. Writers and poets such as Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, and Kofi Awoonor, now internationally acclaimed, looked upon Ulli as a colleague. He also edited Modern Poetry from Africa, (first published by Penguin in 1955) and translated Yoruba poetry, myths, folktales and contemporary Yoruba plays. He has also written a history of 20th-century African literature.

What Ulli did with the written word—encouraging Indigenous expression—Georgina did through art. The couple met in Nigeria in January 1960. As their personal lives merged, so did their creativity, in the heady days of African Independence, when ‘anything seemed possible’.

Georgina, a young English artist who had found art school too restrictive, left nine months into the course because she ran out of money.

When she first arrived in Oshogbo—the town in which Ulli lived—the young artist was greeted with the news that she was to give an art workshop.

‘I said, “I’m not!” because I wasn’t a teacher, and I’d never taught in my life. But Ulli had already advertised it, so I had to do it.’

Now, with over 30 solo exhibitions under her belt, and as many group shows, including at the Tate Modern in London, Georgina Beier has worked with a variety of media: paint, textiles, drawings, murals and welded iron sculptures, as well as designing book and magazine covers. She has also been a theatre designer, working with actors, musicians, dancers and masqueraders. Yet to see the way she blends colours, and her unique style on canvas, one can understand why paint is her preferred medium.

Back in 1964, however, little did Georgina realise that her art workshops, conducted at the Mbari Mbaya Club in Oshogbo, a town of 120,000, would be the forum from which several of Nigeria’s best-known artists would emerge: artists whose work is now exhibited and sold internationally.

‘Georgina saw the possibilities in people, and she believed in them’, says Ulli. ‘Everybody needs this.’

In the book, Thirty Years of Oshogbo Art, artist Muraina Oyelami reflects: ‘If we had gone to University art school we would not have been able to develop that inner eye so early. Too many things would have been imposed upon us and it might have taken us years to free ourselves from that “education”. That is why we Oshogbo artists can call ourselves lucky; because we were allowed to remain ourselves from the start ...’

The Mbari Artist and Writers Club in Ibadan, the second largest city in Nigeria, and the local Oshogbo Mbari Mbaya Club, became cultural centres in which Nigerian playwrights, actors, musicians and artists flourished, in the early post-Independence era. Yet had it not been for Ulli Beier, conceiving the project, securing international funding and working with local writers and artists, those clubs may never have existed.

Wole Soyinka—who later became the first African to receive the Nobel Literary Prize—collaborated with Ulli to create the Mbari Artists’ and Writers’ Club. A cross between a Paris café and a cultural venue, it housed an art gallery, small library and a bandstand for theatre and music.

The local Oshogbo Mbari Mbaya Club, while smaller than its Ibadan counterpart, soon became a major venue for contemporary Yoruba theatre.

One of those Oshogbo playwrights, Duro Lapido, was an engaging man with only primary education. Ulli explains: ‘Duro wrote the most fantastic plays there, that were not only performed at the Club, (in Oshogbo), but also on radio and television, and taken around the country on tour. Duro Lapido’s Yoruba Theatre Company became so well known that in 1964 they were invited to the Berlin Theatre Festival where they had the most marvellous audiences.’

Decades later, a number of actors, playwrights, artists and writers who performed in the two Mbari Clubs still sustain their livelihood through their artistic talents.

Yet the Mbari Clubs were not the only sources of support for artistic initiatives. Ulli and Georgina opened their rambling three-story Brazilian-style home, all 16 rooms with six verandahs, to artists and writers whose creative talent they believed in. The Beier house offered not just studio space, but for several it became their home. It seems the building and maintaining of relationships has been as integral to the Beier’s modus operandi, as is the creativity they each possess.

Ulli and Georgina Beier had certainly found their niche in Nigeria, and may have stayed, had it not been for an unexpected phone call. A professor from Papua New Guinea who had read Black Orpheus, rang to find out what Ulli thought about setting up the university’s literature department in Port Moresby. The idea appealed. In 1966, Ulli and Georgina left Nigeria. After a few months in England, and the birth of their first child, they departed for Papua New Guinea.

In England they had searched for information on Papua New Guinea but soon discovered that little had been written about the contemporary situation. All they could find were books by anthropologists and missionaries—with nothing written by Indigenous writers.

While Ulli set to work at the university, with a freedom he could only have dreamt about in his early days in Nigeria, Georgina soon realised that the art-workshops she had developed in Africa were not appropriate—the people were far too shy. She would therefore have to find another way.

It was while pondering this, that an article in the newspaper caught her attention. It was a report on the poor conditions in a local psychiatric hospital. That, she thought, might be a good place to start.

The artist soon began classes with 12 patients. Georgina describes the energy, the colour and images of their work as ‘spectacular’, and before long, the patients’ work was exhibited internationally.

In terms of her own art and the media she worked with, Georgina was fond of experimenting, and Papua New Guinea soon offered the opportunity to branch out. Welded iron sculptures and the screen printing of traditional designs became a part of her repertoire. She also set up a remarkably successful cottage industry for local artists and craftspeople to print textiles with New Guinean designs.

Meanwhile, at the university, Ulli embarked on a new style of creative education. His first course, ‘Oral Traditions’, encouraged students to draw upon stories from their own lives and the communities that surrounded them. For contrast, rather than only impressing European literature upon them, he also introduced them to African and Indian writers.

Arriving eight years prior to Independence for Papua New Guinea, Ulli realised that what had concerned African writers 20 or 30 years ago—issues such as colonisation, Independence and the rediscovery of their own identity—were key concerns facing contemporary Papua New Guinean society. With this in mind, his courses in ‘New English Writing from Africa’, as well as ‘The portrayal of Papuans in Mainstream Australian Literature’, and ‘Emerging Aboriginal Writers’, were established.

In 1969, Ulli was invited by Dr H.C. Coombs, the newly appointed head of the Australia Council, to write a report on the arts in Arnhem Land. This led to the creation of the Aboriginal Arts Advisory board, of which he became a member.

In PNG, Ulli fostered creative writing, much as he had in Nigeria. Several plays were produced, some of which were performed internationally. Ulli was also instrumental in writing and publishing the first ever autobiography of a Papua New Guinean. From a series of interviews he compiled Albert Maori Kiki’s autobiography, Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime. Prime Minister, Michael Somare’s autobiography soon followed.

Nigeria, however, was never far from Ulli’s and Georgina’s thoughts. In 1971, they returned for three years. This was an opportunity for their two sons—their second child was born in Port Moresby—to experience the culture that had captivated their parents. When they returned to Papua New Guinea, the country was on the brink of full Independence.

Through all of this travelling, Ulli and Georgina had never experienced culture shock. Four years later, however, moving to Australia, they suffered their first bout. Neither of their sons, Sebastian and Tunji, were accustomed to living in a Western city.

Even earning an income, writing book reviews in the Sydney Morning Herald, had its challenges.

The Beier family were now living in Australia, but they were restless. Their hearts seemed to be elsewhere. It was only after they succeeded in bringing Mathilas Kauage, one of their New Guinean artist friends, to Sydney to work and exhibit in their home, that they felt more settled.

This was also an important time for Georgina, an artist who draws much inspiration from cultures she has been immersed in. She painted five canvasses, each taking three months to complete, ‘that brought two decades of struggle to a conclusion’. Four of the paintings were bought by a bank in Germany, the fifth was acquired by a collector in London.

Their attempt at settling in one country, however, was short-lived. The prospect of establishing the first institution in Europe devoted to the promotion of contemporary Third World art, lured Ulli, Georgina and their children back to Europe.

The University of Bayreuth had an African Studies Centre. Its Vice-Chancellor, who had been keen to establish a museum of contemporary African art, offered Ulli, guest professor at that time, the position of curator.

‘If it’s not just a museum, but runs like a gallery with changing exhibitions, if we can have African food, but above all, if we can have African artists and musicians in residence, who are able to interact with Germans, then I’ll accept.’

Ulli and Georgina founded ‘Iwalewa Haus—Encounter with the Arts from Africa, Asia and the Pacific’ in 1981, and ran it from 1981–1984 and from 1989–1997. Tunji, their son, a talented musician—in African drumming, South Indian percussion, and jazz—also made his contribution, as artistic director of the multicultural music festival ‘Border Crossings’ in Bayreuth. During this time, Ulli and Georgina continued to visit Nigeria, with Georgina giving seven workshops in Oshogbo between 1990 and 1994.

African artists, writers, and musicians came to Iwalewa House to spend up to six months in residence, working, exhibiting, performing and interacting with European, Indian and Pacific musicians and artists. It gave them the kind of exposure they never could have achieved elsewhere.

Although it was a very busy time, Georgina made time in her packed schedule for her own personal artistic endeavours, remaining intrigued by new media and modes of expression.

By the time Ulli Beier formally retired, he was already ten years past the regular retirement date. In 1997, with their sons pursuing their own careers, Ulli and Georgina returned to Sydney.

International film-maker, Paul Cox, who has worked on a book and a small film with Ulli, says: ‘When I think of Ulli, the words dignity, imagination, creativity, humility, and above all, humanity, come to mind. If Ulli was our Prime Minister and Georgina was Minister for the Arts, we would not have a “Third World …”’.

During the last seven years, based in Sydney, Ulli and Georgina Beier have continued to give workshops and guest lectures, and to foster the arts in the University of the South Pacific, while also developing relationships with Aboriginal artists and writers.

At Migila House, Ulli and Georgina stage concerts of multicultural music and poetry recitals. Ulli is busy putting their archives together and Georgina has recently embarked on a new series of paintings, so vibrant and intricate that one suspects they may be her most extraordinary paintings yet.

There is little time for rest, and one senses that Ulli and Georgina Beier like it that way.         

Michele M. Gierck is a freelance writer. All artwork by Georgina Beier, reproduced with permission of the artist.

Forthcoming books by the Beiers:

They keep their fires burning, edited by Georgina Beier. Conversations about African food, manners and hospitality. Bayreuth Studies, January 2005.

Decolonising the mind: The impact of the university on culture and identity in Papua New Guinea 1967–1971, by Ulli Beier. Pandanus Books, Australian National University, April 2005.

 

 

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