23 March 2020
Ulli Beier at the British Library
I occasionally come across relevant materials in the British Library collection in connection with my original mandate on the Yorùbá print materials (see earlier blog post), even when they are not published in my target language, Yorùbá.
Recently, I stumbled on the materials on Ulli Beier, the German writer, editor, curator, and art scholar and enthusiast who lived in Nigeria between 1950 and 1966, and whose papers and other archives reside now in Osogbo at the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding, and at the Iwalewa Haus at Bayreuth University in Germany.
The distance between Beier’s work and the Yorùbá collections at the Library isn’t much, in fact. The writer’s creative output during his stay in Nigeria includes a number of original writings in the Yorùbá, translations from and into the language, and the promotion of work of writers producing in the language to the rest of the world. His work of translation of traditional Yorùbá poetry, myths, and proverbs into English are some of the most notable works of documentation done by any one person during that period.
His interest was in art and oral literature, but also drama, performance, and written literature. He helped introduce to an international audience, some of Nigeria’s later successful writers and artists, from Wọlé Ṣóyínká to Chinua Achebe with both of whom he founded the Mbari Club in Ìbàdàn and the M̀bárí M̀báyọ̀ in Òṣogbo; Dúró Ládípọ̀; and many others he published in Black Orpheus, a literary and arts magazine he edited. His first wife, Susanne Wenger, remained in Òṣogbo and became a devotee of the river goddess, and artist. As a creative writer himself, Beier also often published under the Yorùbá pen name "Ọ̀bọ́túndé Ìjímèrè".
The following are some of his works — or works related to him — that I have found in the British Library Catalogue relating to Yorùbá.
- The Stolen Images (1976). A short story for children centered around art and performance, particularly the performance of Oba Koso by Duro Ladipo. It is fiction, but it blends a lot of elements from real life and the Nigeria of the 60s.
- Yorùbá Poetry: Traditional Yoruba poems collected and translated by Bakare Gbadomosi and Ulli Beier. With eight silkscreen prints and ten vignettes by Susanne Wenger. A special publication of “Black Orpheus”. (1959). This book, featuring translated Yorùbá poems about particular deities, food items, animals, and concepts, also includes original images painted by Susanne Wenger.
- Three Nigerian Plays (1967) This book is peculiar in that it not only includes the original text of Duro Ladipo’s Moremi, but also has The Scheme by Wale Ogunyemi and Born with the Fire on his Head by Obotunde Ijimere (which is the pen name that Beier often used).
- Yorùbá Poetry: An Anthology of Traditional Poems Compiled and Edited by Ulli Beier and Illustrated by Susanne Wenger (1970). This collection, like the earlier one, focuses on concepts, deities and ideas in Yorùbáland.
- Yorùbá Myths (1980). This book, illustrated by Beier’s second wife Georgina, has a collection of popular and obscure Yorùbá myths, gathered and translated into English from Yorùbá and in some cases from French. The original sources included Yemi Elebuibon, Ulli Beier, Bakare Gbadamosi, and Pierre Verger.
- Les masques Guèlèdè (1966) This is a short pamphlet, written in French, about the Gelede masks in Yorùbá art and religion. It also has a lot of drawings of masquerades wearing the mask during performances.
- Thirty Years of Oshogbo Art (1991) A collection of stories, narratives, photos, and memories of people who lived in Osogbo, interacted with the art movement of the sixties there, and worked with Ulli and Georgina Beier.
There are a number of other works about Beier, not particularly relevant to this write-up, just as there are a few dozen others about his work on Nigerian poetry in English as well as his work on Papua New Guinea. All these can be found in the British Library catalogue.
Here are a few more, including some published under his adopted Yorùbá penname “Ọ̀bọ́túndé Ìjímèrè”.
- Asiru: A New Yorùbá Artist (1965)
- Modern Poetry From Africa (1963) with Gerald Moore
- The Imprisonment of Obatala, and other plays. English adaptation by Ulli Beier.(1966)
- Contemporary Art in Africa (1968)
- Introduction to African Literature: An Anthology of Critical Writing from ‘Black Orpheus’ (1967)
- The fall of man. According to an ancient manuscript discovered in the sacred city of Ife, and believed to belong to one of the lost tribes of Israel. Deciphered by Obotunde Ijimere. (1973)
- The Return of the Gods: The Sacred Art of Susanne Wenger (1975)
- A Dreaming Life: An Autobiography of Twins Seven-Seven (1999)
- Omoluabi: Ulli Beier, Yorùbá Society and Culture (2003)
Researchers interested in the life and work of Beier will find a lot to benefit their work using the Library’s extensive collections on the man without whom a lot of what came to define Nigerian literature and art movements in the sixties and seventies may not have come to be.
Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.