Bio Leo Ryan
HIS PEOPLE'S ART by Leo V. Ryan, CSV, staff 66-68
In early 1967 I transferred from Lagos as Country Deputy to Ibadan as Western Region Director. There I met Fred Englander, (14) 65-67, who was widely recognized as our best Yoruba linguist. Fred introduced me to HRH Adenle II, the Oba of Oshogbo. My Nigerian assistant, Alex Ojo Bamishe, trained me in palace protocol.
Soon we negotiated with the Oba the idea of bringing newly arriving PCVs direct to Oshogbo for cultural immersion, market exposure and further language training. A dozen PCVs worked in the Kingdom. Oshogbo is a commercial and cultural center, midpoint on the road between the market cities of the East and West. Oshogbo is the home to playwright Duro Ladipo and his Theatre Company; of the Banta Dancers and Oshun Shrine restored by Suzanne Wenger, High Priestess of the Oshun Cult. Anthropologist Ulli Beier with his artist wife, Georgiana, came in 1964 to study this unique Yoruba "village." By 1967 Oshogbo was one of Nigeria's 100,000 cities. New Oshogbo Chief This official photo was taken after Leo V. Ryan, CVS, was installed as an Oshogbo Chief
A Mbari-Mbayo Club opened in Oshogbo in 1961. Julian Beinart in 1960 and Dennis Williams in 1962 conducted experimental summer schools for young artists. Georgiana Beier organized a colony of six artists at her home (1964-1967). Jean Kennedy, wife of an AID employee, was instrumental in providing materials which permitted emerging artists to experiment in various art forms. Thus, Oshogbo became an art center with an emphasis on traditional Yoruba themes but contemporary in mode. Earlier, Fr. Kevin Carroll organized an artist’s workshop in Oye Ekiti to encourage traditional carvers to perfect their techniques while expressing Christian themes through their carvings.
Like most first-year staff and volunteers my art purchases were limited to so called airport art. Most of us acquired elephants, various figures, thorn carvings and masks. Only in my second year was I introduced to real Nigerian art. Alice O'Grady, (staff) 64-67, was active in Ibadan art circles and introduced me to some of her artistic friends. As my contacts with Oshogbo and with the Oba increased, so, too, did my contact with Oshogbo artists. Between Ibadan and Oshogbo visits my interest in Yoruba art deepened.
I became a modest patron of the arts and an amateur collector, excluding textiles, beads and masks. I concentrated on the works of Nigerian and Oshogbo artists. My collection now includes over 50 representative works.
Early in my Nigerian days, I befriended Lamidi Fakeyi, a famous third generation traditional carver. Over the past quarter century he has concentrated on popular carvings. He visits the U.S. regularly and I maintain contact with him through Professor Bruce Haight at Western Michigan University. Bruce is his biographer, U.S. tour and exhibit coordinator and U.S. contact. My collection includes many Fakeyi carvings. A panel he did for me in 1997 was the centerpiece in the catalog and exhibit for a 1996 retrospective on his artistic career at, Hope College, Holland, MI.
For me the greatest joy in assembling my Oshogbo collection was in acquiring the majority of the items directly from the artists. I knew Jimoh Buraimuh at 16 when he was experimenting with graphics and later with beaded works. I have three of his earliest graphics, a beaded panel and tabletop.
My collection includes batiks by David Josevne, and graphics by Florence Adeyewi, Jacob Afolabi, David Dale, Adebisi Fabunmi and Tunde. I have a Twin Seven Seven painting, a Ben Enwonwu sculpture, and four repousee metal panels by Asiru Olatunde and Bruce Onabrakpeye. My Onabrakpeye collection is 12 prints and graphics.
Oba Adenle advised me in June 1962 that he and the chiefs wished to honor me for my “commitment to fostering a Yoruba life, language and culture, and for the contribution of Peace Corps to Nigeria and Oshogbo.” I was to become the first American, and the third white person named an Oshogbo chief in the 1000-year history of the kingdom.
On 5 August, 1967, I was installed as the Asoju Atoaja of Oshogbo with diplomats, friends, Peace Corps staff and volunteers attending. Five governments were officially represented: England, Germany, Ireland, Nigeria and the U.S. Chief (then Col.) Olusegun Obasanjo and now President, represented Nigeria. The ceremony was widely covered on radio and in the press. PCV's & Staff with new chief Peace Corps volunteers and staff celebrate with HRH Adenle II, Oba of Oshogbo (holding septer), and the new chief.
My title translates as Asoju (The eye watching the outside world on behalf of), Atoaja (he who accepts fish from his people in tribute) of Oshogbo (kingdom on the shores of the Oshun River). Oshun is the goddess of fish life in river streams.
The ceremonies extended over three days. Aug. 4, I presented the traditional gifts and other gifts to the Oba and chiefs. Aug. 5, was the installation with two receptions. Aug. 6, the local Bishop celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving at the Catholic Cathedral. Ten Oshogbo artists exhibited during the festivities. They did a brisk business earning me further credit as a patron of the arts and commerce.
My Yoruba art collection serves to remind me of my Peace Corps days, my Oshogbo chieftaincy, and my deep affection for the Nigerian people.
Editor’s Note: Last Mar. 2, Brother Leo celebrated his Golden Jubilee as a member of the Clerics of St. Viator (CVS). He directed Peace Corps training for Brazil at Marquette 63-65 and was the test case for the appointment of a Roman Catholic cleric as a Foreign Service Officer (Reserve) when he was named Deputy Director of Peace Corps Nigeria in 66, and Western Region Director in 67. He has been a Professor of Management at DePaul University, Chicago, for 19 years and currently shares teaching responsibilities with colleagues at universities in Poland and Finland as well.