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Suzanna Ogunjami: an Enigmatic Modern Artist

Simon Ottenberg[1]

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            In 1960 Evelyn S. Brown, Associate Director of the Harmon Foundation in New York City,[2] wrote to the modern artist Miranda Burney-Nicol (Olayinka Burney-Nicol) in Sierra Leone, enquiring of what had become of the artist Madame Ogunjami, who “while not a native of Freetown, Sierra Leone, was the wife of an Anglican rector by the name of M. N. Ogunjami Wilson.”[3] Burney-Nicol knew of her but never met her and thought she was deceased.[4] Curiosity led me to the Harmon Foundation archives in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress,, where I learned that her first name was Suzanna (also Susanna and Suzanne), and that she sometimes went by her husband’s surname and at other times by his African name of Ogunjami.,[5] which name I will employ in this account of her art and life.

            Ogunjami claimed African heritage and beginning in 1928 and for some years the Harmon Foundation exhibited and sold her art with African American artists (Harmon Foundation.1971 (1935). In a long hand undated written statement which she probably prepared in 1934 for the Harmon Foundation, she wrote: “I belong to the Ebo Tribe. Both parents were member of the said Tribe of Nigeria, West Africa. I grew up in Jamaica and came from there to this country. I am interested in African textile work, the designing and weaving, also the manufacturing and dyeing of threads” (Ogunjami n.d.:1). From the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century Ebo was a common designation in the Western world for a people later known as Ibo and who are now sometimes called Igbo, the largest cultural group in southeastern Nigeria.[6]

            The Harmon Foundation typed copies of many of their artist’s statements and letters, but Ogunjami’s typed form of her longhand statement, dated December 20, 1934, is unusual in substantially differing from her longhand one, which is largely concerned with the production of African cloth and with African religion. Whether this difference resulted from an interview with her or for some other reason is unclear. The typed version focuses on Ogunjami’s career, beginning: “My people were Africans and belonged to the Ebo tribe in West Africa. Both parents were from Nigeria, where I was born. I had no art training in Africa. I was just trained in general academic work in Jamaica, British West Indies. I grew up in Jamaica and came from there to this country. Subjects [of her art] are taken from what I know of Africa and what I have read. I read things and then visualize them and then put it on canvas” (Ogunjami 1934:1).

            On the next page Ogunjami states: “I have not been in Africa for a long, long, time. The memories of Africa I have are from my childhood. The conditions existing in West Africa as to my pictures, are similar to Jamaica. There are some forbears who have continued the habits and customs of the tribes and the children and the children’s children still keep up these habits and customs of the tribes and still try to do the things they are taught in the way of making images and other things—Of course a lot of it has been lost. I m going into the primtives as far as I can so that people may now the truth about West Africa.” She attended primary and secondary school in Jamaica.

            In a single-page longhand statement for the Harmon Foundation, her husband, whose full name was Matthew Norman Ogunjami Wilson, wrote: “My father’s people are members of the Nupe tribe and my mother’s belongs to the Ebo tribe. I am a third generation Christian. My Father is the late Archdeacon of the Diocese of Sierra Leone, West Africa.[7] My native name is Ogunjami. I came directly from West Africa to the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church at 9th Avenue and 20th Street, New York City” (M. Wilson 1934). In a typed version of this statement he adds: “I am a fourth generation Christian—that is my Great Grandfather accepted Christianity, my Grandfather, my Father was a minister, and I am the fourth generation.”[8] Wilson was evidently a well-educated Anglican of Krio background from Freetown, Sierra Leone.[9] It was and remains customary for Krios to have an African name often from the Yoruba, as well as their English ones.

 

Introduction

First Artistic Experience in the United States

Exhibitions with the Harmon Foundation

Delphic Studios’ Exhibition 

The Harmon Foundation Film 

Evaluations of Ogunjami’s Art 

Ogunjami’s Writings on African Arts and Crafts 

Ogunjami’s Religious Background 

Doubts Arise 

Freetown and Jamaica 

References

Additional Primary Material

Extra Figures

 

Notes:

Ep. Dio. NYC Archives: The Episcopal Diocese of New York, New York City.

ESB: Evelyn S Brown, Associate Director, the Harmon Foundation.

MBB: Mary Beattie Brady, Executive Director, the Harmon Foundation.

MIR: Miranda Olayinka-Burney, also known as Olayinka Burney-Nicol.

SW: Suzanna Wilson [also known as Suzanna Ogunjami].

 


 

[1] I thank Janet Stanley, Head Librarian, Warren M. Robbins Library, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, for reading two drafts of this manuscript and for the countless times that she has assisted me with references and ideas for this paper. Also thinks to Dr Amy Staples, Curator of the Elliott Elisofon Photographic Archives at the same museum, whose assistance in this project was considerable. Chris Eden, Seattle, kindly enhanced certain photograph. Professor Steven Nelson, University of California, Los Angeles, helpfully called to my attention certain crucial information pertinent to this paper. Emeritus Professor Maureen Warner-Lewis, Department of Literatures in English, University of the West Indies, made valuable suggestions on a draft of this paper and provided very useful information. Randall Burkett, Curator of African American collections, Emory University, also was extremely helpful. Wayne H. Kempton, Archivist, The Episcopal Diocese of New York, New York City, provided me with very useful files.

[2] In the 1950s and until 1967 the Harmon Foundation gathered information on what they called African contemporary art and its artists, exhibiting and arranging to sell their artwork in the United States. See the summary publication, Evelyn S Brown 1966. Ogunjami is not listed in it.. From the late 1920s until the 1950s the Harmon Foundation dealt with African American contemporary artists in much the same way. For  some ears it also offered annual prizes to African American artists. Brady 1933:144; Harmon Foundation, n.d.(b).

[3] ESB to MIR, Nov. 10, 1960. 

[4] MIR to ESB Nov. 23, 1960

[5]  According to the Yoruba scholar, Rowland Abiodun, Ogunjami  is a Yoruba word, literally meaning “Ogun (the Yoruba God of Iron) fought me.” Abiodun believes that the term is a contraction of Ogunjafunni, meaning “Ogun fights on my behalf.” Among the Krio of Sierra Leone, Yoruba and other West African words are popularly employed as an extra  or “house name.”

[6]  For Igbo culture and society see Falola (ed.) 2005; Isichei 1973.

[7] For the father’s theological background see Crockford’s Clerical Directory, 1921-1922.

[8] Wilson 1934b:1. He arrived in the United States in 1910, according to the 1920 U.S National Census, and the List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States: S.S. Philadelphia. Sailing from Southampton, October 8, 1910. Copy in Ep. Dio, NYC Archives files.

[9]  Spitzer 1974, Wyse 1989.