In Annandale, in Sydney’s inner west, on the Sunday just past, a remarkable man passed away. The next day a reader sent in an obit — it begins:

“Ulli Beier, the noted academic and promoter of indigenous arts and writing in Africa and Papua New Guinea died yesterday in Sydney aged 88 …”

Until I read the obituary, I had no idea who Beier was — this is what happens all the time — giants die in our midst unnoticed. A grand, monumental tree falls in the garden, and it’s like nobody (in our medialand) even knew there was a tree. Beier’s life/work was extraordinary and inspirational: his branches carried many birds to the sun’s light, his scattered seeds took deep root on two sides of the world; delving into his career reminds you of the power of ideas, of how an original vision can pivot an entire culture’s self-regard.

(More later on the genius PNG print above.)

Elsewhere, more engaged, the Nigerian Tribune reported:

Culture icon, Ulli Beier, dies at 91

4 April 2011

“Culture icon and a frontline scholar on Yoruba culture, Professor Ulli Beier, is dead …

His death around noon on Sunday, in Sydney, Australia, was announced by chairman of the governing board of the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding, Osogbo, Osun State, Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola, who quoted the deceased family as informing the centre in a telephone call.”

The reader who sent in the obit — posted on the PNG Attitude blog —  is Peter Kranz, formerly Director of the Information Resources Centre at the University of PNG. Kranz tells me that though he never met him, Bieier’s “reputation as a promoter of indigenous arts and writing was legendary. In fact he can be truthfully described as the father of modern literature by local writers in both Nigeria and Papua New Guinea.”

“The father of modern literature…in both Nigeria and Papua New Guinea!” So how legendary was Ulli Beier?

— “The Arts complex at the main campus of the University of PNG is named in his honour.”

— “He helped to create the first generation of Nigerian writers. He worked for them. He slaved for them.” — Odia Ofeimun, former president of the Association of Nigerian Authors.

— “He played a major role in the development of artists in the Mbari Mbayo group. He showed us the light.” — Yemi Elebuibon, Osogbo artist.

The serendipity of notices in university corridors

Born in Golwitz in 1922 into a German-Jewish family, Beier grew up in Berlin. They fled to Palestine in 1933 where in the later part of WWII they were interned as enemy aliens. In 1948 he studied Phonetics at the University of London, where, in 1949 he taught German Phonetics. This serendipitously led to the rest of his life: “He was walking along a corridor one day when he saw an advertisement for the position of Lecturer in Phonetics at the two-year-old University College of London in Ibadan, Nigeria.”

From a thorough 2005 article in Eureka Street: “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.

(Right: street style, Ghana/Nigeria 1950s.)

Excuse me, are you my second husband?

I have extracted these two paragraphs from an entertainingly informative article (get the pdf) by Professor Wole Ogundele of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria (in Glendora Review: African Quarterly on the Arts).

The name Ulli Beier was well-known in the English-speaking and German-speaking worlds from the 1950s to the 1970s. Especially in the 1950s and ’60s. it was invariably linked with that of Susanne Wenger, the Austrian artist who was his first wife. So famous was this man who had been working and residing in one West African corner of ther British empire that when he left Nigeria in 1966 for Papua New Guinea, no less a magazine than the TLS announced it. Among the Yoruba of western Nigeria, his name and Susanne’s have entered folklore while he himself has been transformed into a fictional character in at least two African novels in English.

Indeed, so much was he on everybody’s lips in Nigeria in these days that his second wife, Georgina, heard about him long before she met him. Living in the faraway northern Nigerian town of Zaria in the 1960s she had heard so much about him and had made it a point of duty to meet this man whose name was on everybody’s lips whenever she went down south. In due course, she and her first husband took a trip to Lagos. Their car broke down in one of the obscure streets and as they were standing around not knowing what to do, two white gentleman saw them and stopped to offer help. So eager was Georgina to seek out this man whose activities were well-known even in faraway Zaria that she wasted no time in asking if any of the gentlemen knew ‘Ulli Baya.’ One of them smiled shyly and, rather apologetically, confessed that he was Ulli Beier. Georgina [an ex-pat British artist, pictured above] had been convinced that the man bearing that name could not be anything but a Nigerian!

Busy? Crazy busy. (Unpacking a life, Part 1)

Ogundele’s article also slides in this paragraph, which packs a lifetime’s achievement:

The activities for which Ulli Beier became famous are: the founding of the seminal literary journal Black Orpheus and the club Mbari, both in Ibadan; the starting of the Osogbo Art Movement, his association with Duro Lapido, perhaps the most famous of Yoruba travelling theatre dramatists; the translations of Yoruba oral poetry into English and, with Gerald Moore, the first anthology of modern African poetry in English. He was also, in association with his first wife Susanne Wenger, famous for his support of the Osun festival in Osogbo.

This dense little parcel needs some unpacking:

Black Orpheus: the journal that launched Nigerian oral-based literature.

Mbari Club: founded in 1961 with the now famous Nigerian writers Wole Soyinka (now a Nobel Laureate), Christopher Okigbo and J.P Clark. The club was named by Chinua Achebe, author of the multi-million-selling Things Fall Apart. It developed a publishing house “that published what have become iconic works of modern African literature. (— Encyclopedia of the African diaspora)”

Duro Lapido: evived traditional Nigerian theatre, founder of Duro Lapido National Theatre. “On March 2, 1962, Ladipo founded in Osogbo the Mbari-Mbayo Cultural Centre, emulating the example of the Ibadan intellectuals and artists who had opened the Mbari Club.”

The translations: “He emerged as one of the scholars who introduced African writers to a large international audience by translating plays of dramatists that included Duro Ladipo of the Oba Koso fame. (– Punch, Nigeria)”

The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry: first published in 1963, it is regarded as the definitive collection of modern African poetry in English; the fourth edition was issued in 2007.

Osun festival: Osun Osogbo Festival is set in the groves, sacred to the Yoruba, on south west Nigeria. The annual festival now draws tens of thousands of devotees and tourists. “The custodian and priestess of the groves [was] an Austrian artist, Susanne Wenger, popularly called ‘Adunni Olorisa.'” It was Wenger who defended the groves from encroaching township and farmers. ‘The festival marks the renewal of mystic bonds between the river goddess and the people of Osogbo, who represent all of humanity.” It was made a UNESCO World heritage site in 2005. (The equally legendary Wenger died in Nigeria, in 2009 at the age of 95; pictured right in her 90s.)

+ + +

“How about setting up the PNG university’s
literature department in Port Moresby?”

And then, in 1966, Beier got a 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.” (Extracts from Eureka Street.)

“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.” It’s not too hard to imagine what might have passed through the mind of Beier, who had just spent 16 years fomenting a cultural revolution in Nigeria.

The UPNG had just been established in 1965, so anything was possible.

“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 …‘The portrayal of Papuans in Mainstream Australian Literature’, and ‘Emerging Aboriginal Writers’, were established.

In Manoa, the University of Hawaii’s Pacific journal of international writing, PNG teacher, scholar, poet and publisher Steven Winduo writes: “The UPNG … from the beginnning offered a creative writing course*. The teacher of this course was the catalyst and patron of PNG writing Professor Ulli Beier.”

*This strikes me as remarkable; way ahead of its time. The oldest writing program in the US is the famous Iowa writer’s workshop, founded in 1936; Michael Wilding did not set up the creative writing course at The University of Sydney until 1986-7.

In the meanwhile his artist wife Georgina started some art workshops at a psychiatric hospital, beginning with 12 patients: “… before long, the patients’ work was exhibited internationally … She also set up a remarkably successful cottage industry for local artists and craftspeople to print textiles with New Guinean designs.”

Two of the artists whom Georgina encouraged were Timothy Akis and Mathias Kauage. I have admired their work — so distinctive and original — being familiar with a Kuauge print at a friend’s house (his fabulous The first missionary shown up top), and from the excellent NGA publication, Papua New Guinea prints. Both artists are now celebrated and Kauage has been gilded with an OBE.

(Above: Tupela man, 1977, Timothy Akis, stencil photo-screenprint, from four stencils)

Let’s not read Errol Flynn; let’s write our own

In a blog about a PNG book seminar last year, Port Moresby journalist Malum Nalu writes:

Beier, as the inaugural senior lecturer in literature [at the UPNG], had a problem: where were the books relevant and accessible for his students?  Existing publications on PNG in those days were hard to find, with propaganda pamphlets from the Australia department of territories — insisting on the enlightenment of Australian colonial rule — not appealing.  Early novels were often racist and unrealistic, by writers such as Beatrice Grimshaw, while adventure yarns by Errol Flynn (who wisely gave up writing, for a career as a Hollywood star), were inappropriate [Flynn lived in PNG for a time in his 20s] … None of these publications offered Beier any promising material for young and enthusiastic PNG students.  In the university preliminary year in 1967, students were taught sufficient English skills to follow a university course, with those who opted to study literature armed with a tape recorder to record and translate oral literature from their village.  Some of these translations were later collected and published as parts of the Papua Pocket Series

Beier produced 25 volumes of poetry, and the series was continued (after his return to Nigeria) by Prithvindra Chakravarthi, with a further 11 volumes, making 36 in all, and have become collectors’ items worthy of republication. In 1967, Vincent Eri, then a student, brought Beier a story about Moveave in the Papua Gulf, and was encouraged to expand the story into a novel.  Thus Vincent Eri became the author of the first Papua novel The Crocodile.  Another literary achievement during those crucial years was the autobiography Kiki: Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime by Albert Maori Kiki.

One should note that the late Sir Vincent Eri was PNG’s fifth GG and that the late Sir Albert Maori Kiki was a pathologist and a founder of the Pangu Party with Michael Somare, serving as Deputy PM from 1975-77. Now a classic, Beier pieced together Kiki’s autobiography from many hours of interviews.

The power of an idea

In 1969 Beier launched Kovave: A Journal of New Guinea Literature, which also provided exposure for contemporary art, including illustrations and discussions of an artists’s works. In the same year Nugget Coombs, newly head of the Autralia Council invited Beier 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.”

When he returned from Nigeria (1971-74) he started a new journal called Gigibori with an emphasis on PNG culture. He became director of the institute of PNG Studies which published on “folklore, architecture, art, religion and music.” It was around this time that Ulli and Georgina initiated what became the Beier Creative Arts Haus. (Pictured right.)

By the late 70s, the Beiers had moved to Sydney with their two sons. But then Beier was lured to Germany to establish a museum of contemporary African art for a university. Beier to the Vice Chancellor: “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.” That was fine apparently as they went off and set up Iwalewa Haus, the Africa Centre of the University of Bayreuth.

Ulli and Georgina Beier returned to Australia in 1997 where their home, Migila House, was host to “concerts of multicultural music and poetry recitals.”

+ + +

Idea as pivot

So it is not for nothing Peter Kranz thinks “it is sad that no news of his passing has been covered in the Australian media, as he was a great man.”

Wole Ogundele ends his article with this paen to the power of an idea, an idea that pivoted a cultural view:

As famous and seminal as Black Orpheus was the Mbari Club. Also started by Ulli, it had the same philosophy as the journal, giving exactly the same respect and recognition that it gave to western-educated artists to local artists and performers … I make the point that both journal and club were so successful simply because, unlike even his Nigerian colleagues who thought that traditional Africa was a dead past, Ulli believed otherwise. He believed that traditional Africa was a living present to be proud of, and capable of showing the way to the future. He lived it, knew its worth, and tried to make his western-educated friends and colleagues see its values and beauty.

Picasso would surely have agreed. But that great Africanist would not have empathised with Beier’s gift. Like a sensitive gardener, Ulli Beier saw the potential in the plants before him, loosening and fertlising the soil, bringing bees and butterflies to pollinate and watching as blooms and fruit appeared across the valley under his sure and loving hand. Beier facilitated all manner of creativity; he had faith that talent might be found anywhere. And he had that beautiful and uncommon instinct: “I was willing to be totally surprised.”

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