Highlife in the city

Young artists in a new nation, that is what we are! We must grow with the new Nigeria and work to satisfy her traditional love for art or perish with our colonial past.
Uche Okeke

Lagos is one of Africa’s most vibrant and diverse cities. Since the late nineteenth century, its importance as a trading centre has attracted a unique mix of peoples from across Nigeria and the rest of West Africa. The years 1955-70 were an extraordinary period in the life of the city. Nigeria was moving towards and celebrating independence from British rule, which it achieved in 1960.

In Lagos, this energy was manifested in a self-confident popular culture, symbolised in our exhibition by Highlife music. Literature and the visual arts also thrived at the Mbari Writers and Artists Club, established in 1961 by a group of Nigerian artists, actors, musicians, designers and writers. In the words of one of its most famous members, the writer Chinua Achebe, the club was ‘a theatre in which to do battle’. Here politicised artists and intellectuals sought to shape a new post-colonial identity for Nigeria. Highlife music also reflected an incipient African nationalism, although it incorporated the sounds of Cuban rumba and Latin music. This process of fusion and exchange was one of the essential ingredients of Nigerian modernism. The coups of 1966, followed by the long Biafran civil war, ended this decade of optimism and caused many artists to flee the country.

Curated by Okwui Enwezor, writer, adjunct curator at the Chicago Art Institute, and director of documenta XI, who is based in New York and Chicago, and Olu Oguibe, an artist and art historian based in New York.

Mbari writers and artists Club

Artistic activity coalesced around the Mbari Club, founded by a diverse group of artists, writers, musicians and actors in the neighbouring city of Ibadan. Their intention was to develop a strong artistic identity for the new nation, celebrating Nigerian traditions while drawing on elements from other cultures. Mbari was an international environment, attracting artists from across Africa and beyond. Amongst the foremost visual artists associated with the group were Nigerians Bruce Onobrakpeya and Uche Okeke, the British artist Georgina Beier and the African American painter Jacob Lawrence, all of whose works are featured in the exhibition.


Mbari played a major role in the birth of modern African literature. Following the publication in 1958 of his first book, Things Fall Apart, a study of the impact of colonialism, Chinua Achebe was hailed as ‘the father of the African novel’. Drawing on the unique linguistic and narrative style of the Igbo, he created a new approach to the novel since, he later explained, ‘The standard English of Dickens and other writers we read could not tell the story I wanted to tell’. Another leading member of the group, the future Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, was the founder of Masks, one of the first professional theatre companies in the country. In just two years, between 1963 and 1965, he produced five theatrical works that would earn him a reputation as Africa’s foremost playwright. Black Orpheus magazine, co-founded by German academic Ulli Beier (the husband of artist Georgina Beier), provided a forum for writings from across Africa and its diaspora.


The booming economy and rapid urbanisation that accompanied independence led to a major building programme in Lagos. The shift from colonial enclave to a cosmopolitan, postcolonial centre made a critical impact on the city’s architectural development. A new society demanded a monumental, nationalist architecture to reflect its transformed status. This was realised both by expatriate architects such as James Cubitt, and John Godwin and Gillian Hopwood, and by Nigerians including Oluwole Olumuyiwa. The concrete structures they produced belong to the global modernist tradition, but have been adapted to the tropics and to Nigerian traditions through collaboration with the country’s leading artists. Paying little heed to any formal or hierarchical urban plan, Lagos developed into a tangled sprawl of contrasting districts, from the modern municipal centre, to the nineteenth-century ‘Brazilian’ quarter and the vibrant clubland. This eclecticism is part of Lagos’s special identity and appeal.

Highlife music

Highlife music is an expression of the creative effervescence of African popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s. The origins of this jaunty guitar music can be found in the music of the slaves. When these immigrants returned to Nigeria from Brazil, Europe, the US and the Caribbean in the nineteenth century, they brought with them a musical style that blended the sounds of all these areas into a new, Pan-African form. Many of these influences, such as Cuban rumba and Latin music, had themselves originally been based on African music. Since Highlife was multicultural and transnational, whilst deriving from original African forms, it captured the sense of an emergent African nationalism based on notions of cultural exchange. The great period of Highlife music arrived when the Ghanaian bandleader E.T. Mensah visited Lagos shortly after the Second World War. Almost overnight, the modern incarnation of Highlife emerged, becoming immensely popular with the new leisure classes. Highlife stars included ‘Cardinal’ Jim Rex Lawson, Bobby Benson and Victor Olaiya.