The death of German writer and arts scholar, Ulli Beier on April 3rd is a huge loss to the Nigerian arts industry. While in Nigeria as a lecturer at the then University College, Ibadan, (now University of Ibadan) he played revolutionary role in developing literature, drama and poetry in the country.
He was also involved the development of literature, drama and poetry in Papua, New Guinea. Alongside his wife, Georgina, also helped stabilise the Nigerian visual arts.
After his marriage to Austrian artist, Susanne Wenger, he began teaching Phonetics at the University of Ibadan. While there is cultural activism led him to ask for a transfer from the department of Phonetics to the Mural Studies department. While at the new department, he became interested in Yoruba culture and arts. As a teacher at the University, he lived in nearby cities towns like Ede, Ilobu and Osogbo. While living in these towns, he was exposed to the life and culture of the Yoruba people. He also founded the popular literary journal, ‘Black Orpheus’.
The journal quickly became the leading space for Nigerian authors to write and publish their work. The journal became known for its innovative works and literary excellence and was widely acclaimed. Later in 1961, Beier, co-founded the Mbari Artists and Writers Club, Ibadan, a place for new writers, dramatist and artists, to meet and perform their work. In 1962, he co-founded (with the dramatist Duro Ladipo) Mbari-Mbayo, Osogbo. In the early 1980s he founded and directed the Iwalewa Haus, an art centre at the University of Bayreuth in Germany.
Toyin Akinosho, literary enthusiast described Beier as a great teacher and lover of arts who influenced his interest in the arts. “Indirectly, Beier brought me into the arts, writing and culture activism. I was one of the few Science students in attendance. I wrote that event for Concord Newspaper and it was published. That got me to do some more writing for other newspapers. Today, everything I have achieved in the arts is tied one way or the other to that experience in Ife,” he said.
Beier also mentored some arts students in Osogbo who formed the famous Osogbo art school. Ifayemi Elebuibon, an Ifa priest and Beier’s student explained that late Beier founded Mbari Mbayo with Duro Ladipo in 1962, “Duro used to visit my master frequently,” he recalled. “He was fascinated with my voice whilst I recited Ifa oration (iyere ifa). Both of them encouraged me to come and work with them. Any time Beier was conducting a research on any Yoruba race, he would request me to do the research for him as the cultural adviser to Mbari-Mbayo cultural group. Beier introduced to me to how to conduct research on oriki of notable orisas and what lfa say about them.”
During his life time, Beier was also known known for his efforts in translating African literary works. He was one of the scholars who introduced African writers to a large international audience by translating plays of dramatists such as Duro Ladipo and publishing an anthology of Modern Poetry in 1963.
After Beier left Nigeria in 1968, he worked in Papua New Guinea and intermittently returned to Nigeria for brief periods. While in Papua New Guinea, he co-organised with Georgina Beier the country’s first art exhibition, at the University of Papua New Guinea’s Centre for New Guinea Cultures, featuring artwork by Timothy Akis. Ulli Beier created the literary periodical Kovave: A Journal of New Guinea literature, which reproduced works by Papua New Guinean artists including Timothy Akis and Mathias Kauage. His efforts have been described as significant in facilitating the emergence of Papua New Guinean literature.
While in Papua New Guinea, he encouraged Albert Maori Kiki to record his autobiography, which Beier transcribed and edited. The book, Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime was published in 1968. Until his death, he lived in his home in Annandale, Sydney, Australia.