Award-winning photographer, Sunmi Smart-Cole, who is 75 today, talks about his life and numerous interests
When do you remember about your boyhood?
I remember my boyhood as a time when I was unhappy because I wanted to go to school but I couldn’t. My schooling stopped at 14. Although I passed entrance examinations into Kings College, Stella Maris which is a Catholic school in Port Harcourt and Baptist High School, there was no money to fund my education and I could not get a scholarship. Instead, the bishop of our church said I should be given a job as a teacher. So from the age of 15, I taught till I was 17. I then became an apprentice to a draughtsman.
You did not have a privileged background…
There was no money and my mother was a dressmaker. Some people think I had a silver spoon-upbringing, maybe because of the way I carry myself or the way I live. I love to live decently but I am not rich. Compared to many people, I consider myself extremely blessed that at this time in my life, I have a roof over my head.
Since you did not have a formal education, how did you learn to read and speak the English Language?
I didn’t have a formal education but I’m self-educated. After standard six, I used to go to where second-hand clothing were being sold to buy second-hand books and magazines like Time Magazine ,
National Geographic , Readers’ Digest and News Week. I managed to read a newspaper everyday and I also read the Bible three times not for religious purposes but because I was searching for new words. I learnt to pronounce words by getting up every morning to listen to the BBC World Service. I listened to broadcasters like Sam Nwaneri, Ralph Opara, Segun Olusola, Christopher Kolade, and one Mr. Johnson in Ibadan. These men were trained by the BBC .
Growing up, what was your dream career?
Since I like to work with my hands, I chose draughtsmanship. Don’t forget that before the real architects with degrees came around, most of the houses in Yaba and Lagos Island were designed by draughtsmen. I designed the country home of the then Prime Minister of Sierra Leone, Sir Albert Margai, in his village, Gbamgbatoke. I was an architectural assistant with Construction and Design Ltd., Freetown. The most interesting house I designed was for Pete Myers, a BBC presenter on Good Morning Africa .
Why did you not continue to practise architecture?
All of the people who could employ me as a draughtsman thought that I must have attended maybe Yaba College of Technology or Ibadan because they had such schools in Enugu, Ibadan and Lagos. Then, I already liked dressing well.
A company called Nixon &Boris in Lagos and owned by a British and a German, saw my drawing. They liked my work and gave me a job without a certificate. A month later, they asked for my certificate and I told them that I didn’t have any. They asked me to go because at the time, all they wanted was a piece of paper. I was very bitter.
I saw Mr. Steve Rhodes and I explained my plight to him. He gave me a job as an artiste and road manager with his company,
RhodeSoundVision. My salary was £20 a month but I had a big office and for the first time an air conditioner. I did not have that at my home. What I had was a table fan and not even a standing fan. The company was managing the like of Fela Ransome-Kuti, Victor Uwaifo and Sonny Okosuns.
How did you learn to play the percussion?
There’s something a lot of people don’t know. Because of my training as a draughtsman, I used to design Fela’s flyers and posters by hand when he returned to Nigeria from England in 1962. I would paste them on trees inviting people to come to listen to Fela’s jazz group which was called the Fela Ransome-Kuti Quintet. At the time, I played the konga drums and other percussive instruments plus the wooden drums. Much later, Fela’s drummer left him. He had an assignment and he had to convert John Okoh, who was a highlife drummer to a jazz drummer. While Fela taught him and his band new techniques, I listened and that was how I learnt how to play.
Did you go into music full-time?
I had been adjudged one of the best drummers in Nigeria and I was a founding father of the soul and jazz group, The Soul Assembly, reputed for popularising African-American Soul Music in Nigeria. Notwithstanding, I have never played music professionally and I have never being paid to perform. I have never liked the lifestyle of many musicians. Some of them go to work almost every night. It is not an easy thing to jump around and perform. They then get very tired and that is why singers like Michael Jackson and Prince had to die because they were taking “lift me uppers.”
For how long did you work with Steve Rhodes?
Mike James, Nelson Cole, Segun Bucknor and I formed our own musical group and named it Soul Assembly. Steve Rhodes refused to manage our group, so I went to a nightclub called Maharani. I told the owner of the nightclub about our group and he said we should come for a one-hour audition on a Friday night.
After that first performance, a trumpeter called Agu Norris came to our office and was yelling, “Steve, your boys were great.” The man assumed that since Steve was in the business of putting bands in nightclubs, he must have put us at Maharani. I went to buy sausage roll and when I returned, I saw a letter terminating my appointment. I was sacked for conflict of interest. I ran to the home of Dr. Oladipo Maja to meet with his son, Kunle. I was bitter. That was when I spoke to a friend Niyi Soyode, who asked me to come to see his father. I met with his father and he gave me £20 with which I opened a barbershop. He gave me another £20 three months later. Within the six months that I was out of job, Fela made sure I had a meal with him every day. I ran the barber shop for four years and it was a cultural centre. People came there to read foreign newspapers and magazines because during the civil war, luxury items like foreign publications and butter were banned. The ban was lifted after the war in 1970. They also came there to listen to jazz, soul and classical music. On Friday and Saturday evenings, people came there to find out where parties were being held on weekends.
What spurred your interest in photography?
I shut down the barber shop in 1972 and I migrated to the United States, where I worked with VIDAR Corporation as an architectural drafter and technical illustrator. I needed something that I could use to express myself more and that is why I studied photography. I began my part-time study of photography in 1976, at Foothill College, California. I held my first exhibition at Stanford University’s Coffee House in 1978.
How did you get into journalism?
I used to accompany Ajibade Fashina-Thomas who was the pioneer Editor of The Punch to the stadium. I had a notebook and he would tell me to write down my observations. Later, he would review my report. Thereafter, I started contributing to either
Sunday Times or Lagos Weekend . I worked with The Punch and I was also at The Guardian where I became a managing editor supervising five publications.
Were you ever married?
I married an American who accompanied me to Nigeria. One day, she wanted to go out and all the cabs she hailed refused to stop. Instead they called her names like
asewo , a Yoruba word for prostitute, because she wore trousers. The word stuck and when I told her the meaning, she insisted on returning to the US. There was another time she sprained her ankle. She left and we did not have any children. When she got back to the US, she met someone she used to date before she married me.
Why didn’t you remarry?
I was going to marry the now deceased Remi Osholake, aka RemiLagos. She was sent by Nigerian Television Authority to interview me and we fell in love. It was a holiday job and Don Barber was the producer of the programme.
At 75, what are some of your high points?
I nearly fell out of a helicopter in-flight over Bonny NLNG. I was there to do some work and my co-passenger was trying to tell me what he could see. I unbuckled the seat belt, there was a jolt and I hit the roof with my head. I landed with my knee on the metal floor. I went for surgery in 2003 and my knee had to be replaced.
In 1986, a lorry hit my car at Cele Bus stop, Isolo, Lagos and I could have died. The third one was on a trip from Abuja to Zaria. I was in the convoy of a former first lady. The car I was in had a burst tyre and we were almost going under a trailer. The driver managed to regain control of the car. God showed me that He is alive and able.
What more do you want to achieve?
Some people say I am a man of many interests. Those are talents given to me by God. It is photography that I studied part-time but it was through my determination to succeed that I reached where I am today. I have exhibited in five continents.