Have you heard the big news that ace Photographer, Sunmi Smart Cole is 80? Yes, he clocked 80 a few days back, but he does not look like an Octogenarian. He still looks refreshingly young. He is still the dapper-looking gentleman, who has now joined the elder statesmen club. He has always been a smart and clean dresser. He loves his suits and ties. He also wears good shoes.
He is regarded to be the father of Nigeria’s Modern Photography.
At 80, very little has changed about him. Though he has kept a low profile for years now, he is still his very active self. There is no doubt about it that age has mellowed him a bit.
A few days ago, City People visited him at his Lagos home and we found a man who is content with life. He lives in his own house, in a nice neighbourhood in Old Yaba, Lagos. His house is a mirror of the man, Sunmi. He is someone in love with nature. He loves his flowers. Just outside his flat is a well-tended garden of flowers and plants. His living room is a functional office, littered with photos, books, an antique piano, paintings & artworks. He is a collector of artworks and antiques. He has an old antique Rotary dial phone. That is the man Sunmi.
At 80, he is still as simple as he has always been. He loves his simplicity. Whenever he makes a call, all he says to introduce himself is: I am Sunmi Smart Cole or he simply says I am Sunmi. So simple is this grand old man of Photography that on the day he turned 80 he didn’t throw a big party to celebrate. He simply went to church for Thanksgiving that morning. He went for the early morning service at All Saints Church. From the church, a few of his friends followed him home to have a drink. Some of his friends sent cakes. He got 8 designer cakes, including one that looks like a Camera.
Why didn’t he have an elaborate celebration to herald his birthday, we asked. “I just didn’t want to do anything. I wasn’t in the mood. Though 80 is worth celebrating, the situation in the country does not warrant such extravagance right now. These are sad times. But I enjoyed my day. What touched me the most were the good things people said about me, through their messages. The President sent me a congratulatory message. Former Vice-President, Abubakar Atiku also sent his. He is one of those I used to cut his hair in my Barbers shop at Yaba, in those good old days.”
How has he managed to keep his good looks at 80? “Many people have told me I don’t look 80. I think it’s the Grace of God and I also think it has a lot to do with the kind of lifestyle I have lived over the years. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t take anything with Sugar in it. I abstain totally from anything Sugar because Sugar causes Cancer. I don’t eat red meat. I have not eaten red meat in the last 55 years.”
At 80, Sunmi Smart Cole has remained the highly principled, no-nonsense man he has always been. He can be uncompromising in his ways, especially if he feels what you are asking of him is wrong and unjustifiable. He is known to be a very meticulous person, with an eye for details. In his craft, he has made a good name for himself. He is good. And he has achieved a lot of feats that other Photographers are aiming to meet up with. He is a firm believer in the principle that when you want to do things do it right. People say I am uncompromising. Yes, I am. Why should compromise when I can do the right thing?
Sitting down with Sunmi Smart Cole for a few minutes will immediately tell you that you are before a knowledgeable man who is a bundle of talents. He is a repository of knowledge, especially the history of modern Lagos. In his discussion with you, he will recall dates, names and events in graphic detail. He never jokes with his TIME & NEWSWEEK magazines. He spent the better part of his life at Old Yaba and he was quite popular in those good old days, where he lived with all the big elites that ran Nigeria at that time. He has a deep sense of History and part of his regrets in life is that Nigeria has turned out to be the way it is. His knowledge of Nigerian history is deep and rich and he has a different perspective of the problem with Nigeria. One interesting thing many don’t know about Sunmi Smart-Cole is that he is self-taught. “I never went through formal school. The rest I taught myself”. Schooling stopped at the age of 14 for him. From ages 15, 16, 17 he went to learn architectural design and he did a few projects before he moved into other things S. S Cole is a man of many parts.
He was a great musician in his early days. He was a Barber who cut the hair of many eminent Nigerians who lived around Old Yaba & Ikoyi. He started out doing it for free before he started charging them. He has also been a great Horticulturist.
But it is in Photography that he has had a long & sustained passion. He is like very many successful people who turned their passion into big business. He picked up Photography at a young age in the late 60s. He bought his first Camera in 1976 at 5 pounds, 5 shillings. He has bought a lot of Cameras since then. “I started with Olympus OM2 in 1976. So, I did all my early works with this Camera before I went on to buy new ones.
Is he retired now at 80? Or when exactly does he plan to retire? “I don’t feel old yet. My mental faculty is still intact and functional. Apart from the fact that these days, I tend to forget one or 2 things, I am fine. I had a fall recently and I have been trying to get over that. So, I use my walking stick. Though I seldom go to events to take Photographs. There is still a lot I do here at home, which is still my functional office.
He has 2 sons Bankole and Tobi. One of them Tobi has taken after him. He is also an accomplished Photographer. He has a degree in Photography. He wants to be like his father. His other son is into Politics.
Let’s tell you more. This ruggedly handsome man was born September 25, 1941, in Port Harcourt of Nigerian-Sierra Leonean parentage. He is known for his versatility and range of interests.
Professor Jane Bryce & Jide Adeniyi-Jones wrote a definitive profile of him a few years back. His fame as a Gardener and involvement in environmental groups, such as the Friends of the Earth, The Lagos Horticultural Society (as a founding member) and the Sierra Club, are reflected in his sensitivity for natural objects. His love of Music and Fashion, and his varied experience from newspaper photo-journalism to being a father of 2 young men, enrich and inform his work as a photographer.”
“Although he is proficient in different artistic fields, Sunmi’s early education stopped when he became an elementary school teacher at age 15. His visual sense was already in evidence when at 17 he started training as an Architectural draughtsman. Buildings he subsequently designed include the country home of Sierra Leone’s late Prime Minister, Sir Albert Margai.
“He is also an accomplished soul music drummer and jazz percussionist. He was a founding member of the ‘60s ensemble, Soul Assembly. He taught himself to play trap drums in 1964, by watching the then Fela Ransome-Kuti (Fela Anikunlapo-Kuti) and his mother, Mrs Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, convert highlife drummer, John Okoh, into a jazz drummer. Smart-Cole used his lap as his drums.”
“Sunmi has performed or “sat-in” with well-known jazz musicians such as the late alto saxophonist Julian “Canon ball” Adderley; organist Jimmy Smith; trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie; and the late multi-instrumentalist FelaAnikulapo-Kuti.”
“Sunmi has also featured with pianist McCoy Tyner; singer and key-board player Segun Bucknor; the late pianist Art Alade and The Jazz Preachers of Lagos, Nigeria; drummer George B. Williams and The Jazz Disciples of Freetown, Sierra Leone; tenor saxophonist Yusef Lateef; and bass player Reggie Walkman. “
He was an original member of Jon Hendrick’s jazz musical, Evolution of the Blues (performed at the Paul Mason Winery, Saratoga, California, USA in 1982.
“He organised the first Nigerian Jazz Festival in 1964 at King’s College Hall in Lagos. In 1967, his barbershop, Sunmi’s Place in Yaba, was a trend-setting centre for the fashionable Lagos elite. In 1972, he went to the United States, where he worked as an electronic drafter and technical illustrator. His strong visual sense led him to embark on a photography course in 1976, at Foothill College in Los Altos, California.
“He held his first solo exhibition at Stanford University, California in 1978. In December 1978, he was invited by the National Council for Arts and Culture to mount an exhibition at the National Arts Theatre, Lagos. He continued to work to support his new interest until his return to Nigeria in 1982. Since then, Sunmi has consolidated his position, both as a professional photographer of international standing and leader of the field in his own country.”
“In 1983, Sunmi became the first Photo Editor of the newly established The Guardian newspaper. Readers looked forward to viewing his Black and white works in the weekly “Sunday Portfolio” a column devoted to his serious photographs with poetic/comical captions.”
“Subsequently, editorship of the weekly social paper, Lagos Life, gave him the opportunity to design a newspaper which reached a high standard both visually and in terms of content. Sunmi’s contribution to the development of Photo-journalism, through his own performance and encouragement of aspiring young photographers, was recognised in 1988 with the Nigerian Institute of Journalism Students’ Union Award (he has trained over 30 photographers free of charge).”
“In fact, the contribution he has made throughout his career has been marked with many awards.”
“Appointed Managing Editor of The Guardian newspaper group in 1988, Sunmi resigned in 1989 to return to full-time photography. The Sunmi Smart-Cole Gallery of Photography (probably the first in Africa) was opened in Yaba, Lagos, in 1990.
Sunmi was appointed chronicler to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1991, by the Hon. Minister Ike Nwachukwu. In 1999, he was appointed chronicler to Cross River State by Governor Donald Duke. His ambition is to set up a School of Photography in Nigeria.
Meanwhile, he has maintained his newspaper links by becoming a Contributing Editor and Director of Photography with ThisDay newspaper group. He is the Editor-in-Chief of SS-C Publications Limited (publishers of PhotoNews magazine).
On August 27, 1985, in the wake of a military coup, Sunmi stood with an eager group of journalists in the Bonny Camp barracks in Lagos, waiting to see who was to emerge as the new Head of State. Finally, Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida came out and with a wave and a flash of his signature smile, ducked into his car and was driven off. The image that was wired around the world that gave the international community their first glimpse of the new president was Sunmi’s. His subsequent trips with the President and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, General Ike
Nwachukwu, afforded him considerable access to and a unique perspective on the foreign policy of the Babangida years.
Smart-Cole’s second book, A Pictorial View: The Foreign Policy Landmarks of the Babangida Administration (in colour/black and white), was commissioned by the President. It was published in July 1993. His first book, The Photography of Sunmi Smart-Cole, with a foreword by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka (in black and white), was published by Bookcraft Ltd., in collaboration with DailyTimes of Nigeria, Lagos in 1991.
He has held over 30 exhibitions in 5 continents – including exhibitions in Nigerian missions in Addis Ababa, Brasilia and London (to promote the country’s image), as a cultural ambassador.
On March 23, 2010, The Most Reverend Peter J. Akinola, on the eve of his retirement as the Primate of All Nigeria (Anglican Communion), gave Sunmi a Letter of Commendation naming him the Chronicler of the Anglican Church of Nigeria.
Smart-Cole was one of the official photographers at the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) I Jerusalem, Israel, June 22-28,2008.