‘The demon is not in the artworks Christians, Muslims burn, it is in the people that need deliverance’
NELSON EDEWOR is Associate Professor of Fine Arts at Delta State University, Abraka. In this interview with Assistant Arts Editor, ANOTE AJELUOROU, Edewor highlights his larger-than-life sculptures, his simulation of ancient African art and how he is using his artworks as advocacy to correct idolatry usually associated with arts
What is the title of this work you have here at Delta@25 exhibiting stand?
I have called this work ‘Enigmatic Leader.’ I gave it that title because I have tried to create an outcome that provokes different forms of reaction. If you had been here earlier, you would have discovered that many people were saying, ‘why did this man come and bring shrine or things like that.’ It’s because of the nature and the size. When you say somebody or something is enigmatic, you are saying something that is more or less outstanding, something that is out of the normal.
First of all, you look at the size of the work. This is about 10 feet tall structure. It is hollowed out of pieces of blocks of wood. Ordinarily in woodcarving, you will discover that we (artists) use the inverted method and you carve out of the block. But what I did here is that I cut the wood into small pieces to form small blocks; every block was inserted upon each other as if you are building a house.
When you look at the work, you will observe that it is round in shape. It is like a house that has a door, which is expected that a leader should more or less attract, should be receptive. So, you have pieces of cloths (African print) of different styles and shapes and designs, which more or less represent different cultures and people that make up that big house I am talking about, which now houses everybody.
So, every leader has a foundation. Since leadership is not a one-day thing, somebody grows and develops over time in that particular house. It is like a tree that has a long stem and it begins to spread like an iroko tree. At a point, it begins to crystalize. That is why there is an opening in front and also African designs, which reflect the mindset to serve. Every leader must have a mindset to serve, someone who is responsive to his given environment. At the bottom, you see the fabrics representing the masses.
We are in a country where people rise to leadership position without a pedigree. For example, somebody leaves school today and goes into 419, makes some money, and the next minute he’s made a chief. There is no identified period of growth for the person to rise to that position and so you see a charlatan coming to take decisions over everybody. That is why our leaders are not receptive and people can’t even reach them and we often see that also in our political class.
How much is this work, ‘Enigmatic leader,’ a criticism of leadership in Nigeria?
It is a serious criticism. You know, artists react to the environment. We have our hidden meaning. Now, the hidden meaning in this work is to criticise our system today, where we have leaders that are not leaders. Leaders that stole their mandate, and we see it every day during elections. For example, we have the issue of budget padding and you call it constituency vote. How much of such money gets to the constituencies even when it is allocated?
I know of many so-called leaders, for example, even in our environment who buy okada (motor bikes) for some small boys and people hail them ‘leader, leader!’ Those things (bikes) usually maim these boys. Since okada riding is not any form of training that survives anyone overtime, these young ones are impoverished the more than when you gave them such pittance. The leaders we have today may look tall and big but they are not worth it. The qualities that make up leadership are not in them.
For example, I am a leader in my community. I build a house that is 10-storeys high and the next house by my side is a mud house. The truth is, I have seen a leader’s mansion being bounded by a mud house. All I am trying to say is that leadership should be a virtue and also for service.
You showed this work to the Vice President, Mr. Yemi Osinbajo. What was his reaction when you explained it’s meaning to him?
He didn’t have so much time, but when I mentioned the title, he and the governor, Mr. Ifeanyi Okowa, burst into laughter because I know that they, being intelligent people, should know what is right. Enigmatic leader. That is like a question. Are there such leaders, who are true leaders in the light of today’s reality?
You are known for your larger-than-life size works. What motivates you? How did you develop this kind of artistic style?
The simple answer to that is that maybe small men want to be seen and heard! They want to stand out. They don’t want to be lost in the crowd. They want to be able to express themselves in such terms that will be listened to. The truth of the matter is that I love big works. Like I told somebody sometime ago when she saw me at an exhibition in 1999 at Didi Museum, Lagos, alongside Alex Nwokolo, Abiodun Olakun and some other people… When she came in, she saw my work and asked, ‘Who is this Nelson Edewor?’ When I came out, she said, ‘No, it cannot be you. How can a small boy like you be doing this type of big work?’ I was just new then.
In fact, that was my first outing. That is just my own approach and I think it is working for me. I believe that art should be able to make you stop and ponder. That is the essence. After all, if there is no drama, it will definitely seem like an everyday thing. What you see in home videos, for example, is just our everyday life, which somebody films and exaggerates at one point or the other to draw attention to the idea. Poets do it. Writers do it and it is just my only instrument of drawing attention to what I do.
The second part of that question is that though you are a contemporary artist, your works are like artefacts. Sometimes, one might even think they are actually taken from our local shrines for display. Was it that you had contact with African traditional religion when you were growing up?
I have about two to three reasons for doing that. One, I want to confront the contemporary man with the past. I am an Anglican Priest, a Christian, for that matter. The truth is, we know the trajectory of the story, of how missionaries were burning these things (idols). As far as I know, the demon is not in the works that are burnt. It is in the people themselves. It is the people that need deliverance. It is not the artworks in shrines that need to be burnt. When you burn the artworks, then you have not done anything.
Let me tell you a story. We were somewhere one day when we got a convert, and as a church, we went to burn her idols and we were singing and dancing that we have done some very good spiritual work. Later in the day, the woman confessed and said that her deliverance is not really in those things that we burnt because those things can always be replaced. That her real deliverance is that she has been purged of such idolatry.
So, as I said earlier, I want to confront contemporary society with our fears and, more or less, tell us that it is not those images that are the demons. But the demons are in our hearts. They live within us. It is a spiritual thing. So, artworks should not be demonised.
In those days, when I was starting out as an upcoming sculptor, for example, they wanted to do one home video somewhere and they said they needed to use my work for a shrine. I said, ‘No, you can’t use my work as prop for a shrine.’ The works do not carry spirits. It is man that creates spirits. So, I want to confront them. I want to see how I can convert contemporary man’s mindset that these things are not idolatry. These things are real expressions of man like every other thing that God has created. It is man that more or less creates those systems.
The second reason is from my academic work. When I was doing my MFA, I worked on oil exploitation in the Niger Delta, which led me to the use of hollow pipes. I tried to create a contemporary man that is over-steeped in oil. All our talk is about oil. We have a mono economy, an oil-driven economy. Everything is about oil. So in 1999, there was Jese fire incident. There was that inferno and people were burnt to ashes. I then said that if my work will express the real feeling and anguish and deprivation that the Niger Delta man is facing, I should constantly represent that scenario.
So, I subject my sculptures to burning. I apply fire. There are times I will just put fuel and set the work on fire and the work will just begin to burn. The end result is that it gives me the surface quality that it burnt. I am trying to reflect what happened in Jese. There was a work I tried to put up sometime ago, which I called ‘Souls aflame’ because of that particular incident. That is another reason why I take this thing this way.
The third reason is that I want to see how I can simulate the past and the present. I believe that any society that loses a sense of history as we are doing now soon runs into ruin. For example, I was at home talking to somebody about the issue of language. African languages are on the verge of going extinct. My wife and I are Isoko. We speak Isoko, but our children do not speak Isoko because they go to school at an early age and learn to speak English. So the best our children can do is that they will understand both of us speaking Isoko but they may not speak. A generation will come that will not be able to speak Isoko to their own children; so, their children will not have a sense of the language.
We left our African system behind because of westernisation. It is so bad because none of our local languages can express most modern-day terminologies because we don’t have the vocabulary.
That is debatable because even professors have said that it can be done.
It can be done but it is not being done. I can’t see any lecturer anywhere, let’s say Engineering, that will teach Engineering in Isoko with all the terminologies as it is done in some other climes. You can teach Engineering, Mathematics in Chinese because they have been able to develop their own language and it is continuously been renewed. So their language remains contemporary all the time.
You were at the Faculty of Arts conference the other day. The paper I was to present is called Ibieka. It is an Isoko word for visual idiograms for expressing modern-day Niger Delta. Now the idea is being able to develop, to retain or to sustain a structure whereby our language is not totally lost. I am a contemporary man but we should not lose our past. That is what makes us true Africans. Whether we like it or not, the world wants to know what we can offer. I believe that if we run after modern technologies all our life, we will lose our own identity and in losing that, we will always play second fiddle. We will always be in the third world because we will not have anything to present to the global village. To me, a player in the global village is somebody that has something to offer in the comity of nations from his own environment.
You said earlier that your work recreates the past…
I do not want to represent the past. I want to simulate it with the present. We cannot represent it because the past is already past but then there must be a thread. There must be a link.
Some might take issues with you and say that the African past was not good all the way. So why do you want to simulate it?
Who said so? In the west, were there not also practices that we also say today were anti-social? It is in every system. Every system evolves and in evolving, you downplay some of those norms, which you believe are not essentially found to be helpful. You do without them. We cannot lose the things that define us. If we do, we lose everything. It was the discovery of the Ife works and those of Nok that finally made the world to understand that Africa was really a civilised society.
In 500 B.C., Africans in the South Sahara had the technology to build fire works. That good thing we already have, why should we undo ourselves by making it look religious, fetish and destroy it? The white man could not understand us. When the white man discovered the Ife works, they said, ‘no, these things cannot be African because they looked so refined and realistic. They could even stand with the ancient Roman or Greek pieces.’ But, thank God for what existed in Benin Kingdom that traces its bronze casting to Ife. So, it is that art which defined us; we should be able to keep it alive and keep building is because that is the foundation. That has nothing to do with the killing of twins or human sacrifices. I am sorry to say this but it is the fact. Christianity was also spread through harnessing of kingdoms, through wars. People were killed in the name of winning converts but that is not done anymore.
Let’s go back to a very critical point about the mistaken belief that demons reside in artworks and it’s impact on contemporary art where Christians and Muslims alike see such works as being fetish. How can these people understand this fresh perspective you have given about demons not residing in artworks?
The only way I can make them understand it is for me to confront them with works like this. It depends on the context of shrine. There is shrine everywhere. There is a shrine in the church. There is a shrine in the mosque. A shrine is a hallowed place of religious observance. Shrine is not African. Everybody has a shrine. You may have a shrine in your own house not because you are serving juju.
I built a shrine. When the work was being shown in Asaba, people who saw it were shocked. They said, ‘Who is bringing shrine here? How can this be art?’ I was called and I explained in my own little way and people started coming closer to it. When former Delta State Commissioner for Culture, Esievo Orezi, saw some of my pieces, she was surprised. But when she found out that the artist is a priest, she said that she would buy. She said that if a pastor can do this, then there is really no demon in these things. So you see the advocacy. The more I explained the better they understood that there is nothing wrong with the artworks. The shrine is not in the artworks. It is in our brains, hearts and mind. If we can liberate ourselves and our minds to see these works as they are then there is no idolatry anywhere in those things.