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Art: Impacting creative capitalisation in local centres

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Art works on display in Igun

There is a heap of metals in one corner of the shop at Timber Market, Awka. At the far end, a forge is glowing red. Anvils surround it. On the wall hung every kind of hammer, tong and spanner. Metal activities warp the environment.

Onyebubechi Chukwuma goes to stoke the forge, while his father, Ajuluchukwu, turns up the air valve waiting for the golden orb to emerge. Onyebubechi has been forging metal since he was 12. Now in his 40s, he has been on the job for decades. In the intervening period, he has seen the craft’s demise, because of technology.

From cutting the metals into sizes – depending on what is intended– to refining the metals in the forge and beating them to shapes, Onyebuchi is always involved in one activity or the other in the workshop.

With his device, Onyebuchi, perhaps, heats a piece of metal to a temperature where it becomes easier to shape, or to the point where work hardening no longer occurs.

The metal is transported to and from the forge, using tongs, which hold it in the anvil, while he works it with a hammer.

Finally, it is transported to the slack tub, which rapidly cools the metal in a large body of water. The slack tub also provides water to control the fire in the forge.

To function, a forge typically uses bituminous coal, industrial coke or charcoal as the fuel to heat metal. The designs of these forges have varied over time, but whether the fuel is coal, coke or charcoal, the basic design has remained the same.

Aside from Awka, communities known for blacksmithing in Igboland include, Agbaja Udi in Enugu State, Abriba, Abia State and Nkwere, Imo State.

Before the contact with Europe, smiths were important to the farmers, as everybody was engaged in agriculture. Smith forged hoes, cutlasses, digger and every implement used in agricultural production. They also fabricated ritual articles.

To protect the craft’s integrity, blacksmithing is not open to everybody. It is reserved for smithing families. They operate what is called Guild System, where, non-smithing families are not allowed to join. Nobody just goes in to learn the trade, because it is a highly respected profession.

Again, apprenticeship is from one blacksmithing family to another. It is very possible for a smithing person from one community to learn in another; it is allowed. But for somebody, who does not know what blacksmithing is, getting into a blacksmithing family to learn, is difficult, except where there’s friendship or a case where you have somebody who was sold as a slave; he can now work in the blacksmith’s house to work out his freedom.

The apprenticeship spans over a period of years and they have a god called Ogadazu, that’s the spirit of the blacksmith, which protects them.

In that case, he may learn. And by the time he learns, he will be initiated into blacksmith and he will swear to Ogadazu that he will never violate the rule of blacksmithing in the society.

At a crossroads on the edge of Ojah, a sleepy community in Akoko Edo North of Edo State, a market for clay pot is thriving. The pots are majorly used to store drinking water or cook in rural communities, sometimes; they are used as flower vases.

Apart from the clay’s uniqueness, pot making here is shrouded in mystery. It is believed that the clay from Ojah cannot be taken outside the village, otherwise, whatever is made with it, breaks.

Mrs. Juliana Isaiah, a woman, in her 70s, who has been moulding pots for so many years now, said, “I inherited the skill from my mother, who equally inherited it from her mother, so, the clay making runs in the family.”

Isaiah is pained that none of her children has shown interest in the craft. Aside from this, the woman is not happy that people are no longer buying clay pots. “It is no longer economically viable,” she said.

The woman noted, “I could make up to 300 within eight to 10 months and when I’m through, I burn them with fire so that they could become strong for use.”

When The Guardian scooped a part of the clay, she reacted negatively, as if a war crime had been committed.

“We don’t travel with it,” she shouted. “You can only do whatever you want here in Ojah. Initially, people used to come from Dagbala, our neighbouring town, but when they discovered that the pots they make, break, they stopped coming. It took time to understand this, but now everybody knows. You have to come and do it here in Ojah.”

She, however, lamented that many organisations, including government agencies and oil companies, have come on several occasion to interview her and take pictures and samples away, “but that has never resulted in any financial breakthrough.”

In Benin City, which prides itself as the home of black civilisation, traditional artworks and artefacts are very common.

Igun Street, located in the city centre, has well-established bronze and artefact shops that boast the best of Bini culture. The area also referred to as ‘Benin Heritage site’, plays host to hundreds of locals and foreign customers. The street is known for bronze casting with a combination of other forms of art ranging from sculpture to fibre pieces.

When The Guardian visited John Emuze Art Gallery, it discovered a craft lineage spanning up to the fourth generation. Abieyuwa, one of Pa Emuze, the managing director of the gallery’s children, said he learnt the trade from his father, whom, he said, also learnt it from his. “It is handed down from generation to generation,” Abieyuwa said.

He described the learning process as not only tortuous, but common to family members within the traditional bronze casting community.

“I learnt bronze casting from my family, because it was my father who taught me. My father equally learnt it from his father. I will also teach my children, because it’s a family thing. So, you can see, it is from father to son and so on.

“In Igun community, anyone you find carving wood or involved in any form of creative arts learnt it from his father. It is a father-child relationship art. A person must be an indigene of the community and from one of the three known for bronze casting. “The families are, Akenuwa, Ihama and Inneh. The Inneh family happens to be the traditional head of the community,” said Abieyuwa.

According to him, anybody who engages in bronze casting outside of Igun Street must have come from any of the three families or may have stayed there before moving elsewhere. “There are no rooms for apprenticeship in this business.”

He said, “in the years I have spent working as a craftsman, we have not taken apprentice or taught strangers or anybody trying to learn, because it is a family craft. We do not teach anybody outside the families known for making this work in Igun,”

Abieyuwa explained that there are various stages involved in the casting of bronze. The process, he said, begins with what he called the coiling stage, and then, to waxing, and eventually, the covering.

Other stages, he added, are the fourth and fifth stages, which are the casting and shining/filing. These are the final stages that produce the finish work called bronze casting.

Akwete weaver

His younger sister, Angela, who is also into the business, said that the average price of a piece of art ranges from N25,000 to N35,000 depending on the particular artefact.

She told The Guardian, “most of our customers are foreign nationals. Nigerians shy away from buying, because they consider our prices high, which she said is due to the high cost of production, as we source our materials from scraps, which are very costly to get, particularly, car parts such as, radiator and engine block. We also use water tap heads.

“We put them together and melt with fire to produce bronze. These days, people export scrap materials, making it difficult for us to get them.”

Materials and other items needed to carry out bronze casting; Pa. John Emuze added, include, mud, sand or clay, as well as metal scraps. He said all the five stages involved namely coiling, waxing, covering, casting, and lastly, the shining and filing must be adhered to in order to bring out the finish product.

A visit to Akwete, Ukwa East of Abia State, also showed a strong weaving tradition that has lasted for decades. Though, communities like, Nsukka, Udi and Abakaliki are noted for cloth weaving, Akwete is the most renowned of these weaving towns.

The Guardian gathered that Akwete weavers’ contact with Europe led to the invigoration of the craft. It brought about improved quality, patterns and designs. It equally offered alternative motifs, which the weavers copied.

Further checks revealed that the cloth is woven entirely from cotton, in a continuous warp, and supplementary weft patterning, using the broad vertical loom.

Historically, hand spun cotton was the most common material used, but modern weavers, both women and men, have adopted machine-produced cotton yarns and silken rayon threads of various colours.

Cloths woven from sisal-hemp fibers are of coarse type, and are used by masqueraders, and warriors, as headgears, among others, while those made from raffia use fibers on religious occasions like the Ozo titleship, and for mourning by women.

Hemp materials are used to weave towels, ropes and handbags, while more colorful cottons are used to weave cloths for everyday wearing.

The fabric became popular when Igboland became a centre of palm oil and kernel trade. People began trading Akwete cloth for other products in a barter arrangement.

By 1963, an exhibition dedicated to Akwete cloth was held at the Textile Museum in Washington D.C., which led to wider markets were created for this hand-woven material. The fabric enjoyed a wide circulation that the problem was not distribution of the products, but obtaining regular supplies of yarns at reasonable prices.

The indigenous inhabitants of Ushafa, a Gbagyi village, are known for their crafts, especially mat weaving, tie and dye and pot making.

Located in the midst of a beautiful array of interlocking hills, surrounded by lush green vegetation, the small settlement, which is about 45 km from the Federal Capital Territory, came to the limelight when America’s former President, Bill Clinton, paid a historic visit to the place.

What makes Ushafa thick is the pottery centre, which was established in 1991, as a relic of the Better Life for Rural Women Project of Nigeria’s former First Lady, the late Maryam Babangida.

Ushafa women were already practising pot making in their different homes before the late First Lady decided to organise them into a community where they could practice their crafts.

At the centre, products ranging from incense burners, Gbagyi pots, teapots, beads, satellite pots, candle stands, burnt bricks, interlocking bricks, insulation bricks and ceramic products. Besides, the centre is a training ground for students on internship.

Aside from Ushafa, all the six area councils in the territory claim to have large deposits of high quality clays, making the nation’s capital, theoretically, an 8,000 square kilometres of sticky, clayey landmass. In fact, for Gbagyi people, pottery is a natural calling.

From young age, the ladies learn how to make clay, using the traditional method of coiling. They make pots for use as water jars, cooking pots, bowls, and flasks from coils of clay, beaten from the inside with a flat wooden paddle.

They would impress patterns on top of the figures by rolling small roulettes of twisted string or notched wood over the surface of the clay, sometimes as horizontal banding and sometimes in vertical panels.

Michael Cardew, who was appointed to the post of Pottery Officer in the Department of Commerce and Industry in the colonial Nigerian government, in 1951, established a Pottery Training Centre in Suleja (then called ‘Abuja’) in April 1952.

By 1954, Ladi Kwali, the most popular Gwari potter, joined the Abuja Pottery as its first female potter. There, she learned wheel throwing, glazing, kiln firing, production of saggars, and the use of slip, eventually assuming the role of instructor.

By the time Cardew left his post in 1965, the Centre had attracted four additional women from Gwari: Halima Audu, Lami Toto, Assibi Iddo and Kande Ushafa. These women worked together in one of the workshops, which they called Dakin Gwari (the Gwari room), to hand-build large water pots.

Also, for centuries, Egba women had ensured that the adire (tie-dyeing) industry did not die by passing the intricate designing skills to their daughters.

The expansive Kemta Adire market in the heart of the historic town of Abeokuta bear vestiges of an age long trade that has engaged women for centuries.

The exquisite patterns which bear traditional Yoruba emblems and artefects are made by tying and stitching with raffia or cotton thread, or by using chicken feathers to dab painted cassava paste on the cloth, this then, acts as a resistant dye, much like the wax method used on batiks.

As a distinctive textile type, adire first appeared in the city of Abeokuta, a centre for cotton production, weaving, and indigo dyeing in the 19th century. The prototype was tie-dyed kijipa, a handwoven cloth dyed with indigo for use as wrappers and covering cloths.

When British trading firms flooded the textile market with colourful, inexpensive printed materials, the adire industry rose to meet the challenge.

The soft, smooth texture of the imported cloth, in contrast to the rough surface of kijipa cloth, provided a new impetus for decoration. The soft shirting encouraged the decorators to create smaller, more precise patterns with tie-dye methods and to use raffia threads to produce finely patterned stitch-resistant adire alabere. The smooth surface of shirting led to the development of hand-painted starch-resistant adire eleko.

Abeokuta has remained the major producer and selling centre of adire, but Ibadan and Osogbo also have a nucleus of women artists who specialise in hand-painted adire eleko.

However, in recent years, patronage by customers has not been encouraging.
The lack of patronage to the influx of foreign products, saying there was need for government to give more attention to the center, in order to revive its activities, which would attract tourists.

Like the coast battered by wild seas, these centres are facing strange weather condition. The last decade has seen activities slow down, as a result of financial crisis in the country.

Speaking recently in Abuja, the Vice President said Nigeria needs to push for a similar status with Dubai, which despite being an oil producing country, makes only 20 per cent revenue from oil.

This target, the government, said aligned with its policy, which seeks to discourage over dependence on oil earnings, especially with the entertainment and creative sector reported to have contributed 2.3 per cent which was approximately N239 billion to nation’s Gross Domestic Product, GDP in 2016.

There is no better time for National Endowment Fund to come on stream than now. The creative industry has been yearning for the private sector to make an input.

Stakeholders in creative sector of the economy have tasked government at all levels to invest in arts, culture and tourism, as it’s one of the ways it could boost the economy, create wealth and reduce unemployment in the country.

Speaking at a three-day art show in Benin City tagged, Art and Wine Exhibition, Director of Black Passionate Art Gallery, Mr Ugo Emmanuel Chidi, called on government to consider the potential investment in arts and tourism in its efforts to grow the economy.

According to them, it is a good means livelihood, which provides substantial income daily. Moreover, both skilled and unskilled workers can create jobs.

Aside job creation, experts believe the industry can boost foreign exchange earnings if properly harnessed.

Although many have ventured into the trade in recent times, to earn a living and reduce the pressure on the labour market, the industry still needs more hands. Graduates, school leavers and even those without formal education can find their niches in the industry.

Business activities had been boosted at the centre, when both government and private organisations, including secondary school students as well as primary school pupils visited during excursions.


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