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Benin and imagery, symbolism renaissance

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One of Iyase-Odozi’s works


The past is not dead — it lives on in the present. This is how Princess Theresa Oghogho Iyase-Odozi perceives of the impact of history in her forthcoming show, Uhunmwen Vbe Ehinmwen and Master of the Circled Cross in Benin Kingdom.

On June 12, 2019, a packed audience comprising arts enthusiasts, critics, connoisseurs, collectors, curators, journalists and students converged on the Thought Pyramid Art Centre, Ikoyi, Lagos, for the press preview and art discourse of the works Iyase-Odozi will be showing during her travelling exhibition scheduled for October 2019.

The focus of her presentation and theme of for her show are enshrined in African experience of enslavement, colonialism, neo colonialism, as well as the brutal desecration of African arts and culture.She says the project is inspired by the ‘head’ mythology of the Benin and Yoruba people. A person’s head, spiritually, according to the two related cultures, determines his or her destiny.

To properly articulate her thoughts, there was a discourse, themed, Renaissance of Imagery And Symbolism In Benin Iconography: Iyase-Odozi’s Art Appropriation In Focus, which attracted Dr. Kunle Filani, Dr. Mike Omoighe, Kehinde Adepegba and Iyase-Odozi as panellists with Kally Ozolua Uhakheme as moderator. Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya and Prince Yemisi Shyllon were guests of honour for the event.

Scheduled as a two-year project meant to have been concluded in 2018, the works in research, the artist discloses, became more extensive than imagined. Iyase-Odozi has over the years developed interest in Benin culture and art history of particular interest to her is the icons found in Benin artefacts.

Supervised by Dr. J. Ajewole, Princess Iyase-Odozi has been fascinated by these iconographies for a while. She even sought to find the link between the batik tradition in Osogbo and Benin, working very closely and travelling with Nike Davies-Okundaye, a renowned batik designer and painter.

“A key ‘Icon’ found prominently displayed across most artefacts is the ‘Circled Cross’. This particular icon appeared in basically on most of the plaques where the Oba was represented in the 15th Century,” she reveals.

“Yes, the Benin people had contacts with Europeans, before Nigeria became a country, however, the depth of spirituality that the natives attach to the ‘Circled Cross’,” Iyase-Odozi says, but it “goes beyond colonial history.”

Iyase-Odozi, a princess from Benin argues that in ancestral value, “there are several folkloric interpretations of the ‘Circled Cross’, which has a spiritual undertone used during rituals and festivals.”She adds, “this exhibition has for the first time in the history of Benin unraveled the unidentified iconography and semiotics. This is a gift from the ancestors; not just a gift, but a treasure we need to tap into to secure the future.”

According to her, “the cross symbols appear on most of the exhibits,” to stress its importance in Benin iconography. She says: “Benin mythology is based on collections of their history, deities, ancestors, festivals, heroes and the people’s predilections.”

In her forthcoming show, the artist tries to translate the iconographies into 2-D mixed media paintings and transferred the intricate iconographies to textile motifs known as Iyase-Odozi Edo-Batik. She cites example of how the revelation about Benin ‘adire’ inspired her into further research and more facts on the people’s fabric culture. “It took me three years both in works and theory,” she says.

Her works also seek to revive the waning batik clothing culture in Benin and thereby impart some aspects of Benin culture to the younger generation through empowerment programmes.According to the artist, “to revive the clothing Batik culture in Benin, and to impact some of the aspects of Benin culture into the younger generation, we introduced an empowerment initiative programme to groom the younger ones to gain self-employment and paid employment. A general awareness of this 500-year old rich iconography of the Benin artefacts had been created.”

Excerpts from Iyase-Odozi’s Artist Statement: “This exhibition has for the first time in the history of Benin unravelled the unidentified Iconography/ Semiotics; translated the Iconographies into 2-D mixed media paintings; transferred the intricate iconographies to textile motifs known as Iyase-Odozi Edo-Batik; and seeks to revive the waning batik clothing culture in Benin and thereby impart some aspects of Benin culture to the younger generation through Empowerment programmes.”

Appropriating art in great depth that produces museum texture collection is not exactly new in the contemporary Nigerian space. However, most of such works, usually, end up in private collection, thereby lacking popular appreciation from the general public. Is there a future plan to dispense the Benin Iconography works of Iyase-Odozi as museum collection? “Yes, I see them as museum pieces,” the artist agrees. “I look forward to connecting with museums across the globe.” She hopes to reconnect with some museums abroad “that had extended invitations in the past.”

The significance of her works, she says, is that they will reposition Benin art and culture as well as attract tourists. Works produced for the solo exhibition include 45 mixed media works; Contemporary Benin Royal Altar consisting of a mixed media painting of a typical Benin Oba, four huge ivory tusks, 12 totems in Edo Batik of different sizes, four Uhunwum Elao (commemorative heads), 10 potted plants representing the Ebe Ewere leaves used during Igue Festival, and four long ancestral totems; then, the Edo Batik textile designs in different forms including 45 Edo Batik textile designs, 45 T-Shirts in Edo batik designs, and 45 scarf and mufflers.

During the art discourse, Filani looks at the history of iconography to the pre-colonial era and early civilisations, noting that Nigeria didn’t have art historians at that period, he, however, adds that this Benin iconography is a part of art history in Nigeria that should be celebrated.

For Omoighe, who encountered this phenomenon in 1971, this iconography testifies to the visual literacy of the Edos. He cites a cultural parallel in other cultures such as the Yoruba’s system of communication called Aroko. Kehinde Adepegba also corroborates this view, citing Adire traditions in Ibadan, Osogbo and Abeokuta as parallel cultural signposts.

Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya commended Princess for the devotion to the culture-rooted research.“She’s gone to the grassroots to dig up something that will be inspiration to people who love the great art. Art is not just drawing. Art is not just making pictures. Art is using ideas,’’ he says.

The famed art collector, Shyllon, believes that a book or a pamphlet should be done to document iconography in Nigeria to create a wider knowledge base for the younger generation.“We have to disabuse the mind of the average child that our culture, our customs are not evil as it is being portrayed. China today has their iconographies. They do not use Roman icons and figures. The Indians were colonized for 342 years by Britain, yet, they use their own language to communicate, even, in their parliament—English is their second language. Nigeria was colonized for 99 years. Our level of self-esteem is so low, and so we tend to believe that what the other man has is better than ours,’’ he says.

Scheduled to take off from Benin City at the Crowne Gallery in October 2019, the opening ceremony holds Saturday, 26 of the same month, showing till November 30. Hoping for “availability of funds and sponsors, we will be able to mount it in Lagos, January 2020 and in May, goes to Abuja to end up at GreenHouse Art Empowerment Centre, Olambe, Ogun State same year.”

Listed as objectives are: to honour His Royal Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo Ewuare II, Oba of Benin; to commemorate the occasion of his 2019 birthday celebrations in Benin; create awareness and publicise these appropriations of the rich Benin icons found on artefacts, dating as far back as the 15th Century; to provoke the potency and need for further studies on Benin Iconography both in Theory and Practice.


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