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Creative artists walking in their parents’ path – Part 1

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Peju Layiwola

Art, in Nigeria, no doubt, is experiencing an explosion. Once restricted to ‘underfunded departments’ on university and polytechnic campuses and ‘overly dedicated starving artists’, it has gradually staked a claim for the country’s millennial culture.

From a sprawling cacophony of objects, photographs and films to videos, installations, sculptures, drawings and prints, sometimes even, sometimes uneven, haphazard selection, Nigeria has been orchestrated into a curatorial marvel.

The convergence that gave currency to Nigerian art was the Mbari movement at Ibadan. The essential nucleus of this movement was the writers and artists, who indirectly influenced the birth of Osogbo Art School.

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The singularity of focus in these artists made them influential supporters and intellectual contributors to national discourse. These artists, like the ‘rebels’ in Albert Camus’ L’homme Revolte (The Rebel), exercised responsibilities allotted them by their patriotic zeal.

These cultural nationalists, along the line, sired figures, who may not compare with them, in terms of depth, but provide artistic construct, which form part of the Nigerian narrative corpus of the contemporary times.

Leading the charge of creative artists walking in their parents’ path are Oliver Enwonwu, Prof. Peju Layiwola and Isaac Emokpae. The list is endless.

Benedict and Oliver Enwonwu
ODINIGWE Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu is arguably the most influential African artist of the 20th century. His pioneering career opened the way for the postcolonial proliferation and increased visibility of Modern African Art. He was one of the first African artists to win critical acclaim, having exhibited in august show spaces in Europe and the United States and listed in international directories of contemporary art.

However, few artists experience the honour of having one of their works become a national cultural icon. Enwonwu’s portraits of Tutu achieved this level of celebrity.

During his time, Enwonwu was well regarded and his art described as a “unique form of African modernism.”

He forged a philosophical basis for contemporary Nigerian art by fusing Western techniques and indigenous traditions.

The Ben Enwonwu Foundation, founded by Enwonwu’s son, Oliver, says this about the late master: “He is credited with inventing a Nigerian national aesthetic by fusing indigenous traditions with Western techniques and modes of representation.”

Professor Sylvester Ogbechie describes Enwonwu’s art as “[the opening up of] third space in art history whose nature and parameters are at variance with art history’s exclusionary narratives of modernity and its inscription of the modern artist-subject as a white, Western European male.”

Ogbechie says, “as an African modern artist, he used his practice to develop a new kind of modern art whose ideals of representation and notions of artistic identity were different from conventional art-historical narrative of European modernist practice.”

Born in Onitsha to a sculptor father and a successful merchant mother, Enwonwu had a gift for the arts from a young age.

At the age of 17, he enrolled at Government College, Ibadan, where he studied fine art under the supervision of art tutor Kenneth C Murray. Two years later, he received a scholarship to study at the Slade School of Fine Art at the University of London, UK.

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Enwonwu also studied at Goldsmiths and Oxford and later completed postgraduate work in social anthropology at the London School of Economics.

He is credited with inventing a Nigerian national aesthetic by fusing indigenous traditions with Western techniques and modes of representation.

In 1956, the young artist was commissioned to do an official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, becoming the first African artist ever to produce an official portrait of any European monarch.

Enwonwu took creative liberty with the Queen’s lips and made them fuller, creating controversy in the British art world.

Although the Queen publicly endorsed the sculpture, Enwonwu was criticised in some quarters for “Africanising” the Queen.

Creating a sculpture of the Queen was a great opportunity and Enwonwu naturally stood to gain professionally, but there were many who viewed him as “seeking validation from colonial masters” at a time when Nigeria was on the brink of independence, according to Professor Nkiru Nzegwu.

Enwonwu’s relationship with the Western world was complicated. As arguably the most decorated African artist in the 1950s and 1960s, he benefitted directly from his close ties to the Western art world. But as an African, he felt undervalued.

“I will not accept inferior position in the art world. Nor have my art called ‘African’ because I have not correctly and properly given expression to my reality,” he said in an interview with the BBC in 1958.

London-based curator Bea Gassmann De Sousa writes that Enwonwu saw colonialism as a force that “limits or impedes artistic creativity”.

Enwonwu supported the Negritude movement – an anti-colonial cultural and political movement founded by a group of African and Caribbean students in Paris in the 1930s – and created a series of paintings and sculptures of the same name, celebrating Africa and blackness.

“While Europe can be proud to possess some of the very best sculptures from Africa among museums and private collectors, Africa can only be given the poorest examples of English Art particularly, and the second-rate of other works of art from Europe,” he said in his speech in 1956. His speech was later published in Présence Africaine, a Paris-based pan-African quarterly magazine.

OLIVER, his son, is the President of Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA). His initial dream was to become a biochemist. He actually studied Biochemistry in his first degree. But today, his natural love for visual arts has taken hold of him. He has a master’s degree in visual art.

Making the switch to painting wasn’t very difficult because art has always been a huge part of my life. “As the son of a world famous artist, I observed him painting and grew an appreciation for art,” he had told the media in an earlier interview.

“While growing up, I also drew a lot, winning prizes in art at St. Saviour’s Primary School. I later attended King’s College, Lagos, for my secondary education. Here, I continued to excel in fine art, and was a utility decorator for the school when we had important events like prize-giving ceremonies. As well as gaining a distinction in all the sciences including mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, I graduated from King’s College with a distinction in fine art. My love for the visual arts continued at the University of Lagos, and while still studying for my first degree, I showed my work with leading galleries in Lagos. In 1997, I participated in my first group show at the Alliance Francaise in Lagos and the following year, I held my first solo exhibition in Lagos. Since then, I have participated in numerous group exhibitions and held several solo shows in the UK, at the Royal Commonwealth Society, London, Johannesburg, Dublin and the United States. My work can also be found in significant collections of art including those of the National Gallery of Art, Nigeria, the Bank of Industry and the Delta State Government, Nigeria.”

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Princess Elizabeth Olowu and Peju Layiwola
PERHAPS, where there is a far reaching influence is the relationship between Princess Elizabeth Olowu and Peju Layiwola. Incidentally, they are not only products of the Benin artistic tradition, but are ‘masters’ in a creative venture often seen as a man’s forte; with male artists dominating books and shows. In fact, the ratio of male to female artists in Nigeria tilts strongly in favour of men. In art schools, men are a majority of faculty members.

Princess Elizabeth Olowu is one of Nigeria’s most remarkable visual artists. She has not only set a pace for women, she has created something that will always be relevant in the history of Nigeria as a country.

The octogenarian is the country’s first female bronze caster and also the first female recipient of Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree.

Princess Olowu was born to Oba Akenzua II and had opportunity to learn how to sculpt items while she worked with her mother.

There were many sculptures in the palace; her childhood was that of royalty as she lived in the palace with her father’s eight wives and many children.

Life in the palace and the ritualistic needs piqued her interest in molding things. Her father who ruled between 1933 and 1978 gave her the go-ahead to explore sculpturing when he saw how adventurous she was.

She graduated in 1979 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She did not stop there. She started working on her postgraduate study in 1981. Her success with it made her the first female to receive MFA, first bronze caster and bronze founder.

One of the most remarkable works produced by this Nigerian bronze sculptor includes the autobiographical sculpture of a young girl sitting at a desk while engrossed in a book. The sculpture had a lot to do with her culture. In 1983, she made the sculpture of the Oba and Christ bearing the sins of humanity.

Oliver Enwonwu

Olowu’s most popular work is Zero Hour; this artwork shows a mother during childbirth as she drifts between life and death while trying to bear the excruciating pain of bringing her baby to the world.

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PROF. Layiwola is one of the few female artists defining the Nigerian art landscape. The academic has evolved to become a respected figure in the male dominated industry. She follows her mother, Princess Elizabeth Olowu — daughter of Oba Akenzua II of Benin — in a career as an artist, adding art history to the mix.

Though she started with bronze, like her mother, who paved way for females to be bronze casters, she now focuses on using fabric with her sculptures.

Her trajectory with textile further includes facilitating hands-on workshops on tie and dye, batik and silk painting at her Women and Youth Art Foundation (WYART) in Surulere, Lagos, and designing of costumes for the public art project, Whose Centenary?

Layiwola’s work, in a variety of media ranging from metalwork and pottery to textile and sculpture, addresses diverse strains of the postcolonial condition. She focuses on personal and communal histories, which centralise Benin as both an ancient kingdom and a contemporary city.

The professor of creative arts says her childhood in Benin City stoke the fire of being an artist.

The artist once told the media that she spent time there as a young girl, and was fortunate to see the city as a gallery: “People producing arts, all along the roads, on the streets; everywhere and you begin to know that this is a city of Art.

“On Mission Road, in all the streets we passed while on our way to school every day, you saw arts everywhere. So, that was much etched in my consciousness as a young girl growing up in the city. Having grown up in the city under the influence of my mother who is also an artist, it became easier for me.”

She was able to learn and be influenced by what she saw and what she had around her. “But more directly, my mother was more involved in community works, teaching women art. Then Edo State government used to commission art and she would be involved in those activities. During those trainings, I’d go with my mother with the techniques she’d taught me at home. So, even people realised that I could also follow in my mother’s footsteps and some of them could give me money for some of the works I did. For me, that was an inspiring moment. Yes, it was indeed. And mother told me that if I could follow the art, I would make a success of it.”

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Erhabor and Isaac Emokpae
ERHABOR Ogieva Emokpae was one of the sculptors and artists, whose works have contributed to placing African art in the global space. He was among the masters that sought to give a positive direction to art in post-colonial Africa.

Isaac Emokpae

He proved his potency in the art world through gigantic works he produced in public places during FESTAC ’77, as well as the decoration and embellishment of both the interior and exterior of the National Theatre. The notable ones among his works are the friezes at the Unilever House, Blackfriars, London, among others, are currently in different important centres in Africa, Europe and the United States of America.

Some of his works include the copper murals at the Headquarters of United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

He also designed the maces of the University of Benin (UNIBEN) and the University of Lagos (UNILAG), murals on Nigerian Institute of International Affairs on Kofo Abayomi Street Victoria Island and mural for Standard Bank now First Bank Western House and many more. He equally designed the interior of some notable organisations.

His murals and mosaics are also prominent features at the National Theatre and the Murtala Muhammad International Airport, both in Lagos.

His techniques, especially his sculptural murals worked more in fibreglass medium. He was one of the sculptors who popularised the use of fibreglass as a medium in art production.

Emokpae fulfilled the task of environmental embellishment as one of the functions of sculpture.

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With this, most of his works at the entrances of National Theatre could be said to be representation of human day-to-day activities.

He can also be said to have extensively experimented with interchangeability of positive and negative elements in his relief sculptures. Emokpae’s works revolved around the abstract areas of human experiences, which he expressed through a form he called ‘dualism.’

The sculpture mural at the Entrance “A” of the National Theatre, which can be referred to as most outstanding of the four works at each entrance can be said to deal specifically with the transfer of black culture to the world.

Emokpae’s works are expression of his personality. He was a gentleman and an ardent artist indeed. He could also be said to be an embodiment of tradition, a motivator and a dualist to the core.

“You will never tell him how it should be done. He was always thinking of newer and different ways of doing things,” Isaac says of his father.

To the late sculptor, in ethics, ‘it is right and wrong, in metaphysics, it is mind and matter; and in theology, it is a continuous internal difference or confrontation between heaven and hell or good and evil.’

BORN November 5, 1977, the visual artist, who has a bachelor’s degree in creative arts from the University of Lagos (2005), studied under the guidance of Professor Abayomi Barber.

The third son of Erhabor Ogieva Emokpae, Isaac, like the senior Emokpae, strongly “combines his poetic depth with artistic flair.”

“My late father has not been accorded the proper respect he deserves, maybe because most of his works are not in private homes but public spaces. When collectors don’t have any of his works to hold, his name becomes of little importance to them,” Isaac lamented.

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A self-proclaimed philosopher, Isaac is inspired by Leibniz, Descartes and Santayana, his religion (Christianity) and his culture (Bini).

“The themes I talk about in the exhibition include family, love, respect, faith, success through hard work. If there is one thing I inherited from my father, it is that a message is effective when it is simple,” he said.

His works are featured in renowned collections such as Deutsche Bank, Germany; the Centre for UNESCO, Louis Francoise, Troyes France; The Wheatbaker, Lagos; AXA Mansard, Lagos and Nigeria Bottling Company, Lagos.

As a second generation artist that grew up around the extraordinary, he is bursting with wisdom and knowledge that could only come at looking at the world differently and being all immersed in an outside the box creative home. The influence of his father is palpable.”

He brings eye-catching, well-researched exhibitions that capture the attention and ignite the imagination of everyone it is privileged to host.

With a renewed effort by Isaac and Mrs. Ighiwiyisi Jacobs (son and daughter), the narrative around Emokpae is tilting towards a trinity — Father, son and daughter. No doubts, a new narrative on Emokpae contributions to Nigerian cultural landscape is set to be written and even some of this unfinished projects like The Black Pot, an initiative for the promotion of Nigerian cuisines across the globe.

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