Erhabor Ogieva Emokpae; Unforgettable master of African art
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. As a member of the Vanguard of African Artists, he consciously gave hope to upcoming artists and people around him.
Some of his works, including the copper murals at the Headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the replica of the 16th century Benin ivory mask, used as the emblem for the second World Black and African Festival of Art and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977 remain noteworthy. His murals and mosaics are also prominent features at the National Theatre and the Murtala Muhammad International Airport, both in Lagos.
Born on May 9, 1934 in Benin City, Edo State, Emokpae attended the Western Boys High School, Benin, and the then Government Trade Centre (now Yaba College of Technology), Lagos, from 1951 to 1953. After leaving school in 1953, he began work as a graphic artist in the Ministry of Education before joining an advertising agency from where he retired in 1976.
Emokpae was the secretary of Nigerian Arts Council from 1967 to 1975. He had earlier held the same position in the Lagos Art Council.Emokpae’s works revolved around the abstract areas of human experiences, which he expressed through a form he called ‘dualism.’ He defined dualism as “ an attempt to explain fact by reference to two co-existing principles — positive and negative — and that throughout the system of creation, the two opposites permeate the entire spectrum.
Some of his works, such as the giant mural outside the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs; the bronze friezes at the National Theatre, Iganmu, also in Lagos and 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. He also designed the maces of the University of Benin (UNIBEN) and the University of Lagos (UNILAG). He equally designed the interior of some notable organisations.
His most astounding work was the emblem for FESTAC, a replica of the 16th century ivory mask from Benin. The mask has emerged through the years as one of the finest examples of African and Black art. Benin kings in royal ancestral ceremonies wore the mask as a pectoral figurine. It was last worn by King Ovonramwen, who was dethroned by the British colonisers. Though the original mask is in the British Museum, Emokpae’s replica is on display at the National Museum, Lagos.
Described as a modern master of the chisel and brush of the African Art, Emokpae held many solo and joint exhibitions in different cities in Nigeria, Britain, Brazil, Germany and Canada.
In 1980, he was conferred with the national honour of Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) for his contribution to the development of art in Nigeria and Africa.He died in Lagos in February 1984 and was buried in his hometown, Benin, Edo State.