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How Artists Appropriated 100 Years Of Nigeria In Whose Centenary?

By Taudeen Sowole
11 April 2015   |   2:01 am
Prof Peju Layiwola-led project, Whose Centenary? - conceived as a forum for creative and intellectual engagement in contributing to the celebration of Nigeria’s 100 years nationhood - revisits the remnant and scar of colonialism, making Benin a reference point.

procession from the King’s quarters at Akenzua Street through Airport Road, Ring Road, the Oba’s palace

Prof Peju Layiwola-led project, Whose Centenary? – conceived as a forum for creative and intellectual engagement in contributing to the celebration of Nigeria’s 100 years nationhood – revisits the remnant and scar of colonialism, making Benin a reference point.

The project, which features visual art spaces across many disciplines has 12 artists from three generations as participants: Elizabeth Olowu, Ines Valle, Jude Anogwih, Victor Ehikhamenor, Jumoke Verisimmo, Andrew Eseibo, Taiye Idahor, Jelili Atiku, Wura Natasha- Ogunji, George Osodi, Burns Effiom, Layiwola, and Ines Valle.

A tour project, tt took off at several locations in Benin, recently and is expected to continue in Lagos before the end of the year.

The gathering questions legitimacy of the Nigerian nation state, and coincides with the 100 years of Oba Ovonramwen’s exile and death in Calabar in 1914.

It has been argued that colonialism did Africa more damage than the supposedly gains. For eaxample, removing governance from the traditional leadership such as the kings (Obas), a school of thought insists, basically takes the people’s real value and virtue from the custodians of culture.

And when a people loses or have fragmented cultural values, quite a lot of things go wrong How do artists and others in the culture sector promotes the importance of traditional rulers in the governance of nation state like Nigeria? The project is a multi-dimensional art window that offers a different approach to the commemoration of the 100 years of the Nigerian State, Layiwola explains after the exhibition and performance closed in Benin.

“It raises questions about the formation of the Nigerian State but yet chooses to celebrate this great nation through the arts” Expected to continue in Lagos before the end of the year, the project, according to Layiwola draws attention to how British colonial masters merged the Northern and Southern Protectorates “without any input from the people who later became known as Nigerians.”

She argues that the aim of the merger, when viewed against contemporary events in Nigeria, “was anti-one nation..” To address the unity question about Nigeri’s nationhood, ‘Whose Centenary?. “chooses to do so through the celebration of the diverse rich resources in art and culture, which is common to all geopolitical regions of the country.”

She stresses how the resources, on which the country was colonised became the reason for artists to inject creative and intellectual contents “to celebrate the rich cultural traditions of Nigeria by going to Benin”.

Explaining Benin as a choice of take off, Layiwola discloses that it was informed by the richness of the arts and culture of the Edo people as well as being a place where a major historical event took place during the “plundering of many works of art in 1897 by the British colonialist.”

The works, mostly cultural and religious Benin objects, which have been subject of controversial ownership are currently housed in foreign museums across Europe and the U.S.. She laments the unnecessary legitimacy issue over the objects, saying it reminds the people about the tragedy of colonial contact in Africa.

And for the artists involved in the Centenary project “1914 becomes more memorable when we consider that it was the same year of the death of Oba Ovonramwen, the king of Benin, that was exiled to Calabar by the British” Despite the challenges of a nation state Nigeria, Layiwola concedes that there is always a reason to celebrate the country, given what she describe es as “ peculiar kind of national history and great artistic traditions.”

Basically, the argument of the project, she states “is that country should not be defined by the colonial period alone.”.

While accepting that colonialism brought about plundering of cultural artifacts, she notes the vital roles of values such as the pre-colonial elements like “the established guild systems that engendered the production of art that can be found in the city of Benin.”

Among such values, she recalls was “the kingship system in Benin, which encouraged the production of art and celebrated the artists who in turn represented their royalties.”

The pre-colonial era artists, Layiwola adds, were regarded as important in the development of the kingdom. In fact, the artists “were also historians who documented events happening in the courts in a special kind of way.”

But the tradition did not end with Benin Kingdom of old. She agrees that modern and contemporary Nigerian artists have continued in the similar “tradition of propagating the institution of king ship.”

This much, she argues resonates in Whose Centenary? For examples, “George Osodi in his series titled Nigerian Monarchs provides the opportunity to access the inaccessible through portraits of living and past kings of Benin.”


Project Initiator, Peju Layiwola. Behind is her installation titled Face/off. Photos by Jude Anogwih. 2014

Also, Layiwola’s installation titled Face Off mounted at the palace of the Ine n’igun (Head of the brass casters) celebrates creativity of Edo artists. She states:”In recounting the events of 1897 the installation of over 1000 heads combined with sculptures made by the Edo casters reveal a unique synergy that is occasioned by social change.

The metal casts, some representing the kings and other royalties, along with more contemporary images of Benin iconic works become a strong statement that transcend gender restrictions and deemphasizes patriarchal structures.

“His photograph of Oba Erediauwa, the present king of Benin taken in 2002 during the Igue festival shows him in a regal outfit and in a pensive mood.

This photograph has become an iconic image, standing tall at the Smithsonian African galleries as it flags off the exhibition of ohotographs of renowned Edo court photographer Pa Alonge currently on show in Washington DC.” Another photographer, Eseibo who had covered parts of the Igue festival in Benin, according to Layiwola, follows the patern of the traditional artists as he “depict the king as the dominant feature at the festival.”

In poetry, Layiwola sees Verissimo’s work as being “at the centre of the celebration of the enduring nature of kingship.” For photographer, Valle, Layiwola describes her work as defining the relationship between the Benin monarchy and foreigners dating back to the fifteenth century AD.

She adds that “as a Portuguese artist, her visit to Benin about 550 years after her descendants first made contact with Benin, speaks of a shared heritage and reveals the cosmopolitan nature of Benin which paid hosts to several nationalities including the Portuguese, French, Dutch and British.”

Layiwola notes how Valle and Eseibo’s joint contribution to this body of work draw from the archives. “Their works have come to reflect royalty, but more importantly, they reveal how the artists have moved from the local to the national, providing materials that have now caught up in the global discourse about art and ownership.”

From the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897 to the 1914 amalgamation, colonialism has left a scar that has been well documented.

But the new generation of Nigerian youth and perhaps future generation could lose this depth of history. How is the Whose Centenary ? project taking the youth along? “One of the benefits of this project is to draw awareness to historical happenings in Nigeria.

There is a sense in which a people become more patriotic when they learn about their history. It is only when one knows the past that one can understand the present and make projections for the future. We are bound to make mistakes of the past if we do not learn from the lessons that history offers.

Any society that deemphasizes the importance of history provides its citizenry with a warped sense of judgment. The WC project presents to the audience an alternative way of making easy recalls to history.

It is true that the youth of today do not know much of the history of this great nation. Part of the problem is the seemingly lack of interest shown by the national educational system. History has been yanked off the curriculum of most primary and secondary schools in Nigeria.

It is important that this trend is reversed. As an artist who dwells very much in drawing references from historical text, I feel this is one way of making history available through my art.” When is the Lagos end of the event holding? “Lagos provides the platform for the various artists to speak about their individual projects.

This segment would be curated by Jude Anogwih. There would be video streaming, performances, exhibitions, roundtable discussions and finally a publication of a book on this project. Some of the programmes would be carried out at the University of Lagos and other cultural institutions within the Lagos area.”