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NGA… And search for a national gallery

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
12 December 2021   |   3:34 am
Nigeria is one of the most populous countries in the world and the most populous on the continent with an estimated population of about 250 million people and more than 300 ethnic groups.

Ebeten Ivara

Nigeria is one of the most populous countries in the world and the most populous on the continent with an estimated population of about 250 million people and more than 300 ethnic groups.

While Nigeria’s population and ethnic diversity have posed an existential threat to the nation, the exigencies of unity have become a national concern. The government has thus mobilised its resources to pursue national unity.

The National Gallery of Arts is one of the parastatals charged with the task of promoting Nigeria’s unity through its duty of preserving and documenting the country’s modern and contemporary art.

But it is challenged by the fact there is no edifice that could be called a national gallery. Recently, at a forum, themed, Beyond Art Preservation And Promotion: Gallery Edifice As A Major Drive For Diversification of Nigeria Economy, stakeholders in the visual art sector of the creative industry canvassed a befitting national edifice for the NGA.

However, they recommended a minority status for the Federal Government in ownership and operation of the national gallery, which should be funded on a Public-Private Partnership.

Other terms for the realisation of the project include: to create a national gallery in compliance with the digital world; create programmes and activities to work with artists on a continuous basis; continuation of major intellectual discussions on the value of art towards building on those poor areas of our history; explore new areas for national collection growth and make significant investments in personnel and train human capacity of the industry.

Director General National Gallery of Art Mr. Ebeten William Ivara said the idea of this year’s forum is to use it as a platform to create awareness of building a befitting edifice for NGA, which has been a cardinal part of his agenda since assumption of office. “No country worth its salt can do without a world class structure as its gallery of art. Smaller countries in Africa like Zambia, Gambia and Zimbabwe have showpieces as their National Gallery of Art, which attract local and international tourists. The South Africa’s National Gallery of Art has been in place since 1930,” he said.

Last year, at the 12th National Gallery of Art (NGA) Annual Distinguished Lecture, in Abuja, Prof. Jerry Buhari of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) also raised the need for art to be given its proper place beyond speeches and shelved policies, adding, it will “be able to redirect our energies, creativity and imagination toward new approaches in addressing national issues.”

Buhari noted that many issues challenge the development of art in Nigeria today, paramount of which are: Not having a national edifice for contemporary and modern artworks and the problem of managing art collections.

He disclosed the consequences of not having a national edifice. He called on the government to urgently fast track the building, at least, one national edifice for contemporary art in Abuja, with a profile that can accommodate the volume and diversity of artworks created in our vibrant art scene.

“It is important to rescue them from disappearance or relocation to other cultural arenas or even outright destruction. The profile and cultural significance of these works speak to the authentic Nigerian dream,” he said.

Stakeholders have noted that without a national edifice, it would be difficult to build a coherent art collection that could serve as a tool for nation building.

A physical edifice holding artworks that represent the artistic practice of a country, both the building and the works can easily and effectively deployed to build unity, integration and a national dream. The edifice could become a symbolic image that a country can be used to protect our shared cultural heritage.

A national edifice is able to rescue masterpieces of a country’s creative endeavours transfer them to future generations their tangible and intangible cultural value. It is a repository of artworks that by their nature require dedicated and appropriate spaces for storage, display and access for educational purposes, tourism, and celebration of human civilisation.

Guest speaker Omooba Yemisi Shyllon, who spoke on Beyond art preservation and promotion: Gallery edifice as a major drive for diversification of Nigeria’s economy, noted that Nigeria has the potential of attracting about six million visitors per annum to its national gallery, thereby generating an income of $56 billion per annum.

To achieve this, the above recommendations need to be taken seriously with a view to showcasing the inherent economic strength and human creative resources of Nigeria into providing some significant inputs in the diversification of the nation’s economy.

“Such diversification, arising from building and enhancing our creative talents, towards generating the much needed inputs for the growth of our galleries and growing the export of artworks,” he said.

Shyllon also said that Nigeria remains in need of a national edifice to conserve and preserve the modern and contemporary artworks of artists. Some of these works, he said, adorn private galleries, homes of collectors, banking halls, reputable public buildings and institutions.

“The artworks of many Nigerian artists are thus lost in the long run and their impact remaining uncoordinated for public exposure, permanent exhibition and promotion. It is not an exaggeration to state that the lack of a national gallery edifice is a key retardant to the development of modern and contemporary art in Nigeria. A national gallery edifice being a public space for the unique and important collection of artworks over time for the public benefit, tell some coherent stories in paintings, sculptures, and photographs, spanning decades and reflecting how artists in our nation have lived and responded to the myths of religion, history and contemporary events, covering human forms and our unique cultures,” he said.

According to Shyllon, a national gallery edifice constitutes a living legend of Nigerian peoples’ cultural achievements as expressed in art forms and is therefore an estimable resource for understanding our world and heritage. He noted that a national gallery therefore owes a national responsibility to cater for and add to the national collection for display to the public, in advancing scholarly search and to promote enjoyment and understanding.