Nigerian artists keep sculpture in the family
Princess Elizabeth Olowu, 77, sits on the sofa in her small living room, rubbing bronze sculptures with lemon juice to make them shine.
Her eldest daughter Peju Layiwola, 49, is showing off her latest contemporary art sculptures on the screen of her Apple laptop.
“Now I have evolved to other materials but I started with bronze,” she explains.
“It was easier for me, my mother already paved the way for females to be bronze casters.”
It was bronze art that made the reputation and the fortune of the ancient royal kingdom of Benin, whose history dates back nearly 1,000 years and which is now located inside southern Nigeria.
In days gone by, only kings could own sculptures, which typically represented former monarchs or creatures such as birds and wild animals.
A lucrative trade with Portuguese merchants was disrupted by the arrival of the British in 1897, who assimilated the kingdom into Nigeria.
Olowu lives in a faded house in Benin City, now the capital of modern-day Edo state.
There’s little in the property to indicate her royal childhood other than large dusty photographs of a young girl in sumptuous headdresses decorated with pearls.
Olowu’s father was king Akenzua II, who ruled between 1933 and 1978. She grew up in the splendour of the palace with her father’s eight wives and his many children.
“As a child, I saw sculptures, shrines, bronzes, everywhere in the palace,” she recalls.
“Art was part of the life of the people, through singing, dancing… I started with mud but I always wanted to cast bronze.
“My father gave me the go-ahead. He knew I was very adventurous.”
– A supportive father –
In Benin City, superstition had it that if a woman went into a foundry — particularly when she was menstruating — she would cause an accident.
“Or if she’s pregnant, the child will turn into bronze and will never come out,” says Olowu, sitting straight-backed on her sofa.
But she said Akenzua II was a man ahead of his time and always encouraged the education of all of his children, particularly his daughters.
Supported by her father, then by her husband, Olowu quickly made a name for herself across southern Nigeria as the country’s “first female bronze founder”.
Her works only feature women — typically pregnant or surrounded by children, always naked and with great sensuality.
Nudity wasn’t an issue in the kingdom. Princes and princesses were traditionally swathed in a simple white cloth, often bare-chested, wearing long coral necklaces.
– Ancestral art –
Olowu describes herself as a feminist. She gave birth to eight children but always kept working, even when she was pregnant, she says.
Her daughter, Peju Layiwola, smiles. For her, feminism is more defined by women’s rights.
She has also cast bronze in the form of women’s bodies, albeit with simpler and more modern lines.
But the contemporary artist — who has exhibited in Dresden and Madrid and has her own art foundation in Lagos, Nigeria’s financial capital — now focuses on using fabric with her sculptures.
With a doctorate in art history from the University of Lagos, Layiwola teaches and curates at national museums, and remains faithful to the art of the kingdom of her ancestors.
She has also fought for the return of the “Benin Bronzes”, which were stolen by the British during colonial times and which largely remain in museums overseas.
One of her most recent pieces is a large mural in sculpted metal.
“I wanted to mix Greek mythology and Yoruba mythology,” she says, flicking through photographs on her computer.
“Their Zeus is equivalent to our Armariolum. The mermaid has also a similar meaning.”
Olowu dusts her sculptures to give them their original shine.
“She is very close to her work, so I don’t try to convince her to sell it anymore,” whispers her daughter.