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On the ‘Siddon Look’ Awolowo statue

I cannot claim to have coined the ‘Siddon Look’ moniker for the 20-foot statue of Chief Obafemi Awolowo that the Lagos State Government (LASG) has plonked in an intersection of the road named after the late sage.

Obafemi Awolowo Statue Lateef Jakande Road, Ikeja.

I cannot claim to have coined the ‘Siddon Look’ moniker for the 20-foot statue of Chief Obafemi Awolowo that the Lagos State Government (LASG) has plonked in an intersection of the road named after the late sage. The ‘Siddon Look’ epithet originated during robust conversations in our community of art writers and critics, as a perfect expression of the consternation with which many of us greeted the statue. In the flood of criticism that trailed the unveiling of the statue, the state government, which had expected universal applause, was dismayed, and marshaled a slew of half-formed arguments after the fact, to explain the monumental blunder. In short, the journey of the new Awolowo statue is best described as ‘a series of unfortunate events’.

Some will argue along the following lines: ‘Na statue we go chop?’ ‘Of all our challenges, why is a statue important?’ ‘Is a statue the best way to immortalise Awo?’ ‘Why fight over a state?’ The first point to make is that there is no singular way of commemorating an immortal legacy, and a statue is as impactful as any other method. Secondly, statues are one of the ways in which we build the signposts of an ideal society that is worth striving for, which ties to the bread and butter issues that confront us daily.

Thirdly, statues and other works of art are worth engaging with or fighting over. Students in South Africa chanted ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ because statues matter and represent an entrenched daily reality, good or bad. ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ in turn inspired the ‘Fees Must Fall’ student activism in that country. The contention over statues and how they shape a nation’s identity and its aspirations for justice, led in part to the unrest in Charlottesville in the US. It was revealed recently that Rudyard Kipling only ever spent three days in Myanmar, yet his writings helped shape the country in the British colonial imagination, to the detriment of the people of Myanmar. When will Nigerians accept that art matters and statues are one of the ways in which the future will be bought or sold?

Indeed, as artist Olu Ajayi has stated, “You have the right to complain about any artwork that offends your sensibility whenever you see it.” The Awolowo statue offends sensibility on many fronts, and it’s regrettable that those responsible do not have the humility to issue a ‘mea culpa’. A thousand years in the future, archaeologists will excavate ‘Siddon Look Awo’ and say the people of his culture typically wore Timberland shoes.

In saner climes, if any authority wants to erect a statue to commemorate a historical figure, it would announce its intention well in advance, sample public opinion and consult widely. The bidding process for determining the appropriate design concept would be disclosed; the winning bid will be chosen from several artists of note in a transparent process. The intended symbolism of every aspect of the statue will be explained in advance, the antecedents of the commissioned artist made known. Above all, sine it will be paid for from public funds, it is imperative that the cost of the statue is disclosed and even debated.

No such joy with the Awolowo statue. No transparency whatsoever. Something just started rising on the Agidingbi junction. When it became clear that it was an Awolowo figure, I wondered about the fallacy of erecting a new one a mere 100 metres from a perfectly suitable statue of the late sage on Allen Roundabout. Then on September 23, the state government’s twitter account (@followlasg) tweeted that an “iconic” statue of Awolowo would be unveiled by Governor Ambode on September 26.” To which I responded that a statue does not become iconic by pronouncement; it would be determined by the monument’s interaction with the public mind and space over time. LASG further tweeted that “the new and befitting statue replaces the old Awolowo statue that was removed from Allen Avenue Roundabout”.

I was horrified. The ‘Awo’ statue on Allen, by respected sculptor Adeola Balogun, held for me a unique visual power and symbolism, showing the foremost nationalist standing – one hand raised in his iconic V-sign and the other on a pile of books, signifying his high intellectualism and legacy in education. Along Allen, I always instinctively gaze upon ‘Awo’ – there is something glorious and indefinable the statue inspires in me. There is also something reassuring in knowing it would always be there – representing constancy in a world of often bewildering change.

Ambode’s government has been accused of tearing down some structures seemingly only in order to build another in his administration’s name. This is partly why nothing is allowed to endure in our society, nothing is allowed to grow in significance over time. We pull down and replace, again and again. A makeshift society, we erect hollow structures that cannot stand the test of time. If the great iconic structures of the world – from the Houses of Parliament in London to the Eiffel Tower in Paris to the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro – were removed and replaced by every new administration, where would our world be?

A list of new public art obtained from Lagos State Government shows 19 pieces dotted around the city. Interestingly, the new Awolowo statue is not included. In any case, the governor unveiled the statue as planned, at an event attended by the Awolowo family. Now, if I were a member of Awolowo’s family and LASG said it was erecting a statue in his likeness and to his legacy, of course I would be happy to attend. We live in an amnesiac society that often forgets the contributions of Awo; memorialisation is necessary. It is natural that the Awolowos will have an emotional response. I note this because, in the face of mounting criticism, LASG namedropped Segun Awolowo and quoted him as saying the artist did justice to the sculpture. But I don’t suppose Mr. Awolowo spends time tasking himself on matters or art history or aesthetics. I have never seen him at any art exhibition or auction, he is not regarded as an art patron. We respect his standing as a member of the Awolowo family but we say his comments do not invalidate ours as art critics. At the end of the day, Awolowo belongs to all of us.

The state government only belatedly released the name of the artist responsible for the statue. It is not known that a pure art perspective was factored into the unveiling ceremony; the artist gave no statement on the podium to explain his aesthetic vision; journalists specialising in arts reporting were not invited. So, we now know that Hamza Atta – who sounds more like a businessman than a studio artist – erected the statue assisted by five unnamed others. Nothing Mr. Atta says inspires confidence in the credibility of the Awo statue. His reference to “local champions” when discussing Awolowo, is nothing short of unfortunate. Sadly, Atta is only paces behind the Lagos State Special Adviser on Culture, Adebimpe Akinsola, who referred to a full-bodied sculpture as a “bust”. I invite her when next she’s in London to pay a visit to the Nelson Mandela monument by the Royal Festival Hall, to know what an artistic “bust” is. Or she can google the image.

I have been in front of Nelson Mandela (by sculptor Ian Waters) and it is a great piece of art. The look on the Madiba’s sculpted bronze resin face as he gazes into eternity, moves the viewer with its integrity. ‘Siddon Look Awo’, meanwhile, is depicted with a resigned expression totally lacking in vitality. He seems to be looking no further than the bank across the road; if you look across traffic at ‘Awo’ from that bank’s frontage, he looks like a sitting duck. From whatever angle, he has an elongated neck and he seems to be slouched in his chair. This is unfortunate. LASG seems to think a sculpture is only powerful if it is of a colossal scale. Wrong. Let them look again at Ben Enwonwu’s eternal ‘Sango’ along Lagos Marina; one of the very best public art we have. You see it on a postcard and think it’s 10 storeys tall, yet it’s only a little bigger than life-size. Scale does not automatically translate to gravitas.

The state government has sought to rubbish concerns about the statue’s seated posture, telling us Abraham Lincoln’s is also seated. Apples and oranges. It is not that a historical figure cannot be shown in whatever posture, it is how representative it is of the persona, and how you do it. Hardly anyone who lived through the 1979 presidential election campaign remembers the leader of the Action Group and the Unity Party of Nigeria seated. In the public imagination in his milieu, Awolowo was a dynamic man of action, mercurial, on the move and moving the nation. The Lincoln monument is set in generous grounds in Washington, with nearly 90 steps to the seated statue. As you climb, you are ever so aware of your mortality, your puniness in the presence of greatness, and you’re humble and respectful at his feet.
And ‘Siddon Look Awo’? The setting on the busy intersection allows no such signification. The only passable installation view is of Awo’s back, as you approach from Agidingbi end – every other angle is a certified dud. The electric poles and wires criss-crossing over his head and intruding into nearly every photo of the statue, are a travesty. To cap the insult, they saw fit to inscribe ‘Awolowo’ in kindergarten squiggle on all four sides of the structure, insulting the intelligence of the public. However you look at it, the optics are bad.

Whose terrible idea is this whole thing? Like some, I am hoping another administration will come along one day and erase this monumental mistake. That will teach the Ambode government not to go about Lagos like a bull in a china shop in the name of art. Art administration requires gravity, thought, hesitancy – and a sense of responsibility beyond the immediate objective.

Despite the misinformation from LASG’s tweets, the beautiful Awolowo statue on Allen Roundabout was still there last week, albeit with evidence that a lot of activity is going on around it. Will it be removed or spared? It’s not clear. To the public, I urge vigilance. If it ain’t broke – as they say – Lagos government has no business fixing it. We must not lose ‘Allen Awo’. It has a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that ‘Siddon Awo’ lacks.

‘Siddon Look Awo’ begs the question: how do you erect a monument to a man so transcendent that most Yorubas of a certain age swear they saw him on the moon? Not like this.