Monday, 4th December 2023

Why artworks in public spaces should be preserved

By Omiko Awa
12 August 2023   |   3:12 am
Against the backdrop of rising cases of destruction or defacing of decorative artworks in public space, OMIKO AWA, in this report, interrogates the essence of such artistic resources and why it is imperative to preserve them. Most countries across the globe, especially the advanced ones, tell part of their histories, values and norms in paintings,…

A defaced painting of Alhaji M.K.O Abiola

Against the backdrop of rising cases of destruction or defacing of decorative artworks in public space, OMIKO AWA, in this report, interrogates the essence of such artistic resources and why it is imperative to preserve them.

Most countries across the globe, especially the advanced ones, tell part of their histories, values and norms in paintings, sculptures, installations, motifs, murals and monuments. They adore their cities with the masterpieces as a way of beautifying their public space, while latently instilling the spirit of nationalism and patriotism in the people, especially the younger generation.

In Nigeria, the case is different as most times, artworks in the public space are either defaced, disfigured or pulled down by unknown persons or even government agencies that should know better about the import of these works. From Imo to Enugu, Kano, Adamawa, Edo, Rivers, Lagos and other states of the federation, many works of art have suffered this cruel fate.

In Enugu State, for instance, concerned citizens alongside the art community have worked with Life In My City Arts Festival (LIMCAF), a not-for-profit organisation, to restore the Otigba (Drummer) statue pulled down by some unknown persons. Also, public criticisms have trailed the recent destruction of the famous Golden Jubilee monument in Kano State, with the government promising to restore it following the backlash.

Commenting on the increasing penchant for destruction of artworks in public space across the country, Godwin Archie Abia of the Win Arc Gallery, Lagos, said it is very disheartening to see the image of the nation’s heroes covered with political parties’ posters and company adverts, stressing that this attitude does not speak well of Nigerians and the legacy those heroes bequeathed.

He noted that defacing or disfiguring the statues of national heroes is disrespectful to their persons and families, and also a great disregard to the sacrifices they made directly or indirectly to nation building.

According to him, such an attitude is rare in places like the United States of America, the United Kingdom or even the Vatican City, where sculptures erected in the 18th century still abound and are maintained by their governments on a regular basis to tell the stories of the time they represent.

He said: “I don’t like the way people use posters and other materials to cover some of the artworks at the roundabout or on major roads in Lagos or elsewhere in the country. This attitude is not only killing our visual history, it is also making the children and the youth to have little or no regards for these past leaders whose images are on display, the events that made history and non-political figures like Moremi or the leader of the Aba women riot that led Eastern women group to kick against women taxation and other colonial government inhuman policies.

“In the advanced countries, artworks erected in the 17th and 18th centuries are still standing in their public space. These works are there not only for tourists, but also to tell what their nations stand for. These works tell of their various wars, conquests, defeats and culture.”

The creative station boss noted that the government could not hide under the guise of urban development to remove statues or paintings, stating that if a particular artwork is to be removed because of development, the government should look for another viable space to relocateit.

He stressed that artworks are public monuments that should not be destroyed because they represent a part of the people’s heritage.

Abia said that when the government destroys an artwork without explanation, the artist that installed it will be hurt because part of him has been destroyed, adding that an average artist is spiritually inclined to his creative delivery, because the work is part of his or her being.

“Just like me, my very being is in all my works and this goes for most artists. You create something out of yourself and you will continue to create part of yourself in your work. A woman with the issue of blood went and touched Jesus; what did Jesus say? He said a virtue has come out of me; other people did not understand Him. I don’t play with my works, which is why I don’t paint anything I see,” he said.

He advised the government to consult the art community if there is a need to remove an artwork in a public space, as some of them may likely have where to locate it; noting that this will not only serve as a motivation, but will also give the owner of the work a sense of belonging.

For Buchy Onyekwu of Igbo Ukwu Arts, Enugu, artworks either in the form of sculpture, decorative arts, murals, paintings or installations have their import in any society or community because they mirror the value system of the people in a particular country or community.

According to him, artworks showcase the people’s mentors, events that reorganised or dislocated the polity at a time in history, models, heroes and heroines and even buildings and landmark events. Onyekwu cited the mural on slave trade of the Aro Chukwu people as an example.

He disclosed that outside their aesthetics, artworks reflect the ethos of particular millennia of the people, their values and norms and those that have patterned their society till date.

Onyekwu noted that these works are very important because they inspire onlookers to greatness and as well celebrate unique characters of the people, adding that defacing or destroying them amounts to shunning that part of the people’s history and demeaning the image of the country.

“These are histories in art form that people can physically relate with and ask questions about them. These works help to explain why some things are done the way they are done or why some people behave the way they do. Artworks are holistic and a reflection of the people’s thought and way of life and if lost as a result of the carelessness of the people or ineptitude of the agencies in charge of preserving them and showcasing them to the public, it would mean losing part of our lifestyle and the essence of visual history.

“Defacing these works in any public space shows us as people that cannot conserve their histories or even appreciate their heritage and artistic expression. But one thing we have failed to realise is that the past is the birthplace of today, just as today is the birthplace of tomorrow and making the people, especially the youth, to see and identify with all these paintings would make them maintain the ethos of the society. We must let the coming generation know or understand how we were in the past and the events that have brought us to where we are today,” he said.

For Charles Botmang of African Arts, Jos, artworks are national monuments no matter their mode and form. “So far they are crafts that emanated from the people in the community they are installed and if by any means they are obstructing the construction of any road or constituting a threat and you have to remove them, it will be better to relocate them to places such as the tertiary institutions, public relaxation centres or arts institutes where they could be cherished by the public,” Botmang said.

While stating that there is nothing wrong in having art installations around market squares or garages, Botmang noted that some of the nation’s public spaces are so bare that one would wonder if the artworks removed from some locations cannot be taken to such places.

Defaced paintings of some of the nation’s leaders at Under Bridge, Ikeja

For the sculptor, the only way out of the hurdle is for the people to hold the government accountable or constantly engage the agencies concerned. He also tasked the arts community to constantly create awareness on the essence of these artworks, describing them as the soul of the society.

On people who mount pressure on the government to remove or destroy some of artworks under the pretext that they are against the principles and precepts of their religions, Botmang explained that artworks come in multifaceted dimensions and mean different things to different people.

According to him, such people are not fair because the country is a secular state. He noted that the sacred art is foreign and does not project Nigeria’s traditional value system, national or local heroes and heroines or some of the events that happened during colonial rule like the coal miners revolt, the Nzemberom festival of the Berom people or even our ethnic and civil war.

“This means they do not relate culturally to our people, yet we find them in some of our public spaces. I should be able to look at any of the paintings around to see any of our national heroes like Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Tafawa Balewa, Queen Moremi, Queen Amina, Alimotu Pelewura, among others. Relating with these figures gives me hope of unity, peace, nationalism and patriotism,” he said.

However, Abiodun Oluwaoyemite of Abbey Ultimate Concept and Entertainment said the government is at liberty to pull down any artwork that is not in good taste or one that is weak, has structural defects or is likely to cause contention in the public.

Oluwaoyemite added that it would be better to pull down such structures than to keep them standing and invite trouble.

He, however, observed that Nigerian’s appreciation of artworks is very poor, stressing that this is the major reason the treasures are defaced, dismembered and even covered with shredded clothes or all manner of posters.

Drawing a cue from what happens in advanced countries where artworks are very much appreciated, the artist called for a law that will punish offenders, saying there should be consequences for every action.

“Our level of reasoning is different from the way Europeans reason because they are used to seeing artworks as sacred and use them to adore their public space. For us, we see some as being mystical and therefore should not be toyed with. In Europe and other parts of the world, artworks tell their history and represent a memorial, but here, we take them more for their aesthetics,” he said.

A professional studio artist and tourism photographer, Moses Eboigbodin Oghagbon, stated that notwithstanding that some artworks could be found on the Internet, they are best appreciated live, adding that destroying or defacing any artworks no matter its form should be discouraged. He noted that some of the works are precious to their owners, saying it might have taken some of them many years to deliver.

He said: “No government would want to kill its arts and culture because they constitute the past and present, and give direction for the future. These public treasures are passed from one generation to the other and tell the story of what happened in the past or are currently happening in the society. However, this rot is happening in the country because many of our leaders are ignorant of the importance of arts and visual history; they are most times misinformed and misdirected about the arts.”

The documentarist called on the government to empower its orientation agency to enable it educate the people on what artworks mean and the image it creates before tourists and other foreigners coming into the country or are already in the country.

He noted that in some advanced countries, mere going through some of the paintings, drawings and sculptures on their streets would give any tourists what the country stands for, their values and the heroes they hold in high esteem.

“There should be a re-orientation of the people about arts and the essence of artworks on the street. If only our government could follow the examples of the advanced countries, including the United Kingdom and other European countries, it will discover that these countries start telling their citizens about arts from the nursery school and it continues to the tertiary institutions. Doing this does not mean one will pick up a career in arts, rather it is for the people to have the basic knowledge of the arts. Art is life in the sense that every field of human endeavour has a bit of it.  So, art is everything.

“Even though buildings, bridges and gardens are part of the decorative art of any city, most people still relate to paintings, sculptures and other monuments because they tell the pictorial stories. These art forms should be highly respected for what they stand for. They commune with the people, mentally, spiritually and otherwise. They showcase the people’s mentors and model aside from directing the youth on the path to toe.

“Placing these murals and other artworks in public space is like teaching the people history and our culture, while they move around. These works are like catalysts that would urge the onlookers to think of how to impact on their immediate community for good,” he added.

Commenting on the soothing essence of artworks, Oghagbon disclosed that some people leave their homes to some locations where there are artworks not just to admire them, but to enjoy the therapeutic benefits.

According to him, artworks are like music. “They could give a soothing effect and also make a moody or sick person recuperate faster than expected,” he said.
“The destruction shows how we have deteriorated over the years and concerned agencies should heavily fine any company or persons using adverts to deface any of the artworks in our public space.

“We take things for granted in this country. I am not happy as an artist each time I see those paintings by the pedestrian bridges being defaced or any statue or sculpture destroyed. This neither goes to show that our works are not treasured nor the images painted respected. Government and the art community should rise against this.”