Beyond 2Dimentional Art, by Professor Jerry Buhari, Department of Fine Arts, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, Nigeria. A paper presented at the 8th Ben Enwonwu Distinguished Lecture Series. Tuesday 1st November 2011, 11am. The Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Victoria Island Lagos, Nigeria
First I must express my appreciation to the leadership of the Ben Enwonwu Foundation (BEF) and the team charged with the responsibility of selecting guest lecturers for this rare opportunity given to me and I am honoured.
When Mr. Oliver called me about seven weeks ago to express BEF’s intention for me to be the next guest lecturer, honestly I was intimidated by the recognition and the limited time that I will have to work with.
I have attended most of the past seven lectures and not only have I been inspired by all of them I was, still am humbled by the iconic personalities who delivered them. It is therefore with a deep sense of humility that I stand before you today. I am more aware of my inadequacies than my ability and request you to kindly accept me as an individual and grant me your tolerant heart and listening ear.
Finding a topic
In accepting the challenge to give this lecture the next thing that preoccupied me was what to speak on. You will agree with me that it would have to be on art. The field of art is wide, so deep and so high that finding the most acceptable area of interest or topic for such a vibrant art environment like Nigeria will be a difficult task to fulfill. My approach therefore was to tread on familiar grounds. I therefore decided to first glean through the works of the past lectures to get a feel of the mood and direction of the previous lecturers.
I was able to come up with a workable summary. I noted that except for the lecture delivered by Professor Yemi Osibanjo titled, “The Responsibility of Privilege”, the six lectures dwelled on the rich cultural heritage of our human civilisation, each from a rich and diverse perspective celebrating human creativity. The title of his paper reminds me of Hamilton’s (2004) contemplation on Izidondo, a heavy twelve round piece stringed Zulu royal brass necklace. Hamilton reflects on this weighty symbol of power and authority worn by the Zulu ruling elite. Here, one sees the connection between art and politics, morality and conscience. Professor Osibanjo’s paper may appear odd among the other six, but when considered within the context of our challenged cultural crisis and quagmire political leadership on the African continent, it immediately illuminates and enriches the past lectures by a perspective that encapsulates the creative spirit of all humanity and locate it under the canons of our responsibility to both our community and Creator. I consider this as very important in a world that is becoming increasingly individualistic and anti-brother’s keeper. I am persuaded that all creative people, indeed all humanity, are born to be a part of a giving humanity, of joy, hope, liberation, and a sense of community. These are distinct and timeless African virtues from the pre-colonial era. I am convinced that today we are more under threat by the absence of these values/virtues perhaps more than hunger, security and any form of modern public utility.
The source of my confidence in standing before you here today rests on the pillars of my artistic kinship with the living legend (Ben Enwonwu) as his artistic son. My first encounter with Ben Enwonwu was through the invaluable work of Oyelola’s (1976) classic book, “ Everyman’s Guide to Nigerian Art”. As a young art student in Zaria in the mid-seventies there were not many books on Nigerian art then. Even if they existed they were too few and not easily accessible. The Enwonwu’s painting in that this book titled, “Africa Dances” p82, and subsequent ones I was to encounter in other materials, exposed me to the movement of his lines, their playful suggestiveness, probing the figure. His compositions not only capture the rhythmic echo of African dance and music, but the vibrant spirit of African life itself. It was much later that I came to understand that the symbolic umbers and sienna pallet represent his Negroic-colour theory, and what one may regard as distinct African aesthetics that seek to define his(our) identity threatened by imperial colonialism. His works defines the role of art in the quest for cultural and political liberation, the essential ingredients and platform for national development. It is therefore no wonder that Enwonwu’s artistic career and philosophy place him without question as the father of contemporary and modern Nigerian art.
Two-dimensional art simply refer to any form of art created on a flat surface. 2D as we all know it in visual art vocabulary comprise of only length x breadth. This is where two-dimension is derived from. Examples of two-dimensional art would include drawing on paper or any flat surface, a print, photograph, paper/fabric design or a painting. These are all varieties of 2dimensional art if they are created on any flat surface. But it is important to quickly state here that today we have three-dimensional drawing involving the use of robes, wires and other such unconventional materials that probe 3dimensional environment. (We also know that Africans also drew on sand. This means that 2dimensional art can appear in relief form). Again take for example a textile fabric, it is a 2dimensional artistic expression; but it can be transformed to a 3dimensional art if it is wrapped around a form as we experience a dancer wearing it, or when a model wears it. Today with the aid of advance digital technology we can experience three-dimension in photographs and television screens.
This is the beauty of art. It affords you the ability to know and appreciate multidimensional perspective of issues. We however often encounter people with fixed dimensional approach to issues. One recalls for example a onetime military president of this country who believed that there is “no alternative to SAP”, an iron cast perception and approach to problem solving. We have several people today in our desperate society who advance narrow-minded opinions a dogma including intellectuals who ought to know of the benefits of multidiscipline nary approach to scholarship.
Even though my focus is on 2dimensional art and specifically looking at painting, you will agree with me that the boundaries are only made so for the convenience of discourse. The reality always compels us to relational comparison with 3dimensional and multiple dimensional expressions. Operating at different intellectual levels, our perceptual experience is always complex; so also can our theoretical exploration/explanation. I will therefore be liberal in my exploration of the topic knowing the mixed audience that constitutes our gathering here.
Our perception of art as Africans was distorted/contaminated by contact with the European world that came with not only a different perception of art but also through a different language and cultural background. In many African cultures what we regard to as art bears both different name and meaning. For example in my art classes I have tried to highlight this difference by asking my students to give me their ethnic equivalent name for art, or drawing, sculpture or painting. In a number of cases I was struck to find that not only are the students unable to give me an answer but that even as art students in a tertiary institution they have never thought of art in their own indigenous language. This is how serious our culture (language, visual or other, as being a critical factor) has been affected by western civilisation. The coming of European culture saw to the shrinking instead of our expanding perception of what we know and experience in art, our engagement and relationship to/with it. This fragmented and compartmentalisation of a wholistic artistic experience transformed both our understanding and consequently disconnected us from what can be regarded as distinctively African art. I once also asked my final year students in a class while teaching the course on theory of painting whether they thought painting existed as a distinct artistic expression in Africa before contact with the West. Most of them said “no” without any hesitation. Only a few were careful to express doubt, even then they could not confidently give reason for their doubts until I drew their attention to body painting, wall painting, shrine painting, calabash painting, etc. Yet we know that indigenous painting existed prior to contact with the western world (we still witness it in traditional cultural festivals today), but in corporate existence and dialogue with a “living sculpture”-masquerade, dancer, musicians and singers, as other interactive expressive elements making up the whole. Painting in traditional expression never existed alone but in dialogue with other art forms.
In a sense therefore, what we had prior to western contact was what I would like to regard as six-dimensional art: comprising of length, breadth, depth, space, time and sound. By implication a painting exist as a fraction of this six-dimensional expression. If you separate it from say sound-music, from movement-dance and the 3dimensional space-the public square, it remains a stranded expression, incomplete, and devoid of meaning or coherence.
I thought it was necessary to point to the richness and complexity of African culture and art prior to western civilisation in order to refresh our appreciation of the extend of our departure from it in our engagement with the new cultures brought about by colonial experience. It is also necessary that we should understand, appreciate and constantly recall the nature and content of this historic encounter in order to have a deeper appreciation of the changing trends and also in order to constantly make progress with reference to our roots. The significance of cultural memory is eloquently captured in Wole Soyinka’s (2006) paper titled, “Forget the Past, forfeit the Future.”
Focus of discussion
For the purpose of this paper I will concentrate and pursue two ideas.
In the first idea I wish to consider the formalistic development of painting from cave painting to the present. We will see the manipulation of the picture plane traced from the Paleolithic (or Cave) artist to the current directions where the boundary has been extended (or blurred) to engage the surrounding space and other visual elements. I will briefly discuss the ideas that brought this about. In doing so I will attempt to connect these to indigenous perspectives. It will be evident before you that African artistic traditions have developed through appropriation, “convergence” or “synthesis”, (Odita, 2010) with western ideas. It should therefore be considered as a normal process in the development of human civilization irrespective of geo-cultural difference.
The second level of my discussion will look at the formalistic transformation of meaning where socio-cultural ideas gain prominence. We will also see how the 2dimensional art as traditionally conceived and perceived has assumed more complex and multidimensional reading raising questions about what art really is. In pursuing this line of discussion I will connect the artists to/with these developments (as if they are separable in the first place); I will discuss how their artistic career has evolved from conventional painting/art to conceptual art expression.
Tracing the development of 2dimensional art
Perhaps the first form of 2dimensional art can be traced back to cave painting. Anthropologists have tried to reconstruct the circumstances that may have led to the creation of these great paintings of skeletal, seemingly fragile but brave ancestors we see in a floating space chasing and ambushing wild life. In contrast the animals they render are giant and well-fed bison, reindeers, horses e. t. c. The images of the animals were said to have been carefully articulated artistic creations to ensure successful gaming.
Anthropologists have explained to us that cave/rock artists produced the magnificent rock paintings of Altamira (Spain), Lascaux (France), Birnin Kudu, Jigawa State in Nigeria. Other sites of rock painting in Nigeria are in three villages, Geji, Gumelel and Gudun all in Bauchi State. There are also sites of rock paintingin Nigeria that can be found on the plateau of central Nigeria and in Igbeti in Igbara Oke, Adepegba (1995). Adepegba (ibid) also noted that the Geji rock painting is most important for its prominent clarity. I think may interest many artists, to know that we have record of indigenous early paintings done by our forefathers. Now how many art schools teach this?
These cave/rock artists were said to have first made drawings and engravings on the walls of their cave dwellings. It is said that subsequently other cave artists that came after them develop the works into more elaborate, realistic and painterly rendition to the state in which we see them today. (See Figures 1&2)
In addition our inability to witness any significant record of painting, particularly in Africa may be partly as result of the transient nature of our architecture. (But we must quickly note that the durability of the work may not be the essence.) The tradition represents man’s quest for production, and perhaps the stage set for modern industrialisation. Art here is defined by its tangibility, its function and utilitarian significance. The similarity of this artistic tradition across different sites of rock painting shows a shared artistic heritage in all human cultures. African cultures maintained this synergetic expression until the arrival of colonial Europe. But perhaps beyond all these, we can see here the definitive role of art in charting the path for all that is modern in development today.
It was western art that brought a singular artistic expression where a painting for example, could exist independently from a sculpture piece, dance or music. Since then the African way of artistic expression has always appropriated western standards, materials and strategies. This has created implications for cultural studies, appreciation and dialogue. It explains why today instead of parallel dialogue we are always compelled to look to the west for direction.
Now looking at these magnificent rock paintings, we have a deeper appreciation of the aesthetic qualities and symbolic significance rock paintings produced by our Paleolithic parents. The power of their creative expression is such that even today with the level of the development of art we are still fascinated by these rather seemingly simplistic renditions of human figures and animals, but captured with such sophisticated visual interpretation. We are awed and enchanted by the excellent minimalist yet expressive drawings. Some artists have returned to these images and composition for inspiration. I have often wondered if these pictures were not man’s first warfare strategy that employs a combination of the spiritual and the physical to subdue and ensure control over nature and environment. The cave paintings represent the origin of 2dimensional art in murals, mosaic, and painting on any flat surface. Indeed I dare say that this is the origin of all forms of human ingenuity and creativity.
The next stage of painting came in the form of body painting, shrine painting, vase painting, and mural painting. (Mural painting may have been too fragile to survive due to the harsh weather. Sporre (1997, p204). From the cave walls 2dimentional art was merged with other levels of expression: the human body (representing both artist and wall/canvas or any surface use), his/her products in the form of architecture, pottery, clothing, music, dance, etc. These expressions form a wholistic cultural expression that represents the human life as a whole. It certainly goes beyond any fixed dimension. This stage of human expression cuts across all known cultural societies irrespective of racial-geographical location. (See figures 3, 4 & 5)
It is perhaps from here that humanity dispersed into diverse babelic directions in both cultural and artistic expression. While in Africa the synergetic expression that combine all the artistic traditions of painting, sculpture, pottery, music, dance, architecture, fabric design was maintained, they were fragmented into singular entities after encounter with the western world.
The development of 2dimensional art continued where we see that the artist was concerned with seeking for a way of representation that is true to life.
Perhaps the most epic development of art and 2dimendional expression in western culture was the revival of the classical culture of the 14th -16th Century Europe called Renaissance. In renaissance established traditions inspired by theocracy was subjected to debate with the emergence of science and the influence it brought to history, art, culture and philosophical thought. (See Figures 6, 7, 8 & 9)
Impressionism, introduce us to the rise of artists against established cultural institutions to challenge their authority over artistic conventions represented in government sponsored art shows then known as Salon. The impressionists’ works employ bright colours directly from the pallet where the canvas also serves as pallet to mix the colours. Heavy brush strokes and impasto are part of the characteristic expression of their movement. The general feeling of their works greatly contrast with the smooth dark finish of the renaissance artists. This leaves the work to be rough and generally looking unfinished. It is this comparative distinction with the highly polished renaissance work that threw the museums off balance. The interest of impressionist was on contemporary life. The type of works we see our artists produce in traditional dancers, Durbar, Eyo etc.
Cubism, futurism and Dadaism also emerged to advance their inspiration in the development of industry where the shapes and forms of machines became reference images and symbols of redefining the visual vocabulary of art. Futurism was fascinated with movement that the machine brought while Dada expressed their horror against the result of World War 1. They extended their antagonism to the institutions that made this possible; in fact any established institution for that matter was treated with rebellious attitude. (See Figures 10)
If we thought that cubism, Futurism and the others were extreme departure from realism; abstraction was to further extend this by creating works that were completely non-objective. In abstraction we see the artist elevating his/her personal feelings over and above realistic representation. We can see this as a further protest against the crisis and destruction brought about by the two world wars.
We must remember that by the time the Second World War happened, Nigeria and indeed Africa had already been occupied and partitioned by colonial adventures. Aina Onabolu and later Ben Enwonwu had created paintings after the academic traditions of the west. By so doing they were not only proving their competence in a culturally biased environment, but were also demonstrating their capacity to engage themselves in cultural dialogue if not on the same level but on a parallel one. Instead of commendation or at least their capacity for creative adaptation, critics insisted that their works were still inferior to the European standards. But today we look at their works with pride and satisfaction as evidence of the finest representation of contemporary Nigerian/African art.
2dimensional art continue in more movements like surrealism (see Figure 11), abstract expressionism, and superrealism. Their ideas continue to review our perception and interpretation of reality and what art should stand for or represent. The search may be said to have reached a point of saturation when painting was declared dead in America, specifically, in the 80s Others preferred to see painting as having reached its terminus, as if painting as an art form should be perceived and experienced as having a lineal progressive development. Artists who are fatigued and art critics seeking new ideas for their workshops may have advanced this opinion. How can we explain the continued relevance of traditional painting and its high auction value vibrant in the 80s?
It should interest us to note that while America was declaring painting as dead or at best an exhausted art practice, Nigeria was witnessing an outburst of artistic creation and appreciation. We may recall that the 80s was a period of economic depression, globally, but the emergence of modern financial institutions in the country ran by young business executives in their 20s and 30s evidenced a vibrant art practice as a counter response to the bleak economic environment of the west. This was the environment that saw to an unprecedented indigenous collection of art, specifically paintings, by these young business executives were collected to embellish their glittering architectural structures. With a local situation like this how could we have understood and related with what the American art scene was experiencing? I think that the lesson to be learnt here is that sometimes, as we know it in art history, artistic trends are not homogeneous. Each cultural site develops along its peculiar direction. Similarities may exist at some level but each holding a distinct nuance of its own identity.
It is at this point that I think we should consider the place of conceptual art in our current artistic discourse in Nigeria. Basically there are three main categories of conceptual art: They include installation, performance, and later video.
Simply stated, conceptual art is art, not a movement, that seek to give priority and importance to the art-idea over and above the art- product. The conceptual artist wanted his/her art that is not a product or commodity, or an art that can be bought or sold.
The strategy of conceptual artists is to liberate art from the chains of authoritative institutions, like galleries, museums, art collectors, art dealers; auctioneers that seek to determine and control the production and consumption of art. Conceptual art seeks to make art accessible to a general public; in that way art is democratised. If art is so democratised then everybody, anybody may have access to it without being restricted by the demand of a ticket or membership/association of an organisation. The viewer may acquire the work and keep it in the hallowed gallery of his/her heart. Conceptual art exists only in photo-documentation since it is time bound. This will be like an anti- climax for the average or conventional art collector.
This can be in the form of an arrangement of objects in a specific sight to create meaning and response from the viewer. The setting is ephemeral, transient and not subjected to any rigid form of presentation. The site is always key since the objects assume their visual energy in dialogue with it. Some installation works are site specific like environmental art while others can be placed in any set space. A good example of an installation is the work of Christo & Jeanne-Claude, two artists in collaboration. Title: Valley Curtain Riffle, Colorado.1970-1972. Dimension of the work: Span 1250’(381m), height 365 -182’ (111-56m) (See Figure 18, also see Figures 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, & 19)
In performance art the artist assume the work position of the works in body movement and gestures, sometimes combined with sound to communicate with an audience.
Here time is an important element. It can be a simple or complex expression of movement. Performance art is not scripted and different from performing art. It is spontaneous and organic.
The performance of Yves Klein in live painting performed in 1960, tilted Anthrometries of the Blue Period is a classic example of a complex performance art. In this case the performance takes on the act of painting by problematising the boundary between the artist and the work as an object. Three nude models cover themselves in colour and are directed by the artist to move on prepared canvas. While the act goes on an orchestra plays a tune. (See figure 22. Also see figure 3, 4, 5 and compare with figures 20, 21, & 23)
It is in conceptual art that some Africanist scholars see “African art repackaged”. Remember that earlier we made reference to 6dimensional art where we see the interplay of painting, sculpture, dance, music, etcetera as one wholistic artistic expression. We noted that it was our contact with the western world that broke this wholesome cultural expression and experience. Now it has been or is being represented in what is regarded, after the English language as conceptual art.
My response to conceptual art as an artist and as an art instructor is to seek ways in which we can employ the potentials that conceptual art brings to address both artistic and socio cultural issues that would place art back on the level that it operated before contact with the western world. My proposal is not to advocate a return to the past but to reinvent the past with a contemporary spirit for indigenous benefit and for global impact. The slides that I will present to you will reveal the potentials that exist in conceptual art and how it can be harnessed intelligently for cultural development and for national progress.
Some artists who have gone beyond 2dimensional art
In the western world many artists including Kazoo Shirago (Challenging Mud, 1955), Yves Klein (live painting called, Anthropometries of the Blue Period, 1960. Figure 22), Jim Dine(Five Feet of Colourful Tools, 1962), Christo and Jeanne-Claude (Valley Curtain, Riffle Colorado, 1970-1972), Damien Hirst (Away from the Flock, 1994), to mention just of few, have taken 2dimensional art beyond its conventional boundaries both formally and conceptually. Here the list is endless. The works of these artists take on sensitive issues of identity, personality and other diverse human concern, often with such presentation that may be difficult to accept in most of our African cultural environment. Other works employ the use/display of high technology in mega sizes. It seems that no area or limits are placed in the exploration of the artist, what material he/she use and what issues they challenge. When you contemplate on the work by Christo and Jeanne-Claude for example you are left with the message that only a cultural environment that enjoy handsome/beautiful funding with a liberal attitude to cultural expression can accommodate the ambition and dimension of works like this. (In mega cultural festivals like Documenta, Biennales of Yokohama, Vienna and other such similar shows, we note that anything that the artist can conceive is realisable). We are yet to get there in our cultural environment, but you can see that we are slowly making progress.
Among the artists in Nigeria who have developed their artistic practice beyond the 2dimensional expression are, El Anatsui (New World Map,2009), Osahenye Kainebi (Casualties, 2008), Tunde Babalola (Yellow Fever, 2005?), Ayo Aina (Child traffiking, 2010)Nnenna Okore (Anyanwu, 2009), Bright Ogochukwu Eke (Acid Rain, 2005)Ayo Adewunmi (Work in Progress, 2009), Burns Effiom (Regeneration, 2010), and my humble self (Power Chair, 2007/8).This is not an exhaustive list. There are many more such Nigerian artists that practice within the country and those in the diaspora.What is common in these artists and their work is that they explore the 2dimensional surface from a formalistic perspective into engagement with critical social issues that border on cultural identity, environmental issues with their attending political undertones. The choice and use of material often directly reflect on issues of a Third World access to modern technology and management of our environment. Some of their works challenge the appetite of an ordinary collector and display space of our galleries today. I believe that the impact of their works in the public’s space is growing. It is however yet to be seen whether government is responding to the critical issues their works are raising.
I have taken time to present these artists to show evidence that Nigerian artists are responding to and will continue to respond to new trends in art. Unfortunately there are some arm-chair-criticsstill believe that Nigerian art does not go beyond “the Milk Maid” or “Eyo masquerade”. The challenge that Aina Onabolu faced with regards to his ability to produce works after the academic standards with Eurocentric cultural colonial masters continue up till this day, but now with some African scholars with an obsession to gratify the pet projects of these arrogant cultural agents. What is interesting,unique and authentic about “Nigeria’s conceptual art” or its art in general is the of its context, the use of indigenous media, materials and topicality of the issues they engage. But above all the humanistic content of the works make them universally compelling and timeless.
It is important to pause here to mention Centre for Contemporary Art (cca lagos), The African Artits’ Foundation (AAF) and Art is Everywhere as three very important art promoting agents in Nigeria; they serve as important catalysts in the extension of 2dimensional art beyond its conventional canons. By their efforts and operating in Nigeria, they are able to promote an indigenous art sensibility that respond to its local context and at the same time able to respond to internationalist artistic practice.
Beyond 2dimensional art
Let us return to some elementary perspective to ask the question, what is in a painting? Simply stated it is a flat surface covered with colours. The history of the 2dimesional art is concerned with artists persistently questioning the nature of representation and what is real. For example painting for over five hundred years to the eve of modern art was concerned with illusionistic effect achieved on 2dimensional surface through the pictorial devices of perspective and the manipulation of cool and warm colours. These were considered the main pictorial conventions employed to achieve reality. Cubism emerged to question the relevance of this. Henri Matisse was said to have seen a painting by Georges Braque and thought he saw “little cubes”. Louis Vauxcelles an art critic, on hearing this in 1908 christened the works that were to be created from then through 1918 as cubism.
Cubism is regarded as one of the epic entrance of conceptual art. The art movement was conceived as a new realism in difference to naturalism. It is a conceptual realism that employs a new visual vocabulary inspired by the new scientific discoveries of the time- relativity, the molecular subdivision of matter. However it is in Synthetic Cubism that the medium included cut materials to represent the subject and instigate an interaction with the viewer on issues such as realism, figuration and abstraction.
But perhaps of greater interest, was cubism’s fascination with the abstract (but we prefer to regard them as idealistic) forms of African sculptures. Recall Picasso’s famous painting titled, Demoiselles d’ Avignon painted in 1907. This encounter was said to have been responsible to the liberation of the European artist from the 2dimensional picture plane and the ability to create art informed by a spirit that seek for meaning and aesthetics beyond set conventions.
Today we see that the 2dimensional surface has undergone several “abuses”. But you may prefer to see it as transformation rather than abuse. The surface in addition to colours has paper of different sorts glued on it. Sticks, thick objects of different materials, wooden, synthetic, metal, electronic parts have become part of the elements of the picture plain. The type of objects, size, weights, and shape are as endless as the artist can conceive and as the surface can carry. Figurative images that inform the picture plane through the history of painting have become and continue to become less and less popular. It would seem that the focus is more on the effects that is brought on the human that is being interrogated than the human being. Where the human figure is represented the anatomy is subjected to interpretations, reinterpretation, and appropriation using psychoanalytical strategies that seek to arouse shock, provoke and surprise. Monumentality is yet another strategy of expression. Thanks to industrialization, our capacity to conceive mega structures and our ability to realise them.
In addition these objects and subjecting the surface to these “abuses”, it seems that the artist is seeking to deface the painting and render it unrecognisable. By so doing he/she would also seem to be challenging the iron cast art institutions that set canons of appreciation and determine what art is, its value and what can be acquired, collected or rejected. The quest for human liberty and freedom has always found profound full expression in art.
It is therefore no wonder that the very nature of 2dimensionality would constitute a limitation, boundary, restriction, if not encasement of the creative spirit. Art in conceptual expression has found its way back to its authentic African creative spirit- in dialogue with life. Just like the Western world came and found idealisation as the canon of African representation, art contexualised in space and time, art performed in Public Square rather than in a cubed white space.
We have seen how art started with 2dimensional expression growing from the drawings of the cave artist to elaborate, realistic rendition of their lives at the time to more complex rendition that challenge the conventional ideas we have come to employ and accept as art. It is clear that this enigmatic word “art” must be understood to mean anything, but nothing specific or static. Any human endeavour that demonstrates ingenuity falls within the elastic scope of our perception of this word. Our reading, appreciation and evaluation will always change, vary and shift through time, context, experience and expectations. Ultimately we have seen that art is art when it seizes to be art in order to be art.
We have also seen that artists have constantly questioned every generation of its artistic practice that preceded it by jettisoning established canons and expectations, creating new ones. This spirit of questioning is shared by all visionary generations. It is the wheel of progress and creation of the necessary environment for the development of human civilisation. The artists in our society have always cleared the path for the next giant human leap into a new era of civilisation. Unfortunately we still struggle with these rather basic issues to the extent that in creating a culture ministry we would consider tourism as more important to culture because of the perceived singular economic value.
We can briefly summaarise and that the visual art discipline is concerned with representing, reconstructing and expression of our imaginations, thoughts, feelings and actions. The aesthetic qualities of the works that express these ideas are the significant packaging which by them can/and are fascinating dimension of the experiences art works seek to project. Often we have come to place greater priority in contemplating the aesthetic dimension over and above its social significance. 2dimensional art through the development of the visual is the most popular art form that captures all these human aspirations. The form through which the message is contained has often blurred the essential essence-content. We all struggle with the dialectics of the dualistic relationship, dialogue and tensions these factors play. Yet we know that each human era make decisions on what it considers of utmost importance. Rather than question we can only seek to understand and draw connections with our present.
The challenge of modern society seems to have placed a heavy burden on all human disciplines to proffer solutions to the myriad challenges facing humanity today. And it is rightly so. “Art for art sake”(the artistic freedom of the artist as exemplified in the work of Manet, especially in the “Luncheon”, that defines the artist’s loyalty to his canvas only), has giving way to what can be regarded as the emerging and increasing importance of social art. Form(alism) and content are undergoing revision, new interrogations. (At this level art can be becomes endangered species without proper education). Critical questions are now asked like, what is (can be) the use of art as an advocate for good governance? How can art be a tool for ethno-religious tolerance? How can art fight corruption and promote good citizenship? How can art be made to be an agent for mass mobilization for reorientation for patriotism, and if you like national transformation?
In the light of our existence in the so-called global village, how can we develop an indigenous cultural vocabulary that has a universal appeal? It is my humble submission that these questions are key in defining our position on the global cultural map.
Let us pause to consider this scenario as I end this lecture. How much impact will a representational painting, say for example oil on canvas, have where life-like figures are used to persuade government to pay the controversial eighteen thousand naira minimum wage? Perhaps we may be drawn to the mastery of draughtmanship of Reuben or Coubet. Or perhaps the artist may have employed the photo-realism of Olaku; the power of the figures created in such realistic way that we can relate with the figures as the ordinary worker we see on the road. The painting may leave us more aware of the injustice of denying the minimum wage. But the impact may not go beyond that.
But reflect on this scenario: a performance created by an artist who would use 1000 pupils from a selection of public schools in all the local governments in the federation. Suppose these young children are taken to the National Assembly and asked to lie down flat at the entrance of the complex, holding a poster with just these words, “Please pay our parents the 18000”. Suppose they stay there motionless throughout the day until somebody come and address them. What impact will this make on the lawmakers?
Reflect yet again on this scenario: The response of government to bad major roads. Maybe, nothing will happen for a very long time. But suppose a very high profile politician or a first class traditional ruler and his entire family dies there in a ghastly accident. What do you think will be the response of government the next day? I think something like this will happen. The president, minister or governor will visit the scene of the accident, accompanied by heavy presence of the press and television houses; he/she will also visit the family of the bereaved. The surviving family will be given a fat envelop with an undisclosed amount under the flashes of cameras. (Sometimes the content of the envelop is not the same as the official figure). Next, a contract for the immediate rehabilitation of the road will be announced and the contract for its given. The contractor will be immediately mobilised and given 12months within which to complete the job. You will be impressed and surprised at the speed of government’s action and response to the situation.
The modern man today, and especially the Nigerian, has become so familiar with pain and agony that only the gory and the bizarre will awaken the sensibilities to action. (I have made this observation sometime ago at the book launch of Jelilu Atiku’s book on performance art). It is here that I see conceptual art (or 6dimensional art) playing an important role in persuading government to promptly respond to developmental needs. I also see art playing a major role in causing government to review the slow and painful process where due process becomes a servant of efficient service, where lobbying and oversight functions become conduits for siphoning project funds. I see a situation where dogmatic adherence to governmental machinery gives way to pragmatic response to critical situations.
Before my fellow artists misunderstand me, I must quickly add that the traditional role of art in providing the transcendental values for the enrichment of the human soul, embellishing our shelters and environment will continue to be relevant and irreplaceable. It just seems that at this critical time and in our modern world, the strategy of being and living demand unconventional approaches to the way art will be repackaged as a tool for national development. It just appears that in a densely materialistic world like ours art that shock, jolt and provoke may be more effective in attracting attention and deliver the message.
I have presented many rhetorical posers and scenarios with the hope that they will provoke response beyond my paper, and indeed generate composite even opposite but then nonetheless complimental realities that shall surely enrich the multidimensional humanity life expresses and which art seek to underscore as well.
The poser of 2dimensional art that my paper has attempted to present is with the intent to covey its familiarity, and yet of the need to transcend it. It seeks to hopefully deepen our perception, experience and expectations not just of art but also of the totality of human/national challenges. This will emphasise the fact that in transforming our living material/spiritual conditions no dimension is sacrosanct. The hope for the future therefore lies in the traditional artistic calling to push the boundaries of creativity and human experience and emotions; that even while we may be forced to operate sometimes under circumscribed circumstances, we can project beyond the limited to greater possibilities obvious in our 6dimensional dialogual art.
Thank you for listening.
Now I will refresh you with a few images to show how 2dimensional art has evolved over time from the walls of our ancestral cave dwellings that represent our universal human cultural heritage to more complex, often conflicting values to convergent and symbiotic synergies. I am hoping that this will raise a greater curiosity in our search for understanding of the cultural flux in which we find ourselves in today.
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