At Enwonwu lecture, conceptual art stirs debate
By Tajudeen Sowole
For art to be relevant in influencing policy, the medium of expressions has to change from painting, prints, photography and drawing to “conceptual art”, remarked Prof Jerry Buhari in his presentation to the 2011 Ben Enwonwu Distinguished lecture, titled Beyond 2Dimensional Art and held at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Victoria Island, Lagos. It was the first time in the last seven years, that a visual artist would deliver the lecture.
Buhari, a lecturer in the Department of Fine Arts, Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, stated that the conceptual artist prides his work as non-commercial because “it is not a product or commodity, or an art that could be bought or sold.”
|Prof Jerry Buhari, delivering the lecture in Lagos|
Buhari, however, noted that conceptual art is not really new to Africa, but its influence was eroded by contact with the colonialists. In fact, in conceptual art, Pan Africanist scholars, he stressed, see ‘African art repackaged’.
And within the context of art’s relevance in today’s challenges, the lecturer argued that artists “could 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 was before the people’s contact with the western world.” He, however, added that his idea should not be misconstrued as advocating for a return to the past, “but to reinvent the past with a contemporary spirit for indigenous benefit and global impact.”
While stressing that two-dimensional art has limitations, Buhari said “a restriction, if not encasement of the creative spirit,” is embedded in it.
Representational painting such as oil on canvas, he said would have less impact compared to life-like figures, for example, in persuading government to pay the controversial N18, 000 minimum wage. “Reflect on this scenario: a performance created by an artist who would use 1,000 pupils from a selection of public schools across the local governments of 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 N18, 000 minimum wage’. Such performance art, he argued, would have stronger impact on policy makers,” he said.
Responses to Buhari’s lecture from the audience largely dwelled on some measure of paranoia about future of two-dimensional art. Former president of Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), Kolade Oshinowo, said that painting, and indeed other 2-dimensional art expressions, would remain relevant, even within the context of conceptuality. In fact, he warned artists that it is important to go through the rudiment of making art such as drawing and painting to be a vibrant artist. He urged them to “understand the rules before breaking it.”
Across the medium such as two-dimensional or flat surface, installation, performance and video art, the activities of Nigerian artists have shown that there was never a dearth of creativity. However, it does appear that it is not enough for the artist to just create a great or bold art – irrespective of the medium – without following it up in the larger society. This appears like a disconnect between the artist and the art as the public hardly links the bold or ‘great conceptual art’ to a voice that could lead or be part of a journey to change.
Buhari argued that, based on experience, the Nigerian environment is hostile for the artist to stand by his bold or conceptual art. He stressed that art is not about immediacy, and that “ten years down the line,” an artist’s work could be relevant on a given issue. He cited examples that some of “us in the university have stood our ground and suffered for it.”
Earlier, during his presentation, he had said the harsh socio-political situation in Nigeria, which makes “pain and agony,” part of the people’s daily experience also offers “the gory and bizarre art” such as Jelili Atiku’s performance, the prospect for a revolt.
He also listed some conceptual artists whose works are revered in this context. These include Kazoo Shirago (Challenging Mud, 1955), Yves Klein (Live painting called, Anthropometries of the Blue Period, Jim Dine (Five Feet of Colourful Tools, 1962), Christo and Jeanne-Claude (Valley Curtain, Riffle Colorado, 1970-1972) and Damien Hirst (Away from the Flock, 1994).
President of the Art Galleries Association of Nigeria (AGAN), Chief Frank Okonta (left), Kolade Oshinowo and Sammy Olagbaju during the lecture
At home, the art landscape is not really barren of artists with such conceptual boldness. For example,
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 Jerry Buhari (Power Chair, 2007/8).
Past guest speakers of the Ben Enwonwu Distinguished Lecture Series include Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, Prof John Aiken of Slade School of Art, University College London, U.K, the Nobel laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka, Dr Christopher Kolade, Prof Freida High of University of Wisconsin, U.S., Prof Yemi Osibajo and former Governor of Cross River State, Mr Donald Duke.