Monday 30 January 2012

American prof revisits museum at 5th Enwonwu Lecture

(First published Tuesday, December 02, 2008)        
 By Tajudeen Sowole
 PRESERVATION and conservation are the two areas visual arts practitioners, and government in particular, must take as priority for  the art of a nation and culture to be relevant in development.
 These two factors were the nucleus of the paper delivered during the 5th Ben Enwonwu Distinguished Lecture, organised by The Ben Enwonwu Foundation and held at the Institute of International Affairs, Victoria Island, Lagos, recently.
  The event also showed that somewhere in Lagos, art treasures of the nation's pioneer artist, late Aina Onabolu were on the verge of destruction.
  By Prof. Freida High of the University of Wisconsin, U.S.A, the lecture is based on the theme of the event, Positioning Arts and Culture for Sustainable Influence in Nigeria. The paper, which focused on the museum as a major outlet for arts and culture advised, among other subjects, that museums would truly serve their purposes if the International Council of Museums (ICOM)'s codes and recommendations are adhered to.
  With the aid of slides, High showed her audience what it takes to protect works of art in a museum. From oil paintings, antiquities, pastels – carefully protected in glass – to more fragile and huge works of canvas kept in rolls, she explained that protecting valuable works of art is as important as the mastery of creating these works.
 On culture, using the museum to educate children, she explained, is part of the functions of a museum, hence the need for specialised  museums. Again the slides provided information, using the example of teaching children the culture of milking cow in the U.S. Specialised museums of this kind, High advised, could be established within the regular museums.
  At the end of High's presentation, it was obvious that tons of works in Nigeria's national museums and galleries need to be urgently rescued from decades of neglect. Lamentation in this regard was expressed by the chairman of the occasion and former Secretary of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, CFR, who called the attention of the gathering to the good old days of Nigerian art. He recalled an event which took place, over two decades ago.
  According to Anyaoku, about 25 years ago, under the leadership of former director of the National Museum, Ekpo Eyo, there was an international tour art exhibition titled 2000 Years of Nigerian Art, held in London and Nigeria. He said the show was described by the British press "as a side of Africa that was unknown in Europe."
  Today, Anyaoku appeared to be apprehensive about the preservation of those works and other museum objects as his recent experience of Nigerian museum led him to describe the state of things as a "national disgrace." He however urged the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation to do everything possible to rescue the situation, adding that, "art and culture are important parts of every nation."

Agbogbho Mmuo, one of the masquerade paintings of Ben Enwonwu

  Not too long ago, through Anyaoku's intervention, the Federal Government, during the administration of former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, set up a committee, under the leadership of Eyo to rehabilitate the national museum. But at the point of funding, of which about N700 million was declared to have been approved by the presidency, the exercise ran into a hitch.
  Revisiting what led to that committee, Anyaoku recalled how he ran into the decaying state of the national museum in company of his foreign visitors, three years ago.
 He explained: "Three years ago, I had visitors from Canada, and I thought it would be right to take them to the Nigerian Museum. I took them there and what I saw was a shock to me. It was in my view, a national disgrace. When I got home, I called the President, and he reacted immediately by setting up a committee. He called Ekpo Eyo to head the committee saddled with the responsibility of rehabilitating Nigerian museum. That committee produced a report, which before the end of the tenure, gave a budget for the rehabilitation of the museum."
 That was three years ago. But Anyaoku however informed the gathering that he had met with the Honourable Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Adetokunbo Kayode. The minister, he disclosed, assured him that President Yar'Adua was interested in seeing that the state of the museums improves.
  Speaking through Joop Berkout, his representative, the special guest of honour of the event and former Head of State, Ernest Shonekan noted that artists live much longer after their demise on earth and therefore charged the BEF on using the image of Enwonwu to stimulate more interest in art.
  He stated: "Artists don't die because art speaks volume. Culture indicates the totality of a people, so we must appreciate our culture and preserve it. The real challenge of BEF is to regenerate the interest of young people in art."
  If the observation of Shonekan that artists don't die would become a reality in this part of the world, an urgent rescue-mission is required to save the works of Onabolu from destruction. The anchorman of the event and a leading art gallery operator, Olasehinde Odimayo used the occasion to inform the art community about the state of Onabolu's works. He disclosed that during his visit to the residence of the artist in Ebute Meta, Lagos, he was shocked to see the state of his works. Such works, he argued, should be preserved in better condition.
  Few days before the lecture, a photo exhibition of black and white works on the life and times of Enwonwu opened at The Art Centre, Ikoyi, Lagos, on November 21, 2008.
  On the legacy of the artist, BEF stated: "Enwonwu's pioneering role essentially defined the modes and structures of modernist art practice in Nigeria and he is rightly regarded as a major personality in the history of modern African art."
  For High, a painter and an art historian, her antecedence on African art must have convinced the organisers to choose her as the lecturer of the event. Her recent work, The High Report: The National Gallery of Art, Nigeria, A General Condition Assessment, funded by the Ford Foundation of West Africa, was published in 2007. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from Northern Illinois University and holds a Masters in Fine Art from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Doctorate from the University of Chicago.
  Ben Enwonwu was born in Onitsha, Nigeria, in 1918. His earliest training as a sculptor was with his father. He studied under Kenneth Murray at the Government College, Umuahia. With a scholarship from Shell Company of West Africa, Enwonwu traveled to England. He studied at Goldsmith College, London 1944 Ruskin College, Oxford 1944-46 Slade School of Fine Art, London 1946-48.
  Upon his return to Nigeria in 1948, he was appointed the first Nigerian art adviser to the colonial government. He was appointed Professor of Fine Arts, University of Ife 1971-76.
  Although he died in 1994, his significance to the discourse of contemporary African art continues to increase as time passes.

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