Saturday 5 May 2012

Ezeilo Assures, 'Mirror The Master Prepares Today For Tomorrow'

(First published, Saturday, March 27, 2010)

As prospect in contemporary Nigerian art is growing and different groups as well as individuals are repositioning, TAJUDEEN SOWOLE finds out how art promoter and architect Chima Ezeilo nurtures young artists of today for the masters of tomorrow.

WHILE visitors, artists and members of panel at the grand finale of the art competition and exhibition, Mirror the Master were viewing the works of the contestants on display inside the new Nike Art Gallery, Lekki, Lagos, the man whose group, Kambani Arts anchored the project, Chima Ezeilo, shuttled between the gallery space and a section where he was busy with a laptop, sorting out issues.

Work of Winner, John Cross Omeke 13
It's a familiar scene; getting his attention was difficult during the Benin zone of the project. From Osogbo to Nsukka and Zaria, "it has always be the same," he declares.

Over 25 years ago, his enthusiasm for art started as a teenage boy when he presented portrait drawing of the then President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari at the State House, Ribadu Road, Lagos. That passion has evolved and led to the formation of Kambani Arts, a resource group in the promotion of African art and cultue. And what is Kambani? "A Zambian word which means expression." The choice, he says, "explains the main reason Kambani was set up - to express Africa's artistic talent to the world." The group, he recalls, started shortly after a BBC initiative on Africa's talent known as Africa 05.

Ezeilo explains that Mirror the Master is simply within the focus of Kambani, which has its "primary aim of promoting art of African origin, engage with established and emerging artists and link children into holistic art projects." Such projects as Mirror the Master, he argues, "enhance children's cultural educational awareness and create platforms for showcasing artistic talent to global audiences."

He warns that it is not enough to have such a laudable idea. Getting support, he notes, is crucial, particularly as "we are a not-for profit organization." Ezeilo explains that, Kambani has not been receiving any grants from government or any international organization. Kambani's projects, he says, are sponsored by corporate groups "in relation to particular events and areas of interest within an event."

The partnership with Access Bank must have come as a big relief in the Mirror the Master project, isn't it? "Yes," he agrees, "particularly the magnitude of involvement of Access Bank."

Mirror the Master involved teenagers from selected schools across the country in art exhibitions and competition in such centres as Osogbo, Benin, Nsukka and Zaria, representing four zones. The first two events, which were concluded last year November in Osogbo and Benin, involved royal fathers, artists and school children.

Ezeilo laments: "It is sad that in our society, art is a profession that has not reached the level held by medicine, law and engineering. It is often the subject of neglect and apathy from parents to children; no wonder art hardly excites children." He however assures that Kambani "has a strong vision to make a difference by developing the art masters of tomorrow. These young ones have been exposed to the works of masters and gain inspiration from these artists who are celebrated from time to time".

Works of three top winners from each of the zones were on display in Lagos: From Osogbo were Oladigbo Oladiran 16, Babatunde Folasayo 13, Tola Akinriola 13; Osamagbe Aiwekhoe 16, Augustina Obi 15 and Deinma Imabibo 9 from Benin; Nsukka produced John Cross Omeke 13, Oluchuku Okorie, 11 and Ifeanyi Agbo 13; from Zaria were Abdulhamid Aminu 15, Abdulakim Alkasaim, 13 and Ibrahim Isa, 15.

At the grand finale, John Cross Omeke emerged the over all winner.

Young Omeke goes to London on a visit to attend some exclusive art galleries and participate in an accompanied viewing to see the works of Enwonwu and Nigerian-born U.K. based portrait painter, Chinwe Roy, Ezeilo assures.

For a project that went on tour where winners were said to have emerged, there was perhaps the need to prove the transparency of the exercise. "To truly show that the selection of the finalists went through a transparent exercise, head of the judges in the zones were brought in to the grand finale in Lagos. They were: chief Jimoh Buraimoh, Osogbo; El drag Okwoju, Benin; Chukwu Emeka Okpara, Uzukka and Jerry Burhari, Zaria. Also from Zaria was Dr. Ken Okoli of ABU."

As earlier promised before the event, Ezeilo maintains that the "London visit takes place from April 26 to 29 at Buckingham Palace and Marlborough Museum House on April 26, Tate Britain April 27 and British Museum April 28."

The project, he warns, goes beyond discovering talents: "It is also about documenting art in the electronic media as well - filmed with the purpose of making a documentary to celebrate the master, Enwonwu. This will also encourage children to participate in the art, capture the diverse culture expressed across Nigeria and merge this with the artistic expression of the children. We are telling a powerful story of the art, signaling appreciation and respect for the masters just as we focus the artistic leaders of tomorrow."

The project, he assures, "will assist in the sustaining of work towards the continuous international promotion of African art and culture."

Participants at the Benin Zone
On the master being celebrated, "participating children who emerged winners from the zones were taken to see works of Enwonwu at Omenka Gallery, Victoria Island, Lagos. That visit to the residence of the master was necessary to strengthen the theme of the initiative. Also, the son of Enwonwu, Oliver briefed the children about the life and times of the master." It's all about celebrating the work of Enwonwu as a foremost Nigerian artist of his time, he stresses.

"Enwonwu worked with diverse media in his painting and sculpture (wood, bronze, metal, plastics, cement, oil and watercolours). His work was popular throughout his career, which was brought to international attention when Queen Elizabeth II sat for him at Buckingham Palace in the late 1950s. He has exhibited sculpture around the world, at London's Berkeley galleries (1947), Howard University (1950), the Goethe Institute (1976) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (2001). "
On the future of African art, Ezeilo argues that the continent is yet to take its rightful place in the rich global art market. "It is well known that Africa influenced great artists like Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Amedeo Modigliani who derived inspirations from African art. These transformational artists saw an expressive power within African art. Furthermore, the study of African art at the beginning of the 20th century enabled mass interest in abstraction, emotive expression and manipulation of form previously unseen in the West. This African influence signaled a global change in the status of visual art. Art progressed from the aesthetic into the realm of philosophy, meaning a more profound outlook for contemporary art."

But there is a huge prospect, he agrees. "Trends are certainly changing and artists are making great strides. For example, Ghanaian El Anatsui is one of the most exciting African artists alive today with numerous works on display at galleries, museums and private collections worldwide. In Nigeria, a number of international auction houses have expressed interests in plying their trade here. These developments are signs that art markets should be seen beyond the continent to embrace the boundless talent prevalent in Africa today. Enwonwu exemplifies this talent of which Mirror the Master is celebrating."

Kambani is also making impact in TV documentary of visual art related subjects: one of such is Diaries - Voices of the Unheard, a focus on growing popularity of African arts in Europe and America, which has "impacted on ordinary Africans and made a practical difference in their lives." The documentary was premiered at the Silverbird Cinema, Victoria Island, Lagos in June, 2006. In the U. K., one of the Kambani 's most memorable shows was Africa Within: Many Eyes One Soul, a joint exhibition of African art with another group, also based there, Passion Arts.
Mirror the Master, he hopes, will be an annual event so long as corporate support is available to keep the project going.

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