Friday 13 July 2012

Anxiety mounts over ‘destruction’ of historic art works at Lagos int’l airport

By Tajudeen Sowole
As a new National Gallery of Art (NGA) Act – which would include regulation of art in public space – is being awaited, monumental loss of masters’ works may be looming already in the ongoing expansion of the arrival sections of Muritala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos.

A visit to the arrival lounge of the airport showed that some art works, which have been identified with the edifice’s 33 years history, could be missing in the expanded space. Such works include Flight, 5-piece frieze (on each side of the arrival lounges) produced by master, Yusuf Grillo, 78, and a glass mosaic mural, Spirit of Man in Flight, by late art academician Prof Agbo Folarin (erected at the entrance.) While Grillo’s ten works have been reduced to one, Folarin’s mosaic was defaced by the new, though opaque structure, which concealed the colourful 1981 mosaic from the public view.

The apparent diminishing art content seen at the airport few days ago, may be due to the fact that the new architectural design of the expansion is totally different from the way it was when the works were still part of the airport’s embellishment.

Expectedly, a work of art such as the Grillo’s frieze and Folarin’s mural, which were part of the identity of the monument, should have been built into the new design of the expansion project. Grillo’s immovable works were in concrete, and about 12 feet in height, 8 in breadth for each of the 10 friezes mounted in two parts of five at both ends of the lounges. These works, clearly have given way to the new design.

Speaking on the development, some artists argued that no matter the changes to the environment, particularly when such new design is controllable and not as a consequence of natural disaster, the identity of the works should have been sustained.
  And as it appears that these works did not fit into the new design of the building, the artists who created the works – if they were living – should have been informed of the changes and engaged for new works in the spirit of fair play, practitioners in the industry stressed.
Some of Yusuf Grillo’s works Flight as installed before the renovation.
Prof Folarin is late, but Grillo, seated in the living room, at his Ikeja, Lagos house, when he received his visitor recently was not aware of the ongoing renovation until the guest mentioned it to him shortly before the visit. Grillo stated: “Nobody contacted me about the removal of the works, I don’t even know any renovation is going on there.” Describing the concept of his work, Grillo recalled that “the idea was to represent, in abstract term, flight in nature.” The work, he disclosed “took two years, from conception to installation.”

As laudable as the rehabilitation and expansion of the airport is, master printmaker, Bruce Onobrakpeya, who also commented on the issue said if the art contents of the airport are not reintegrated into the new look, “it’s so sad; this is destroying the creative history of the country.”

Sculptor, Olu Amoda noted that art content of airports around the world are part of the window to the people’s art and culture. “The airport is the first stopover for visitors to the country and most airports in the world use the entry point to show their best art,” Amoda said, faulting the government’s lack of communication with the artists whose works were affected.    
 Commissioned on March 15, 1979, the airport have works of other artists such as Demas Nwoko and Onobrakpeya.

Enquiries into the development suggest that there was no plan to build the works into the new remodeling or anywhere in the premises. In fact, the Grillo works might have been destroyed or damaged as the management, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), appeared not to have an idea on the current state of these monumental art works.  

In response to the question on the status of the works, the General Manager, Public Affairs, FAAN, Akin Olukunle disclosed that “there is whole aesthetic plan to the remodeling program.” He assured that “as it unfolds, the public will see and appreciate the new aesthetic philosophy.” And when pressed to be more explicit Olukunle added: “We have not destroyed anything.” 

However, anyone who understands how big art works fit into large edifice such as the airport would argue that the management of FAAN and their designers did not have art contents in the renovation plan from the drawing board. This much was obvious when Olukunle said the art content would be “considered.” He explained: “we will consider the old ones alongside the new aesthetic philosophy and see how they go.”

Grillo recalled that when artists were engaged for the works “we were working on site along builders and others involved with the contractors.”

Former Chairman, Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), Olu Ajayi described the situation as a clear indication of failure in the culture sector. He placed the blame on “NGA who talks so much about protecting, educating and projecting the Nigerian culture; secondly my association SNA, an organisation that has become tasteless, whose role it is to consistently engage the public and create a robust cultured society, but busy itself with politics of self implosion.”

Stressing government’s insensitivity to art in public space, Ajayi recalled that the renovation of Adeniran Ogunsanya shopping mall claimed another Grillo’s  mural as “a victim of an ignorant renovator.” 

He asked: “How do we defend our quest for return of looted or stolen art in museums abroad, or justify the billions spent in the culture and tourism sector when we destroy tourist attractions and cannot house our collection?” He argued that the apparent missing of art content at the renovation of the MMIA airport “is a testimony of government and its operators’ low appreciation of art.”

The current Chairman, Lagos Chapter of SNA, Oliver Enwonwu said “if this is true it is indeed a sad period for Nigeria.
It is difficult to believe that such significant works of art by one of NIgeria's cultural icons would be destroyed without recourse to Grillo, who is living, or the SNA, which exists to not only engender the highest professional standards among practitioners, but to advise the Federal Government on such matters regarding the commissioning, conservation, and restoration of art for the embellishment of public buildings and spaces.”

And just in case FAAN would want a new set of works in place of the “destroyed” Grillo’s concrete sculptures, Amoda advised that the process “should be transparent or at the least consult the blue print of how the first selection was considered.” He reasoned that “the artists of the original works should be given the opportunity to respond to the same site specific work again before other artists; not the Nigerian way of ‘man know man approach.”

The art issue of the renovated MMIA, clearly showed the urgent need for the art laws otherwise known as NGA Act. Proposed and read on the floor of the sixth Assembly twice, the bill, however could not go beyond the public hearing organised by the House of Reps in 2010. Among other features in the bill, it recommends that for every public building, art must take at least some percentage of budgets meant for construction. It also advocates that awarding of art contract for public facilities must go through a board or committee comprising of artists and other technocrats in the creative industry.

Sponsored by the former Federal Director of Culture who was then a member of the House of Representatives, Hon Tunde Akogun, the bill reportedly got to the lower chamber of the National Assembly in 2008. It had its first reading/public hearing on November 16, 2010, but could not move to the next stage as there was no consensus on certain provisions of the draft document between the government officials and visual arts practitioners.
 Whenever the bill returns to the House for deliberation, it is expected that issues such as insensitivity of government and contractors to art content in public places would be debated.


  1. dele jegede writes: I read with consternation and extreme fright, the possibility that art works by two of Nigeria's foremost modern artists, Yusuf Grillo and Agbo Folarin, may have fallen victim to the renovation that is being undertaken at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport. I would like to believe that this, indeed, is not the situation. I am, in the spirit of objective enquiry, like to request that the authorities responsible for the renovation at the MM Airport should please give us a clear, unambiguous, and categorical response with regard to the status of the works of these two masters. The questions that I would like answered include the following:
    a) What is the status of ALL the art works at the MM International Airport?
    b)What are the plans to fully integrate these works into the current or future rehabilitation plans?
    c)Who are the credible, respectable, and knowledgeable Nigerians who are serving as consultants with regard to the integration of the current body of work at the airport, and the the overall issue of aesthetics of the renovated airport.

    Pray, let no one tell the Nigerian public that the integration and full incorporation of existing works at the airport into the new schema is an after thought. I am persuaded that any architect worthy of his or her name would not commit such travesty as disrespecting the monumental and epochal works of Nigerian artists—works that should, ideally, constitute the fulcrum of the country's creative and modern practice.

    This is not the time to apportion blames. Rather, this is the time for everyone who is concerned about the blatant disrespect which any defacement, neglect, removal, or de-accessioning of the body of work at the MM Airport to ACT. I anticipate that all art or art-loving organizations, private and public, at the state and national levels, should mobilize and prevail upon the authorities to rescind whatever decisions they may have taken, which are inimical to the Nigeria's creative heritage. I am clearly not against commissioning new works for the airport. But for the sake of all that is sane and decent, the thought of dispensing with any of the pieces at the airport—the master pieces by the likes of Grillo, Erhabor Emokpae, Agbo Folarin, Isiaka Osunde, and Uche Okeke?—should be perished.

    The arts community and, indeed, the Nigerian public deserves full and unvarnished explanation by the FAAN.

    dele jegede, Ph.D
    Art Historian. Painter. Critic.
    Professor of Art History
    Miami University
    Oxford. Ohio 45011. USA

  2. Let me thank Taju Sowole for bringing to the public notice, the destruction of Nigerian Artists' works due to renovation work at the Murtala Muhammed Airport. I also thank the former President of the Society of Nigerian Artists, Prof. Dele Jegede for sending his write up to wake us up from our deep slumber. I read all the comments of some Nigerian Artists on the issue as published by Taju. The comments are okay to the extent that they shows our helplessness as visual art professionals. The SNA leadership should swing into action immediately and send a strong petition to the National Assembly so as to be able to find out where those art works are since the renovation started. Those art works must be preserved in their original form without defacing them. We need also to meet with the Authority of FAAN to tell us where those art works are currently relocated to or kept. The SNA leaders should come out and join us in condemning the destruction of Nigerian creative heritage that ought to have been preserved. I hope the National Gallery of Art would display its relevance by making comments on the issue after making its own urgent investigation. We also need to get in contact with Nigerian Institute of Architets to find out who the contracted Architect is and hold him or her responsible for the destruction of our artistic creations if is true.

    Ademola Azeez, Ph.D
    Artist, Art Historian & Critic
    Lagos, Nigeria