Sunday 13 September 2015

How Nigerian artists contribute to “global art repertoire.”

 Master printmaker, Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya, in a lecture The Role Of Visual Arts In People’s Empowerment And Politics In Nigeria, delivered as part of a group art exhibition Nigerian Visual Artists and Nigerian Politics at Greenhouse Empowerment Centre, Olambe, Ogun State, Saturday, September 12,  2015, unearthed the contributions of Nigerian artists to global art space.
Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya (left), Mr Victor Odozi and Princess Iyase-Odozi at Greenhouse Centre, Olambe, Ogun state.

 1.      ABSTRACT

A visual art is a beautiful object created through a thought process by the human hand. Such object(s) like paintings, sculptures of wood, metal, stone, or prints, ceramics, etc., are created by gifted individuals or a group of people in a community/ country, and because they usually express the people’s collective views and ideas, they are regarded as part of the culture of the people. And people who can express their culture or way of life through visual arts are regarded as civilized.

Apart from helping reflect on life and record or document history, visual arts encapsulate the philosophy, politics, world view and other cultural norms that give identity to any people. Because it is a desirable commodity of value, it is also a veritable source of wealth and empowerment. Thus, visual arts create jobs for people.  You will meet the Visual Arts practitioner in virtually every field of human endeavor, be it in the industries where he helps in product designs, in education, health, entertainment, recreation, diplomacy and politics. If properly harnessed,

visual arts can make a country great!

 The role of visual artists and the relevance of visual arts in societal empowerment and political influence is therefore very wide and in this presentation I can only touch on few of the points.
One of the objects that first brought this region, later known as Nigeria after the 1914 amalgamation, into the consciousness of people in faraway Europe and America was the Benin art heist. These were mainly bronze plaques, carved elephant tusks and ivories, terra cottas, all of vast quantities and value which were looted and carted to Europe after the British invasion of Benin City in 1897.  Hitherto, the West had it in mind that people in the region were sub human apes and therefore were not capable of creative abilities. This was followed by precious art works from other parts of Nigeria.  The Ife bronzes and terra cottas, Nok terra cottas, the Igbo Ukwu bronzes and many visual art works created in the past have helped to make Nigeria known outside our shores and equally drew us to fame.  Today, we are witnessing the rise of Oshogbo through visual and other art forms, from a sleepy railway town to a world renowned tourist center as well as UNESCO recognition as a world heritage site. I also want to mention that the small town of Agbarha-Otor in Delta state is gradually becoming famous on the global map of visual arts because of the Harmattan Workshops which it hosts yearly beginning from 1998. This is a forum where artists share ideas and create art works.

Almost like the air we breathe, visual arts are very pervasive in our communities and vital in day – today - existence.  But because it is common and everywhere around us, its importance is often taken for granted and goes almost unnoticeable.  What an average man or woman actually regards as visual art are paintings, sculptures, etc., exhibited in galleries and museums or hung on the walls of rich peoples’ living rooms.  The dress we wear including jewelry and shoes, decorations in our homes, the furniture, utensils and photographs are all visual art works created by artists. Their importance and value is unquantifiable.

         Visual art works in form of statues which are erected on our streets and squares are historical monuments which keep alive the memory of heroes and role models the community looks up to.  Thus, they help perpetuate those values and aspirations of the people from one generation to the other.

         Visual art works including crafts, are tangible objects created by artists.  The creation of these objects which involves great skill, often takes a long time to complete.  There is therefore the need to employ a great number of people who are thus provided with sources of livelihood. With minimal capital and training as apprentice under a master, in a workshop setting or even through formal education, anyone can become self-employed, reducing the number of job seekers parading the streets. A good number of craftsmen have become very successful and are giving employment to people while investing in equipment and machineries at the same time.  Mr.Obiora Ononye, alias ‘Obi Leather’, is one such example.

         At the Harmattan Workshop for instance, young men and women who train for two weeks in leather craft or jewelry are able to set up practices that give them good income.  Inspired by the success of the Harmattan workshops, informal visual art education setups are multiplying and contributing its quota to eradicating joblessness in Nigeria.


         Visual arts has been defined as a renewable source of wealth.  Art works are commodities which are sold like other products.  They bring in money, not only to the creators, but also to middlemen and collectors.  Art and crafts are in great demand because both Nigerians and foreigners buy them.  Local markets, art galleries and museums display and sell them, attracting huge incomes. Sales of art and crafts through exhibitions within and outside Nigeria bring lots of money. Tourism thrives partly on the products of the visual artists.

  The importance of visual art in our economy can better be understood through the knowledge that an estimated 80% of job creation anywhere in the world comes through tourism.


         Aside from aesthetic enjoyment and other benefits, visual art works have investments value like gold, landed property, stocks and shares, all of which appreciate with time.  This new advantage was only realized in Nigeria a little more than fifteen years ago when art auction was introduced by Chike Nwabogu.  Other auction houses have since followed suit and works by Nigerian visual artists are beginning to attract super prices. Art pieces which had lain neglected started to be provenanced in readiness for auction sales even beyond our shores, bringing incomes that continue to swell our GDP


         In Nigeria today, visual arts is an important part of architecture.  Demas Nwoko’s architectural designs are unique because as a painter and sculptor, he embellishes his buildings in forms that are traditional and modern.  The walls of the National Theatre at Iganmu, Lagos, are decorated by the renowned Erhabor Emokpae and other artists.

         Back drops for plays in Nigerian theatre, home videos and films are visual art works.  In home videos in particular, the artist recreates shrines and body decorations with paintings, sculptures and tattoos to reflect time.

Educationally, the visual arts which also incorporate graphics, photography is very relevant in Literature, History, Geography and the Sciences. In diplomacy, exchange of gifts in form of art works between Heads of State, Royalties and Ministers is the norm. 

Our embassies abroad are decorated with art works which give information about us. Visits to art exhibitions, art museums and galleries to view works is a form of relaxation which contributes to one’s overall wellbeing.

Traditional festivals which have again become very popular in different Nigerian communities and the growing carnivals in our cities, owe their splendor to the work of visual artists who design and create costumes for the dancers, floats on the roads, regatta boats and canoes as well as durbar horses.


         Our visual artists, through experiments, innovations, inventions, domestication of ideas, rediscovery of lost techniques, etc., have developed unique styles which continue to form art pieces that can over time only be described as Nigerian because they originated from Nigeria.  These forms not only blaze the trail for the creation of new and exciting products but also constitute our contribution to the global art repertoire.  Our visual artists in this class definitely play very significant role in societal empowerment. 

The following are some of them:-

        AinaOnabolu He was credited as being the first to introduce perspective and realism to drawings and paintings, a technique he learned in school at Europe.


Ben Enwonwu He created sculptures and paintings which drew strength from traditional African art, gaining both Nigerian and international recognition and becoming a role model for younger artists.

        Ladi Kwali She transformed Nigerian pottery into collectable ceramics which made Nigeria famous globally.

        Uche Okeke He developed new drawing and painting styles from Igbo body and wall paintings and decorations called Uli.

        Oladapo Afolayan revived the art of stone carving for which Esie in Kwara state was once famous.

        Victor Ekpuk created art form from the Nsibidi signs of south eastern Nigeria.

        Bruce Onobrakpeya (the paper presenter) invented the plastograph and other techniques and developed printmaking to a major art form.  Also he developed the Ibiebe Ideograms and alphabet.

        Taiwo Olaniyi known as Twin Seven Seven created drawings and paintings which drew images from folktales, myths and legends.  By using repeated patterns he helped create mystic and timelessness.

        Lamidi Fakeye and George Bandele through their induction at the Oye Ekiti workshop were among the pioneers who created a new Christian art form from traditional African art.  Examples of these can be seen at St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Ebute Metta, Lagos.

        Ben Enwonwu also contributed to the development of Nigerian Christian Art by domesticating the foreign religious philosophy with the use of wood carving which is a traditional African medium. Examples are the Risen Christ at the Chapel at University of Ibadan and door at Apostolic Delegation, Lagos.

        Yusuf Grillo on the other hand appropriated the stained glass technique from the West towards the creation of the Nigerian Christian art.

       Bruce Onobrakpeya (the presenter of this paper) also contributed to the development of Nigerian Christian art by interpreting the Christian message through the use of local forms. His wall paintings on the theme of the Fourteen Station of the Cross were very eloquent of the new direction until they were removed to an unknown destination three years ago.

Jimoh Buraimoh upgraded the use beads from dress            material to paintings on canvases and walls.

Asiru Olatunde developed a beautiful metal technique     similar to counter reposse with the use of nail punch.

       Nike Okundaye She raised the art of batik and indigo dying beyond textile to paintings, sculptures and installations.

       Susanne Wenger’s works in the Osun grove is based on the majesty of traditional shrines which is a major art form practiced in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, which in turn inspired Bruce Onobrakpeya to create installations as new art forms.

       El Anatsui and Junkman have also contributed to the art of installation by the copious use of found or waste materials.

I like to add that the works of Abayomi Barber and Boniface Okafor lead in the direction towards surrealism.  Also artist like Olu Amoda, Olu Ajayi, kolade Oshinowo and Ojikere and a host others whose names are not mentioned here have made break through and have therefore contributed to put our name in the world artistic map.


To understand the role of Nigerian visual artists in politics, I will          begin with the statement that man is a political animal, and that everything we do tend to defend our positions and help get as much as we can from goods or supplies that are there for everyone to share.  In doing this, artists use visual images as a weapon or tool to create fair and equitable distribution.  In reverse they can be used for political propaganda or to spread an ideology. At the extreme, few artists gravitate towards political activism but generally they remain cool like the eye of the storm in order to be able to make clear observations and contribute meaningfully to what goes on in the society.

I will begin with Akinola Lashekan who is often quoted for creating powerful cartoons in the then West African Pilot which joined the efforts of political fathers like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and Sir Ahmadu Bello and others in the struggle for our political independence. 

We are equally aware of the effects of political commentaries which drawings of Josy Ajiboye and Dele Jegede contributed to debates on political issues in our newspapers. The call by the Zaira Art Society to use our art to reflect our timeless values was very political.  Our independence would be meaningless if we swallowed everything colonial.

Demas Nwoko’s painting “Nigeria in 1959” is a political statement.  It is clearly an expression of colonial sadness as Nigeria was about to become an independent country from Britain.” Similarly, the removal of the statue of Queen Elizabeth from the Race Course (Tarawa Balewa Square) in Lagos was an assertion of our political independence.

The sculptures, “three chiefs” by Dr. Sodeinde, that was situated in the median of Lagos/Ibadan expressway after Berger as we approach Lagos but was relocated to the side of the expressway is political.  The statues of three Lagos white cap chiefs seem to be saying, “We are the owners of Lagos.”  Welcome to our territory! Similar statements are made with sculptures in other towns of Nigeria.

Obiora Udechukwu’s drawings and paintings which depict suffering and starving women and children are political because they reflect sympathy with, and nostalgia for Biafra.  The same can be said of Bruce Onobrakpeya’s series “The Totems of the Delta,” which addressed environmental abuse and execution of the Ogoni Nine including their leader Ken Saro Wiwa.  All over the world, the views expressed by artists on issues through visual arts are taken seriously.

Restitution of art works taken illegally from Nigeria particularly those from Benin City after the punitive war has become a major international political issue which involves governments, traditional rulers, artists and international lawyers.  Through the exhibition she held a few years back, Peju Layiwola is at the vanguard of this struggle.

Even within Nigeria, there is socio-political in fighting with regards to use of certain art forms in public places many beautiful art works have been destroyed. Some communities claim to be more important because of their artistic antecedent. An example of this is an interesting   scenario. Agbarha-Otor chiefs went to Asaba the Delta State capital to ask that a projected local government headquarter be located in their land.  The reason they gave for their eligibility is that they have a museum of art which in fact is a collection of modern and folk art works which is one of the facilities created for the Harmattan Workshops.

I will like to observe that visual arts political commentaries can sometimes create serious hazards to the author.  I was close to being picked up for questioning when the authorities asked for the removal of my painting tilted, ‘Triumph’, together with a poem attached to it, from the CHOGUM exhibition which was mounted for the conference of Commonwealth Heads of State in Abuja, in 2003.

To summarise this presentation I like to refer you to the following pictures;

1.      Not, terra cotta, Ife, Benin and Igbo Ukwu which introduced Nigeria to the rest of the world.

2.      Nigeria in 1959, a painting by Prince Demas Nwoko which expresses colonial sadness at the loss of Nigeria as a colony to Great Britain.

3.      The only Son- a painting on plywood express the impact of the civil war on Biafra.

4.      Door at Catholic Chapel, University of Ibadan- reflecting Christian art by Lamidi Fakeye resulting from Oye Ekiti workshop experiments.

5.      Door at Apostolic Delegation Lagos by Ben Enwonwu illustrating Christian message in traditional Nigerian art style.

6.      A shrine installation at the Oshun grove by Susanne Wenger.  This has created model for installion art now and important trend in our development.

7.      Exotic and Fantasy painting by Twin Seven Seven.  He teaches us how to draw from our folklore to create beautiful art works.

8.      Painting and etchings by Bruce Onobrakpeya showing the negative effect of oil exploration and extraction on our environment.

9.      Engraving and etchings by Bruce Onobrakpeya illustrating youths protesting environmental abuse in the Niger Delta.

10.    The Hawk Prays for Peace – Show military arrogance demonstrated in poem by Tanure Ojaide and Illustrated in plastograph by Bruce Onobrakpeya.

11.    Painting and poem called Triumph by Bruce Onobrakpeya – A call on Divine intervention to rescue the masses from bad leadership.

12.    Three White Cap Chiefs welcome people to Lagos.

13.    Sambisa Forest Installation and letter to the Chibok girls by Bruce Onobrakpeya.

Eminent ladies and gentlemen, thank you for listening to

this presentation.

Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya, MFR

September 12, 2015.

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