Sunday 30 June 2019

Excavating 500 yrs of Benin 'Iconography' from Iyase-Odozi’s installation, fabric art

Princess Theresa Iyase-Odozi.
 Installations, mixed media and fabric art that appropriate the vastness of Benin culture took off in Lagos, as a tour exhibition. The twin-like exhibition, which are mounted on the pedestal of extensive research by Princess Theresa Iyase-Odozi enrich contemporary documentation of Benin visual icons.

With museum pieces contents, the exhibition titled Uhunmwen whe Ehinmwen and Master of the Circled Cross in Benin Kingdom are Iyase-Odozi’s major solo show of great depth in recent time. From an artist who, in 2009, debuted with Arrival, a solo exhibition of everyday socio-economic sceneries in paintings on canvas, Iyase-Odozi, in the last fast five years, has taken her art into the realm of critical appreciation. Her current project – in exhibitions and documentary – may be setting new template in appropriation of ancient visual culture materials in the 21st century, so suggests the depth of research invested in the works.

The artist is not strange to academic and critical articulation of art: when she debuted with Arrival in 2009, the exhibition had a book titled 'Discover The Art in U & be Guided' attached to the opening.

Ahead of a Lagos gathering, which flagged off the Benin Iconography... exhibition, Iyase-Odozi told select preview guests how the project was inspired by the 'head' mythology of the Benin and Yoruba peoples. A person's head, in physical context, according to the two related cultures, determines destiny. 

To articulate her thoughts, a discourse themed 'Renaissance of Imagery And Symbolism In Benin Iconography: Iyase-Odozi’s Art Appropriation In Focus' was organised by GreenHouse Art Empowerment Centre and Thought Pyramid Art Centre at the latter’s gallery space in Ikoyi, Lagos. Kunle Filani, Mike Omoighe, Stella Awoh, Kehinde Adepegba and Princess Theresa Odozi were Panellists with Kally Ozolua Uhakheme as moderator. Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya, Prince Yemisi Shyllon and Mrs Nike Davies-Okundaye were listed as Guests of Honour for the event.

Scheduled as a two-year project meant to have been concluded in 2018, the works in research, the artist disclosed, became more extensive than imagined. She cited example of how the revelation about Benin 'adire' inspired her into further research and more facts on the people’s fabric culture. “It took me three years both in works and theory,” the artist stated.

Also of interest in critical context is the artist’s appropriation of the 'Circled Cross' symbols. Yes, the Benin people had contacts with Europeans, in pre-Nigerian nation state periods, but the depth of spirituality that the natives attached to the Circled Cross, Iyase-Odozi explained, goes beyond colonial history. She said “the cross symbols appear on most of the exhibits,” to stress its importance in Benin iconography.

She explained how the circled cross icon "appeared in basically most of the plaques where the Oba was represented in the 15th Century." Iyase-Odozi, a princess from Benin argued that, in ancestral value, "there are several folkloric interpretations of the Circled Cross, which has a spiritual undertone used during rituals, festivals."

Appropriating art in great depth that produces museum texture collection is not exactly new in the contemporary Nigerian space. However, most of such works, usually, end up in private collection, thereby lacking popular appreciation from the general public. Is there a future plan to dispense the Benin Iconography works of Iyase-Odozi as museum collection? “Yes, I see them as museum pieces,” the artist agreed. “I look forward to connecting with museums across the globe.” She hoped to reconnect with some museums abroad “that had extended invitations in the past.”

Batik of the Edo people by artist, Princess Iyase-Odozi.
Scheduled to take off from Benin City at the Crowne Gallery in October 2019, the opening ceremony holds Saturday, 26 of the same month, showing till November 30. Hoping for “availability of funds and sponsors, we will be able to mount it in Lagos, January 2020 and in May, goes to Abuja to end up at GreenHouse Art Empowerment Centre, Olambe, Ogun State same year.”

Excerpts from Iyase-Odozi’s Artist Statement: “This exhibition has for the first time in the history of Benin  unravelled the unidentified Iconography/ Semiotics; translated the Iconographies into 2-D mixed media paintings; transferred the intricate iconographies to textile motifs  known as Iyase-Odozi Edo-Batik; and seeks to revive the waning batik clothing culture in Benin and thereby impart some aspects of Benin culture to the younger generation tthrough Empowerment programmes.”

Listed as objectives are: to honour His Royal Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo Ewuare II, Oba of Benin; to commemorate the occasion of his 2019 birthday celebrations in Benin; create awareness and publicise these appropriations of the rich Benin icons found on artefacts, dating as far back as the 15th Century; to provoke the potency and need for further studies on Benin Iconography both in Theory and Practice.
 -Tajudeen Sowole.

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