In a symposium and are exhibition, a monarch's responsibility to his people as custodian of their values and culture was once again stressed at the 2019 Ofala Festival in Onitsha, Anambra State.
The events explained native democratic contents in traditional governance. A native phrase of the Onitsha people known as 'Oreze', which means ‘will of the people under the leadership of the king’ and adapted for the yearly art exhibition, for example, boosted the argument of existence of organised governance among Africans of old before western democracy set in.
Organised yearly by His Royal Majesty Nnaemeka Achebe, Agbogidi, Obi of Onitsha, the Ofala Festival, according to tradition, celebrates his emergence from seclusion.
Held from October 9 to 13, ‘Oreze’ art show made its seventh appearance with works drawn from Nigeria and the diaspora. While the traditional town procession, involving hundreds of youths, in carnival-like texture, was going on across Onitsha, a gathering of artists, academics and arts enthusiasts converged on the Obi’s palace for a symposium titled, 'Role of Art in Community Enlightenment, Cohesion and Development'.
Declaring the symposium open, the monarch explained to the gathering how art, traditionally, has been part of the life of Onitsha people. He urged stakeholders in art management and appreciation to take up responsibility of expanding the scope of art in Africa.
The monarch's passion for art was very conspicuous as seen in the texture of the walls inside the hall where the symposium held. On display, as part of the palace’s collection and the hall’s aesthetics were the works of Emma Mbanefo, Olisa Nwadiogbu George Edozie and Vincent Osemwegie.
Seated beneath an imposing Mbanefo’s painting were the moderator and independent scholar Prof. Frank Ugiomoh, panellists Obiora Anidi, Nneka Odoh, Hakeem Adedeji and Iheanyi Onwuegbucha.
|Titled Chiefs (women) during 2019 Ofala Festival.|
Shortly after the opening address by the monarch, Ugiomoh started his introduction with how to look at work of art within the framework of tradition and contemporary times.
He recalled how some observers have questioned separation of architecture, industrial designs and fine arts as different disciplines or professions, within and outside the academia. The moderator noted that, "whatever we make as artists is meant to serve humanity."
Ugiomoh, a professor of Art History and Theory, set the tone of discussion by urging the gathering to take another look at the way people “interact with art, its consumption and collecting."
He asked the curator among the panellists, Onwuegbucha, to lead participants into the essence of art. Onwuegbucha, director at Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, argued that art should be defined based on individual's experience rather than as taught in formal environment.
Before throwing Onwuegbucha's submission to the floor, the moderator warned that art for art's sake is not absolute. He also aligned with broader definition of art. "There is no particular or rigid definition of art."
While appreciating the sentiments of Onwuegbucha, Ugiomoh reminded everyone that the phrase "visual arts already summarises" all the genres. But Onwuegbucha drew everyone's attention to the fact that there are certain art that do not fall under visual culture.
For example, "sound installation is not visual," he argued. Perhaps, a profound statement from Odoh threw a balance into opposing views. "With experience and time, definition of art will keep expanding," she stated.
Odoh’s argument was all that the participants needed to go into the mode of liberalism shortly before the break time.
After the break, Ugiomoh expanded on what art may mean to individuals. He dragged Adedeji, a Lagos-based businessman into his submission.
Adedeji started by sharing his experience as a collector, perhaps, to drive a point about appreciation based on individual taste. "I started collecting in 1985/86 as a student in the university, buying prints."
Adedeji disclosed that aesthetics was the attraction then. "And now, I have moved to a custodian role." He expressed concern about "how we appreciate the creators of art," and emphasised the importance of sharing value with the larger society.
He cited example of how his love for Ben Osaghae's work moved from mere aesthetics attraction to activism when the late artist started focusing on anti-corruption themes. Art, he stressed, "is about the people's value."
Adedeji had a sympathiser in Onwuegbucha, who noted that curators behave in similar way as regards art appreciation and management.
In his response to the value that art brings to the society, Anidi, who is of the Fine and Applied Arts Department, Enugu State College of Education, took the gathering back to the roots of culture. "Our ancestors say that any society that loses its art is gone.” He argued on how “Art, essentially, is knowledge,” and cited the value of art education at kindergarten level as laying foundation for developing children's psyche and prepare them for the future, irrespective of their chosen profession.
Odoh responded to Ugiomoh's question about her experience as art teacher. She said art is a vision, which sees beauty in ugliness. “I educate my students to see art beyond the beauty; the essence is to interact with the work.”
From the floor came contributions, which included observations that artists in Nigeria make more impact than their literary counterparts, and the importance of art appreciation in connecting the people with art creators, historians and curators. Also, there were issues about policy makers’ inability to enhance art values.
In conclusion, Anidi said: “We must make the society engage with art and emulate the Obi of Onitsha. Hakeem: “The art lover is built through gradual process. A lot of young artists are not prepared for post-academic career.” Odoh: “As art teacher, we can do better.” Onwuegbucha: “the curators stimulate and articulate art.”
Ugiomoh noted that knowledge capacity is lower and urged government to be more responsible. “This is what the Obi does every year by bringing us together. We all agreed that art is knowledge and power. It is important to improve on the academics in preparing the young artists.”
Edozie, curator of the Oreze VII exhibition stated that, “artists in Africa don't need to complain about government’s lack of inputs in art because we know that such support for art never existed in the first place.”
On the first day of Ofala Festival when the Obi of Onitsha opened Oreze VII exhibition, the volume of exhibits in high numerical strength did not diminish the quality of art on display. Mounted on two floors inside a section of the expansive palace, works of over 100 artists from within and outside Nigeria were on display.
|Titled Chiehs (Men) during 2019 Ofala Festiva.l|
From the ground floor, just on the immediate entrance, were on display paintings and sculptures by Duke Asidere, Edosa Ogiugo, Alex Nwokolo, Edozie, Wande George, Reuben Ugbine, Juliet Osemwegie Norbert Okpu and Tolu Aliki, among others. The exhibition, according to palace sources derived its identity ‘Oreze’, from name of the first monarch of Onitsha.
Interestingly too, ‘Oreze’ has a link to Orakwue, a group art exhibition organised to mark the 10th year coronation of the Obi of Onitsha held in April 2013 at Alexis Galleries, Victoria Island, Lagos. The exhibition featured artists of Onitsha descents such as Afam Okwudili, George Nwadiogbu, Ato Arinze, Chinwe Uwatse, Osaji Dubem, Gaby Emengo, Frank Anamah, Onyeoma Mbanefo and George Edozie. They were joined by guest artists from Nigeria, Republic of Benin and Ghana such as Abiodun Olaku, Alex Nwokolo, Tola Wewe, Gbenga Ofor, Duke Asidere, Agorsor Kofi, Fidelis Odogwu and Domonique Zinkpe. From the Lagos gathering, a yearly art exhibition as part of the Ofala Festival was generated.
Ugiomoh, in contributing critique to Oreze VII noted "two symbolisms" that underscored the essence of ‘Oreze’. "The first is the solemnity of this exhibition, which the roundtable discussion that accompanies its agenda suggests, culminating in the Ofala Festival. The second is how this exercise modulates the knowledge foundation of the king’s community organized around the concept Oreze."
Where nation state democracy and its governments at different levels have failed, particularly in providing platform for broad modern and contemporary art appreciation via museum facility, the monarch of Onitsha is already filling that vacuum. The art exhibition and symposium were held under the auspices of a work in progress facility known as Chimedie Museum. Founded by the Obi, Chimedie Museum, according to sources will be ready for opening, officially in the first quarter of 2021.
Despite the fact that the museum was not in place, physically, parts of its functions were already visible during Ofala Festival 2019. HRM, Achebe, during a chat inside his palace explained the role of Chimedie Museum Trust Foundation.
“Conceptually, the museum is in our head and we can use the medium to better understand ourselves as Onitsha people, Igbo, Nigerians and Africans,” the monarch told his guest on the second day of the festival. “The works of art for the museum are from across Africa and others by British artists in my collections in London.”
The purpose of the symposium and exhibition being under the platform of the Chimedie Museum," he stated, was based on the fact that the people’s daily living is connected to creativity. “Art is life and life is art. We use art to chronicle our history as seen in examples such as art of Benin, Ife, Nok, Igbo Ukwu and others as left to us by our ancestors.” The monarch noted that “art can be educative, entertaining in general, but also addictive if you are a passionate collector.”
|During one of the processions at 2019 Ofala Festival.|
Specifically, in Onitsha, most of the people’s art, according to the king, “go into their day-to-day life.” He cited the “masquerades and the aura they radiate” as well as other values such as “our fashions particularly paraphernalia for myself, the chiefs and titled men and women and also decorations of our homes.”
The third day of Ofala Festival, regarded as the grand-finale, was ecstatic to watch. The processions featured participants from across the town offices’ flooded Ezechima Square.
Designed to the doorstep of the monarch, the Ezechima Square’s green lawn, surrounded by theatre style sittings, provided a bird’s eye view to the façade of the palace from where the king could see the processions. One after the other, different groups performed, each with its masquerade, going round the square and stopping in front of the facade as a sign of traditional homage to the Obi.
The trajectory of the people says that Ofala Festival signifies yearly emergence of the monarch after meditating periodically. It's the high point of Onitsha ceremonial circle. While the monarch is in seclusion, the three divisions of the chiefs take review of their troops on the third day and the monarch emerges on the fourth day.