I attended a programme tagged “breakfast with the creatives” in which two of the greatest artists of their generation spoke to us about their lives and their art, on their struggles, the pitfalls and trials of being professional artists from Nigeria. Apparently we have not appreciated our art and our heritage for a while now. Because in the face of post-colonialism, we tend to forget that we had a culture that would have been completely obliterated by our colonial master had it not been for our artists. The great Aina Onabolu, Yusuf Grillo, Ben Enwonwu (who was so amazing that The Enwonwu crater on the planet Mercury is named in his honour), Bruce Onobrakpeya , Ladi Kwali, and to mention a few, have given us a picture into our past, and they make us realise the importance of our culture and tradition.
In recent years we have refused to embrace our art, it is believed that the job of an artist can never be anything more than an acerbic secondary school art teacher. This is has been as a result of the lack of appreciation of our culture and pure heritage. It is unfortunate that the intellectual breeze that blew over our country from the late 40s till the early 80s is gone. The time has come for us lead a resurgence of that breeze once again. We can no longer afford to deal the ephemeral, vacuous and banal lifestyles of the American West. Now all we think about is the Versace on our wrist, diamonds on our neck, and how we woke up in a new buggatti, okay? All that stuff might be good, but so what, why do we have to piss ourselves when a popular reality star makes the cover of a large magazine? No reason actually, this, I believe, is because there is an empty void and we have decided to fill by all sorts of ridiculous nonsense. Like seriously, think about it, when you finish reading a Chinua Achebe classic, do you get the same feeling and fulfilment from reading how there is trouble in the Kardashian household? I do not think so; I don’t, because I have read on both many times. There is a reason why one is a classic, and the other is a trend, one is sturdy and the other is tenuous.
Do not get me wrong, I have no problem with trends, vogues and the Kardashains, in fact I think they may be remarkable people, but then we live in a demand-supply world, in which we are given what we want and are ready to pay. So if we are not ready to pay for great art, and we are ready to pay for vainglory, then the ‘artist’ would do just that.
Europe, although they dominated the world, at different times in history still retain a rich culture, even as far as swindling their subjects to give them priceless works, as they did I the Benin kingdom and in other parts of Nigeria. They appreciate art a lot that they are sometimes ready to steal, lie and kill just to get them from different cultures at the ends of the world. Segun Adejumo, one of the artists that attended the breakfast gave a story lending credence to the veracity of this. He was travelling back to Nigeria after an exhibition in Paris, and as usual there are restriction concerning how much baggage can be carried by an individual passenger, so as he got to the check in, he had a lot more load than he had the right to have, if he wanted to board the plane, so the airport officials opened his luggage, maybe to see how his belongings could be rearranged, but then she saw a painting, and he was asked what he did (as in his occupation, maybe to check if he was an art collector, dealer etc), he told he was an artist, and immediately the whole airport, at least the section he was in went hysterical. The airport official called her boss and colleagues, every one of them before Adejumo knew it, were around him trying to get a photograph and an autograph. He eventually travelled with an upgraded flight ticket, and luggage privileges at no cost, except from being an artist.
During the breakfast, the decline of the art school came up, in which today many school use the art departments as ‘dumping’ sites for students. That is, those students who could not get into other departments because of congestion were pushed to the art schools, this in spite of the fact that creating art is something innate and visceral that comes from thousands of hours of practice, many of these untrained and uninterested students, just decided to enroll because of no other option. When this dumping phenomenon was protested, the government began to close down the art schools, because they could not imagine why such huge halls would be utilized by only ten students at a time most of the time, because it was considered as an inefficient use of space. This is the problem that our very few art schools all over the country are going through, and if these schools get shutdown there would be no where for burgeoning artists to learn effectively the discipline of the art of creating art. Then the only custodians of our heritage and culture would be gone and we would be lost in a world of monotony,confusion and drudgery. This issue was very much dealt with by the other artist Abiodun Olaku.
During the breakfast conference, I came to realise that one of the major problems of the artistic and creative industry is the lack of the non-artists contributions in that industry. There are very few art historians, art managers, administrators, etc. in past times it was the job of the artists to do all these jobs, hence making them inefficient in what they were originally called to do.
After the conference, we went round to see the exhibitions of the red door gallery. I was almost blown away when I saw for the first time in my life physically, the works of Ben Enwonwu and Bruce Onobrakpeya because before then I had only seen them in pictures. I could not resist acting like a child who has just that had just been promised candy. I left that conference with a new resolve to do my part as much as I can in the survival our heritage as a nation.
Ben Enwonwu, shows us the non-inferiority of our culture when he said “I will not accept an inferior position in the art world. Nor have my art called African because I have not correctly and properly given expression to my reality. I have consistently fought against that kind of philosophy because it is bogus. European artists like Picasso, Braque and Vlaminck were influenced by African art. Everybody sees that and is not opposed to it. But when they see African artists who are influenced by their European training and technique, they expect that African to stick to their traditional forms even if he bends down to copying them. I do not copy traditional art. I like what I see in the works of people like Giacometti but I do not copy them. I knew Giacometti personally in England, you know. I knew he was influenced by African sculptures. But I would not be influenced by Giacometti, because he was influenced by my ancestors”.