Sunday, August 26, 2012

Celebrating Bruce Onobrakpeya at 80

Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya and Prince Yemisi Shyllon recently in Lagos at the Ovuomaroro Gallery in Lagos

Paper delivered on the 24th of Aug 2012 as part of the activities and events marking Bruce Onobrakpeya Celebrations at 80 in Uyo, Akwa Ibom, Nigeria by Omoba Yemisi Shyllon.


In presenting my comments on the general ineptitude to creativity in our country, I must start by thanking the entire members of the council of the Society of Nigerian Artists led by Uwah USEN for recognizing my fellow art connoisseurs  and I, for our roles as collectors in the symbiotic sustenance and growth of Nigerian visual art.  According to Maslow, this obviously serves not only as an important motivator but also puts us in the significant position of doing more. This is because recognition is an important desire in the hierarchy of needs of man.
However, I would like to seize this opportunity to draw our attention to some disturbing cases of disregard and devaluation of the creative values in our national development and wealth. To start with, Tajudeen Sowole of The Guardian drew our attention since July 13th, 2012 to the ongoing renovation of the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos where the works of some of our present and past heroes are being desecrated. These our artistic heroes include such living legends as Prof Yusuf Grillo and Bruce Onobrakpeya whose works gave commendable value and aesthetics to the airport but are being destroyed without any consultation with, involvement or information to the artists.  Other artists, whose works are open to being desecrated at the renovation of the Murtala Mohammed Airport, are the works of late Professor Agbo Folarin, the late Isiaka Osunde and Demas Nwoko. This kind of disregard to creativity is heartbreaking and I am forced to ask in this circumstance; what the collective mission of the SNA is? What has the SNA done since this anomaly was brought to public attention by Tajudeen Sowole in The Guardian?
It appears that Nigeria is made up of people, who live in a country where artists are sentenced to marginalization and at which, visual art is at best seen as a feature of mere fancy. In Nigeria, everything points to the fact that our leaders are generally ambivalent towards visual art. Our attitude to art is unfortunately part and parcel a product of our colonial mentality.
An important case of ineptitude demonstrated by us as a people is typified by our contribution and complacency to the recent insult at our intelligence by the British Museum. The British Museum in avoiding the consistent and increasing pressure for the return of our looted artworks have of recent past, strategically arranged some assisted, cheap and insulting trips to England for  some low and middle level civil servants of the National Commission for Museum and Monuments to carry out some curatorial works for private and public collections in England in exchange for some payment of mere pittance to the Nigerians, when compared to what they would have paid if they had used their own citizens. Meanwhile, the Nigerian art works in the collection of the British Museum are mostly the looted works carted away from our country by imperialists from 1897 and during our period of colonisation. Our collective intelligence has of recent been insulted by a spokesman of the British Museum, when he was asked about what his country was doing about returning the looted works.  In reply, he told us to rather concentrate more on the benefits accruing to us from the on-going human-capacity development programme of the British Museum by their assisted training program in England, of civil servants instead of calling for the return of the looted works. The reality is that, our civil servants are just unconsciously being made to serve as curatorial semi-slaves of the British Museum and as pawns by the British in their strategic positioning of retaining their looted Nigerian artworks. 
One other recent noticeable insult at our intelligence, is that by the Museum of Art in Vienna through its funding of a widely publicised exhibition of lace textile materials in the Lagos Museum under the pretext of helping us to celebrate lace textiles, as part of our collective heritage. In reality, the whole essence of the funding of that exhibition by the Austrians is to reactivate their dying Austrian lace export trade to Nigeria. This being necessary because Austria has since lost its domineering market of lace cloth materials in Nigeria to China. 
A painful disturbing experience of recent, is the behaviour of a Vice Chancellor of one of the first five universities in Nigeria. This Vice Chancellor had an “Anyanwu” (a bronze work of about ten feet) by Ben Enwowu uprooted from the living-room of his official residence. He also removed works of such great renowned master artists as Akinola Lashekan, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Ben Enwonwu from the walls of the Vice Chancellor’s official quarters as well as a door carved by the late Lamidi Fakeye. The Vice Chancellor has since sent all these great works to the storage section of the institution’s Museum of National History. This was done under his unenlightened presumption that artworks are demonic. He must have imagined how ghosts would haunt him as a result of the presence of these artworks in his official residence.  All this is happening in this university that boasts of a solid department of fine arts, staffed with members of SNA without efforts being made to preserve the artworks by them. 
Also disturbing is our fast-declining heritage as a great sculptural nation.  If you recall, our forebears were more celebrated and acclaimed as sculptors than painters. This is more with particular reference to the situation observable at the Yaba College of Technology, which happens to be the first creative art institution in Nigeria. In that school, the 2011/ 2012 graduation class has only one sculptor as potential graduate being trained by eight to 10 lecturers, while there are 18 painters being trained by the same number of lecturers. The situation in YABATECH is not particularly different from what is happening in other art institutions in Nigeria. What is the Society of Nigerian Artists doing to arrest this decline in sculptural art practice in Nigeria? The SNA needs to address this problem, which effect is evident at most galleries in Nigeria and even at exhibitions organised by the Art Galleries Association of Nigeria which all feature an overwhelming preponderance of paintings as against the near absence of sculptural artworks. What is the society of Nigerian artists doing with respect to addressing the problems affecting the growth and development of visual art in Nigeria? What is it doing to draw the attention of the government of Nigeria to some of these observations?  There is a need to restructure the Society of Nigerian Artists to position it as a strong spokesman and vanguard of protecting the interest of Nigeria artists and the creative works of our great creative minds.
Making an impact when it comes to protecting the historical, cultural and artistic legacy of Nigeria’s heritage will only be successful if all of us commit ourselves to their protection. As artists, art lovers, collectors and Nigerians, it is our responsibility to communicate the importance of art resource to the general public in a way that would invoke pride and passion. It is our responsibility to create a Nigeria in which such acts of desecrating our artistic heritage would, in no way be tolerated. In the meantime, we must do everything to protect our collective artistic creativity which is currently under great threat.
If this fight is not led by the Society of Nigerian Artists, The National Gallery of Art, The Association Of Gallery Owners Of Nigeria and The Visual Art Society Of Nigeria, then who will lead it? If we do not take a stand now our future generations will only have us to blame.

Prince (Engr) Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon
Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF)