Friday, February 8, 2013

Contemporary art in Nigeria and Ghana

Book Review
Title: Contemporary Art in Nigeria and Ghana
Author: Ester Adeyemi
Publisher Alfred F. Spinnler
Friedrich Reinhardt Verlag: Basel 2005

Reviewer: Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya MFR.

This book contains a selection of the works in the collection of the publisher Chief Alfred F. Spinnler, the CEO of Swiss Pharma Nigeria Ltd., (Formerly Roche Nigeria) a pharmaceutical company with headquarters in Basel, Switzerland .

The book has 299 pages with 115 plates representing the works of 40 artists made up of 32 Nigerians, 5 Ghanaians and 3 non-Africans who have either lived or worked in Nigeria at one time or the other. According to Spinnler, the book was inspired by his passion as a young boy for Africa, and this was further stoked by his godfather’s collection of African traditional art, which he acquired from soldiers who went to fight in different parts of Africa during the Second World War. This was way back in the 1940’s. However when he came to Nigeria in 1984 as manager of one of Roche’s Divisions in Nigeria he encountered a new form of art-Contemporary African Art.

This very fascinating story is contained as part of the publishers preface to this book. As a follow up to this discovery Spinnler decided to encourage this new art and the artists that produced them by supporting the contemporary Nigerian artists. In this wise he started collecting their works.

In putting this collection into a single volume, he engaged the services of Mrs. Ester Adeyemi, a Swiss art historian and a regular art reviewer in Swiss newspapers as well as an organizer of exhibitions, readings and musical events before she moved to Nigeria in 1999.

This book, which is published in German and English, is divided into five sections. The first section contains all the pre-text materials such as the title page, copyright page, dedication and table of contents, the publisher’s preface, the author’s foreword, which includes a brief explanation of Spinnler’s collection and the structure of the catalogue. Finally in this section you have the author’s Introduction, which is further divided into seven sections.

In the Introduction, the author attempts to give a background to contemporary Nigeria Art and a brief review of the state of art in Africa in the 19th Century. She also looks at the development of Art education in Nigeria . She explains how Aina Onabolu persuaded the British colonial government to introduce art in schools. Her treatise is quite accurate in terms of the general flow of the events as they unfolded. The author goes ahead to talk about the opportunities for artists to exhibit in Nigeria , a brief note on the literature on Nigerian art and peculiarities of Nigerian art.

The second section presents the Nigerian artists whose works are featured in the catalogue. In this section each artist’s work is preceded by a brief narrative on the artist followed by a description and analysis of each of the works shown. The artists featured are: Tayo Adenaike, Joseph Adeyemi, Samuel Amurawaiye Ajobiewe, Duke Asidere, Jimoh Buraimoh, Eugene Chime-Age, Nike Davies-Okundaye, Uche Edochie, Emmanuel Ekefrey, Victor Ekpuk, Obi Ekwenchi, Kunle Filani, Krydz Ekwuemesi, Rom. Isichei, Osahenye Kainebi, Marcia Kure, Wole Lagunju, Mavua Lessor, Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo, Christopher Odunkwe, Ebele Okoye, Mike Omoighe, Bruce Ononbrakpeya, Donald John Onuoha, Chike Onuorah, Ben Osaghae, Kolade Oshinowo, Sam Ovraiti, Muraina Oyelami,  Fidel N. Oyiogu, Emeka Udemba and Tola Wewe.

The third section deals with expatriate artists who have lived or worked in Nigeria at one time or the other. In this section you have Cora de Lang, wife of the former Director of the Goethe Institut, Lagos ; Djamina Linger, a Swiss German who lived in Nigeria for a year and exhibited her works in 1995, and finally Jonathan Stoeckle, a Swiss whose parents lived in Nigeria and so visited Nigeria from time to time. His works are highly influenced by Northern Nigerian scenes.

The fourth section focuses on the Ghanaian artists namely: Emmanuel Adiamah, Kofi Agrosor, Ablade Glover, Ammon Kotei   and Wiz Kudowor.

The fifth section is the appendix, which contains the biographies of the artists and their photographs where available; bibliographical references for further reading, as well as brief biographies of the Publisher, the Author and the Photographer, Michele Kappeli, who took all the wonderful photographs of the works in the book.

The style of the author is free flowing and makes for easy reading. There is indeed evidence of intensive study and in terms of dates and other specific facts she cannot be faulted. In terms of research, the information in the book is certainly well researched. There are 73 bibliographical references for further reading, and from a perusal it would appear that there is evidence of a clear understanding in the area of the historical development of contemporary art in Nigeria and Ghana . It is also interesting to note her observations of the differences between Nigerian and Ghanaian Art. In Adeyemi’s analysis of the art scene in Nigeria , she described Ben Enwonwu as “ developing two art styles of painting, one academic, the other African.” While one appreciates that she is trying to emphasize the fact that Enwonwu’s works vacillated between western style realism and stylized forms akin to traditional African art, her statement seems to suggest that African art is not academic.

Her reference to the Sango monument in front of the NEPA (now PHCN) building as the Nepa Monument takes away from the context within which the statue was produced. While the author is correct in saying that the statue represents the Yoruba god of thunder, the correlation of the NEPA building being the head office of the nation’s national electricity corporation is de-emphasized thereby making the choice of Sango as subject for that commission lost. This would have helped to strengthen her discussion on the contributions of Kenneth Murray, who was Enwonwu’s teacher and the emphasis he (Murray) placed on drawing from African tradition for subject matter.

Her description of the state of media coverage of the arts may also have been a little over exaggerated; it would appear that today the media is doing more coverage of the visual arts. Most newspapers cover the arts in their columns and now on both government and private television there is an increased coverage of the visual arts. However like always it is still not enough. There is also an off-handed description of sculpture as an art form that has dwindling chances of survival in her essay on The Structure of The Catalogue. Although it is true that more exhibitions are dominated by paintings and a greater number of artists engage in paintings, it is not entirely true to say that sculpture, even though not as popular as painting, is diminishing. There are Nigerian artists who are practicing sculpture at a serious level and they are getting commissions. Many state and local governments have commissioned sculptures for outdoor spaces while individuals are equally commissioning works most especially statues and busts for their homes.

The catalogue section is well presented and the pictures are well placed on the pages with only the captions neatly placed on a straight line below the pictures. The artistic styles of the artists vary in theme, materials and conception. There however appears to be no attempt to present them in any analytical order. The artists are just presented in alphabetical order. While on its own, there is nothing wrong with that, it nonetheless gives the impression that all the artists are at the same level in terms of age and artistic practice. While one appreciates the fact that Adeyemi being a foreigner may not be familiar with the Nigerian contemporary art scene and she actually admits not making any attempt to classify the artists, she should at least attempt some sort of art historical process. 40 artists who are certainly not within the same age bracket nor are they from the same background nor did they even start practicing at the same time should not be lumped together. Dividing the artists into groups would have helped readers and scholars have a good art historical perspective of the collection.

Indeed there is a dearth of appropriate literature on Nigerian contemporary art, but this is not to say that there is no literature on current developments. Increasingly more books and publications are coming out. The National Gallery of Art for instance has published a few books on contemporary Nigerian Art. But these are not as frequent as one would have liked them to be. I also think that it would be unfair to say that in the past 20 years government has not supported any art initiatives. The National Gallery has supported art projects in the past and they are still doing so. The major challenge is how to get more attention as always no money is ever enough.

The book Contemporary Art in Nigeria & Ghana definitely stands out because it is the first attempt in Nigeria by an individual collector to put his art collection of a specific region in one volume for public consumption. It is indeed a vital contribution to knowledge. The publisher has exhibited a broad and robust perspective of the art of the region. The book has been able to provide information that could be used in studying Nigeria and Ghana’s contemporary art. It highlights some of the key players who are practicing now. It also provides some in-roads to Africa’s 20th Century art, as well as gives an insight into the art of the 21st Century. This volume also helps to promote the artists featured and create for them a sense of fulfillment, while scholars will have an opportunity to see works by the artists that will not be in the public domain.

It would however be misleading to assume that the works in this collection ultimately represents the contemporary art of both countries. Most of the Nigerian artists featured either live and practice or exhibit frequently in Lagos. There are several other artists in Nigeria who practice outside Lagos. In the same vain, it would not be surprising if the same could not be said of the Ghanaian art scene. The publisher himself admits that he only bought the artworks that appealed to him. This therefore means that what we see in this volume are actually the publisher’s preferences, which are personal to him. It would therefore be more appropriate to have titled the book The Spinnler Collection of Contemporary Paintings from Nigeria and Ghana .

After all has been said, I congratulate the publisher on his foresight and tenacity. I also thank the author for the extensive research, which she undertook to produce this volume that should be an essential document for scholars, students, collectors and general interest readers. I therefore recommend the book to all and sundry.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

My Artistic Odyssey By Bruce Onobrakpeya

Bruce Onobrakpeya with some students from Western Boys High School, Benin City where he attended as a boy

Excerpts from Lecture Given at University of Benin, Edo State 1st Feb. 2013
Great people of Uniben, it is indeed a great honour and privilege to be in your midst and share experiences with you in an aspect of art that has given me fame and honour, not only in Nigeria, but beyond the shores of this country everywhere art is discussed. I thank the Vice Chancellor, Professor Osayuki Oshodin for accepting that I come to showcase my artworks and present a talk in this great Institution of renown. I am also grateful to Professor O.A. Ofuani, staff and students of the Faculty of Arts who initiated this programme as part of activities lined up to mark my 80th birthday.  I feel nostalgic because being here is a home coming to me.  I spent part of my childhood and adolescence in Benin City but then Benin was mainly farmlands and thick forests interspersed with rustic villages. I remember roaming the bushes trying to catch birds.  After this university was established, I had opportunity to visit a number of times. The then Vice Chancellor and his deputy, Professor Adamu Baikie and Professor Solomon Wangboje were my colleagues at the Nigerian College of Science and Technology, now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.  I have also met, through their attending the Harmattan Workshop which I organize, several lecturers and students of this Fine Arts Dept.

 Artistic Odyssey 
The theme for this talk “Artistic Odyssey:  Printmaking as an Expression of Life’s Adventures” is a window to share with you some of my experiences as a Printmaker beginning from a playful hobby to a point where it grew to an important contemporary art medium which also inspired the creating of the Harmattan Workshop, an informal educational forum where artists meet to hone their skills and share ideas.  This is an opportunity to tell some of the stories of my life as an artist.

What is Printmaking?
I watched traditional priests and native beauticians thumbprint white chalk and cam wood red on the foreheads and bodies of people seeking for blessing or as cosmetic to beautify.  The natural shape of the thumb is repeated to create a pattern.  Each mark is literarily a Print.  Another example of Print is the office stamp.  Names and motifs are engraved on rubber or any other surface and inked on an ink pad before it is transferred onto a document.  Printmaking follows the same process.  The artist creates a design on a plate, and then it is inked and transferred onto a paper with the aid of a press or any other pressure tool.  This could be repeated to create multiple pictures.  Printmaking involves artistic and technical abilities.  Its advantage is that instead of one picture, the plate can cast several identical images each of which can be owned by a person and enjoyed as original art.  The other advantage is that the picture is much more affordable, nothing comparable to the price paid for one - of – a - kind picture.  This is also why Printmaking is considered a democratic medium of art. Although Prints as artworks enjoy some popularity, they are however not well known still. There is confusion in distinguishing print as an original art and reproductions as copies of an original art.  A print is an original idea or design engraved or prepared by an artist. Proofs can be drawn out by another person.  On the other hand a photograph of an original art work is called a reproduction.  In this age of computer, a photograph of an object can be manipulated through the computer to produce what is termed as a CAD (computer aided design) print.

Playful Beginning with Stamp Engraving
My Urhobo parents settled in one of the villages along the Okeruvbi valley not far away from here.  Father enrolled me in several of the one teacher schools which existed in those days. These schools shut down as frequently as the itinerant founders departed or found something more lucrative to do. Leaving the rural schools, I gained admission into the now defunct Eweka Memorial School at Iyaro near the Benin moat.  While there, precisely in standards one and two, I carved stamps as handwork from conical thorns I extracted from silk cotton trees in the forest a little beyond this campus. Little did I know I had launched myself into a fulfilling lifetime career in Printmaking.

The Re-appearance of the Scary Leopard
·         The second phase of my Printmaking development came at the Art School in Zaria when under the general art lecturer, Mr. Todd, I learnt the techniques of lino cut, wood cut and silkscreen.  Again another playful act taught me how to use the technique to translate experience into tangible visual art.  This was how it happened.  Long ago as a child I had accompanied my mother to Idinogbo village up hill at the Okeruvbi valley.  A red painting of an animal at the entrance of a shrine there scared me and I tugged at my mother’s legs for protection.  The incident was in my mind for several years.  While fiddling with discarded textile blocks for possible new designs in my studio, the form of that animal popped up from my subconscious, bold and still very scary.  I developed the motif into silk screen which was further worked on to produce the picture I called Leopard in the Cornfield.  It was first made as an oil painting on board and later made into silkscreen print series which have now entered the third edition.

Printmaking in Nigerian Folklore and Early Classics
Apart from the Leopard in the Cornfield picture, I used these basic print techniques to create pictures of tortoise and other folktale characters I learnt from my mother and story tellers when growing up.  I also used them to make pictures of life in the north around Zaria, particularly those of the herdsmen, their cows and the pictures of dye pits which I titled the Zaria Indigo series.  The bulk of art works which I showed during the Nigerian Independence Exhibition in 1960 were from this period.  The other fallouts of these early printmaking techniques were the illustrations for three books –Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, An African Night’s Entertainment by Cyprian Ekwensi and A Forest of A Thousand Demons by D. O. Fagunwa and Wole Soyinka. My first international recognition came when a print from this period was acquired by the Duke of Edinburgh in a Commonwealth Art Exhibition in Cardiff, Wales in 1966. 

 Journey to New Delhi, India with Neo Classical Plaques
The Lino blocks which I had used to create prints accumulated and I was reluctant to trash them as print rule says because I was fascinated by the sculptural effects created on them with gorges during engraving.  I arranged them into montage, glued them onto ply-wood and patinated them. This is the origin of the medium I call bronzed lino relief. Later the Bronze lino relief technique was further developed into low relief art called Plastocast.  All these I group under the name Neo Classical Bronze plaques, a name inspired by the timeless Benin bronze plaques.  One such assemblage called The Last Supper which was entered in 5th Indian Triennale, won a prize for which I travelled to New Delhi to receive in 1982.

During the occasion I was presented to Mrs. Indira Ghandi the then Indian Prime Minister and on my return back  to Nigeria I also met President Shehu Shagari. 

The Hydrochloric Accident and the Birth of Plastography
The third phase in my development as a printmaker came when I participated in the 1964 printmaking workshop organized by Ulli Beier at Oshogbo.  It was conducted by Ru Van Rossen (mentioned earlier) under whom I learnt Etching and Copper engraving.  After the workshop I ordered a press and other materials from Amsterdam to augment the ones donated to me by Ulli.  On arrival of the materials three years later, I set up a Printmaking studio, but I soon ran into problems with the very first print called Travelers.  Instead of biting the plate with Nitric acid, I used Hydrochloric acid. Frustrated I put the damaged plate away. But after visiting Chief Erhabor Emokpae now of blessed memory, who introduced me to the Araldite glue, I returned to the discarded plate, filled the unwanted holes with the stuff. Not bordering to clean off random drips which fell on it, I proofed plate.  It turned out to be a very interesting picture with exciting lines, textures and relief effects on the paper. This led me on to a printmaking innovation which I called Plastography. 

Printmaking Facilitates Experimentation
What is clear about this breakthrough is that printmaking process has a scientific side to it and benefits from accidental results.  And I have taken advantage of its dynamic nature to manipulate some motifs or ideas through experimentation to achieve different design effects which have gone beyond borders of known printmaking techniques.  Other inventions like bronzed lino relief which came earlier, the Ivorex, Plastocast, Diptilinen and Triptilinen painting on canvas have transformed my prints to three dimensional sculptures as well as large paintings on canvas

 Sahelian Masquerades and Totems of the Delta
The various Printmaking innovations mentioned above have made it possible for me to address issues which relate to the Nigerian environment in two series.  The first is the Sahelian Masquerades which are pictures which draw attention to the beauty of the different cultures in the northern part of our country, but also express environmental concerns to man, flora and fauna as a result of desertification.  Similarly, another series by name Totems of the Delta call for man and divine intervention to stop the adverse effects of mineral exploration and extraction. Both basically address environmental issues.

The Printmaker as a global Scholar, Teacher and Showman
My passion for Printmaking and my relative success as a Printmaker has led to my being invited to practically all the continents for residency programmes in which I doubled sometimes as a student and a teacher. Similarly, it has gotten me invited to numerous group and one man shows which have taken me to cities like the London in the United Kingdom, and New York, Takoma, Elizabeth City, Los Angeles, Deer Isle and Plymouth in the United States, New Delhi in India, Toronto in Canada (mentioned earlier) Darkar in Senegal, Abidjan in Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Harare in Zimbabwe.  Each of these places led me to different adventures which helped to expand my experience and advance my printmaking technically and professionally.  For example my attendance as Artist – In - Residence at the Haystack Mountain school of Arts and Craft in Deer Isle in 1975 was one of the inspirations towards my setting up the Harmattan Workshop 24 years later.

Education, Wealth, Friendship and Peace
Ladies and gentlemen, it is not possible to narrate all my Printmaking experiences in this presentation but before I draw the curtain, I’d like to mention that the Niger Delta Art and Cultural Centre which I established at Agbarha – Otor in Delta state was inspired by the need to impart Printmaking skills to others, the way I benefitted.  When my studio in Lagos could not accommodate all the interns, industrial attachees, artists – in – residence and research scholars engaged in producing dissertation for various degrees.  I set up an informal art education centre called the Harmattan Workshop which has been running for 14 years.  The workshop has served as a forum for artists of different backgrounds from Nigeria, West Africa, Europe and America.  It has also served as a retreat for art critics cultural engineers and has hosted dignitaries including governors and ambassadors.  It has art galleries open all year round, and students in particularly have benefitted.  As an informal education centre it has cooperated with higher institutions and universities like College of Education, Warri, the University of Benin, Benin, the Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile – Ife, Adeyemi College of Education, Federal College of Education, Umunze, Anambra State and the Delta State University, Abraka.  The location of the centre in Agbarha-Otor is a source of pride to the communities and around it.  The Harmattan Workshop employs workers from the community in which it is based while those who acquired skills at the workshop earn an income through skills they acquired thereby alleviating poverty.  The alumni of the Harmatan Workshop have advanced our art professionally, educationally and economically.  Besides these gains the Harmattan Workshops help forge networking, national and international friendships and peace. We owe all these to Printmaking – a continuing artistic odyssey open to many more adventures.   
Thank you.
Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya, MFR.