Relevance of Art and Culture,
in Schools and Society
Bruce Onobrakpeya, MFR
I have to thank the management, teachers and
pupils of Lagoon School, Lekki, for honouring me with an invitation to come and
talk to the pupils on the subject of “The Relevance of Art and Culture in
schools and society”. In this regard, I will be speaking from the perspective
of the visual art, an area I have been practicing in for over six decades.
I’d like to inform you that coming here
evokes a nostalgic feeling of my beginning as art teacher, first at Western
Boys’ High School, Benin City, after then at Ondo Boys’ High School, Ondo and
finally at St. Gregory’s College, Lagos, where I spent 17 years before retiring
as a teacher. Beyond my career as a teacher, I still interact with pupils in
their scores whenever the annual Harmattan Workshop I organize holds and when
schools come with their pupils to visit me at work in my studio. One thing I
have come to realize as an art teacher is that every child is born with a
talent and has something to express and art is usually the primary medium
through which they express it. The beauty of children’s art is that their
simplicity, directness and innocence will make even great and experienced
masters want to be able to repeat those attributes in their art. This was the
case with me particularly in the 60s at St. Gregory’s when I sometimes copied
pieces of my students. A specific one I can recall was the drawing of a strange
animal which the student called a cow. Over the years I could not reconcile the
name to the image until I named the animal Ubido,
which is an Urhobo word for one of the animals in their folklore. I know
some of you here are naturally talented in art. My advice to you is that some
works of art produced by you now should be carefully kept and if you can,
glazed. You will be amazed at the beauty and freshness when several years later
you bring it out to view.
Art and culture can be described as two sides
of a coin. One is incomplete without the other. Art and culture are innate to
man. In other words, man did not have to go school to acquire the knowledge of
art and culture even though education in those subjects is very important. The
earliest men made drawings and images in one form or the other to communicate.
We have the cave drawings discovered in caves around the world and some of
these drawings scientists tell us are thousands of years old. Over the years,
man has developed what he probably acquired by instinct. And this is where
education is very important for it is through education that he can
scientifically develop what was a natural talent. The school environment helps the child to
recognize particular innate talents and teaches him or her skills to develop
them. So what is Art? One dictionary definition of art is “ human effort to
imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature”. Another
definition describes art as “ the conscious production or arrangement of
sounds, colours, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects
the sense of beauty, specifically the production of the beautiful in a graphic
or plastic medium”. In the two definitions, the word Nature, Colours, Forms,
Movement and beauty should be borne in mind especially with regard to visual
art which is what we are concerned with.
Culture according to my dictionary's definition
is “the arts, customs, and habits that characterize a particular society or
nation”. It is also defined as the beliefs, values, behavior and material
objects that constitute a people’s way of life. From the definitions of Art and
Culture, you will notice that they both have been with us right from almost the
beginning of age when civilization started.
In contemporary times, Art and Culture permeate
the entire spectrum of society. There is nothing you touch that does not imply
the prevailing culture of the place and that object touched has art as an
intrinsic part. As students, most of you have for example, a mobile phone. Mobile
phone ownership is almost the culture of all modern city dwellers for it is
something most people cannot do without.
Art comes into the equation when one considers that the phones which
come in various shapes were designed by artists at the stage before they were
manufactured Culture learning which truly begins with the mother tongue at home
and continued at school becomes easier as we apply the principle of moving from
the known to the unknown. Art and
culture education at home and in school is to help us realize who we are as a
people thereby helping us fulfill not just cultural expectations but life
expectations as well.
To drive the argument for the relevance of
art and culture in the school curriculum further, I’d like to state that visual
art forms the basis of any educational discipline as it runs through all the
subjects. Art helps to train the eyes to
observe, the hands to mold objects and give illustration to ideas. It helps the
mind to imagine and project ideas. There
are inter dependencies and inter relationships among subjects taught in schools
and to neglect or eliminate art and culture is to create an imbalance in knowledge
that is imparted at schools.
Visual art studies lead to graduate and post
graduate degrees in our educational system.
This opens up a vast array of professions from which one can choose a
career from either in government or private setups. Two of my colleagues in the
now defunct College of Arts and Technology, which later became Ahmadu Bello University,
Zaria, are examples of people who went into art education and rose to the
top. Professors Adamu Baike and Solomon
Wangboje became the Vice Chancellor and Deputy Vice Chancellor respectively, of
the University of Benin.
Another college colleague, Demas Nwoko who specialized
in Painting while at the college and became one of the very few architects who
have created buildings that can truly be termed African. A great number of trained artists became
professionals. They are self - employed
and produced art works in their studios.
At this point I’d like to talk about the
relevance of the visual arts in society.
1. Art history and civilization
Art is a measure of civilization. The first thing that puts Nigeria on the map
of the world is her art. The Nok terra
cottas, Igbo Ukwu figurines, Benin and Ife bronzes and other antique works
produced in the past have classed us as part of world civilization. The works of our modern pioneer artists like
Aina Onabolu, Ben Enwonwu, Felix Idubor, Lamidi Fakeye, Ladi Kwali, and others
are iconic and constitute very important legacy.
The post independence period of Nigeria produced
a group of artists who were members of the Zaria Society to which I
belong. Their philosophy of synthesis
(recourse to the roots and fertilization from abroad) created a revolution
which is reputed to have forged a direction for contemporary and modern Nigerian
art. They are Yusuf Grillo, Simon Okeke,
Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, Emmanuel Odita, Josephine Omigie, Nwagbara and Felix
One must mention that El Anatsui, a younger
generation artist who has gained international reputation, although Ghanaian
born, but matured in Nigeria.
2. Art and Environment
Villages, cities and town squares, buildings
and parks are beautified with art. Historical
monuments like soldier Idumota (now in Abuja), sculptural portraits of Dr
Nnmadi Azikiwe in Onisha, Herbert Macaulay in Yaba and, Obafemi Awolowo in
Ikeja, the prancing horses at Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos make visits to
these places memorable and interesting. Sculpture gardens both at Ahmadu Bello
University, Zaria, and at the Auchi Polytechnic are examples of parks that have
been beautified with art. These and vast
indoor decorations of murals, stained glass and mosaic in many of our buildings,
including places of worship are proofs of the relevance of visual art in the
3. Art and Diplomacy
Because of the art shows they hold abroad and
the good image of the country that the artists’ works project, our artists are
regarded as “ambassadors.” Also, Timothy
Fasuyi while holding the post of Nigerian Federal Art Adviser was on the basis
of art, at the United Nations Assembly in New York to present our cultural
I have had numerous art exhibitions abroad
and my art works have been used to fulfill diplomatic roles by the federal
government. In 1996 my art piece was
given as a present by Dr. Walter Ofonagoro, the then minister of information to
Saddam Hussein, the then Iraqi president. It earned me a travel grant to visit
Iraq and experience their art and culture and only two years ago, my art work
“Oracle” was acquired for our President Goodluck Ebelle Jonathan as a present
to President Barack Obama of the United States of America. So many of my friends tell me they see my
paintings adorning the walls of Aso Rock when the President is holding the
cabinet meeting with his ministers. They see them when watching the television.
4. Art and Politics
Artists use their works to draw attention to
what goes on around them. An example is
a body of work called “Totems of the Delta” which I created to draw attention
to the environmental impact of oil exploration and extraction in the Niger Delta
region of Nigeria.
During the Nigerian pre-independence
political era, a Nigerian artist, Akinola Lasekan drew powerful cartoons in the
pages of the West African Pilot, which became weapons in the political struggle
championed by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and others for the emancipation of Nigeria
from colonial rule. In the ongoing electoral campaigns, artists use their
cartoons in funny ways to disseminate information on the pages of newspapers.
5. Art and the Nigerian Economy
Art and craft is a renewable source of wealth
for any nation. In our country Nigeria,
it employs a great number of people and alleviates poverty. Traditional crafts men and women and those
trained in schools and workshops create items which we use for dressing,
furniture and ornaments. These have huge
local and foreign patronage which create immense wealth for the country.
6. Art and Tourism
Our art and craft attract a large number of
people, local and foreign to our markets, boutiques, art galleries and museums,
carnivals and traditional festivals. Art supports tourism which is estimated to
employ eighty per cent of labour force when we consider services that have to
be provided by the hospitality and transport industries. To reap its maximum benefits as alternative
source of income to oil, we need more investments in infrastructure and
security for the safety of lives and property.
7. Secondary Art Market, Art Auctions and
Relatively new developments on the Nigerian
art scene include the appearance of secondary market in which one can resell
art works and the institution of auction houses which sell art to the highest
bidders. Both artists and art collectors
have experienced surprises as pieces fetch high or super prices. Auctions become a gauge for measuring the
importance of an artist or an artistic trend.
They help discover new artists particularly the younger ones. Older art
works and works of more established artists tend to fetch more money in those
It is important also to mention that
collectors would rather buy works from artists who are faithful and enduring in
their commitment to the practice of art, and in the process gain reputations
which invariably add to the value of their pieces. In case you have an art work to sell you can
consult any of the following auction houses which organize consistently about
two times in a year. They are The Art House Contemporary Limited and the Terra
Kulture Ltd. Terra Kulture is in partnership with Mydrim Gallery, Nike Gallery
and recently, the Signature gallery.
Art works now enjoy investment value in
Nigeria. Like gold, landed property,
stocks and shares, one can invest in art and expect good returns. Also, art works are now being accepted by the
banks as collaterals for loans. This
development calls for a new line of study which can be called “art valuation”
9. Art and Religion
This talk on the relevance of visual art in
the society will not be complete if I do not mention the role which art plays in
religion in the present Nigerian society.
First, I’d like to say that the use of art for religion is growing. The murals and sculptures including my works
in St. Pauls Catholic Church, Ebute Metta, Lagos, until recently before they
were removed from the walls are an eloquent example of the use of art in
religion. Stained glass works by Yusuf
Grillo and David Dale are visible in many of our churches in Lagos. Many of the churches are replete with
carvings and paintings which help convey the essence of Christianity. However there is a kind of negative attitude
which is working against the use images in holy places particularly when local
figures, motifs and symbols are employed.
The issues become serious as the trend extends to decorations and art
works in our city squares and public places.
A beautiful and imposing Ikenga sculpture was pulled down in one of the
south eastern states of Nigeria.
Similarly, actions have been taken against sculptural
monuments at the Warri round about in Delta state and on the campus of
University of Ibadan, Oyo state.
We know that visual art which is part of
culture is not static but dynamic, and accept that no one should impose any
idea through art on any community or society.
However, the world is now a global village, and through technological
advancements, a lot of people can easily be assimilated into other cultures, thereby
losing the sense of who they are. Artists
should be commended for being an important agent in the transfer of our timeless
values from one generation to another.
I thank Lagoon School for the honour and
privilege to talk about a subject which has given me fulfillment and
recognition. Whether one is in or
outside the school, art and culture are very important. I hope this presentation will always generate
healthy discussions in and around the classroom.
Thank you boys and girls, ladies and