The Relevance of Art and Culture,
Prospects in Schools and Society
By Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya, MFR
At Lagoon School
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 Ekeada.
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 society.
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 policy.
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 Super Prices
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 markets.
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.
8. Art and Investment
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 gentlemen.