In a recent interview for an art magazine, I was asked about the role of Art in culture. I thought it was a very obvious answer because Art is culture and culture exists because Art does. You see, Art plays a major role in our culture in the sense that before the written word, it was our means of communicating, preserving history and development. Everything to do with the culture of the people was preserved and presented in Arts. My reverence for the arts made me an avid collector of African arts from a very young age.
I would spend my entire one month’s salary purchasing artworks and even commit my salary for months to the arts because I loved it. Eventually when my home could no longer contain my passion, I was moved to open the first private museum in Nigeria; DIDI Museum.
In the same magazine, Prince (Engr.) Yemisi Shyllon a collector wrote; ‘Art is all human expressions that capture human imaginations, happenstances in society and expresses human relationship with his environment in written, non-written and instrumental forms to entertain, educate, decorate, and provide pleasure and happiness for human consumption.’
Mrs Dayo Keshi, former director General of the National Council for Arts and Culture wrote; ‘Our culture can indeed be used to further cement the unity of our country and eventually, transform our country for the better. ‘
Another art lover, Mr Lanre Olagoke stated that art became his salvation and to him, the greatest Artist is God himself for God is Art. The truth in this can’t be denied as nature is truly the greatest artwork.
The publisher of Minds magazine, Princess Genevieve Ikenchukwu in her editorial piece wrote that, ‘The word Art is so wide and pervasive that it almost defies definition. It is the physical expression of the different facets of life. It is the different expressions of the creator’s innermost design of LIFE, of the earth/world and all that is contained within it.’
Art encompasses both the spiritual and physical. It is the landscape and entire Architecture of the World. You can see Art in virtually every aspect of life, from the beauty of the skies to the landscape of the World. You can see it in the creation of the seas and its inhabitants, birds, other animals and of course humans. It is the experience and expression of joy, pain, birth, sadness, happiness, healing, freedom, salvation etc. In a nutshell, it is everything that makes life what it is.
The Nigerian Art is gradually making its way onto the global Art scene and has been recently featured in a number of auctions in Europe and US. I remember the travelling Nigeria Art exhibition in 2000 that toured all over Europe, USA and the Caribbean, and almost every country with black civilization wanted the exhibition. It lasted for over two years. Another memorable moment was in 1985, when British airways collaborated with DIDI Museum to commemorate Nigeria twenty fifth Independent anniversary with exhibition of Nigerian Arts at the Gatwick Airport. Thousands of arts lovers travelling in and out of the UK visited the exhibition. My wife, Mrs Elizabeth Jibunoh and Kenny Adamson curated the exhibition that lasted two months and visitors to the exhibition offered to buy out some of the art works, for us then and now, the art works are priceless.
It is an irony of history that most Nigerians do not know that the Nigerian art is one of the best in the world as mentioned by Piccasso who acknowledged how greatly his works were influenced by the African Art, particularly the Nigerian Art.
More so, during the middle of the last century, Nigeria was the 3rd largest owner of the Nigerian Art, after Germany and Britain. Prior to that period, Nigerians were importing artworks depicting lilies and landscape from all over the world-the Middle East, Asia etc to decorate their homes, offices and public places. It is unfortunate that we lost all our works to foreign invasion in exchange for lilies and western houses in a frame. By the time we were starting to bridge the gap or missing link over our development and civilization which can only be traced to the works taken away by the British, it was too late. All attempts to recover those works from the British Museum were rebuffed by the British government.
I was part of part of the Nigerian delegate that went to Britain long before 1977 to request the return of Nigerian Artwork such as the FESTAC head from the British government. Not only did they refuse to release them to us, the FESTAC head which we desperately required for FESTAC 77’, was blatantly refused to be given even as a LOAN to the Nigerian government. That shows you how much value was (and still is) placed on the Nigerian Art. The FESTAC head remains a highly protected masterpiece in the British Museum till date. So, we returned without the FESTAC head and ended up using a replica for our own festival, the FESTAC 77’. That replica is safely kept and displayed at the DIDI Museum in Lagos.
The Rev. Desmond Tutu once narrated how the British managed to cart away with our artwork right beneath our nose. He said, when the British came into Africa, they came under the guise of preaching the good news to us in Africa and introduced their God to us whilst condemning our own traditional worship or method of worship. When they realized they could not take away our artwork “by force”, they presented to our leaders/chiefs the Holy Bible and whilst holding it in their hands, asked them to close their eyes for prayers and we did close our eyes in obedience. By the time we opened our eyes however, we had nothing left of our Culture or Tradition save for the Bibles in our hands. Even the British people who ordered us to close our eyes for prayers were nowhere to be found, having taken off with our birth rights.
So, in a nutshell, the British gave us their “god” and left with ours. Today, we continue to practice the foreign religion whilst they continue to exhibit our artworks or “gods” in their Museum making a “not-so-bad” revenue source from Culture and Tourism for the British government. So, to me, Art is the beauty of our Nation and the link its past. Sadly, that missing link remains and it is a part of our problem today.
Starting on the 18th of April, DIDI Museum will be hosting an exhibition entitled, “Journey to Mastery’ for two weeks by two promising Nigerian artist Uche Edochie and Ayoola. The aim of the exhibition is to showcase this two young Nigerian artist and their journey over the years, it is also to intends to celebrate the journey of Nigeria as a country in the world of art and of Didi Museum in the collection and preservation of African Art through the display of its collection that spans over six decades.
In conclusion, the Art has always played a very important role in any civilisation. You cannot wish away the fact that the Nation, Nigeria has existed for a few thousand years irrespective of what colonization wants us to accept/believe. The sooner we begin to remember that and teach the younger generation, the better for us all.