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Ages of Nigerian art at the Abuja Velodrome

September 18, 2010 01:53AM

‘The world and his wife’ were heading to Abuja on Wednesday September 15. Getting a flight to the Federal Capital Territory from Lagos was extremely difficult, with all airlines fully booked. Those who eventually made it to Abuja, discovered that hotels were similarly filled to capacity. And so it was that several of us going to the opening ceremony of the massive National Cultural/Historical Exhibition, arrived at the venue of the Velodrome, National Stadium, Abuja, to find the event was over.

It was D-Day in Abuja; former head of state, Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, declared his 2011 presidential ambition at Eagle Square – the reason, many surmised, for the full flights and hotels. The Babangida effect was compounded by the fact that the ruling PDP held its National Executive Council meeting on the same day in the same city. Given the significant political diversions, therefore, it was a testament to the pulling power of the exhibition that over 2000 people attended its opening event.

However, the president, Goodluck Jonathan, who was due to open the exhibition, stayed away. Preoccupied perhaps with the political colourations of the momentous day, he declared his own intention to run for the Presidency in 2011, on Facebook. Jonathan was represented at the Velodrome by the Minister for Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Abubakar Sadiq Mohammed. Joining him were: Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mahmud Yayale Ahmed; and Minister for the Federal Capital Territory, Bala Mohammed. At least 20 ambassadors attended in person.

In a speech delivered on his behalf by the Culture Minister, President Jonathan called the exhibition “a milestone” in the life of the Nigerian nation, noting that it showcases a “splendid kaleidoscope of images that mirror the state of our progress and achievement.” He added that Nigeria “has been in the forefront of cultural renaissance and social regenerations which gained momentum several decades ago when we hosted... FESTAC ’77.” He thanked all the artists and organisations that made the exhibition possible, and said the works on display, spanning two millennia of art production in Nigeria, would inspire stock-taking and self-evaluation of where the country is, 50 years after independence from the British.

The Velodrome

Though the opening event crowds had gone home on the evening of September 15, the Velodrome was beautifully lit up within Abuja’s National Stadium complex, appropriately so, for a venue hosting the largest exhibition ever held in Nigeria. Organisers hope young and old will come in their thousands to see the exhibition. Also known as ‘The Journey Of Our Independence’, the exhibition aims to tell the story of Nigeria through the visual arts.

Visible from the surrounding highways, the Velodrome is an easily located venue, but better signage within the stadium complex could help visitors locate the exhibition more easily. Once inside, however, the show is spacious and easily navigable. Laid out for the appreciation of the viewer are the very best of Nigerian arts. Waiting for us inside were the exhibitions’ curators: artist Jerry Buhari of Ahmadu Bello University; Uwa Usen (National President, Society of Nigerian Artists) and Director of Museums, Nat Mayo Adediran. Chair of the Exhibition sub-committee for Nigeria at 50, George Nkanta Ufot, praised the curators’ efforts in bringing about the landmark show. “They have been tireless, they’ve been wonderful, they haven’t slept. They were the think-tank of this exhibition. They brought in an architect who [transformed the venue]. The Velodrome has been converted into a world class exhibition centre.”

Among the memorable pieces on display are Cyril Nwokoli’s monumental ‘Okonkwo’, a wooden sculpture of the tragic hero of Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’. The 15 feet tall statue is an arresting piece, standing alone. Nearby are more than a dozen wooden warriors by Nwokoli, a genial artist who cracked jokes with us, making it hard to believe stories of his self-sequestration in the bushes around Enugu, carving armies of wooden figures.

All the greats are here, including: Ben Osawe, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Nike Davies-Okundaiye and Kolade Oshinowo. In a centre enclosure called ‘The Museum’, Nigeria’s antiquities from artistic traditions like the Igbo Ukwu, the Nok, Benin and Ife – are on display. That the museum is locked during our somewhat ‘out of hours’ visit, shows the extra care taken with these priceless pieces of Nigerian artistic heritage.

Queen Elizabeth in bronze

The statue of Queen Elizabeth II, sculpted from sittings done for him by the British monarch in 1957, promises to be one of the major talking points of the exhibition. The bronze sculpture, which made Enwonwu the first African to be commissioned to create an artistic likeness of the queen, has been away from public view for decades. It was last exhibited in Nigeria around 1957 and 1958, in the then Houses of Parliament in Lagos; and has been shrouded in mystery during the intervening years.

Standing next to the historic piece, Uwa Usen said, “This is only the second time this work is being exhibited in Nigeria. In fact, there is a lot of mystery and controversy [surrounding it]. The day we discussed the work, we did not know we had a visitor who was listening - and we said: we’re bringing this work. The person was running around saying: this work is missing, is in England.

“This work has been in the custody of the National Museum (Lagos) under lock and key – tight. You need to see how this work was brought (to Abuja), under heavy security; and they used codes to bring it. So, this is very significant to us,” said Usen. He praised the Ben Enwonwu Foundation for supporting the sculpture’s display at the Velodrome with photos and British press clippings from the 50s, to provide historical context.

Melting pot

Usen said the show is significant: “Because it is celebrating Nigeria at 50, we need to ask questions, we need to probe into where we’re coming from, where we’re going and where we think we are. We need to challenge ourselves and [ask]: where has art taken us? We need to review these things.” The exhibition, in his view, does all these, and more. He also spoke on the challenges faced by the curators in the weeks running up to the exhibition’s opening. “The challenge to me was converting this Velodrome into an exhibition hall. It’s the biggest challenge I’ve ever had,” he said, disclosing that the preparations started on June 5.

The layout of the displays requires viewers to go straight to ‘Nigeria of Old’, to view the antiquities in The Museum. From there, to the time around independence as represented by Enwonwu’s Queen Elizabeth in Bronze, to contemporary pieces by the likes of Ndidi Dike and Dennis Okon. Pieces were sourced not from individuals or artists but institutions. These included government parastatals: the National Gallery of Art, the National Council for Arts and Culture; professional bodies like the Society of Nigerian Artists; and educational institutions like the Departments of Fine Arts at the University of Uyo and Ahmadu Bello University. In all, up to 13 universities were involved in procuring pieces for the mega show. Usen described the resulting exhibition as “a melting pot”, adding that, “We looked at the history, the culture, the various media, various styles, anything you want to see is here.

“Viewers should note that Nigeria at 50 has been celebrated by Nigerians, locally. We charged ourselves to try and get to the international standard, without any assistance [from outside]. We have carefully chosen our venue, which most people will never believe would have served as a venue – and you know this is very apt – we have branded the whole venue in Nigerian colours and it works for us. So, people should know that Nigerians can do things for themselves. We are ripe. In my own mind I think we have at least rang a bell to say: we are here. We are on board,” declared Usen.

The SNA president dismissed any suggestion of elitism, insisting that the show is for everybody, including the disabled (wheelchair ramps are been incorporated into the venue’s design).

As for George Ufot, Director of Culture at the Federal Ministry, “This is the biggest exhibition ever hosted in Nigeria. Even FESTAC was not as big as this.” Asked how he moved Nwokoli’s giant sculpture of Okonkwo across states to the Abuja Velodrome, Ufot replied cryptically, “By spending government money wisely.”

The National/Cultural Historical Exhibition is at the Velodrome, National Stadium, Abuja, until October 31.

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