Whose Centenary is it?

Art at the intersection of history in Nigeria

Benin City in Nigeria, was the obvious location for the opening of the two-year collaborative art project, “Whose Centenary?” Jude Anogwih, one of the project’s artists and organisers, explored the scene.

Art at the intersection of history in Nigeria

By Jude Anogwih

Benin City in Nigeria, was the obvious location for the opening of “Whose Centenary?” The two-year collaborative art project initiated by Peju Layiwola had its first presentation in December 2014. A public space exhibition, that dealt with historical aspects of Nigeria’s political, social and cultural memory. It focused on the year 1914 and on Nigeria’s intertwined history with the Benin Empire. Jude Anogwih, one of the project’s artists and organisers, explored the scene.

Whose Centenary? opened with a rhetorical inquiry about the recent commemorations of the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates of Nigeria. Because it also embraced another anniversary – the centennial commemoration of the passing of the Benin Monarch, Oba Ovonramwen, who was exiled to Calabar by the British in 1897.

The festival consisted of all possible art forms – performance art, poetry, music, choreography, installation, painting, photography and video. Also at display were  collaborations between academically trained artists, traditional Edo bronze casters and their wards in a series of community-based projects that provided platforms for diverse artistic processes.

Contrary to the slow pace of change in democratic governance in Africa, a revolution in contemporary art seems to have developed. A revolution, that extends the ideas of art beyond the boundaries, for which they were once known. Art has moved from conventional spaces, beyond the gallery into public spaces and unusual places. In the case of this festival, art and artists have moved into the local community. By working with established traditional bronze casters for which Benin is known, and working with them in their own spaces, an attempt has been made to redefine the boundaries of the museum spaces in Africa.

Through a creative lexis artists in Nigeria are dynamically responding to critical issues within their nationhood – issues, that are rooted in their own cultural understanding and environment. Adolphus Opara’s “Emissaries of An Iconic Religion”, Peju Layiwola’s “1897.com”, George Osodi’s “Nigerian Monarchs” and Victor Ehikhamenor’s “Entrances & Exits” are among notable examples.

Whose Centenary? set of with a collaborative performance between Wura-Natasha Ogunji and Princess Elizabeth Olowu. The latter being the daughter of Edo king Oba Akenzua II, and the first female bronze artist in Nigeria. In their performance she adorned Ogunji according to royal Benin traditions in her own home. The performance alluded to the slavery era and the carting away of Africans to the West. Wura’s adornment by Olowu endorsed her as a member of the clan ‘Omosowa’, which means: a child has come back home. Her return was symbolically celebrated with songs and dances that told of the memories of former times. Another work, “No Answer”, by the well-known Nigerian poet Jumoke Verisimo, added an interrogation that focused on the core of a centenary celebration by Nigerians, when in fact the essences of their nationhood was somehow lost in exile.

Afterwards a long procession took place from the King’s quarters at Akenzua Street through Airport Road, Ring Road and the Oba’s palace. It culminated at the World Heritage Site, Igun Street. Here Wura-Natasha Ogunji showed her solo performance “Queen Sweep”, a metaphorical cleaning of the site’s past atrocities during colonialism. Along the street several art exhibitions spread throughout different locations, where the public was simultaneously invited to explore the emanate memories of the place in dialogue with the projects.

Eric Ogbemudia, secretary to the Igun Bronze Casters Guild, then invited Taiye Idahor and myself, Jude Anogwih, to his studio, where we showed our projects. Idahor presented a series of drawings that highlighted the significance of women and beauty in the Benin Empire. According to her, the women of the court dedicated their entire lives to protecting the king and were instrumental in sustaining the reign of their sons. Idahor used drawings to create an installation of head adornments worn by Benin queens, exploring the ancient city history through their coiffure. The fragility of the material also illustrated sensitive issues of women in power, cutting across nations and professions. My video installation “Emittere.Waiting” on the other hand, interrogates the concept of movement, mobility, migration and borders. For a coastal nation like Nigeria, water is an obvious element that is not negligible. So the video, that shows a reversed flow of water, reveals that the sea, that has taken away much of our resources – human, natural and capital – always brings them back. Someday, same way.

On our way we then met with photographer George Osodi’s “Nigerian Monarch”.  The formal portraits of Erediauwa, the current head of the traditional state of Benin, proclaimed the vibrant, colourful, enlightened and prestigious status of Benin royalty and the Oba’s role in sustaining the splendours of a kingdom that has transited through civilizations. “My Bits are not your Pieces” by Victor Ehikhamenor appropriated installation with performative drawing and iconographic symbols. A work that depicted the sacking of the Benin kingdom and the authenticity of Nigeria’s amalgamation in 1914.

Peju Layiwola states about her installation “Face/off” that it ‘represents a thousand terracotta heads as a reference to the pillage of the Benin palace in 1897 by British soldiers.” She says that “a number of terracotta tiles with inscriptions on them drawn from archival records by the British soldiers are as revealing as they are shocking.” In relating these historical facts with her own handwriting, she attempts to bring history closer, make it more accessible and to release it from the recesses of the archives. The color of the terracotta heads and tiles, complemented by the walls of the palace, underlines the location of the installation. Since it is shown in the house of the Head of the Guilds of Casters, whose predecessors produced the plundered bronze heads that adorn several foreign museums today. “Face/off” creates a platform for several casters, who display their collaborative efforts in representing social change and the blurring of hierarchies in traditional societies.

Also on display was Andrew Esiebo & Ines Valle’s on-going project “Memorical”. A visual travel to places in memory, where non-spaces, lost or forgotten by time, are disclosed through the contemporary eyes of the people of Benin. The project is a “multi-layered record” in which individual stories are overlaid with historical colonial facts, drawing from archives in the United Kingdom and Nigeria. At the same time, artist Jelili Atiku beckoned on the public to attend his ‘Holy Ovonramwen Cathedral’, which confronts the place of religion in Benin history. It further explores the intercessory representation of Oba Ovonramwen after his exile and demise as god. Finally Burns Effiom presented a captivating autobiographical performance. Standing under an umbrella, he suspended photographs of the houses in which Oba Ovonramwen lived while in Calabar. The umbrella became a metaphor for both shelter and nurture. A personal project for Effiom, who is from the royal Calabar family, that played host to the Oba Ovonramwen while on exile.

Regardless of the limitations within production processes and the lack of resources, the artists of “Whose Centenary” were persistently negotiating new ways of defining the boundaries of their creative practice within and outside the continent. Following in the footsteps of Yinka Shonibare in Scramble for Africa (2003), the project addresses aspects of colonial incursion to Africa in the 19th century as it relates to Benin.

It also presents art at the intersection of global history.

 “Whose Centenary?” took place from December 6-7, 2014 in Benin City, Nigeria.



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