Art work from Enugu
By C. Krydz Ikwuemesi
Since the 1960s when the Mbari Club was brought down to Enugu by Uche Okeke and others as they fled the Igbo-targeted hostilities in the wake of the civil war, the coal city has been a centre of arts and creativity.
The establishment of a department of fine and applied arts at University of Nigeria, Nsukka as early as 1960 owing to the interest of Nnamdi Azikiwe (the university’s founder and first Chancellor) and through the professional advice of Ben Enwonwu (Africa’s first artist to achieve international acclaim) also influenced the position of Enugu as a burgeoning centre of creative excellence.
With the establishment of another art department at the Institute of Management and Technology in Enugu in the 1970s, Enugu became home to more and more artists.
For many logical reasons, such a growing number of artists should attract complementary institutions such as museums, exhibition centres, private/public galleries, sculpture parks, among others.
This was not really the case. First, museum in Nigeria is largely the preserve of the Federal Government which has been able to position just a few in different zones and states in Nigeria.
Second, Enugu may have a large number of artists, but the necessary patronage is almost non-existent even with the recent proliferation of banks and related businesses in the city.
Third, government has not given adequate attention to art and the creative industries as means to tourism and socio-economic development. Not unnaturally, these factors have created some gaps in the evolution of art and its ecology in these parts, as they have also put added pressure on the artists.
Some of these gaps have been filled by some non-Nigerian institutions such as the British Council which was already in Enugu long before the civil war and, later by the French Centre which transformed into Alliance Française in 2002.
From the pre-independence days up until around 2000 when the British council was relocated to Port Harcourt, it was instrumental to the development of many artists and art activities in Enugu and in the old Anambra State.
Not only did it host most of these artists and their activities, it provided a link between local artists and their European counterparts in years before the cyber revolution.
Before 1994, the French Centre located at the Curriculum Development Centre, Enugu, also cultivated artists and their activities. Aka’s inaugural exhibit, for instance, was held there in 1986.
Visual Orchestra also debuted there in 1990. Then the centre died naturally when the French Embassy seemed to have turned its back on it from around 1994 to 2002 when it was successfully transformed into an Alliance Française.
Between 2002 and 2008, Alliance Française, Enugu, flourished as a centre of cultural renaissance of sorts as it hosted sundry art-culture activities both by maestros in the profession and possible names of tomorrow.
Whether the Alliance would reawaken from apparent slumber remains to be seen, especially as it now has a new director following a two-year lacuna.
But if artists in Enugu really need institutions to complement their activities, it is then time for them to begin look at indigenous institutions and ponder how they can take their destiny in their own hands.
They cannot continue to depend on Europe or even America. I am unaware of any Nigerian Embassy abroad which spends money on patronage of local art and artists of the country where it is situated.
So why should we fold our arms like some cargo-cult people and wait on Euro-American institutions? It is here that the National Museum, Enugu, National Council for Arts and Culture (Enugu Office) and Enugu State Council for Arts and Culture should come into focus.
I would not discuss the National Gallery of Art, as it is just in the process of opening a regional office in Enugu. Although the Enugu State Council for Arts and Culture has been existing for a long time, it appears the present board is the first professionally committed one to be appointed in several years.
In an environment where art is few people’s darling or pastime, the board appears to have a lot of ground-clearing to do. If the Enugu State Council for Arts and Culture is to be judged on past performance, it may not score a pass mark.
But it seems the present board, in the spirit of the renascent Enugu, is creating a system on which sustainable art patronage and promotion can be built. One only hopes that it succeeds in getting politicians to favourably consider its vision and empower its possible realisation.
Perhaps the recent art competitions organized by the Council are a pointer to what it could do if properly empowered and effectively motivated. But we see no such pointer with the other two federal culture institutions located in Enugu.
The National Museum of Unity (as it is now called) previously had its office on Ogui Road. When the present edifice was still to be completed and commissioned in 1995, the Visual Orchestra, a group of young artists based in Enugu, convinced the Museum management to open its does to art-culture activities.
Visual Orchestra 1995 thus became the first temporary exhibition to be hosted by the museum. it also hosted Visual Orchestra’96 as well as other important shows and actions by other artists and groups, including the historic Christopher Okigbo memorial (Songs for Idoto, curated by this writer and Onuora Okeke and which attracted such great names as Alex Ekwueme, Julius Nyerere, Jook Bekout, Arthur Nwnakwo, Abudaziz Udeh, Dr P.C. Dike, Bola Ige, Judith Attah, Odia Ofeimum, Uche Okeke, Ossie Enekwe, Ben Obumselu, Romanus Egudu, Ali Mazrui, among others), 1996 and PACA’s epochal Pan-African Conference on the Role, Status and Work Condition of the Artist in Africa (2002).
This was several years ago.
Guest columnist Ikwuemesi writes from Enugu
Edited by GABRIELLA OSAMOR