In Honour of Benin Royalty

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Benin Kingdom is famed for its outstanding history of centuries of remarkable art and culture, which has stood it out as one of the greatest pre-colonial nation-states in Africa and the recent coronation of its monarch, Oba Ewuare II, gave ample vent to the massive exhibition of the Benin works of art. At the commemorative art exhibition put together in Benin-City by the National Gallery of Art, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, spoke on policy issues regarding the promotion of art and tourism as a viable option in the effort to diversify the Nigerian economy, writes Omon-Julius Onabu who was at the exhibition. Additional reporting by Adibe Emenyonu

As part of the elaborate programme of activities heralding the ascension to the throne of his forebears by Omo N’Oba N’Edo, Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II, as the 40th Oba of Benin Kingdom, the National Gallery of Art organised an art exhibition in Benin City, the Edo State capital. The event, which attracted a host of dignitaries and stakeholders in the art industry in Nigeria and beyond was unique in all ramifications. The country has witnessed many high-profile coronation of first-class traditional rulers or royal fathers across the land but never before had the National Gallery of Art been directly involved in the ceremonies.

In a fitting honour to the new monarch, Oba Ewuare II, and the ancient but dynamic kingdom of Benin as a people, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, was around to have a real feel of the exhibition, tagged ‘The Art of the Benin Kingdom’. A visibly elevated Mohammed it was who was conducted from one stand to another in the museum-cum arena, which is worthily named after the famous grandfather of Oba Ewuare II, that is, Oba Akenzua II.

In company with the minister for the more than 50 minutes he savoured the evident ingenuity of the brains behind the enthralling artworks was no less a personage but Chief Sam Igbe, the Iyase (traditional prime minister) of Benin Kingdom. The retired police commissioner and renowned educationist, like a premier historical guide, apparently complemented the art professionals present, including the local and national curators and the director-general of the National Art Gallery. The minister, perhaps, showed that his interest was more than mere ceremonial sightseeing as he took pains to ask probing questions from the professionals and traditionalists who conducted him through the exhibited artworks once he rose with other special guests from the high table at the main arena where the opening ceremony took place.

Fielding questions from a large crowd of newsmen during the exercise, the Information Minister expressed readiness of the Federal Government to partner relevant stakeholders in the public and private sectors to enhance the viability of the art and culture and tourism industry in Nigeria. He noted that the government was exploring the Private Public Partnership (PPP) approach in developing the art and culture sub-sector owing to the huge financial outlay required. This he noted was in recognition of the crucial place of art in the nation’s quest for social and economic rejuvenation especially at this time the government was wooing the citizenry to buy into the ‘Change Begins With Me’ socio-cultural mantra.

He acknowledged the importance of artefacts as well as intangible arts that abound in the country to the development of tourism industry, noting that many economies the world over have benefited greatly from the sector especially during periods of recession. “In times of recession like this, most countries diversify not just the tangible industries but also the intangible such as culture and creative industry. Art and Craft have been explored to preserve and promote cultural and linguistic identities as well as for social re-engineering, and above all, if properly harnessed, are veritable tools for revenue generation, economic empowerment and job creation.”

Stressing on the importance of art and tourism, the minister asserted, “The only commodity in the world which price never goes down is the works of art. A painting today which is worth one million dollars, in few years time can be worth more than two million dollars. My ministry will leverage the arts and craft, culture and tourism for economic benefits in tandem with focus of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari to explore and develop the non-oil sector.”

Moreover, the minister assured that efforts would be intensified to repatriate the numerous Benin artefacts still scattered all over the world, which were illegally carted away particularly during the notorious British expedition and invasion of Benin in 1897. “Although, some of the artworks have been repatriated, some other choice works are till date still adorning exhibition spaces in museums across Europe and Britain. For instance, the Idia Ivory Mask, that is, the official symbol of the Second World Black Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77), which took place in Nigeria in 1977, is still on display in a British Museum.

Mohammed took the opportunity to elucidate the establishment of World Intellectual Property Organisation’s External Office (WIPO) in Nigeria. “Our rich culture is a spectacle for the global world to behold! Nigeria has become an irresistible and important site of culture, creativity and intellectual property. The above fact is, therefore, significant to the establishment of WIPO’s external office in Nigeria. WIPO’s office in Nigeria will fulfill the three key objectives of providing the much-needed capacity building for Africa with Nigeria as regional hub; support local and regional information and technical assistance system; and, strengthen automated solutions by IP system and public authorities for the country and the region.”

The Director-General of the National Gallery of Art, Abdullahi Muku, said that the Benin-City four-day coronation show, with the theme, ‘The Art of the Benin Kingdom’, was in appreciation of Benin City as “the home of arts and culture.” Speaking with THISDAY during the exhibition, Muku said, “Definitely, Benin-City is the home of arts and culture. We have had so many coronations in this country, but I don’t think the Gallery has featured in any of the coronation. However, today we are here in Benin exhibiting works of art. This is precisely to appreciate the fact that Benin has produced some of the greatest works of art in this country; indeed, all over the world it is recognised that some of the best artworks are produced here. So, we decided to play our part to complement the coronation.”

Muku, who conducted the minister and other dignitaries round the exhibition with the Deputy Director of Curatorial Services, Dr. Ajene Isegbe, told THISDAY that the exhibition of artwork comprised a variety of stylistic expressions by different artists across times and seasons. The National Gallery of Art boss disclosed that the agency had produced an exhibition brochure documenting the Benin exhibition to serve not only as reference source but to preserve the event for future generations.

On his part, the Iyasere (traditional prime minister) of Benin, Chief Sam Igbe, who chaired the occasion, described the Benin as the “home of arts and culture” and the people of the kingdom as “natural artists” for many centuries. He commended the National Gallery of Art for organising the exhibition to spice up the coronation of Oba Ewuare II and urged the younger generation of Binis to sustain and preserve the culture handed down by past generations by taking keener interest in the tradition of creative and fine art.

Exhibited at the Akenzua II Cultural Centre, venue of the Art of the Benin Kingdom was a genre of art: paintings, vintage royal murals, decorative art, sculpture, carving/woodwork as well as iron, bronze and brass artworks. An undated painting on canvas with elaborate use of coral beads of Oba Erediauwa (measuring 60 by 90cm) by one Sunny as well as a giant billboard-size painting of a battle scene from the 1897 invasion of Benin City by the British soldiers were among the great artworks.

A bronze casting depicting the boat with armed British guards undertaking the deportation voyage of Oba Ovonramwen to Calabar following the British invasion and massacre also stood out prominently as did the intricate bronze bust of Oba Akenzua in his regal splendour. A similar one of Oba Ozolua with a scepter-bearer sculptured by Alao Luqman and the 56cm by 14 cm fibreglass figurine of Uvbi by a Benin sculptor, Idufueko also drew large audiences for the duration of the exhibition.

A member of the House of Representatives and Chairman, House Committee on Culture, Mr. Omoregie Ogbeide-Ihama, Professor Efemena Ononeme of the Fine Art Department, University of Benin as well as the Curator, National Gallery of Arts (Benin Branch), Mr. S.O.G. Owolabi, the Mr. Oji Onoko, head of the gallery’s media unit, traditional rulers, tourists, artists and stakeholders graced the exhibition.

Members of the Edo State cultural dance troupe did justice to treating the excited audience at the auditorium of the Akenzua Cultural Centre to beautiful rendition of traditional Benin songs and dances. There was the scintillating performance of the exquisitely costumed Benin cultural dancers, which left numerous visitors spellbound as they craned their necks in an apparent effort to ensure they missed nothing, from the graceful dance-steps and soulful melody to the accustomed rhythm of the traditional percussion instruments.

In all, the Art of the Benin Kingdom was a not just a carryover of the series of glamorous cultural displays and tributes to the monarchy and the Benin Kingdom that generously spliced and spiced up the coronation rites, which climaxed on October 20, 2016; the historic art exhibition organised by the National Gallery of Art was a remarkable icing on the cake for Nigeria’s ‘Home of Art and Culture’ particularly at a landmark event as the coronation of Oba Ewuare II.