A MONUMENTAL CONTROVERSY

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Critics are up in arms against the recently unveiled statue of Chief Awolowo in Ikeja, while the Lagos State Government and the artist put up a stout defence for the work of art. But can art be legislated? Okechukwu Uwaezuoke wonders

VISUAL ARTS
First, there was calm while the “Hosanna” moment lasted…
Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode deserved the accolades trailing his unveiling of a 20-feet statue immortalising Chief Obafemi Awolowo. For it was high time the iconic late politician and premier of the now defunct Western Region got a befitting statue in Lagos. What does it matter that a smaller statue of the man still stands at Allen Roundabout?

In a show of solidarity, dignitaries – consisting among others of dewy-eyed “Awo” acolytes and family members – came in large numbers to the venue of the ceremony at that junction where Obafemi Awolowo Way intersects with the road leading to the Lagos Television (LTV) in Ikeja.

Obviously, the events of that Tuesday, September 26 dredged up the fond memories of the legendary politician in the consciousness of these people, who publicly acknowledge him as their political patriarch. For the governor, who later declared before Awolowo’s family members at the Ikeja-based Lagos House that he and the current generation of leaders had a lot to learn from the late statesman, waxed philosophical: “If there is anything I really want to do … it is to touch humanity and the only example that I could see, that had greater vision than anybody else, is in more or less everything that Papa Awolowo stood for.”

Actually, the idea of depicting a “sitting” Chief Awolowo was his. Perhaps, this may not have conformed to the posture the late politician was known for. Yet, the statue was meant to be a statement about his perception of the political sage. “I wanted to see him sit down majestically and actually looking at all of us and saying ‘Okay, after 30 years where are you?’ That is the reason why we did that because I wanted to see him sit down and not standing all the time.”
Then… the critics, emerging from all corners, bared their fangs and howled: “Crucify! Crucify!”
Many deemed the depiction of a “sitting” Chief Awolowo outrageous. Would it not have been better to show him standing – perhaps, with two fingers raised in his well-known victory sign? To others, it was sacrilegious that the late statesman could be shown sporting laced boots, a flagrant violation of etiquette for anyone dressed in the traditional “agbada”.

Out there, criticisms were hurled at both the artist and the state government. Opinions, informed enough to be taken seriously, were vehemently. One of them, titled “Right Honoree, Wrong Monument”, written by US-based Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò in PM News. For Táíwò, who teaches at the Africana Studies and Research Center of Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, “raising a statue to Awolowo” was not the problem. Rather, he rooted for monuments of a different kind. “If you really want to build monuments to the man, build monuments that need no plaques on them, that cannot be toppled by future vagabond executives, that will ensure that his ideas and thoughts, ideals and principles, are shared, expounded, debated, criticised, and widely diffused through all the institutions where minds are moulded and the future is prepared,” he argued.

“Make resources available for scholars, young and old, wishing to study and write on Awolowo’s ideas, supporting the publication of books and journals of significant academic merit dedicated to critical engagements with Awolowo’s and similar ideas. These can be in form of fellowships, residential and non-residential, regular conferences, and huge material support for academic publications.”

But another US-based Nigerian scholar, Dele Jegede, was less charitable in his criticism posted on his Facebook wall. Professor Jegede, no doubt a credible voice in the visual arts scene, did acknowledge that the idea of erecting a new statue in honour of Awolowo was “laudable for its ability to immortalise a national hero and, perhaps more importantly, sear his image in the memory of everyone who is [opportune] to see his statue.” Yet, his scathing verdict on the newly-unveiled Awolowo statue was that it “falls severely short of the colossal idea that inspired its commission”. This, in his opinion, would make the work unfit to be displayed as a public work of art. “It is, to put it directly, a poor representation of Chief Awolowo. The proportions are way off the mark, and, indeed, reveal an image that is completely antipodal to all the attributes that one has come to associate with the sage. The physicality of the sculpture considerably diminishes the eminence of the subject matter; in its shrunken and undignified sitting posture, this statue significantly whittles the vitality—the aura, the élan vital—that this cerebral Nigerian hero embodies…”
The revered artist ended his Facebook tirade with a call on the governor to “tear down this monstrosity!”

A monstrosity? Really? Certainly, that would be laying it on a bit too thick! Controversial though the work may be, it does have its strong points. The designer, Hamza Atta, had put up a stout defence for the statue in an interview with the Lagos society publication City People. “A standing Awo has already been done before,” he argued. “Our philosophy is not to copy but to create original works of art. Awolowo was a thinker. This is the side of him that we want to highlight. He always spoke of mental magnitude and the fact that the world has changed from one of brawn power to one of brain power. That is why he championed education.”

Atta, the managing director of Polystrene Industries, said his outfit had executed other projects like the Kano Monument as well as the statues of Mobolaji Bank-Anthony, Lateef Jakande and Bola Ahmed Tinubu. Originally trained as a lawyer, his long experience in design, production and construction stood him in good stead to execute the project.

It all began when Atta’s Poly 3D Art Studios was contacted by Terra Kulture, who as the consultants were engaged to put art in public spaces around the Lagos megapolis in commemoration of Lagos @ 50. This was sometime in January, this year. There was subsequently an interlude of research and data-gathering on the subject before the actual execution of the sculpture, which took three months.

The making of the sculpture, itself, was done by six artists. “The core is made of steel and polystyrene of various densities and it is coated with a hard coat for weather proofing and then painted with bronze paint.”

Reacting to the complaints about the statue’s laced shoes, Atta said: “What we did was to create a work of art that would celebrate our own… We spent so much time on the detail of those shoes to show what a gentleman this great sage was. Everybody cannot like what we have done but there are so many who absolutely love it.”

The Lagos State Government’s official reaction re-echoed the assertion that the statue is a “piece of artwork expressing the artist’s impression of the late sage and not a photograph.” A statement issued by the Special Adviser to the Governor on Tourism, Arts and Culture Adebimpe Akinsola said the artwork can be subjected to several interpretations.

On the contention that a sitting position went against everything Chief Awolowo stood for, Mrs Akinsola thought it was high time the public saw a different aspect of the man. “The reality is that Chief Awolowo was a colossus who cannot be stereotyped,” she argued. “Stereotyping such a highly intriguing personality only exposes the lack of depth of the totality of what the late sage represents.”

She alluded to the well-known Abraham Lincoln statue – sculpted by Daniel Chester French (1850–1931) and depicted in a sitting position – to buttress her stance.
Of course, the state government had other considerations that transcended artistic correctness and aesthetic attribute. One of them bordered on the desire to inspire the unborn generations. The late Chief Awolowo was only one of the heroes and heroines so recognised and celebrated by the state government like the late MKO Abiola, Ayodele Awojobi, Gani Fawehinmi and Kudirat Abiola, among others.

Interestingly, the family of the late icon not only applauded the statue, but also commended the efforts of the Lagos State Government. “I love the statue and I think Hamza did justice to his memory,” the late premier’s grandson, Segun Awolowo said. “As for the large boot, I believe the symbolism is that his shoes are still too big to fill after all this while.”

True: the Awolowo family’s endorsement may not have taken the wind off the critics’ sails. Yet, it lifts the veil on their subjectivity. For ever since cultural Art Bolshevism asserted itself, matters of creativity have been rather difficult to legislate.