Professor Peju Layiwola, who turned 50 in September, is a leading Nigerian female visual artist, whose art projects and mentorship programmes have impacted on generations of younger artists. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes

Perhaps, it was her exhibition, titled Benin 1897.com: Art and the Restitution Question, that engraved Peju Layiwola’s name into the industry’s consciousness. The body of work, based on the well-referenced sack of the ancient Benin in 1897 by the British, could indeed be called one of her most successful projects. This was in addition to being “a major contribution to documenting local art traditions and projecting the views of a colonised people deprived of their art on various platforms”.

But her links to the historic and cultural hub Benin date back to her childhood. Nostalgic memories lurk in her growing-up years. Those were idyllic years spent under the vigilant eyes of her dedicated parents in the ancient city. Not even her parents’ privileged status shielded her and seven other siblings from being raised like other children. “We lived a simple life growing up in a nuclear family structure where every member had a significant role to play in the sustenance of the group,” Layiwola recalls.

Thus, the doctrine of hard work and success through individual efforts was instilled in them. This was despite the fact that their father, Babatunde Olatokunbo Olowu, of Yoruba origin, literally born into wealth as the scion of a prosperous businessman from Lagos. Ditto their mother, Princess Elizabeth Olowu, whose father was the famous Benin monarch, Oba Akenzua II, who reigned from 1933 to 1978.

After her primary school education at Emotan Preparatory/Primary School, Layiwola was briefly at St Maria Goretti College before completing her secondary education at the Federal Government Girls’ College, Benin. She would later enroll to study art at the University of Benin and, subsequently, visual art history at the University of Ibadan. “Although my stay at the St Maria Goretti College was very short, these were memorable days. Under the care and supervision of Catholic Reverend Sisters, we learnt to bake and do needlework, skills which I still possess till date.”

Growing up in Benin meant living in the midst of art, culture, festivals and history. Her interest in art inevitably developed in this creatively fertile environment. Then, there was also her mother’s strong influence. “I not only learnt art from her at home, she was also my art teacher at the Federal Government Girls’ College, Benin.”

Talking about her secondary school, her principal, Mrs Josephine Ifueko Omigie, was an art graduate of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. There were also the influences of the school’s regular cultural events. “We had an annual week-long competition on cultural activities, which engaged every student in one creative activity or the other,” she says. “I was a member of the school choir and also played the piano.”

What she called “the initial spark” for considering more seriously art as profession of study happened with the late Professor Irein Wangboje’s visited her secondary school. The iconic artist was at the school to select the best painting for the cover of his book, Art for Secondary Schools. “I was really elated and inspired to see my art on the front cover of a book used by the entire school.”

But her parents did not share her enthusiasm for art when the time for her to make a career choice came. Couldn’t she have thought of something else besides studying art? “They felt I could do something more ‘prestigious’ and more acceptable in the Nigeria of that time. My mother told me art was not recognised and that if I wanted to be successful, it was better to study some other course like law, architecture or business administration. I insisted because I believed I had enough passion and skill to forge ahead.”

Clinching the best student prize at the University of Benin, the same prize her mother had received ten years before, as well as bagging a national award for her artistic project during the National Youth Service Corps programme convinced her she was on the right path.
Fast-forward decades later. Layiwola, who turned 50 on September 29, has come a long way. She has since become the first professor of visual arts of the University of Lagos. This is besides being the first female head of the university’s Department of Creative Arts. “Being a university professor has given me the unique opportunity of helping to shape lives.”

On graduating from the University of Benin in 1991, she was retained as the best graduating student. Subsequently, she would also join the teaching staff of the University of Benin straight from the University of Ibadan ’s graduate school. This was at the age of 24, at a time when she was much younger than many of her students. This meant having to assert her authority by stepping up her game. “So teaching came to me even before I could make up my mind about what profession to practice. It was my first job. I can count my blessings. Many of my students have become successful artists, some now professors in their various institutions…”
Among her former students, who have distinguished themselves in the art scene, are Jude Anogwih, Tobenna Okwuosa, Nelson Edewor, George Edozie, Jelili Atiku, Bolaji Ogunwo, Jimoh Ganiyu and Alao Lukman.

But, more importantly, she had benefited from the mentorship of such renowned art personalities as Professor Irein Wangboje, who employed her at the University of Benin; Professor Cornelius Adepegba, who groomed her in art history and Professor S. Adetoro, who was head of the department when she was employed at the University of Lagos. She also had privileged interactions with artistic luminaries like Professors Ola Oloidi, Abayomi Barber, Dele Jegede, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Rom Kalilu.

Academics saddles her with a lot of responsibilities and positions her as a role model for younger artists. “Rising to become a full professor of the visual arts at the University of Lagos bestows upon me added responsibilities,” she says. “I come across a lot of youth in the art community telling me they are inspired by my life. As a female artist, I must continue to provide hope for younger females who are in search of role models particularly in a profession that has been male dominated for a long time. There are a lot of people, both male and female looking up to me for counsel and I realise that this is an enormous task.”

As the acting Head of Department (2013-2015) University of Lagos’s Creative Art Department in 2015, she organised a homecoming for her predecessors, Professors Ebiegeri Alagoa, Duro Oni, Dele Jegede, Sheriffdeen Adetoro, Ebun Clark, Abayomi Barber who had prepared the grounds for the establishment of the Department of Creative Arts as pioneers of the Centre for Cultural Studies. Amongst these personalities it was only Professor Duro Oni who served as one time Director of the Centre and head of the Department of Creative Arts. Ever since, department has grown in leaps and bounds.

The University of Lagos became a centre for private/public partnership in art training and in fostering links across universities nationally. “Over 1000 students from about 22 universities have converged at Unilag to participate in art-based workshops hosted by the University and sponsored by the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation over a three-year period”. This was an initiative she fostered.

Besides her exhibition Benin 1897.com…, she had written articles on the subject and anchored other landmark projects. First, there was her 2010 exhibition, which His Royal Majesty, Oba Erediauwa wrote the foreword.

Then, Whose Centenary? a public art project and her collaboration with eleven renowned artists held at Igun Street, Benin City, in 2014 “As artists we questioned the celebration of the centenary particularly as the amalgamation was carried out for the convenience of British administration rather than for the good of the people, in what later became known as Nigeria,” she explained. “So we took a second look at the date and saw that 1914 was the year His Royal Highness, Oba Ovonramwen, king of Benin, who stood against British imperialism joined his ancestors.

So I came up with a public art concept to celebrate the culture, costumes, dances and art of the Benin people.”
Some of the artists featured in the project have since moved on to international limelight. Jelili Atiku and Victor Ehikhamenor were part of the 57th Biennale in Venice. Jude Anogwih, Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Jumoke Verissimo and Taiye Idahor have continued to expand their artistic frontiers.

With her non-profit platform Women and Youth Art Foundation, founded in 2004, Layiwola has also helped youths, women and disadvantaged groups in various arts and crafts production for economic empowerment. “One major community project I have been involved with is the US State Department Hillary Clinton Smartpower project grant, which brought a California based artist, Brett Cook to Nigeria.

The Women and Youth Art Foundation, in partnership with the Bronx Museum of Arts, New York supervised the artist’s collaboration with university students from different faculties to make the iconic mural at the University of Lagos titled Nurturing Peace, People, and Ideas. In a huge celebration of talent and more creative work, pupils of the University staff school were involved in the celebration that brought the project to a close. The US Ambassador, Terence McCulley also visited the site of the mural.”

Currently in Dusseldorf on a Goethe art residency with the Kunstsammlung Northrine Westfalen, she would be giving presentations of her work. One of her talks will look at women’s participation in the visual arts, titled Intersecting Trajectories: Women’s Art in Nigeria. As recipient of the Raw Residency at Rhodes University in South Africa next year, she looks forward to her time working in the studio as an artist “It would give me a chance to work in a cross-cultural context and foster global cultural networks which has been at the forefront of my engagements internationally,” she enthuses.