The influence of my work lies within memory and history. I really just want history to be remembered; I want people to see the connection between history and contemporary politics, also to view religion as a part of politics and art. I want viewers to think about memories; as humans what do we remember, what do we forget? That is the premise behind these works. I want people to remember where they are coming from.
Now, I understand that people will assess my work from different perspectives so I’m not trying to be subjective or prescriptive. However, I do want us to have a conversation. I want to raise awareness about African art as it was made in the past till now. Let’s stop demonising or trivialising African art of the past. Why can’t we bring African spirituality into the future? You can’t delete that history.
When we say ‘classic’ for me, we have to start from Edo because in that setting we’re talking about centuries of art making; a recognised style, worldly influences, bronze casting, wood carving - up to large scale public and private installations in places of worships and memorials. In the heart of Benin City, there is ancient Igun street which is now a World Heritage site—there you’ll still find a guild of bronze casters. For us, in Edo, Benin or Esan, we have lived with centuries of traditions, centuries of art making. In that sense we have been in the epicentre of art making in Africa. That rich heritage and background influences everything I create.
When these classic objects were created they weren’t necessarily made with the word ‘art’ in mind—objects created were mainly functionary. The majority of the works were also about connecting to ancestors or the spirits, something that is not too far from the Christian cross or crucifix. But beauty was part of that function. Aesthetics was high on the mind of the artists of old, everything was about aesthetics and functionality. Things were not just randomly made or thrown into places of worship or elder’s houses. Unfortunately today, the typical Nigerian or African will freak out when they view these classic arts.
This is a function of the way Western religion was sold to us Africans, this is what those that wanted to superimpose their ways on us re-presented our arts to us; the West came and re-evaluated our art and gave it a different meaning, they made it devilish, devalued it in our eyes before carting them away to their various countries. So the outcome of that age long practice was that Western art rose in value within the minds of Africans, and the value of classic African art diminished. So we grew to not like OUR work. Now we pay hundreds of pounds to go and see our own work in foreign collections.
New religion created fear in our minds and the first thing we went after were the arts, they were considered demonic and still is in many areas. When you look at the Sistine Chapel, artists were commissioned to decorate the place as a form of reverence to their ancestors. That was exactly the same in my village. Our art was about humanity, to link us to our past, to remind us of where we’re coming from. So when a group of people tell you that where you’re coming from is dirty and not worth remembering then you have no future. And that future is what has arrived now. That future is what we are dealing with in Nigeria and other African countries on a daily basis now.
The Vatican has the largest collection of African art. How many works are in African churches’ collections? How many Ben Enwonwu’s? How many classic pieces can you find in our churches and mosques?
"Religion is the quickest way to take a people's minds."
It varies, some understand and some do not, and that is the natural way things go for any artist. I have learnt to adjust to some things, you don’t hit people with a message too aggressively and fence them off. That’s why I use satire in my writing and sometimes make my work appealing to the eye till you read the message behind it. You can’t drop it too heavy on people otherwise you scare them away. You can’t do everything either. If you try to change the world overnight you will burn out, you’ll get exhausted.
People keep asking what my influences are. People look so far away for influences but it’s right there under your nose. I file away memories so I’m careful what I consume visually, to answer your question – yes, I observe a lot and that is how I got here in the first place because in the village I never walked past a painted wall or a decorated shrine. I still have that habit, call me the gawk artist if you like. I’m surrounded by the colours of people so don’t ask me where my colours are from.
At this particular art fair, I’m doing a whole series on faces of the fair, humanity is so diverse and colourful that it just hard to ignore. So I’m looking for really interesting people – it’s art in art! Photography is another medium of telling people’s look—especially we Africans, we are so vibrant and colourful.