Masterpieces of Nigerian Art... A Testament To Ancestral Ingenuity
By Anote Ajeluorou
WHEN the Ministry of Information and Communications commissioned Africa's foremost archaeologist and art scholar to write a comprehensive book on Nigerian art, little did it know the rich goldmine of enduring beauty the project would unearth.
Arguably, it is the best work, till date, the University of Maryland, US, professor would produce as a crown to his art scholarship.
From Shrines to Showcases: Masterpieces of Nigerian Art is the story of discovery of Nigerian art.
But more importantly, it is an informed narrative designed to correct narrow and negative views from Western public and art scholars about Nigerian and African art.
This monumental work is designed to retell, and to borrow from Prof. Dora Akunyili's mantra, to 'rebrand' the civilisation that is not only African, but has been largely ignored in the West that purportedly 'discovered' the 'dark' continent.
Prof. Eyo argues that the tags of 'primitive art' and 'tribal art' arose from Western critics, as a way of denying Africans of the ability to produce such seminal works since they believe Africans are primitive people without the faculty to think or behave rationally such that while Western art is seen as 'civilised', art from other parts of the world is regarded as 'primitive' or 'tribal' art to justify their superiority over other people. African art has therefore been ranked in the lowest rung in world civilisation.
So, in a sense, this massive work is a response to such stereotypical labels placed on African art for which ancestors from the various tribes in Nigeria showed tremendous genius in the art they executed in the various media they worked on.
Having asserted the creative ingenuity of these ancestors, Prof. Eyo goes further to explain the socio-cultural contexts in which the works were produced, which are markedly different from the narrow contexts Western public views such works.
The renowned art scholar treats his subject with remarkable interest and insight. He gives the first time reader to African art a broad historical perspective of the concept of Nigerian art with an illuminating introduction. It consists of the historical background and discoveries of art, archeological art, ethnological art and the conserving and showcasing Nigeria's heritage.
First, he places African art in its proper context as deriving its definition not from the perspective of European art appreciation where art only appeals to the senses. He argues that even this view of art is fairly recent, particularly as it arose during the Industrial Revolution when mass production of goods came into being. African Art, he says has socio-cultural values, which gives it meaning and relevance.
He writes, "Objects were made to serve utilitarian or religious purposes, and to bolster the status of the elite... The special attention to character and the lavishing of imagination on individual artworks, rather than mass-produced items, was what became known as aesthetics - which again was ill-defined - but nonetheless was seized upon by connoisseurs of Western art as the criterion for good art.
"It happens that some objects were deliberately made to please the senses, to look "good", by the application of imagination. It is this additional attribute or "aesthetics" that now defines "art" separate from its function. Aesthetics became the primary criterion for recognizing a work of art. The lack of understanding of this point when considering African art was one of the reasons why it took so long for it to be accepted as art in the West until late in the 20th century. Yet even now, in the 21st century, it still requires persuasion for some to acknowledge that African art also addresses aesthetic concerns and should be accorded its rightful place in world history...
"Part of the reason (for) the partial acceptance of African art on equal terms with Western art have something to do with the fact that missionaries and anthropologists have not separated art from religion... art around the world had been bound up inextricably with religion, economy, and government..."
It is at the 'Introduction to Nigerian Art' section that Prof. Eyo gives the definitive theories and arguments about Nigerian art, the discoveries and dating that have come to give the art honourable place in the comity of world art appreciation. Prof. Eyo is unambiguous in his treatment of his subject having worked as curator and later as the longest-serving director-general of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments.
The journey of ancient Nigerian art heritage from the shrines to showcases has been long and tortuous but rewarding as the professor shows in his book. It is this immense journey that he shares with his readers. Of outstanding significance to the efforts to place Nigerian art heritage in its proper perspective in world art historical narratives was the world tour he embarked upon in the 80s.
Having organised the museum's exhibition for the second World Festival of African Art and Civilisation (FESTAC 77), a US Congressman Charles C. Diggs asked the Federal Government to take the show to the Detroit Institute of Arts. This Prof. Eyo did in 1980. It took him six years to finish the tour because of the huge interest it generated. It was an eye-opener both in the US and Europe. He could not meet the demand for the show to be held in India and Japan. That singular exhibition of Nigeria's artifacts was to change the view of Western audience about Nigerian art. It began to be ranked among the best, (and not inferior to Greek or Roman art), among the arts of the world.
Having provided a theoretical background to the issues relating to Nigerian art, Prof. Eyo now categorises the type of art to be found. There is historical art that relates to art before our common era (BCE). Here you find the Nok Terracottas, Bakor (Ejagham) Monoliths, Calabar Terracottas, Igbo-Ukwu Bronzes, Ife Terracottas and Bronzes, Benin Bronzes and Ivories and so on. The Living Art section refers to Nigeria art produced fairly recently in our common era (AD).
Masterpieces of Nigerian Art is a bold tribute to the artistic heritage of the country's ancestors. The works included in this colourful 255-paged book are spectacular and breath-taking. The quality that shines through this book could only have come from such master art scholar as Prof. Eyo. Works in the book tell the story in its entirety about the great skills, vision and deep thoughts that went into the works. What comes through is a feeling of awe as the reader is drawn to drink deep from the creative wisdom that fashioned them. The two hundred pieces presented in this book are clear testimony to a glorious civilization that the present generation can be proud of, which was by no means primitive.
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