By JAPHET ALAKAM
It was another intellectual feast for many prominent Nigerians especially, people from the art circle, diplomats, captains of industries, students and other lovers of art that gathered at the main hall of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs last week for the celebration of the life and times of the greatest gift to Africa and the first African artist to have received an important sculptural commission in Europe, late Professor Ben Enwonwu who died in 1994.
The event which has became an annual ritual by the Ben Enwonwu Foundation (BEF) was the 8th distinguished Ben Enwonwu lecture, and as usual the forum afforded the distinguished audience another opportunity to interact on a wide range of issues concerning the development of art in the country especially, the contributions of the late artist to the art circle.
Speaking on the topic aptly titled Beyond Two Dimensional Art, the guest lecturer, award winning painter, scholar, critic who is presently a senior lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State, Prof. Jerry Buhari charged artists to strive to go beyond the two dimensional art of creating on a canvass and move to the more conceptual art form like performance, installation and video that challenge the conventional ideas people employ and accept as art.
Buhari who confessed to be an artistic son of the late artist disclosed how his encounter with the works of Ben Enwonwu exposed him to the movement of his lines and their playful suggestiveness.
Speaking as a seasoned lecturer, Buhari traced how art started with two dimensional expression growing from the drawings of the cave artist to elaborate, realistic rendition of their lives at the time, to more complex rendition that challenge the conventional ideas that people have come to employ and accept as art.
He stated that through the various forms , the artists brought out the beauty of art as it afforded the viewers the ability to know and appreciate multidimensional perspective of issues in the richness and complexity of African culture.
But according to him, the perception of art as Africans was distorted by contact with the European world that came with not only a different perception of art but also through a different language and cultural background. “The coming of European culture saw to the shrinking instead of our expanding perception of what we know and experience in art, our engagement and relationship with it…. ” He added.
He further pointed out that it was on the basis of the above and the fact that we are in a changing world where the reading, appreciation and evaluation will always change, vary and shift through time, context, experience and expectations that call for a return to the conceptual art (installation, performance, and later video) that seek to give priority and importance to the art-idea over and above the art- product.
The strategy of conceptual artists according to him is “to liberate art from the chains of authoritative institutions like galleries, museums, art collectors, art dealers; auctioneers that seek to determine and control the production and consumption of art.
Conceptual art seeks to make art accessible to a general public; in that way art is democratised. If art is so democratised then everybody, anybody may have access to it without being restricted by the demand of a ticket or membership/association of an organisation.” He posited.
Finally, he was quick to add that the traditional role of art in providing the transcendental values for the enrichment of the human soul, embellishing our shelters and environment will continue to be relevant and irreplaceable.
But that “at this critical time and in our modern world, the strategy of being and living demand unconventional approaches to the way art will be repackaged as a tool for national development. It appears that in a densely materialistic world like ours art that shock, jolt and provoke may be more effective in attracting attention and deliver the message.” He added.
Earlier in her opening remarks, the chairperson of BEF,Mrs Aino Oni-Okpaku stated that The Ben Enwonwu Distinguished Lecture has not only become a forum for a major debate on timely issues but provides a forum for notable leaders of thought and others to share their knowledge and perspectives on how art can engage society in initiating desirable changes. She said that the topic was chosen to challenge the notion that art can be valued only as an aesthetic.
In his contribution, former Chairman of Society of Nigeria Art (SNA), Kolade Oshinowo stated that one needs to have a good grooming of art before he can think of going into installation and performance. “Before you engage into it, you must dig inside and do it with quality.”
The hallmark of the occasion was the presentation of the cash prize of Fifty thousand Naira (N50,000,00) to the winner of the Ben Enwonwu Foundation Artist of the Year(BEFYART) 2011 to Master Onifade Bolanle of HighJet College Oshodi, Lagos State.
The well attended event was graced by notable dignitaries, ncluding the Guest of Honour, His Excellency, Par Lindegarde, the Swedish Ambassador to Nigeria who was represented by Camilar Harstrop. Others were Prince Adeniyi Adesuya, who represented the Governor Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun State, Chief J.K Ranndle, Frank Okonta, Samie Olagunji , Kavitta Chellaram and others.