BY JAPHET ALAKAM
Oliver Enwonwu is an artist and the son of late world-renowned artist and sculptor , Prof Ben Enwonwu. Though relatively young, he has seen it all in arts. He is the founder and executive director, The Ben Enwonwu Foundation, member, Advisory Board, The Art Exchange Limited, CEO, Revilo, an art publishing company, director, Omenka Gallery, founder and editor, Omenka Magazine.
He holds a first degree in biochemistry and post-graduate qualifications in applied geophysics and visual art all from the University of Lagos. Enwonwu who is currently serving his second term as the chairman of SNA Lagos chapter was last month elected as the national president of SNA. In this chat with art on Sunday, Enwonwu bares his mind on many issues facing the visual art in Nigeria. Excerpts.
Congratulations on your victory last month, how do you feel been the national president of the SNA?
I feel humbled because it is a big task ahead, been the SNA president you know, put a lot of responsibilities on your shoulder because it is a national association which has chapters in all the states in Nigeria including the FCT. I feel humbled because it is a big task ahead and I know that so I need to work as hard as possible to reposition our visual art sector and cater for the welfare of the artists in Nigeria as well as engendering the high professional standard among visual art practitioners in Nigeria.
By your election, you have joined the college of presidents of the 49 year old body. What would you like to remembered for in the office?
Along with those who has been there before me including Kolade Osinowo, Yusuf Grillo, Okpu Eze, Solomon Wangboje, Dele Jegede, Funke Ifeta, these are those who were there before me and they have been remembered for the great works they have done in building the association. I hope to continue in their foot steps, I hope to be remembered for serving the association and the Nigerian artists to the best of my ability.
I hope as much as possible togive them a new constitution that best represent our aspirations in this dynamic time, I hope to deliver a new secretariat for our society that is befitting of our status as a 49 year old body, a secretariat where the artists can find succour.
I also hope to increase the events exhibitions, national residency and networking opportunities that will better the welfare of the Nigeria artists. I want also to be remembered for re-branding the society, for raising the much required funding and giving the society good structure and a better foundation for our future goals and objectives.
In the paper presented by Prince Yemisi Shyllon at the AGM in Uyo, he raised some critical issues about art which SNA as a body failed to address, like the case of the destruction af art works at MMA,Lagos, the VC that removed art works in his office etc, Now that you are in charge, how do you intend to address them ?
While all the issues that Engineer Shyllon has raised are very pertinent issues, these things borders on our national pride and identity, it is a very sad time for Nigeria art. But I think that apart from the fact that SNA has failed, it is also our collective failure, it is our failure as artists, failure as SNA and failure of the Federal Government.
In short it is our failure as Nigerians, for us to allow these sort of things to happen means that we are not taking our cultural identity as a people seriously as it ought to because that is the defining element as a people. I think that it is our collective failure, and I believe that it is time we begin to look inwards to define ourselves better as a people and look at the collective strength of our togetherness as a people.
The visual art and culture is one such way that many stronger and leading nations of the world today have identified themselves. I think these are hard times for Nigerians, I don’t see any reason why some of these works should not be incorporated into the design at the Airport and if they have to be moved, some of the artists are still alive, they ought to be informed, its really a sad time for Nigeria art. And the story of the VC removing such an important work from his place of pride, if it is true, I think it is really bad if such a thing should be allowed to happen particularly in a citadel of learning.
I also see no reason why the federal government should not be supporting arts because most countries of the world are known for their national museums, for instance museums of modern art in New York is known for that institution, same with Tate or Louvre in France. These are important issues that Shyllon has raised and I know that he is raising these issues because he wants those in the right places, who can actually bring up policies together to actually look into these issues.
As a body how would you address that?
As a body, we are going to increase our advocacy, we are going to advocate by raising awareness to such issues for the typical Nigerian to see that their cultural heritage are not taking as seriously as it should be. We are going to partner with good Nigerians, major stakeholders, the press and others. We are going to act as the platform and a voice for the Nigeria art to make the government policy makers understand the issues on ground so that they begin to take our cultural heritage a bit more serious.
You are the chairman of Ben Enwonwu Foundation, chairman of Revilo, artist, Member Advisory Board of The Art Exchange and now the president of SNA. How would you combine the different jobs and still deliver?
The beauty of my work in these other institutions is the fact that they are all intertwined. It is like a big machine, for example like in a hospital, the medical doctor plays their role, the nurses and the radiologist play theirs too and what they are all interested is in saving lives. The same way, these organisations I am lucky to be associated with are all in the promotion of visual arts.
The Omenka gallery hold exhibition for established and emerging artists, owned by BEF, the foundation itself has an annual lecture in which policy makers are invited to deliver lecture on the role of art in shaping the society positively. SNA, itself, which I am opportuned to chair the Lagos chapter for three years is made up of visual art practitioners, it was established to engender the right professional standard among visual art practitioners in Nigeria.
Even Revilo, is an art publishing company, in promoting art, apart from creating art, you also have to display your art and disseminate them for consumers, so its like a chain and all of these roles I have played and still play today are all intertwined and it only add to my experience and empowers me in serving the visual art sector to the best of my ability.
The issue of a befitting gallery/museum for Nigeria is over due, what is your take on it?
As the new SNA president, not only is it important, I think it bothers on national pride, and I think it is bad for us not to have at this time of our nationhood of over 50 years a befitting structure, because what we have on ground mainly are just administrative offices. And I think is high time government stopped paying lip service to arts because countries all around the world are known with their befitting structures and this is how they define themselves as a people. People can go into their national museums and reconstruct the history, the greatness of the country.
I think it is very sad that at this time we do not have one that house or acts as a repository of our rich cultural heritage. Government need to wake up to the economic and tourism potentials of such an industry, if we spend much time in other sectors of the Nigerian economy, I think we will be better for it, if we do so in arts, apart from defining our selves as a people we will also gain from the potentials in terms of economic realities.