December 22, 2019

BEN ENWONWU DISTINGUISHED LECTURE 2019: Using art as tool for peace, conflict resolution

By Chris Onuoha

Sometimes art can fill the gap when politics falls short – Ms. Thompson (British deputy high commissioner to Nigeria.)

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The outcome of the 11th Distinguished Lecture Series of Prof Ben Enwonwu Foundation was one agreed unanimously by the art and culture experts at the event that Nigeria art needs urgent attention to revamp.

The special guests comprising a renowned artist, Professor Bruce Onobrakpeya; another prominent artist, Kolade Oshinowo; Allan Davies, a veteran Architect; Her Royal Highness, Erelu Abiola Dosunmu and the keynote speaker, Her Excellency, Ms. Harriet Thompson, British Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria deliberated on the way forward; how art can be used to resolve conflicts and build peace in a war torn zones.

The lecture series since inception in 2004, instituted to immortalise Prof. Ben Enwonwu’s unequalled contributions to the growth of art in Africa and the world has proved a delectable platform for national and international leaders, renowned academics, policy makers and diversity of contemporary Nigerian society to share their understanding and perspectives on the role of art in causing desirable societal changes.

With the keynote speech delivered by Ms. Harriet Thompson that hinged on “Art: An Instrument for Peace, Conflict Resolution and Socio-Economic Transformation,” she draw home some points to express her feelings over Nigeria’s art and culture and how women can influence decision in that aspect. She also stressed that Nigerian art that is striving for global reckoning should be harnessed for its potentiality and relevance in resolving conflicts.

She mentioned Enwonwu’s art as one that draw attention of effects of war and conflicts: “For Enwonwu, it was the horrors of the Nigerian civil war, with paintings such as “Children of Biafra” for example, or the piece on the invitation for today’s event, “Storm over Biafra,” she said.

“From Enwonwu to Picasso to Dali to Goya to Rubens – and the list goes on – so many artists who have used their creativity and talents to highlight the devastation of war.  The Dada movement, for example, which started in Switzerland in the early 20th century, brought together artists from many different countries, including those ravaged by war, to advocate for peace and criticise those governments they believed responsible for pushing unwilling victims into war,” Thompson narrates.

“It’s worth recalling as well that arts and culture have also been used –are still used – to promote violence and disunity.  Those appalling anti-Semitic pictures common through Nazi Germany, together with the nationalistic films and music used to promote a distorted image of the nation stay with me many years after my own studies of European history came to an end.  And more recently in the Rwandan genocide as elsewhere, popular music attracted people to the radio stations that spread the messages inciting violence.

“But back to the positives: the Dada movement that I just mentioned was about more than raising awareness and speaking out through art.  That process of self-expression was undoubtedly also part of the artists’ own personal healing, as they came to terms with the trauma they’d suffered.  Today, art therapy is used for healing with many groups: victims and survivors of war, veterans, those suffering with PTSD.  The value isn’t just in the work itself, but in the process of creating it – which can provide a route for self-discovery and to express emotions or thoughts too difficult to put into words.

“Last year, the British Council worked with the University of West Scotland to produce a report on “The value of art in post-conflict recovery”.  The emerging evidence is clear on the role that arts and culture have to play – alongside security and development – in mitigating conflict and building peace.  The evidence is particularly strong regarding the role of such programmes with post-conflict communities, in supporting therapy, reconciliation, and strengthening civil society.  Rwanda provides a compelling case study.  To commemorate the shocking genocide of 1994, as part of efforts to recover from the trauma, there is an annual Kwibuka period: three months of events to remember the conflict, in which arts and culture play a central role, building pride in the emerging nation.  Ben Enwonwu’s sculpture, Anyanwu, also symbolises pride and hope, this time in a continent, as Africa emerged from colonialism. The power of arts and culture to bring people together, even and especially people once violently divided,  is clear and sometimes, art can fill the gap when politics falls short.

Ms Thompson earnestly challenged the psyche of typical Nigerians asking; “So if art is so effective in promoting peace and speaking out, why don’t we see more of it today?  The Nigerian art scene is booming – it’s one of the things I love about being here.  But, and this is an observation rather than a criticism, much of it is art for art’s sake, celebrating skills, beauty and creativity; showing new perspectives on the world around us; rather than art to make a point, art as critique or advocacy, art as an inclusive means of expression or of healing and of coming together,” Thompson  queried.

“Perhaps one reason for this is that using art to make a point can be high risk.  Ben Enwonwu’s work during the Nigerian civil war came at a price: he came under so much pressure as a result of his perceived criticism – and at the same time from others who felt he didn’t go far enough – that he was forced to flee the country, taking many of his works with him to London to protect them.

“Even if the art doesn’t go so far as to invoke the wrath of leaders and governments, on a far more basic level, artists need to eat.  They need to sell their work.  Upsetting people is not always the best way to make a profit, alienating potential customers.  So it’s often only once artists are well-established that they’re able to take that risk.  When Picasso painted Guernica, one of the best-loved and most well-known anti-war paintings in the world, he was 56 and already a successful – and therefore relatively secure – artist.  Incidentally, I love the story of when a German Gestapo officer barged his way into Picasso’s apartment, pointed at the painting and demanded “Did you do that?” to which Picasso allegedly responded “No, you did”.  Now, that is courage.

“And then if an artist has the economic security and the courage to use their work to make a point, to criticise or to provoke, how do they make that point land, how do they reach the people they might want to influence, how do they evoke change?  In the case of Ben Enwonwu and Pablo Picasso, when they produced some of their anti-war pieces, they were well-known, well-respected artists who counted the influential elite among their clientele.

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So what they painted was bound to be noticed, to attract attention, and to promote a reaction.  Which meant it did reach an audience well beyond the elite.  But even in today’s Nigeria, access to the arts is highly restricted – particularly access to the visual arts.  Art galleries simply aren’t accessible to huge swathes of the population.  One of the many things that impressed me about Art X was the focus on accessibility, bringing in schools and keeping ticket prices as low as possible.  Yet still it’s out of reach for the vast majority.

“Art isn’t a luxury for the wealthy elites. It’s the means by which people can engage with and understand their complex and messy reality. It isn’t nice to have, it’s who we are. It therefore shouldn’t be the first thing to go as governments under pressure look to make savings, and in particular, it can’t be ignored in societies like Nigeria where there are conflicts and so many tensions to be overcome, bridges built and divisions healed.  Culture is not incidental but fundamental to humanity.  If we want to transform humanity – whether that be through supporting peace or promoting socio-economic transformation – art and culture must be at the heart of those efforts.”

Drawing points from the extensive lecture delivered by Ms Thompson, the speakers argued over government’s involvement in promoting art in the country. Kolade Oshinowo expressed his displeasure, an encounter with the Minister of Culture over the issues of Museums in the country. He laments the poor state of the existing museums and non availability of befitting museums to cater for the arts produced in the country, saying that when art issue is sidelined by the government, it doesn’t help matters. He however, canvassed that art should be taught in our schools, from kindergarten to the University level, so that the feel, awareness and enthusiasm should be embraced by all.

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Bruce Onobrakpeya in his reaction tends to shift blame on government saying; “I think we are putting too much wait on government.” He advised that the public should start the consciousness and allow the government to come in and help where necessary. He said that there are many things private and corporate entities can do to encourage art and create adequate awareness, then allow government to pick it up from there. Onobrakpeya noted that art goes beyond painting and sculpture. “Art goes beyond that, it involves everyday use of common things in our lives – from architecture, construction, industrial purposes and others.”

Erelu Abiola Dosunmu also suggests that reliance on government cannot grow the art industry. “They are not ready. We need to do it as private entity to change the narrative. I have pursued this cause for 40 years while working for the government to no avail. It is time we look inwards as art enthusiasts to promote art.

Professor Bruce Onobrakpeya on a sideline speaks extensively on how to create opportunities to promote art without involving government. He spoke on workshops for artists that have been used to harness peace and harmony among different youths across the country.

“There are series of workshop all over the country where youths engage, discuss and share idea together. They now think themselves as one rather than different bits. I mentioned the workshop, “Life in my City” at Enugu, and for how many days, they are doing things together. They seem to forget that they are Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa. With this kind of workshop, they feel now, that they are one. That to me reduces tension and removes some kind of bias that is in the mind of people, which will make them hate or fight one another.

“Art creates possibilities and open up venues for people to engage in some kind of practices that keep them occupied and help them reach out to another person. Government is important but to start with, who is the government. We are the government. If the people you have in government do not know about art, how then can they push it to the government for legislation? What happens outside the government is very important. The other people should be educated through all the small private avenues that I talked about,’ Onobrakpeya concludes.

The 2019 edition of the lecture was held at the MUSON Centre, Lagos on December 12. It was attended by art enthusiasts, stakeholders, collectors and artists. The event was moderated by Tunde Arogunmati, Associate Director, Sustainable Social Investment, Ben Enwonwu Foundation and the closing remarks was made by Oliver Enwonwu, Executive Director, Ben Enwonwu Foundation while a renowned visual and performance artist, Jelili Atiku made an impressive appearance with an illuminating performance.

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According to some of the guests, “it was quite an incisive lecture worth attending. This really exposes some facts why we still lag behind on our pursuit of global reckoning in art,” says one guest while another was of the opinion that the awareness created in one lecture do not saturate to the main people that needs the information.