Nigeria: A Renaissance of Benin Iconography

90% of Africa’s cultural heritage currently lies outside the continent, including the Benin Bronzes in the British Museum.
21 June 2019

Yinka Olatunbosun reports on the birth of a travelling solo exhibition, a product of a research work executed by Princess Theresa Oghogho Iyase-Odozi at Thought-Pyramid Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos

The batik t-shirts were lined on the rig that fastened them against the white walls of the Ikoyi-based gallery, Thought Pyramid. There were paintings and other art accessories that provided visual appeal upon entry into the exhibition hall. June 12 was the day when this historical exhibition by Princess Theresa Iyase-Odozi was born. Titled, "Uhunmwen Vbe Ehinmwen and Master of the Circled Cross in Benin, 2019," the exhibition opening compered by Bolaji Ogunwo, a visual artist and a lecturer at the Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos where Princess is a Ph.D student.

It ran simultaneously with the art discourse that drew some masters in visual arts in Nigeria to the venue. As expected, Princess Iyase-Odozi welcomed her guests with warmth, and she later spoke in details about the circled cross in Benin and its rich cultural heritage.

While Benin is famed for its sculptures but one cannot say the same about the Batik tradition. As noted in the remarks by the art consultant and seasoned journalist, Mr. Ozolua Kally, during the discourse with the theme, "Renaissance of Imagery and Symbolism in Benin Iconography: Iyase-Odozi Art Appropriations in Focus," the Benin bronze casting has served as the medium of transmitting the iconographies from generation to generation.

"Historically, Benin Kingdom uses body paintings as distinguishing marks for Benin Indigenes, which serve as signs and symbols of identity during tribal wars. Today, these imprints form part of the design of the official white regalia worn by the Chiefs in Benin City which was initiated by Dr. Ekhaguosa Aisien and approved by the late Oba Erediauwa," he observed.

Supervised by Dr. J. Ajewole, Princess Iyase-Odozi has been fascinated by these iconographies for a while. She even sought to find the link between the batik tradition in Osogbo and Benin, working very closely and travelling with Nike Davis-Okundaye, a renowned batik designer and painter.

In her presentation, she revealed how the research culminated into the BeninIconography.com project and the Iyase-Odozi Edo Batik. With pictures of the Benin burial ceremony on the screen, she explained how these circled cross symbols have been cultural references for the Benin people.

"To revive the clothing Batik culture in Benin, and to impact some of the aspects of Benin culture into the younger generation, we introduce an empowerment initiative programme to groom the younger ones to gain self-employment and paid employment. A general awareness of this 500-year old rich iconography of the Benin artefacts had been created.

"We are moving to Benin in October to commemorate the Oba's birthday. The exhibition and discourse are to provoke further studies and research on the Benin iconography in art practice. We have 45 works but only four here. For the art installation, we have 15-feet wide of a mixed media painting of the Oba with the ivory tusks," she revealed.

During the art discourse, Dr Kunle Filani traced the history of iconography to the pre-colonial era and early civilisations, noting that Nigeria didn't have art historians at that period. He observed that this Benin iconography is a part of art history in Nigeria that should be celebrated.

For Dr. Omoighe, who encountered this phenomenon in 1971, this iconography testifies to the visual literacy of the Edos. She cited a cultural parallel in other cultures such as the Yoruba's system of communication called Aroko. Kehinde Adepegba also corroborated this view, citing Adire traditions in Ibadan, Osogbo and Abeokuta as parallel cultural signposts.

Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya commended Princess for the devotion to the culture-rooted research.

"She's gone to the grassroots to dig up something that will be inspiration to people who love the great art. Art is not just drawing. Art is not just making pictures. Art is using ideas," he said.

The famed art collector, Omooba Yemisi Shyllon recommended that a book or a pamphlet should be done to document iconography in Nigeria to create a wider knowledge base for the younger generation.

"We have to disabuse the mind of the average child that our culture, our customs are not evil as it is being portrayed. China today has their iconographies. They do not use Roman icons and figures. The Indians were colonized for 342 years by Britain, yet, they use their own language to communicate, even, in their parliament--English is their second language. Nigeria was colonized for 99 years. Our level of self-esteem is so low, and so we tend to believe that what the other man has is better than ours," he said.

While some discussants argued that the government needs to populate the leadership positions in all cultural institutions in Nigeria with professionals who are knowledgeable about the Nigerian culture and adjust the school syllabus to include visits to studio artists and exhibitions, others like Onobrakpeya counter-argued that more artists and private individuals can improve art education in Nigeria by setting up workshops and training centres.

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