Archive for the ‘Nigerian arts’ Category

Life’s a party

March 18, 2008

This piece was first published in The Nation, Lagos, on WednesdayMarch 12, 2008. Poeple know him more in the sports arena than in any other area. He was a civil servant till he retired at the age of 60. Art is his passion. But Chief Frank Okonta believes…

Chief Frank Okonta is better known as a sports administrator than a public officer. What is less known about him is that he is a man who takes life as one long leisure cruise. He is also an arts addict whose collection is one of the most enviable in Nigeria. Group Arts and Culture Editor SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE learnt much about him in the hours they spent together at his home and galleryokonta-2.jpgokonta-4.jpgokonta-1.jpgokonta-5.jpg With wife, Patience

He’d rather be called Frank Okonta without the complication of a “chief”. So do not expect him to tell you where he bagged the chieftaincy title. But that is just one of the many things Chief Frank Chukwuma Okonta himself cannot define about himself.

Where was he born? This is a question that is as difficult for him to answer as what he did with eight years of his life in Europe. Don’t even bother asking him where he grew up.

“My mother told me,” he responded to the question about his place of birth, “that when she was eight months pregnant, my father sent her to the village to deliver. A month after I was born, she returned to Lagos where my father was based then.”

Thus Frank Okonta was born in Lagos, although the delivery took place at Ibuzo, his parents’ hometown. By the time he was old enough to begin primary school, his medical officer father had been transferred and he started his educational pursuit in Bauchi. His father, who was a nurse/dispenser, was again moved and he finally completed his primary education at Jos thereby earning the nomenclature “Dan Jos”. By the time he was entering secondary school, his parents were on their way back to Lagos where they were when he was born. Although he went to secondary school in Kaduna, he traces his living in Lagos back to those days.

“I attended St. John’s College in Kaduna,” Okonta told The Nation.

He spoke about his college days with uncommon enthusiasm. But that is the way he speaks about everything. He never believes in any negativity in life. To him, all developments contribute to the building of the whole man.

“Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu was our PT captain,” he recalled. “Even then we used to call him ‘major’. He would go into the houses to ensure that all students come out for sporting activities. In fact, sports was so much active at St. John’s College that no student participated in less than three sports.”

If the sharp reporter goes to Chief Frank Okonta’s Frank Okonta Close residence at UPDC Estate at Lekki in Lagos, he would be wrong to come armed with a recorder to tape a one hour interview. This writer did not make that mistake and his gamble paid off. The appointment was scheduled for 2 pm. But considering the notorious Lekki traffic, early start guaranteed this writer got to his house before one o’clock.

What should have been a one-hour engagement did not end till more than four hours later. From his residence to his gallery, Frank Okonta chatted like an old friend. The age gap was no barrier for him at all. He spoke on different subjects with equal enthusiasm. Here is someone who loves life and does not care to hide it.

Born on August 3, 1939, Frank Okonta’s father wanted his son to follow him into the medical field. After leaving secondary school Frank’s love for the media world led him to the Radio School between 1959 and 1960. Thereafter the father thought it was time for his son to pursue a “real career”. In 1961 he was sent to England to pursue studies in the medical field. His elder sister who ended up with a glorious career in the medical field was already out there building herself up in the same field. So the second born being the first son of the family was expected to better the father’s career success.

It took the whole of between two and three years for Frank Okonta to turn his back on the stethoscope and scalpel. He had finally made up his mind that the world of television production and documentary films would suit him better.

He proceeded to attend a television and film school in England and thereafter launched into a life that the average parent would not want to discuss with his relatives and friends.

“I lived more or less as a hippy in those days,” Frank Okonta said. “I had a very, very good time.”

He did not bother to pick up any regular job. Instead, he made contributions to British Broadcasting Corporation and the Office of Information among other media houses. He travelled all over Europe generally having fun. In the process he took time to take a course in Political History at Oxford College of Technology. Although it might not appear in his CV, he also made his first forage into the high-tide world of marriage.

“I made a mistake,” Frank Okonta said in his usual jocular manner. “I thought love should be the sole basis for marriage. Love is one of the basis for marriage but it is not enough. There are other factors that must be considered.”

When he speaks about his wife Patience, whom he married much later, there is no doubt that he has made a greatly successful comeback.

“I deeply pity those who do not have happy homes,” he said. “If a man is not happy in his marriage, it is a great problem. I thank God for the woman I married. She has been such a great source of joy for me in life.”

Okonta’s first marriage was not without any blessing anyway. It produced a daughter, Nkem who became an artist. Okonta’s gallery at Lekki was named after her. As it happened, she died of cancer a few years ago. His second marriage has produced children who are doing well in their different fields.

By the time Okonta returned to Nigeria towards the end of 1972 he showed no interest in picking up a regular job. He spent a year with the Midwest TV producing a programme on farming. Then he moved on to join Tam Fiofori at Sunart Production to produce a documentary of the Rivers State people.

Recalling his days at Midwest TV, Okonta said he used to travel to Lagos every week to process his films. Sometimes, according to him, he would leave Lagos at eight pm to head back to Benin.

“Crime rate was low then,” Okonta said. “You know I have been living in Lagos for much of my adult life. Even while I was schooling in Kaduna I spent all my holidays in Lagos because my parents were in Lagos. My father was in the civil service while my mother was a successful business woman. She built quite some houses in Lagos here. I still have a place at one of houses and my brother lives there.”

To him, the freewheeling life of travelling around shooting documentaries was fun enough. The security of paid job with hope of retirement package simply did not appeal to Okonta. For him, his beer, wine, champagne, cigarette and later cigar were all that made the world go round. The night clubs where life bands played and sporting events were enough fun.

Frank Okonta’s love for sports had taken roots before he left St. John’s College, Kaduna. He recalled how he and his brothers would walk from their Ebute Meta residence to King George V Stadium, now Onikan Stadium to watch football matches.

“Lagos was much safer then,” he recalled. “Life was much sober. Whenever one walked down the road, there was no apprehension that someone might be out there waiting to snatch your bag or car. We moved around freely at all times.”

By the time the one-year project of documenting the people of Rivers State was completed, Frank Okonta moved on to another temporary engagement. This time around, he worked with Prof. Nwachi of the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs as a liaison officer alongside the Yeye Oge of Lagos Chief (Mrs.) Opral Benson. Preparations were then in top gear for the Festac ’77.

Then came the change. Close to the age of forty, Frank Okonta finally decided there was the need for some sort of stability in his life. First he went out in search of a regular job and ended up at the Ministry of Information. Secondly he met the woman that has since remained his lifetime companion, Patience. He got married to her and the family settled at 1004 Estate on Victoria Island where they lived for several years.

At the Ministry of Information and Culture – the two ministries were one then – Okonta found a perfect home. Operating in the areas of protocol and liaison, he travelled widely. “In fact, I’ve been to virtually all the continents of the earth.”

Apart from travelling widely Okonta utilised the opportunity to pursue one of his greatest passions in life – African arts. As he travelled, he took works of Nigerian artists along using every forum to market African arts. In the same sweep, the avid films and documentary lover had more than his take as the Nigerian Television Authority among other such media agencies of the Federal Government were under the supervision of his ministry.

It was during this period that Frank Okonta became renowned as a sports administrator. He spent so much time at sports administration meetings that, according to him, his wife often wondered which came first – sports or the family. He held several positions including those of President of the Cycling Federation of Nigeria and Chairman of Boxing Association of Nigeria.

Another great change came in Frank Okonta’s life in 1999. Clocking 60 years of age, he retired from the civil service at the position of a Deputy Director.

“When I retired,” he said, “I chose to live a sober life. I wanted no more headaches. So I left the world of sports and other such things and opened this gallery.

“The world of sports is very turbulent. Sports administrators in Nigeria are hungry people. There would be five naira meant for a project and someone who does not even attend meetings would come and ask you to account for how you spent the fifteen naira you got. If you buy a new car or build a new house the suspicion is that you had stolen money meant for sport.

“The politics in Nigerian sports administration is so much that a good number of administrators have no problem moving into partisan politics. Both are about the same except that they are not sending hired assassins after themselves in sports administration politics.”

Why did he then choose art?

“I’ve always loved arts. I love beautiful things. I’ve been collecting works of arts for several years. I have works of masters like Ben Enwonwun as well as works of younger ones. I have paintings, carving mixed media works and all sorts of works.

“When I come into this gallery, I feel fulfilled. No doubt I am a wealthy man. My wealth is not in digits stored in a bank. But how can one derive fulfilment from going to the bank manager and asking him to let him sit down and watch his savings. I come into this gallery and I see things that make me happy.”

Last August 3, Frank Okonta’s Nkem Gallery hosted the opening of a one-week exhibition of painter Larry Isima to mark Okonta’s birthday. Immediately after the opening ceremony was over, the other side of Okonta took over.

His residence, a walking distance from the gallery, has a large garden. No doubt his architect wife and his partying spirit must have connived to create the fairy vista. There a lavish party was thrown where friends, especially fellow arts lovers, wined, dined and chatted till late.

“My philosophy in life is to be happy,” Frank Okonta told The Nation during the interview conducted recently. “In my house, we always look for an excuse to throw a party. If I offer to throw a party for a friend and he has nothing to celebrate at that point in time I will ask him to locate a friend of his who has something to celebrate.”

Now he has stopped drinking and smoking for health reasons. But Frank Okonta’s love for the bottle and the butt was legendary. Although he does not regret his teetotaller status he still speaks about champagne and cigar with the relish of a man who would not mind spending his entire life between France and Havana.

Well that is what he has actually done. His entire life has been spent living. While a good number of people spend their days worrying about problems that might never manifest, Okonta spends his days just being happy.

Among guests at Frank Okonta Close at Lekki on that August 3 were prime arts collectors Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, Engineer Yemisi Shyllon and Chief Sammy Olagbaju and painter and arts teacher, former Lagos State Chairman of Society of Nigerian Artists, Kunle Adeyemi. The four have something in common. They are all arrow heads of the Visual Arts Society of Nigeria (VASON) a co-sponsor of the exhibition. Frank Okonta is a patron of VASON, an organisation that seeks to do for visual arts what MUSON is doing for music.

At 68, Frank Okonta’s nothing of retiring into total sober peaceful life just cannot include staying away from his passion for arts and partying. Bubbly and easy to approach, Okonta radiates the air of someone whose arrival at the most sober funeral would create a cheerful atmosphere. To him, life is one long party. And the party just goes on.

Peter Igho: Long walk through the stage

March 18, 2008

This piece was first published in The Nation, Lagos on Wednesday, February 27, 2008

igho-2.jpgigho-1-ed.jpgIgho, the Dan Jikan Kabi

 After a lifelong career in the entertainment industry, 33 of them spent at the NTA where his network productions were household names and he rose to Executive Director, Marketing, Peter Igho is retiring at 60, moving on to…

The next level

Peter Igho bows out of the organisation on March 28 upon attaining the mandatory retirement age of 60, he would have put in 33 years into the tube industry in Nigeria. However, his romance with the stage has lasted longer just as he plans to still remain in the industry that is his life as he told Group Arts and Culture Editor SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE

The Argungun Fishing Festival in Kebbi State is one of the nation’s leading tourist attractions. This year, it holds between March 12 and 15. Apart from the usual events, one special event will feature in this year’s edition of the festival. The special event is to celebrate the Dan Jikan Kabi, Peter Igho. It is the beginning of a series of events lined up to celebrate the 60th birthday of Peter Igho and his impressive career in the Nigerian television industry which winds up as 60 is the mandatory retirement age in the nation’s civil service.

A day after the festival winds up, there will be a special dinner put together by friends and associates in Lagos. The Abuja version holds on March 22. Coincidentally, Igho shares the same birthday with his alma mater, University of Ibadan which was established the year he was born. On March 27, he will be heading there for a double celebration – his and his alma mater’s birthdays. The following day, the exact birth date, his Victoria Island, Lagos home will play host to fireworks display that promises to be as impressive as his distinguished career. The following day is slated for the birthday thanksgiving service at St. Gregory Catholic Church, Obalende, Lagos while reception of guests follows at the Air Force Officers’ Mess at Victoria Island. He will spend March 30 with his friends at the IBB Golf Course in Abuja where he is a member.

Peter Igho has good reason to celebrate life at 60. When one speaks of the television industry in Nigeria, it is impossible to name the top ten people without his name being included. He has won the movie industry award. At work he won the Director General’s Best Executive Director’s Award. Nationally, he holds the National Award of MFR. Looking back at his journey through life, he said, “The people we grew up together, especially those who had more privileged backgrounds, where are they today?”

His journey in life is like a script – a lot of which he wrote. It is one of positive outlook, determination, hard work and most especially talent triumphing over initial challenges.

Peter Igho was born on Easter Sunday, March 28, 1948 in the mining city of Jos in northern Nigeria. Of Urhobo parentage, his own father had lived in Jos from his youth where he worked as a miner.

“The mining industry then,” Igho recalled, “wasn’t much better than it is today. Sometime digging would be carried out for several weeks only to find out there is no mineral at that particular site. Meanwhile one would have spent much money paying labourers doing the digging. When there was success we had good life. My father was not rich but he was comfortable.

“One thing told me how things were financially in those days. It was the state of our accommodation. We lived in this face-me-I-face you kind of accommodation. Whenever things were in good shape, we occupied four rooms. When things took a downward turn, we managed two rooms, a situation that led to our things being piled up along the passage and corridor.”

Of course, two rooms should be sufficient for a modest family. What was then the problem? Was it that his father had a large family?

Asked how many children his father had, Igho surprised this writer with his response. “When we got to around 35, I stopped counting. But I think in all we were around 45.”

Legendary wouldn’t one say? The senior Igho married four wives of which Peter Igho’s mother who had six children was the first. But the definition of his siblings is unconventional just like it is in many parts of Africa.

“Apart from biological children,” Igho explained, “there were children of my father’s brothers and other relatives who were either dead or still alive. Beyond this, we even had children of neighbours living with us. We were treated equally as children. In fact, when I was growing up, I was closer to one of my step-mothers than my mother. She had some delay in having her own children. So, I was the one who was close to her. Coincidentally, I was born on a Sunday, when she finally had her own son, he was born on a Sunday. Beyond this, when I went for my baptism, I chose the name Peter. He too on his own chose the same name when he went for baptism. So, in the family, there are two Sunday Peter Ighos. To differentiate, people refer to us as Sunday Peter Bida and Sunday Peter Lafia.”

As Igho narrated the story of his growing up, one could perceive the joy of the recollection. It was a warm morning and we endured the heat as we chatted. The idea of postponing the interview did not appeal to any of us.

The first time it was to hold the drugs he was taking for typhoid which had put him in a state in which he could not really undertake it. We only spent time in his sitting room chatting mostly about his younger days when he took time off from University of Ibadan to night-crawl in Lagos visiting leading night spots like the late Bobby Benson’s club.

Another schedule was scuttled despite chasing him to his Victoria Island residence and to the local and international wings of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport. He had an urgent flight to take to Abuja. Schedules and postponements followed and at a point in time he was out of the country to attend to an eye problem that required surgery.

During this eventual session, more than once the unassumingly friendly Igho more than once expressed his appreciation “for your endurance.” As the interview ended, he was asked when he would be leaving for Abuja. The answer came without hesitation: “The moment you leave now.”

Whatever energy propelled Peter Igho through life seems not have diminished at the age of 60 – at least not noticeably. One can only imagine what the below average height entertainment legend was like growing up. He, however, spoke about his life with fervour. “My childhood years were some of the happiest in my life.” He said. “Although we were not rich, we were happy. I recall that I wore shoes only during Christmas.”

His childhood also prepared him for what he became in life. From the stories his parents told him, the books that were read to him and that he read and his frequent visits to the cinemas, Igho developed a passion for the stage. Late theatre legend Herbert Ogunde came to Jos around this time for a drama production. Igho said this production had such an impact on him that it was one of the factors that shaped him into what he later became.

After primary education at a Catholic school in Jos, he proceeded to a Catholic secondary school in Kaduna. “In those days,” he recalled, “if you attended a Catholic school, you would learn Igbo because most of the teachers were Igbo. If you attended an Anglican school, you would learn Yoruba as most of the teachers were Yoruba.”

Beyond perfecting his Igbo which he had grown up with alongside children of Igbo people whom his parents lived with in the same neighbourhood, Igho began his sojourn into the creative world while in secondary school in Kaduna. In school, he was one of the best English students. He was also active in literary and dramatic activities winning the prize in the Kennedy Essay Competition organised by the United States embassy then.

After his secondary school examinations in which he secured the much coveted division one, he proceeded to pursue higher school certificate at the same institution. When he completed the HSC, he taught for a while in the school during the months between the final examination and resumption date at the university. This period can be said to be the beginning of his career in entertainment.

“While teaching there,” Igho recalled, “the principal called me and said, ‘Look, you are interested in literary activities, why not organise an inter-house drama competition among the students?’ I took up the challenge selecting plays like The Incorruptible Judge for the houses. But I faced a challenge. There was a house that had no play. So, I took up the challenge of writing a play for the house. The play was entitled Gods of the Ancestors. As it happened, I left to resume at the university before the competition took place. When next I saw the principal, he congratulated me. Surprised, I asked him what he was congratulating me for and he told me that the panel of judges that sat at the competition adjudged my play the winner.”

With such interest and background one would have expected Peter Igho to study theatre arts at the university. Yes, he wanted that but University of Ibadan did not offer theatre arts as a major course then. So, he opted to study English with theatre arts among others as a subsidiary course.

There was just no way his creative mind could have rested while in the university. Even in secondary school, he had formed a music band named The Heart Renders where he played the piano and accordion and was the lead vocalist. Now in UI, he and some like minds put together what has remained arguable the greatest band in the history of UI, The Q Mark. Its inauguration which the authorities were generous enough to allow them use the famous Trenchard Hall came as a surprise to many on campus as people were wondering when they formed the band and where they had been rehearsing. “We were rehearsing deep in the bush behind the campus,” Igho said.The Q Mark performed at different occasions on campus and outside the proceeds of which went into payment of equipment rentals and a little earning that supplemented the financial base of the generally financially challenged band members.

Peter Igho secured employment before leaving the university in 1972. As it was in those days, prospective employers came to the campus to recruit. Igho opted for the civil service.

“During the interview,” Igho told The Nation, “they asked me if I was prepared to serve in the northern part of the country. Obviously they only paid attention to my name and added that to the fact that I had schooled in Yoruba land. They didn’t know I had grown up in the north raised by parents who spoke Hausa and Fulani fluently.”

They finally posted him to the Northwest State. Upon resumption at Sokoto, he was posted to a teachers training college at Bida. A sleepy town, Bida was a sharp contrast to Ibadan that Igho was coming from. But before long, he had turned the town into a hub of activities that attracted people from far and near. Again, it was his talent and interest in entertainment that gave birth to this.

Bringing in students from a nearby female school – hardly a conceivable idea then – he wrote and produced a drama piece that was to run for six days. It ended up running for six weeks. Then the community demanded to see it. That one ran for a month. By then the fame of the presentation had spread throughout the state leading to a state-wide tour. To cap it all, the state governor requested for a command performance. It went on to be the state’s entry that won award at the 1974 Festival of Arts and Culture. This feat led to its being one of the plays chosen for performance at the Festac ’77 for which the ’74 was preparatory.

Despite his promotion in the teaching sector in 1974, the Ministry of Culture which organised the festival struggled and succeeded in attracting him to be one of the pioneering staffers of the NTV, Sokoto that took off in 1975. He was the one-man drama department.

In 1977, the different television stations in Nigeria were brought together under the new name NTA. In 1978, NTA organised a competition among all the stations. Perceived as an outpost, NTA Sokoto’s entry’s winning the competition came as a surprise to not a few. The entry was Moment of Truth written and produced by Peter Igho. This led to his being selected to produce a series aimed at promoting the ideals of the Federal Government’s Operation Feed the Nation (OFN). The initial one-page material handed over to him is far from what Nigerians later saw in Cockcrow at Dawn.

To produce Cockcrow at Dawn, Peter Igho approached a village head that his father had had a relationship with as a miner. That made the series the first of sort completely on location in Nigeria apart from it being the first network soap in the country.

After producing about 38 episodes, NTA decided Igho would be more useful at the headquarters in Lagos. As a result, in 1983, he was promoted a General Manager in charge of network programmes. Peter Igho’s experience in production soon came to the fore in managing network section forever transforming that area of television broadcasting in Nigeria.

“Upon my arrival in Lagos,” Igho said, “I saw a lady rehearsing a production. I told her to see me after rehearsal. She was Lola Fani-Kayode. That was how the network production, Mirror in the Sun, came on board. I soon brought other regional productions on board the network ship. Samanja from NTA, Kaduna; The Village Headmaster from the west; and The Masquerade from the east, which became The New Masquerade.

“Others like Behind the Cloud also came on board. No doubt, 1983 was the beginning of the highpoint of network programmes in Nigeria. We ended up with a network programme nearly everyday.”

To appreciate iconic stars in the industry, Igho began the Stars of the Tube which featured musicians like Ebenezer Obey and Eddie Okonta in 1996. In 1997 he was transferred to NTA Enugu where he served as General Manager until his return to the headquarters as Executive Director in charge of production in 2006. Thereafter, he was moved to the marketing section where he handled the marketing of such projects as the English Premier League. It is from this department that Peter Igho is ending a most outstanding career at NTA.What next?

Having being denied enough time with the family and for rest due to the nature of his chosen career, Peter Igho intends to spend some time resting. Since 1972 when he joined the civil service and 1975 when he joined the television industry, it has been all work. No doubt he deserves it. Thereafter he intends to go seek other ways of, as he put it, “earning my daily bread.”

Of course, he intends to remain in the industry operating in the area of content, marketing and consultancy. As it happens, his children, all of whom had graduated, are in such fields as movies, animation and musicals.

When he was asked as a parting shot to recall any sad moment, the nature a man who has lived his life on stage came forth: “I read a lot of books while growing up – Greek classical and Shakespeare inclusive. This and other things I have experienced taught me that events of ones life cannot be isolated. The total person is a product of all he has gone through, good and bad. So, my tears and smiles all come together to make Peter Igho who he is. If you ask me what I’d like to alter if I were to live my life all over again, I’d tell you nothing.”

What a fulfilling way to end a career in a particular sector of the society. But Igho’s career is not ending yet. He is simply changing gear to move to the next level!

Poems on demand

March 18, 2008

This poem by Emmanuel Eni has been published in The Nation and will be available if the author’s permission is obtained.

What’s the next level in education?

March 18, 2008

This piece was first published as a photo story in The Nation, Lagos, on March 11, 2008

eni-and-minister-2.jpg 

Emmanuel Eni is no doubt one of the foremost Nigerian artistes in Germany. A poet, playwright, painter, sculptor and stage performer, he comes home regularly to host events just as he is never less busy in his Germany chosen base of operation.

Not long ago, he appeared on Deutsche Welle, Germany’s version of British BBC and America’s VOA, in a joint interview with German Foreign Affairs Minister and the new Vice Chancellor Dr. Claus Walter Steinmeier to discuss new education system in Sub-Sahara Africa. Guess what the new education system is? Education through the media! Photo left shows Eni with the Vice Chancellor.

Dark days behind enemy line

February 26, 2008

First published in The Nation, Lagos

biafra.jpg 

Title: 888 Days in Biafra

Author: Samuel U. Umweni

Publishers: iUniverse

Date of Publication: 2007

No. of Pages: 220

Price: $24.95

Prison of any form is not a desirable residence. In war time, however, the terrible turns petrifying.

Sam Umweni was heading the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in Benin City when the Biafran forces overran the city in August 1967. In the confusion that ensued, he, like many top officials, went into hiding. Words of assurance from the occupational forces brought him out. Thereafter, he and some others responded to a summon to meet with the new authorities. That was on August 12, 1967. As it turned out, the “meeting” lasted till January 12, 1970.

888 Days in Biafra is Unweni’s memoir on his experience during the Nigerian Civil War that lasted from 1967 to 1970. Opening with Acknowledgement, Foreword written by Pius Oleghe in 1976 and a Prologue, the book is divided into eleven chapters. The closing part contains Epilogue, Appendix and Index. It is also spiced with photographs seasons in Umweni’s life surrounding the period and those of his “souvenirs”, mementos of his prison experience.

In the Acknowledgement, Umweni paid tribute to God and people who were helpful to him during his incarceration while Prologue gives a brief biographical sketch of the author.

The book opens with historical background of the crisis that rocked Nigeria and the events leading to the Civil War. One of the first major encounters of the war was the invasion of the then Midwest Region by forces of the secessionist Republic of Biafra. This was despite the Region’s declared neutrality in the crisis, a situation made possible by the semi autonomy the federating regions enjoyed in Nigeria then.

The declared intention of the invaders was the “liberation” of Midwest Region. Thereafter they would move on to “liberate” the Western Region and throw Head of State Yakubu Gowon out of Lagos.

With a pseudo-government put in place, a meeting of the Midwest Executive Council was summoned by Colonel Victor Banjo who headed the “liberation army” at the State House in Benin City. Being personally invited albeit amidst threat of his immediate family paying the price of his not showing up, Samuel Umweni was one of those who responded. Others who were to form the quartet that would cross the Niger in Republic of Biafra that fateful day included Mid West Region Commissioner of Police Joseph Adeola, Olu Akpata and Joseph Imokhuede. It is noteworthy that these three were Edo speaking – like Umweni himself – members of the Council who showed up for the meeting. Samuel Umweni remains convinced that he was betrayed by his Ika Ibo assistant.

The four were informed that they were to have a meeting with top officials of Biafran government in Enugu and were driven across the Niger that night.

Initially there were pretences. Top officials including rebel leader Odumegwu Ojukwu either visited them at their hotel or received them. The was permanently put on hold until the fall of Enugu after federal troops had chased the invaders out of Midwest Region. When they were evacuated along to Awgu, the courtesy began to dissipate. Eventually the pretence ended. They were separated and sent to different prisons. Umweni ended at Okigwe Prison.

As the war progressed and towns had to be evacuated due to pressure of federal troops, they were moved and brought together at Umuahia Prison. The author also served term at Ntueke Detention Centre which he describes as “the gates of hell.” It remained his home until the end of the war.

In war time, things are bad enough. It was horrible in Biafra. What with the federal blockade and the reality of the fact that the Igbo who spearheaded the rebellion are a landlocked people.

Right from the beginning, the crises that followed the first military coup in Nigeria and led to the Civil War had their roots in tribalism. With the declaration of the Republic Biafra, the multi-dimensional nature of the national question came to the fore. The Ika Ibo, seeing themselves as part of Igboland collaborated with Biafra. The illusion soon evaporated as the real Igbo began to manifest arrogant discrimination against all non-Igbo in the republic. The Onitsha Ibo who had always regarded themselves as not being fully Igbo suffered as well as other minority tribes of what is now referred to as South South.

As Biafra lost battles especially on these fronts, people from the areas were herded to the prisons, detention centres, firing squad and the gallows in droves.

Isolated, Biafra suffered all sorts of lack. This situation grew continuously worse as the war progressed. Commodities like salt virtually disappeared. Whatever aid agencies like International Council of the Red Cross and Catholic mission brought were fought over, stolen and rationed out in merger proportions. “Sabo” meaning saboteurs, as Umweni and his co-travellers were tagged suffered worse than the ordinary citizen.

Facing the antagonism of gaolers both the humane and outrightly demonic, forging friendship and alliances with people like Professor Chike Obi and Senator/Justice Daniel Ibekwe who were fellow detainees and other facets of prison life are documented in 888 Days in Biafra. The degradation, deprivation, filth and deaths of inmates that progressed with the war in figure and different attitudes of different prison officials are all there.

In presenting his memoir, Samuel Umweni with the wisdom years bestow on he who has been fired in the kiln of affliction speaks rather than write. One gets the feeling of a man telling his story at the informal gathering of say contemporaries.

Beautifully packaged, 888 Days in Biafra reflects how publishing has grown in Nigeria although in the United States of America. However there are errors like capitalisation of words unnecessarily and misspelling which more careful editing could have eliminated. These slips are however covered by the flow of the story.

The author did not attempt to be an erudite analyst. He rather presents his experiences during the war as he perceives them. Things like discrimination against Protestants by mostly Catholic Igbo that someone who was not there would not have imagined were painted vividly. Although he mentioned his wife’s betrayal in the course of his incarceration, the reader’s curiosity goes unquenched as he closes the story at the point where he finally returned to Benin City when he regained freedom.

In the Appendix, Umweni presents brief information about 57 major characters in the story. The Index section too becomes helpful for the researcher. But one wonders why the chapters have titles but these titles are not written in the contents. You simply have chapter numbers.

Coming 37 years after the end of the Civil War, 888 Days in Biafra, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, is a reminder that that period of our history cannot just be swept under the carpet. Like Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died that tells the Nobel Laureate’s experience in federal custody during the same Civil War, this documentation of a man’s experience tells us we must join Ellie Weisel in his “we must not forget” philosophy. Maybe then we can resolutely say, NEVER AGAIN!

‘I wouldn’t write what I write if I had remained in Nigeria’

February 26, 2008

This material was first published in The Nation, Lagos, Nigeria 

Chika 

Chika Unigwe is a Belgium-based Nigerian author with highly priced awards in her kitty. Last December, she came into the country to promote her first full-length novel, The Phoenix. She took time off to speak with The Nation newspaper of Nigeria’s Group Arts and Culture Editor PRINCE SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE on her art, life as a Nigerian married to a Belgian, life of Nigerian writers abroad and state of Nigerians in Belgium

“I travelled down to Antwerp to research my forthcoming novel,” Chika Unigwe told The Nation with a sense of discovery. “Do you know that I went into a café to get information about the lives of Nigerian prostitutes there. I met a good number who spoke openly about their profession and what life is like living in Belgium as a prostitute.”

The forthcoming book is entitled A Tale of Choices and Displacement. Its theme is the lifestyle of Nigerian ladies plunged into prostitution in Belgium. Chika could not have carried out the research at Turnhout where she lives with her Belgian husband and four sons and where she is also a councillor. The town is a smaller one and the Nigerian population there is small. More so, Turnout is not the primary setting of A Tale of Choices and Discipline quite unlike The Phoenix, the book Chika is currently in Nigeria promoting.

Chika Unigwe believes Belgium has been good to the teeming Nigerians resident there. A good number have of them, according to her, have valid papers and have good jobs and live good lives. Others, of course, entered the country illegally or are there with expired visas. As a result, there are engaged in cat and mouse game with immigrations officials.

The subject of prostitution is a major preoccupation with Chika. She had always been interested with the plight of women. Living in Belgium now, she has continued to explore the subject. In Belgium, prostitution is legal. As a result, those engaged in the business have no need to fear the law.

“When I walked into this particular café,” Chika continued, “the ladies I spoke with freely gave me information. I discovered for example, they were not ashamed of telling me their places of origin in Nigeria. I found out that most of them were from Edo State. I asked one where she came from, she replied, ‘Edo State, of course” as if I must have been uninformed asking her where she came from.”

Chika met her husband at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in her undergraduate days. They got married just before graduation and moved on to Belgium soon after. If she has risen to become a city councillor, no doubt she had integrated well. More so, she writes first in the Dutch language of her husband’s homeland. The Phoenix was released in Dutch 2005 as De Feniks. Even her parents-in-law had learnt English language to be able to communicate with her properly.

Yet it must have been a daring move for her to just pack up and move to a strange land. What was her parents’ reaction, for example? “Oh, my parents said they had always known I could make such a more. You see, before I met my husband I had gone out with an Indian.” Chika explained with a mischievous grin.

Oge, the main character in her The Phoenix did not fare as well as Chika although they share far so many resemblances one is tempted to think the author had set out to write a biographical novel.

Like Chika, Oge grew up in Enugu. She met a Belgian there and married him and they later moved to Turnhout, the city where Chika lives. But there the similarities end.

The Phoenix is at once arresting and haunting. The entire story takes place in the course of a train trip from one town to another within Belgium, a country not reputed for large landmass. Oge was on her way to keep an appointment with her surgeon. On the way, a fellow passenger, a white woman who said she had been to Africa although she could not understand while an Igbo speaker would not be able to speak Swahili, kept pestering her with questions about her continent, herself and life of the Africans in Belgium.

In the course of this questioning, Oge’s state of mind was revealed. She was just to preoccupied with her personal burdens she was in no way interested in listening to any small talk or answering pointless questions. As she ruminates absent-mindedly, flashbacks take the reader to the events of her life in both the recent and far past. Of course, with author’s style, things do not follow logical sequence. The story goes back and forth floating with the subject’s mental journeys.

The book opens in the first person narrative form. As soon as Oge’s inner man took over, the narrative shifts to an unusual second person. Consumed in the bipolar manifestations of her life, Oge, living in self denial following her only son’s death, began to refer to herself as “you” as if the subject was an individual not connected with her.

When Oge met her husband, it was a tale of love at first sight. He was working in Nigeria as an expatriate oil worker. They later got married and moved to Belgium. Even then, crisis did not begin until Oge got pregnant. Her husband told her he was expecting her to go into motherhood that early in their relationship when he still enjoying his new status as a husband. Why bring a stranger in between them?

When pregnancy did not destroy his wife’s stature as he feared Oge’s husband began to soften. By the time the scan of the pregnancy presented them a preview of their baby, he began to fall in love. By the time the baby was born, they both fell in love with him and set out the business of parenting. Then at the age of five, death struck. The baby died as the result of an accident at his school.

Both parents were devastated no doubt. But Oge went to the extreme. She insisted her boy was not dead. For a whole year she bought his Christmas gifts and birthday gifts. The pyjamas were laid out for the dead boy every night and neatly folded at dawn. The physical evidence of the cremated boy’s ashes poured into an urn that was in the sitting room did nothing to make her face reality.

When Oge met a Nigerian at a supermarket while shopping and that one invited her to a church where miracles happen on a regular basis, she jumped at the opportunity. Special offerings, fasting and prayer accompanied with reading of prescribed Bible passages daily did nothing to reverse the situation. When she told the pastor her son was not yet back he simply replied that it was because her faith was too small. She walked away from the church but with nowhere to turn to.

With the death of their son and their resultant opposite poles acceptance of the situation, husband and wife drifted apart. The love that bound them together evaporated and bickering ruled the home. Cultural differences between the two came to the surface and Oge would have returned to Nigeria but for the fear that her parents – her mother in particular who was a devout Catholic – would not accept her divorcing her husband.

One blow knocking one down is not the same as being hit after taking the fall. Son dead, marriage turned into a nightmare, Oge would have thought that was enough. Then the discovery of a lump in her breast which turned out to be cancer. Oge refused to share with anybody including her husband and even the pastor of the church she attended and the only person she has close to a friend in Turnhout. Her mental torture snowballed into frenzied search for a way out of the hell hole. Suicide seemed the best option.

When Oge received a letter from his father in Nigeria, she knew it was something odd as it was the first letter from him in her eight-year stay in Belgium. Skilfully Chika Unigwe steers the reader back to Nigeria. In fact the ruminations of Oge’s husband is another such “intrusion” at this stage of the narrative. In this particular “diversion” the crises rocking the Niger Delta zone of Nigeria became the setting.

Her mother who although married to an Igbo man hailed from the Niger Delta joined other agitators to protest a new pipeline project that was going to further adversely affect her hometown. In the course of the peaceful rally, the police moved in with batons and guns. Some died but Oge’s mum only escaped with major injuries. His father then persuaded both mother and daughter for the mother to visit Belgium for a short rest.

The mother’s arrival was the turning point. On arrival, she was moved into the only spare room in her son-in-law’s apartment. It was the late son’s room which Oge still preserved proclaiming that her son needed to meet his things in proper state on his return. When she suggested taking his clothes back to Nigeria as gifts for a needy child, Oge flared up. What would her son come home to meet? The mother was flabbergasted. With a child dead for a year how could it have been impossible for someone to come into terms with the reality of his eternal departure?

This was the time Oge came to accept the reality. That night too, her husband turned to her in bed and held her as of old. Healing time one might say. It was then the story reverted to the first person narrative.

Although the problem of cancer persisted till the end of the story it was not a major problem if the doctors assurances were anything to go by.

Can a Nigeria-based author create the kind of stories told by Nigerian authors in the Diaspora? That was the question The Nation put to Chika Unigwe after discussing her novel. Her response was that the experience of relocation from one’s homeland is a peculiar one. The sense of loss of roots forges in the writer what no other experience can achieve.

Hear her: “I wouldn’t have been able to write The Phoenix is I had not left Nigeria. The theme and story line are just in line with my experiences gathered in the course of living in Belgium for years. I have no doubt it is the same with other Nigerian authors based abroad.”

Based on this premise, one was tempted to conclude that home-based writers were at a disadvantage. Not so.

Chika Unigwe was flanked by Anwuli and Eniola of Farafina during the course of the chat. Farafina is the publishing house that published The Phoenix and organised the book tour that brought Chika to Nigeria. As we chatted sitting opposite each other on low stools separated by a low table, Muktar Bakare worked at one section of his office. Farafina is his brainchild and he runs the outfit. The section had normal working table while this side had a relaxed curio-filled furnishing. Both sides boasted of exquisite art works hanging on the walls most being paintings of another Nigeria author and painter, United States of America-based Victor Ehikhamenor.

The journey started three years ago. Today, not only Diaspora-based authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chika Unigwe are enjoying Farafina’s commitment to the book industry.

“Our mission and commitment is telling our own story,” Farafina’s Anwuli said quoting the company’s pay-off line. Qualitative publishing of books by Africans is their commitment. The editing and printing of their books leaves no one in doubt of their commitment. From new authors to established ones, the work only needs to be a good one to attract Farafina’s attention. From Kenyan Ngugi wa Th’iongo to Nigerian Ben Okri, Tanure Ojaide to Segun Afolabi, they have been shunning out works of fiction of high quality. Even now, as reflected in the list of coming works in The Phoenix, at least four books by Maik Nwosu are in the pipeline. Beyond fiction, they are moving into school books and other areas of publishing.

No doubt one of the greatest problems of Nigerian authors is that over the years there had been a dearth of committed publishers. This resulted in many writers having to publish themselves – a shoddy arrangement, to say the least. With the entrance of committed publishers like Farafina, aspiring writers now have hope.

Farafina does not just publish, they take the books and the authors to the reader. Last weekend, Chika Unigwe had readings at Quintessence at Ikoyi, Lagos and Bookworm at Victoria Island also in Lagos. A week before that she was at Jazzhole at Ikoyi. Months earlier, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was in town to promote her Half of a Yellow Sun.

Were these readings organised to expand the reading audience? “No,” Farafina officials said. “That comes with it but it is not the main objective. The main objective is to introduce out authors and their works to the reading public. It does not make sense if an author’s work is released to the market and those who actually read are not aware of it. So, the readings are interactive sessions between the authors and the reading public.”

Is Farafina interested in expanding the market? You bet. Part of their efforts at expanding the reading audience is the ongoing Farafina Read and Rule campaign. It started on December 1 and runs till January 15 next year. During this period, anybody purchasing any title on the Farafina stable enjoys between five and ten per cent discount. There is also gift vouchers valid for purchasing their books which one can give out as season’s gifts.

“This is a season of giving. This is our way of giving back to the society while at the same time growing the book market.” Definitely a reasonable combination. Despite its commendable success in three years in the business, it is in the interest of Farafina to grow the market.

“Being an author is Nigeria is not the same thing as publishing abroad,” words of Chika Unigwe. The Phoenix, she said, passed through close to ten re-writes. “Over there, you have editors and all sorts of people to work with. This is both an advantage and an irritant at times. It enhances the quality of the work you finally produce but at the same time their insistence on some changes can be difficult to swallow at times.”

Chika’s stories have been broadcast several times on BBC World Service, Radio Nigeria and many other Commonwealth radio stations around the world.The author won the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition for her story Borrowed Smile and a Flemish literary prize for her first story written in Dutch, De Smaak van Sneeuw. She was also a nominee for the 2004 Caine Prize. Her short stories Dreams and Thinking of Angels were short-listed for the Million Writers Best Online Fiction in 2005. The same year her story Confetti, Glitter and Ash came third in the Equiano Prize for Fiction.This beautiful, married mother of four began her foray into the world of Arts with a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and holds a Masters of Arts from Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. Chika Unigwe also holds a doctorate from University of Leiden, Netherland with a thesis tracing the antecedents of Igbo women’s art of writing as a form of setting things right.

Having to take care of four boys, Chika explained, was responsible for her wearing simple braids – dreadlocks. Asked what her odd traits were as all creative people manifest different such traits, Chika answered with a low laughter. She cannot burst a balloon. She does not wear wrist watches. Throw in a couple of such oddities more and the image is nearly complete.

Physically, the slim fair-skinned beauty hardly manifests traits of someone who had given birth to a child let alone four boys. Artistically, The Phoenix reveals her and a highly observant and deeply meditative writer. Her use of language is simple without being simplistic. She picks her words carefully and the story flows fluidly with considerable use of similes.

As Chika heads for Abuja on the next phase of her book tour, one gets the impression of some whose only destination is upward. Does she plan to go into other things in life other than writing?

“No. Although I intend to obtain a PhD in Anthropology,” she answered with a giggle.

No doubt a digger – into the souls of men and the past.

 

Igun Eronmwon: Guardian of ageless tradition

September 25, 2007

eric-10.jpg

eric-6.jpg     benin-bronze-1.jpg

Eric Ogbemudia

Ancient bronze casting

For centuries, Igun Street in ancient Benin City has been the home of famous Benin bronze casting. When The Nation Group Editor (Arts and Culture) SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE visited the street some days ago, he found the street and its art tradition much unchanged. Descendants of the originators of the sacred craft still operate in close knitted communal exclusionism

Multi-coloured interlocking bricks cover the street. Much like ancient Benin City streets, it is a wide road. Should the government decide to dualise the road, there would be no need for demolition of buildings. The setbacks between the covered road-side gutters and the buildings make enough room for that.

The buildings themselves reflect the character of the street. It is a collection of bungalows that few living would dare boast of sharing the same age with. Rusty corrugated iron roofs all, they are all bungalows except for a couple of storey buildings. Built in the days of mud structures, their pillars stand firm as if defying change and modernity. The same sense of solidity creates an atmosphere whereby no structure needs a fence.

To grab the essence of Igun Street, one needs to enter from the imposing King’s Square via Sakpoba Street. A mammoth arched gateway welcomes the guest to the base of Benin Bronze Casters’ Guild.

A guild it is in the deepest traditional sense of the word. Igun Eronmwon as its Benin name is has been there for centuries. Membership is restricted to Igun Street indigenes who are in the art of bronze carving. The only other members from outside Igun Street are descendants of the original carvers who had moved on and settled in other parts of town.

More rusty than the dirt-brown corrugated iron sheets that shield the bungalows from torrential rainfalls and sunshine are the prescient precious pieces adorning the shops that line up the street. They attract attention of seekers from far and near. Whites travel across the oceans to acquire. Blacks travel across bridges to admire. For centuries, Benin bronze casting has been in a class of its own.

The Benin monarch, Ovonranwen Nogbaisi was in one of his most sacred retreats during which he was not supposed to receive any visitor when British expeditionary force leader Captain Philips rode into town demanding an audience with the former. Of course, the impossibility of granting his request – no matter what mighty empire he claimed to represent – was made clear to him.

Who were these barbarians in the deep heart of darkness resisting a “legitimate” request of the Crown representative for an audience with their man on the “stool”?

A force was mobilised. Captain Philips led an expeditionary force whose attitude Wole Soyinka described in You Must Set Forth At Dawn as:

“His Majesty’s Britannic servants were not to be denied however, and they forced their way into the city, with gruesome consequences. Such insolence was not to be countenanced! Orders were issued to mount a punitive expedition, and they were carried out with equally gruesome efficiency. Numerous treasures, the spoils of war were shipped back to England – to offset the cost of the war, the British dispatches stated, with admirable candour. Among them was the ivory mask, the alleged head of Benin princess.”

The ivory Idia head that later became the icon of the Second Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, FESTAC ’77, was just one of the numerous artefacts the British stole during the expedition. The stolen works were predominantly bronze works. Their origin? Igun Street, the home of ancient Benin bronze casting mystery.

How did it all begin?

In those days when Benin knew no Oba – so far, there had been 38 Obas in the kingdom – the Ogiso reign supreme. The days of Ogiso Uwas was credited with being the beginning of the ancient art. That was sometimes around 300 to 500 BC. However, its specific roots can only be traced back to 1280 AD.

“In every invention,” Eric Ogbemudia, the Secretary of the Benin Bronze Casters’ Guild told The Nation, “there is always a point at which a man’s name is associated with the new invention. This does not necessarily mean there was no such an invention can undoubtedly be ascribed to the person.”

An HND holder in sculpture from The Federal Polytechnic, Auchi, Eric Ogbemudia is the poster boy for Igun Street bronze casting tradition. When The Nation entered the street, the very first gallery owner directed the writer to him. “He is the one who can give authoritative information about the Guild and its traditions and operations.”

Born into bronze casting family, Ogbemudia traces his lineage back to Igwera. Igwera it was who was documented to have brought the bronze casting art to Benin in 1280. From where is a question nobody can really answer.

“There are speculations that it was brought from Sudan or Egypt,” Ogbemudia said. “We are researching that now. But there is the possibility that it could have been evolved in Benin here. There were many metal craft shops in Benin then. Metal workers made arrows, swords and daggers for warfare long before the Europeans came. In the process of metal smelting this particular metal could have been detected.”

Scientifically, this is a great possibility. Bronze melts faster than iron. In between, iron stands suspended above bronze liquid – the only condition in which the heavy metal stands suspended on the surface of any liquid – thereby producing a distinct raw material for any creative metal worker.

One way or the other, Igwera is credited with the exalted status of bronze work in Benin.

“The Oba of Benin blessed the Guild,” Ogbemudia said. “There are other guilds such as the metal fabricators and carpenters’ guilds. They are either extinct or in the process of becoming extinct. The Bronze Casters’ Guild remains because it was blessed by the Oba.”

Igwera’s son, Inneh, became the head of the Guild. To date, the Inneh remains the head while the Oba of Benin remains the grand patron. Closely related to the Oba both biologically and in physical location, the descendants of Igwera had carried on the tradition of being court artistes for these centuries.

When the British came calling – or shall we say stealing? – I 1897, what they picked were mostly small sized bronze works. According to practitioners of the art The Nation spoke with at Igun Street, the forage was more or less a mixed blessing. Generally, works were about 18 inches long then. Now they reach as tall as eleven-foot tall statue of the leader of Nigeria’s first revolutionary putch, late Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu which stands on a four-foot platform at his Okpanaku hometown near Asaba in Delta State. Executed by the same Eric Ogbemudia, it is a testimony to the coming of age of Benin bronze tradition.

In vain Nigeria waited for the return of the Idia head for the FESTAC ’77. The cunning British denied the entire Black race even its symbolic presence at the opening ceremonies.

Exceptional the British thought – and still think – their illegal acquisitions to be. No doubt they are of unquantifiable value. These are part of a people’s heritage for the sake of all that is good and sacred. Talking of sacred, these are sacred pieces. More on that later. Yet, the pieces they took away measured average of about 18 inches. Compared to what their arousal of interest had generated in Benin bronze artecraft, new works virtually dwarf their predecessors; if only in size!

From all over the world, arts lovers, historians, ethnologists, anthropologists and indeed all categories of tourists troupe to Igun Street to behold the marvel of Benin bronze culture. “They come here with high expectations,” said Ogbemudia, “only to behold our humble dwellings and wonder if truly all they had heard about emanated from this rustic settings. Not a view pay for a foundry demonstration of the production process.

Who blames them? Just a while ago, an Idia head sold for N6.6 million out there in the world market. Mark it, without any reparation paid to the original creators and inheritors of the artefact!

The curious can still experience the good old bronze casting process. Little had changed over the centuries. The lost wax method still reigns supreme.

Clay is moulded into desired shape. Then the envisaged object is shaped in wax. Another layer of clay coats the well-shaped artistic design. The next step is the firing stage. As the heat rises to up to 700 degrees centigrade, wax of course disintegrates into nothingness literally evaporating into thin – or thick – air. While this is progressing, the bronze is being heated. At 800 degrees, it melts. The molten bronze is then poured in to replace the absent wax through a funnel space created in the moulding process.

The entire thing cools down and there emerges the precious object. Cleaning, filing, scraping and other finishes complete the process after the clay that had fulfilled its part of the creative process has been dislodged, crushed for tomorrow’s production schedule.

To date, women are not allowed into the ogun ogwa, the foundry where the production of Benin bonze takes place. They can purchase products for further marketing anyway or assist their spouses, parents and relations in the later stage of the creative sojourn. Women’s presence at the foundry is a taboo kept over the centuries.

In the same manner, children get initiated into the production process early in life. From around the age of four, they are sent on petty errands such as fetching clay for the mould. As they grow older they naturally grow into the production system. It is natural and ritualistic.

The Benin bronze casters do belong to the Guild Igun Eronwon, no doubt. But each person chooses what God to worship. While someone like the secretary of the Guild boasts of four generations of Christians in his lineage, others adhere to traditional religious practices.

Yet they preserve some deep-rooted traditional rituals no one can breach. For example, be you an inquisitive journalist or a researcher in quest of facts, you have to donate something to the Guild. There is no fixed price but you would need to remember that the smallest figurine on display in the average gallery goes for not less than N6000.

Their lifestyles are generally normal. A good number are craft artists who reproduce existing figures and figurines. Those who are really creative types who delve into experimentation in new forms and shapes tend to have the nature of all artists worldwide. Isolation is a good companion in the creative process!

Their assignment, right from ancient days, had been a sacred one. No one cast any object without the permission of the Oba of Benin. The Igun people, led by their 12 titled chiefs at the head of which is the Inneh, served as the camera that documented important occasions at the court of the Omo N’Oba. When such an event is considered worthy of documentation, they are then commissioned to execute the project.

At the beginning, most of Benin bronze works were the kings and queens and other notable royalties. There were those that documented in one sweeping montage the story of the entire reign of a monarch. Such can be found at the National Museum at Onikan, Lagos and the Benin Museum. In the same manner, non-bronze products such as word carvings and paintings can now be found at the average Igun gallery.

As the British raid exposed the Benin bronze art to worldwide limelight, themes began to change. Today is not unusual to find Ife heads – an old theme, some of the practitioners argue – and other modern designs among the products on display in the some 200 retail outlets and galleries that line Igun Street. Next to the ancient images such as the abe and ada ceremonial swords, you would find images of Jesus on the cross and other artistic motif from other cultures across the land and beyond. Even abstract expressionism find its place in the creative foundry of Igun Street.

“Often times,” Ogbemudia said, “we receive commission from other states. They tell us what they want and we cast it for them.”

Patronage has grown beyond the traditional court collection circle. From all over the world people come to acquire Igun bronze works. Apart from direct collectors, there are arts dealers, especially those located within big hotels and other such outlets frequented by tourists and collector, who come an purchase in bulk for retailing.

In the same manner, battery-propelled bellows had made inroad into the once purely hand operated types. The yearning of the practitioners of the ancient art is that light would be stable. At least that would help propel their bellows. Beyond this, they aspire to using modern high tech bellows and cleaning machines.

If only the government would heed their call.

Walk down Igun Street. Where the road is intersected by First East Circular Street, the dream evaporates. The tile pavement of the road ends. What one is ushered into is muddy gullies dominated road that is practically out of reach bounds to vehicles.

End of the ancient dream that had been preserved over the centuries? Hardly. One only need to be reminded that one of the young “practitioners in training” is a medical student of the University of Benin. If an HND holder from Auchi Polytechnic returned home to take of the profession and a medical student is still growing within the family tradition, Igun Eronmwon, Guild of Igun Bronze Casters, surely has a future!

Conflicts and confluence: Emmanuel Eni finds his level

September 17, 2007

(First published in The Nation on Wednesday, September 12, 2007) eni_portrait.jpgEssential Eni

 eni-4.jpgDrummer boy

enis-curator-3.jpgDeath of the Curator performance

 eni-0.jpgCover of the drama 

The Nigerian Diaspora is not a small community. Emmanuel Eni is one of them. Eni who turned forty last Sunday is a Germany-based artist whose works reflect the contradictions and resolutions of a Nigerian who has to settle in a strange land as The Nation Group Editor (Arts and Culture) SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE reports

Tall, black and muscular, Emmanuel Eni is the poster image of the Black man. His works depict strength and boldness.Take Elephant as an example. It is sculpture made of reinforced concrete. The central amateur was constructed from iron and steel. Many different sizes of rods and pipes were cut, bent, twisted and bound with industrial binding wires the form took shape. After this, the whole body was bound and wrapped with small and large industrial mesh. The four legs were then cast in concrete followed by systematic modelling of the rest parts of the body. This was done with a finer aggregate of grey high-alumina cement and sand.The internal metal construction has an approximated weight of 4,000 kilograms, the reinforced cement brings its total approximated weight to 18,000 kilograms. Measuring 3.5 by 2.5 by 10 metres, where it stands on the German street, it dwarfs other objects nearby.Eni is a sculptor. But he is more than that. A native of Igbanke in Edo State, he was born on September 9, 1967. He studied fine arts at the University of Nigeria Nsukka and obtained a Masters degree in Sculpture in England. A poet, playwright and stage performer, Eni lives in Berlin with his German wife and children.Black Man in European Kitchen. The title itself betrays the conflict the work was all about. It is a recital poem the Eni performed at the Goethe Institut – the German cultural centre – in Lagos early this year. The theme of blending into a society so different from that in which one was raised is common in his works.When Eni took to the streets in Berlin, it was to cry for resolution of the Middle East crisis. Entitled Israel and Palestine, the performance was built around poetry, dance, drama and exhibition. At the end he wrapped the flags of Israel and Palestine signalling dreamed of brotherly cohabitation of the duelling duo.From Niyi Osundare to Olu Oguibe, E. C. Osondu, Ogaga Ifowodo to Victor Ehikhamenor, Sola Osofisan to Nduka Otiono and Sanya Osha, the Nigerian Diaspora is scattered abroad like the biblical children of Israel. They are creative minds whose artistic outputs show what conflicts they have to live with.Emmanuel Eni is a product of this contradiction. Just as Victor Ehikhamenor does with colours, Eni’s works are bold assertions of the Black man’s identity. When he chose to construct a leaf sculpture, he made it rise 7.2 metres tall. Hamburger is stuffed with human beings. It is an acrylic on latex on canvas painting that speaks of a system that squeezes life out of people. White Killing Black is a 2002 painting in which a White man’s pointed nose pierces the forehead of a Black man. The White man appropriately has Nazi logo painted on him in red.The essential Emmanuel Eni as a sculptor and painting manifest in his poetry. Take this: Every light/brings/a new spirit/and it lives/despite man. His last performance in Germany was an artistic indictment of curators and their roles as middle men in the art world. Emmanuel Eni argues that the people would have better access to works of art if the middle man is removed. It was an exhibition and a performance. A 14-metre limousine stuffed with art was used in a Performance from the newly published drama. Apart from the works in the limousine others were thrown here and there on the road side. There the performance of the drama took place. Entitled Death of the Curator, the poetic drama was written in rich expression meant to be accompanied by music and dance.Eni has been actively exhibiting since 1987. He has exhibited in Africa, Europe and America.Olu Amoda is a renown Nigerian painter and arts teacher. Ndidi Dike is a famous sculptor. Segun Adefila is a dramatist and theatre director. Throw in a couple of dancers and drummers and you begin to wonder what they were meant to produce. Others included Liadi Adedayo, Ayo Aina, Njideka Eke, Adetona Gboyega, Chuka Nnabuife, Tola Nwokedi, Joseph O. Olaniran, Mike Omoighe and Ben Osaghae.When the came together at Goethe Institut in Lagos on Monday, July 9, it was not until the first break that they got to introduce themselves. It was the beginning of a five-day workshop of blending all sorts of artistic expressions to create a presentation scheduled for Saturday, July 14. Essentially there was no script. Each artiste was expected to bring in a small script the following day. Blunting the lines that divide different art forms, these Nigerian artists put up a glorious show entitled characterLAGOStika. It was basically a reflection of what life is in the city.CharakterLAGOStika was a melting pot of facets of creation underlining the energetic life of the estimated 15 million populated metropolis Lagos. This theme included commerce, globalisation, urban congestion, music, crime, drama, etc. On Saturday July 14, the results of the workshop was presented to the Lagos art scene and interested public. The night also featured a live presentation of Emmanuel Eni’s new performance titled Do You Love Machine?

Emmanuel Eni, at forty, is a symbol of the new frontiers of artistic expression. At the same time, he is a symbol of the Nigerian artistic Diaspora seeking to find meaning out there in strange lands.

“Both here and there are homes,” he told The Nation last July. He does not deny discrimination and racism. Be he believes he has found a balance. His painted face on stage, his artistic displays are those of a true African. He is uprooted yet deeply rooted in his culture. In the conflict of cultures and interests, a new cultural and artistic personality has emerged.

No doubt, Eni believes in this conflict that Black will emerge the winner. He does not say so in words but in artistic expressions. Bold images and expressions he uses to preach his message. He dresses bold and displays his dreadlocks without apologies.

Of his earliest contact with art, he said, “I was first greatly inspired at the age of five, probably earlier, when I visited an exhibition in the company of one of members of my family. Who I do not remember.”

Whoever the person was, he or she has given us one of the best arts ambassadors of this land rich in artistic outpourings.

Lack of theatre bane of drama – Sola Fosudo

September 3, 2007

dsc00617.jpg 

Fosudo 

From the stage to the screen and the classroom, Dr. Sola Fosudo, Head of the Department of Theatre Arts and Music at the Lagos State University is drama personified. During the rehearsal for Life’s Journey of Choices an adaptation of Femi Osofisan’s Twingle Twangle and Twynning Tayle that was staged as part of Toyota Nigeria Limited’s tenth anniversary that he directed, Fosudo took time of to share some of thoughts on Nigerian theatre scene with The Nation’s Group Editor (Arts and Culture) Solomon Tai Adetoye 

The stage is a funny place to earn a living. Yes the consuming public expect to be entertained. The come to relax; and be enlightened, of course. But the amusement of the theatre and the effervescent nature of most artistes make most people get the erroneous impression that career in the field is one lifelong picnic. Not so. Theatre is hard work.

Sola Fosudo is an icon of modern theatre in Nigeria. His name is very popular among home video lovers. But he goes beyond that. Dr. Fosudo is also a theatre arts teacher. And a teacher of no mean stature for that matter. In fact, he is the Head of the Department of Theatre Arts and Drama at Lagos State University, Ojo. As a theatre manager, he has his own production company named Centre Stage Production where he serves as Executive Director. Beyond these, he is also competent in the production area of theatre. He is also a director. It was in the last capacity The Nation caught up with him at the Arts Theatre of Lagos State University where rehearsal were going on for the staging of Life’s Journey of Choices.

The stage play which was an adaptation of Femi Osofisan’s popular Twingle Twangle a Twynning Tayle, was staged as part of the tenth anniversary of Nigeria’s leading automobile importer, Toyota Nigeria Limited. Centre Stage worked in conjunction with Smiling Fortunes, a fast rising Lagos-based events packaging, marketing and artistic consulting firm. The creativity of Smiling Fortunes merged with Centre Stage’s experience to win them the project in the first place. At the end, their clients and patrons who watched the two performances that held at the MUSON Centre in Lagos were more than satisfied.

Billed as a consummate actor, director, theatre manager and lecturer, Sola Fosudo trained in Ibadan and Ife under some of the best theatre scholars in Nigeria ranging from legendary father of modern theatre in Africa, late Hubert Ogunde to Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. Iyawo Alhaji, Glamour Girls I and Confession were among the dramas that exposed his drama to the world. Also to his credit were others like the Yoruba classic Amin Orun (Birthmark), Village Headmaster, The Third Eye, Ripples, Koko Close, Playing Game and Grace to Grass among others.

The rehearsal had commenced before Sola Fosudo appeared. He had apparently been attending to some other businesses within the campus. The tempo changed as soon as the Director dressed in business suit entered. Not a single facial expression, choreographic move or tonal inflection escaped his scrutiny. This was the Sola Fosudo Nigerian theatre lover apparently never met. The role playing on screen and on stage and the friendly mien he used to display at the special members’ corner of Niteshift was gone. Here was not even a teacher. The side of him that came out was that of an accomplished director seeking perfection.

“Cut!” he would shout. After pointing out what was lacking in a particular taking he would state the exact point at which a retake should commence. Then the countdown: “Five… four… three… two… one… GO!” The lively spirit of the theatre was still present. Yet here was a man who took stage production with all the seriousness of an aeronautical engineer. From old hands like Kola Oyewo, Rmi Abiola and Tunde Adeyemo to rookie undergraduate artistes, Fosudo was in charge of the entire team.

The amiable Sola Fosudo returned when he took a break to speak with The Nation about the production. He took the writer to the back of the hall where he found means of cleaning the dust that gathered on the unused classroom benches to reduce the impact of the rehearsal sound coming from the stage. Enthusiastically he answered questions about the production. His infectious enthusiasm boiled over when the topic turned to the state of the theatre in Nigeria. At points he bent forward and grasped the writer’s wrist across the aisle to emphasize a point. His expressions drove home his obsession with the issue on the table.

There is the belief in some circles that since the return of democracy theatre in Nigeria has enjoyed better fortune than during the crises-ridden days of military dictatorship.

“No,” came Fosudo’s emphatic answer. “I don’t think so. Maybe in Abuja according to some information reaching us. But in Lagos, the theatre is not faring better in any way.”

What then shall one say? After all, it was believed that the major problem facing theatre was the lack of peace especially following the annulment of June 12, 1993 presidential polls.

“That is not the main problem of the theatre in this country,” Sola Fosudo contends. “The problem of drama in Nigeria is the lack of theatres. There are just no theatre halls where drama can be staged.”

Then the “Prof.” in him came out as he pontificated: “There are basic elements of theatre. Number one, there must be the play to present; there must be a script. Then there must be the production team – cast and crew. When these two are in place, you still need the theatre hall where you will stage the performance. A good script and a good production team that has nowhere to present a drama is as useless as not having anything to begin with.

“In Nigeria today, where are the theatre halls? Apart from the National Theatre and the MUSON Centre, where can stage a performance in Lagos? And maybe the University of Lagos theatre. In those days the Law School hall used to be there. Mind you, there is a difference between a theatre hall and say an events hall or a cinema hall. Tragically, these theatre halls are more less centralised. How do you expect a man living at say Alagbado or Ikorodu to go to Lagos Island to watch a performance.

“The Cultural Policy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria says the government shall ensure that there is a theatre hall in each local government area… each local government. Where are those theatre halls? If that policy where to be implemented, one can even take his play to each location apart for the vital fact that development of theatre in each locality would be encouraged.”

Well, maybe one should just thank God for the boom in the film industry. No. Fosudo does no agree.

“There is no film industry in Nigeria,” he affirmed explaining that “What we have is video industry. It is home video industry. The absence of cinema halls alone testifies to this fact. Where are the cinema halls of those days – Roxy, Pen and many others? Those that had not been sold off are both redundant and obsolete. Apart from recently opened Galleria and New Metro, there is no cinema hall in Lagos that is at par with modern cinema halls in the world.”

He went on, “There was a time the cinema culture was booming in this country. Films were brought in from outside and the local film industry was taking off. Then government policies threw everything off balance. Not only was importation of films banned, nothing was done to encourage local film production.”

Sola Fosudo then took the subject in intellectual realm. “The issue of culture is vital in the growth and development of any country,” he said. He went on the explain the link between cultural tools like theatre and literature and societal growth and development. The theatre presents an avenue for the society to hold a mirror up to itself to see its faults. Thus reflected it then becomes impossible to discover and implement necessary corrections. In the absence of this, what the society gets is the type of culture Nigeria has today in which cultural malfunction is the order of the day. Fosudo contends that the downward drift will continue if nothing is done to reawaken our cultural values through literature, theatre and the media.

What then ought to be done?

Dr. Sola Fosudo advocated inter-ministerial cooperation. Because what is involved is an overhaul of the media and culture, there is the need for the Ministry of Information and that of Culture and Tourism to work together a programme for the nation to pursue. He explained that at the moment, there are government agencies under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism that have regulatory roles to play in the theatre industry. At the same time the media housed that handle the dissemination of products of the theatre, literature and music are under the Ministry of Information.

“What is needed,” Fosudo told The Nation, “is an all inclusive participation of all stakeholders – government agencies, the different associations of practitioners, the media, corporate bodies, individuals, the academia… everybody has to be involved. Many of the associations that feel they can handle matters don’t even know what they are doing.”

Lamenting government neglect of the arts and culture sector of national life, Sola Fosudo said, “They were even talking of selling the National Theatre at a point in time.” When he was informed that the idea has come back and not just the National Theatre but also Tafawa Balewa Square and the Trade Fair Complex were slated for sale, in utter frustration and anger, he threw up his hands. “You see,” he exclaimed. “Why are they not talking of selling the National Stadium? Provision of social services is a government responsibility. The government is just showing that it is not interested in fulfilling its social responsibility to the people. Is there anywhere in the world where you hear of a national institution like the National Theatre being auctioned?”

Meanwhile the government does not seem to be keen on listening to the learned counsel of people like Dr. Sola Fosudo either for the purposes of cultural development or income generation through tourism. It is arts loving individuals, foreign missions and corporate bodies that uphold the sector. The staging of Life’s Journey of Choices itself bear testimony of this. The Chairman of the command performance, firs post-charter Chairman of the Governing Council of the Nigerian Institute of Management and the Osayuwanoba of Benin Kingdom, Chief Lugard E. Aiminuwu said this much in his opening comments.

The performance which was also attended by Professor Femi Osofisan was better than anybody in the audience’s expectation as Sola Fosudo added “salt and pepper” to the already mouth watering dish Osofisan prepared years ago and presented as Twingle Twangle a Twynning Tayle. The twingling and twangling tale of the theatre in Nigeria is after all a journey of choices. One only hopes we will make choices that will lead us to a desired end.

Seeking roses among rocks

August 13, 2007

victor-p-conf-1a.jpgvictor-eli-4-12-08.jpgvictor-eli-3-12-08.jpgvictor-eli-1-12-08.jpg  victor-eli-5-12-08.jpgvictor-eli-2-12-08.jpg

First published in The Nation newspaper of Nigeria on Monday, 13th of August, 2007

 Life in Nigeria is hard. It is as hard as rock. Yet the on the rocky terrain roses grow. Manifestations of beauty can be seen in the flora and fauna. The people of Nigeria are scattered all over the world in glorious display of the goodness this land of hardship breeds. That is the theme of Victor Ehikhamenor’s recent exhibition as Group Editor (Arts and Culture) Solomon Tai Adetoye reports

Victor Ehikhamenor is not easily defined. He is a labyrinthine complexity. A man of many faces yet lucid and vivid in his colourful manifestations. What describes this United States of America-based Nigerian creative force is just as true in his works.“I am many things,” Ehikhamenor confesses, “but for the purpose at hand, I am an artist and writer from Nigeria.“A clean canvas or white paper is my freedom square. The beckoning and the calling of these virgin spaces allow me to be what I am today and what I will become tomorrow.I started painting at a very early age, and older people called me ‘artist’ even before I knew what the word meant.”A graduate of English, this self-taught painter is also a writer, poet and a photographer. His level of artistic development was on display in the last week of July at an exhibition he held at Victoria Crown Plaza Hotel, on Ajose Adeogun Street, Victoria Island in Lagos. Before then he was at Abuja for an exhibition held at the auspices of the Embassy of the United States of America that was part of the celebration of the American Declaration of Independence celebrated last month.Rocks and Roses, the Lagos exhibition was unique in many ways. Jointly sponsored by Victoria Crown Plaza Hotel, ASCON Oil and Text Nigeria, the whole event was packaged and well managed by Sublime Communications. A pre-event press conferment was held to create awareness for the week-long exhibition.Rocks and Roses was a display of vintage Victor Ehikhamenor in all his glorious manifestation. Vivid colours. Intricate lines. Prodigious talented blend of photographs and painting done using modern tools offered by advanced software. All these and more.To understand Ehikhamenor’s work is to be exploring. His abstract works demand that the viewer exercise not only patience but intelligent exploration. Traditional motifs blend with abstracted natural forms in colourful splashes that drive home his theme of seeking the good in the conflicting crises of Nigeria.In a country where the bottom line seems to be the only preoccupation of corporate bodies, it is a welcome development to see the tree corporate bodies – Victoria Crown Plaza Hotel, ASCON Oil and Text Nigeria – come forward to promote art. Not only is art not directly connected with their businesses – hospitality, oil and telecommunication – they are not of the stature of giants like Hilton, Shell and MTN.During the pre-event press conference, representatives of the companies – Victoria Crown Plaza Hotel Marketing Manager George Blankson, ASCON Oil Executive Director Ndudi Emenmoh and Text Nigeria Managing Director Chike Asiodu – justified their gesture. Not only are their playing the roles of responsible corporate citizens giving back to the society in which they do business they are genuinely concerned with projecting the positive side of Nigeria. If the nation’s image has been tainted by negative acts of fraudulent citizens, corrupt politicians and unscrupulous political agitation pretenders, it is time to present to the world the positive aspect of our life.Victor Ehikhamenor is no doubt one of the ambassadors of Nigeria. The crises in the land that drove many into foreign lands has also created a Nigerian Diaspora of successful sons and daughters of this country whose pursuits and positions abroad present the image of a people who are talented, hard working, intelligent, honest and greatly endowed in their different spheres.Victor Ehikhamenor was born in Edo State, Nigeria and received his BA in English and Literature from Bendel State University, Ekpoma, Nigeria and MS in Technology Management from University Of Maryland, University College, USA. He is currently a Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. Victor is a Unix System Engineer, an artist, poet and a photographer.

The different influences in Ehikhamenor’s life can be seen his works. Flaming Laughter for example celebrates the beauty of the African woman in all her colourful display. Holy Ghost Fire is no doubt born of Christian influence while Awakening the Woman in Trance has its roots in African traditional religion.

Victor Ehikhamenor was born in Udomi-Uwessan in Edo State, Nigeria; a place rich in folklore and tradition. When he was a young boy, he was privileged to witness many traditional feasts and Christian festivals, which were highly spiritual and now form the basis for his creative works. Untrained in arts, his intrinsic creative has made him one of the most celebrated Nigerian artists based in the United States of America.

Recalling his growing up years, Victor Ehikhamenor said, “I was always fascinated by the figures, designs and colours that saturated my village when I was a child. Art, mostly functional, was abundant in my environment in Nigeria. Almost everything was art, ranging from my grandfather’s staff of office as the odionwele of my village, to the different wall designs by his seven wives and the clothing worn by men and women, especially on Sundays. As a young boy, I painted on any surface that was smooth enough. School slates, notebooks, my mother’s walls (which got me in trouble most times), even in the sand along my village streets. Those early experiences always snake into my current pieces, though my newer works are constantly evolving.”

The very theme Rocks and Roses carries political overtone. A product of the Niger Delta, Ehikhamenor is not divorced from happening in the region as well as other parts of the world. While celebrating the beautiful things the land has to offer, he paints them against the backdrop of the pollution, deprivation and violence that are hallmarks of our current history. His colours speak of bloodshed and desecration as much as they colourfully display out good sides. The complexities of his subjects are seen in the way he weaves motifs and line, dots and disproportional shapes to present his message.

As a Black man in America and as a world citizen, Victor Ehikhamenor’s works reflects happenings around the globe. The United States of America’s self-imposed policeman of the world is portrayed in Past Time of the Gods. Yet not only the US is presented. The depth of Ehikhamenor ensures that different manifestations of bullying gun boot diplomacy are brought together to send his message across.

In his words, “My works are not devoid of political or ideological tendencies. Society is beautiful and ugly, and we have to portray both paradigms. Take for instance the numerous wars that are ravaging the world, or hunger in the midst of plenty, or homelessness under sky-scrapers, or the lack of healthcare insurance for employees while CEOs ride private jets to golf courses, or bad leaders who want to stay in power forever….“I always have ‘politics’ at the back of my mind when creating any work, whether fiction or art. As for ideology, any art that does not stand for something will eventually fall. However, that does not mean propaganda dictates my creative process, just because I may want to make a political or an ideological statement. Beauty is necessary when you want to shine light on ugliness, and I pay a great attention to what I put out there.”

The conscious intellectual does not allow his political perception to hinder his creative flow and forte. A committed promoter of artistic ideals, Victor Ehikhamenor challenged Nigerian arts writers to have conscious commitment to the arts.

In the hands of such arts ambassadors, using arts to promote the ideals that will eventually bring forth the type of society we dream about is no doubt a visible venture.