“Cutting off the books from the piece, and destroying the base made me feel as an artist that the work was relegated from monument to a mere craft.”
• Dons, lawyer disagree on rightful owner of work
Dotun Popoola, an international artist, is angry with the authorities of the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) Ile-Ife, where he had his first degree in sculpture 10 years ago.
He is threatening to sue the university to the tune of N200 million for destroying a sculpture of Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, which he did as his final year project.
Popoola travelled to the United States three months ago for a residency programme. Soon after, he was informed that the work he sculpted at the university, a bust of Soyinka, had been vandalised. The head was removed and placed on top of a ridge in the museum built by the institution in honour of the celebrated dramatist and poet.
Popoola said he learnt that the order to remove the work was made by the institution’s vice chancellor.
“I wonder if the VC has the right to order that a part of a good work be the university for 10 years. He was miffed that the head, which measured 10 feet from the base and five feet in height, was cut off and placed on the entrance roof of the museum.
He said: “I appreciate the fact that the institution recognised that the work is outstanding enough to represent the museum that was donated to Soyinka. If it wasn’t good, the institution would have commissioned another artist somewhere to produce a work for them.”
But Popoola, who had his second degree in painting from the same university, felt that the approach and tactics used in destroying the work were wrong.
“The intellectual aspect of the work is that the portrait was placed on three books of Soyinka which represent poetry, prose and drama, that gave him his Noble prize. But I went to the university to discover that the books were destroyed, head of the piece removed and my signature and date of execution cut off,” he explained.
Popoola noted that his pain arose because the head of the work was placed on top of a roof of the new museum which was where Soyinka lived when he was on the campus, with some antiques and relics of the literary icon.
“I’m happy that the school built and dedicated a structure to the eminent scholar, which was one of the reasons I immortalised him. But the approach of beheading that particular piece from the books was wrong.
“What made him a professor were the books he read. So, cutting off the books from the piece, and destroying the base of the work made me feel as an artist that the work was relegated from monument to a mere craft,” he added.
He said that it was a privilege to graduate from the institution, regretting that he sacrificed his youth service because he was busy working on the piece while his friends had finished their project and headed for youth service.
“That was why I feel pained to see the work beheaded and placed on the roof. Anytime I travelled to the US and returned with white Americans, I would always take them to the site in the university to show them my work,” he noted.
He expressed regrets that art appreciation in Nigeria was not encouraging. “When I produce sculptures in the United States, you will see the police and the sheriff coming around to the site with surveillance camera on the work. The one I did recently in Manhattan, New York, was cheered. As we were doing the work, all the people in the community were watching each process live on television, which is an indication that art is appreciated in that part of the world.”
The artist said he would be willing to talk with the university on how to restore the work to its original state. However, he said, if his request is not granted within 30 days, he would seek legal redress in court.
“I had the intention of using my money to buy some marble, cover and dress it to make it look good so that when I’m bringing my white friends from America to see it, they would not feel disappointed. Besides I wanted to use the occasion to celebrate my 10 years of graduating from the university,” he said.
But a lecturer in the department, who didn’t want his name in print, disagreed with Popoola. “A student has no right again over his project after he has left the school because he has been given the award, which is the certificate. The project is what he submitted to get the certificate,” he said.
A United States-based art historian and scholar, Professor Moyo Okediji, aligned with Popoola. “The decapitation of Wole Soyinka’s figure that was elegantly sculptured by Dotun Popoola is a cruel act of lynching.
“Nobody with any respect for art could have masterminded such a mutilation of the image of the only Nobel laureate that Nigeria has ever produced. Those who destroyed these works must be held accountable and made to pay commensurate recompense for the blatant vandalism. It is not only an attack on the art, it is equally an assault on African literature and drama that Mr. Soyinka represents in the global expressive culture,” he said.
An art enthusiast, Mrs. Chinonyerem Obike, noted: “An art piece is an intellectual property of the artist. If, for whatever reason, there is need to tamper with it, the institution was supposed to consult with the original owner of the work. But where they didn’t consult him, I consider it an infringement on his right to the piece.”
In her view, the work remains the property of the artist forever.
Head of department, Fine and Applied Art, at OAU, Dr. (Mrs.) Nanashaitu Oke-Umoru, said the department could not comment on the matter because it was an internal issue.
Dr. Sehinde Ademuleya, a sculptor and senior lecturer at the university, who supervised Popoola’s project, said he was in agreement with Oke-Umoru.
On his part, legal practitioner and second vice president, Nigeria Bar Association, Mr. Monday Ubani, explained that the work ceased to be the property of the artist after he had submitted it to the university as a project work.
“I don’t think he has any propriety right after submission,” Ubani said. “It is a final year project for which he was graded. My simple man’s point of view is that, at the time he submitted it to the university as a project, even though it is an intellectual property, I don’t know whether the propriety right still resides in him because he did the work and it was based upon it that he was marked, and submitted to the university. He didn’t carry it home. I know those works are not carried home.
“The case will depend on whether there has been a decided matter for the court to actually follow a precedence. Again, this depends on whether the artist has built up the claim that he is still the owner of the work as at the time he submitted it because the work still resides in the university and he can never carry it back home for life.
“It was still in the custody of the university before the damage. It is going to be a novel and interesting matter for the court because the university would never resolve it peacefully. I would advise the artist to write the university and then proceed to court and see whether the court can make a definite decision. It is going to be a novel case.”