By SIMEON MPAMUGOH
Mr. Oliver Enwonwu, the son of one of Nigeria’s legendary artists, Ben Enwonwu is the Chief Executive Officer, Revilo Publishing Ltd, Lagos. A masters degree holder in Art History, he is also the Director of the Ikoyi-based Omenka Gallery. Given the dearth of critical texts on Nigeria Artists, he has taken it upon himself to bridge the gap. And there is a certain swagger to it, for he has already written over 23 titles with other art historians and published in catalogues to celebrate artists’ exhibition in his gallery.
These works interrogate their works, techniques, philosophy behind them, as well as inspiration for other people to read and have deeper understanding of those works. He tells The Sun Literary Review during a visit to Omenka Gallery in Ikoyi, “I set up Revilo Publishing Company so that we can focus on this aspect of the publishing art where we have to write critical texts to, not only promote the artists but also to ensure that their works were given international light, which, most of the time, exclude modern African artists”.
The firm, which is derived from Oliver spelt backward in association with Omenka gallery, has an active publication programme. It has produced exquisite catalogues with informed, scholarly texts to accompany its schedule of solo group and large titled exhibitions through, which it stimulates critical thought and discourse centered on contemporary art development in Nigeria, as well as Africa and its diaspora. “For me, art and publishing are very related,” he echoes.
Indeed, writing exhibition texts has opened up for him a broader narrative for Art history storytelling career, and as he says, “It is very important not only to have an exhibition of art collections where people come to view the artwork but also for people to have deeper understanding of what the artworks mean; what the artist is trying to say; how to position the artist within the broader enlightenment of the art; and how the works are touching lives and shaping the society, nationally and internationally.”
There is the need to see art beyond decorative purposes, he echoes. It is important to understand the artist’s role in shaping the society. His books fulfil this role. “It has been an interesting ride for me,” he admits. “I learnt first-hand by writing about these artists. I spoke to many of them, visited their studios and was able to situate their works within historical context.”
The amazing thing about his writings is that they have given honour to those due. “Some of them. who were not given their due in art history in Nigeria have been written into history so that people could see other developments they have taken outside of the usual texts we see on art history in the history of modern Nigeria art. There are many artists outside our shores who have exhibited in Lagos, and we have written about their works,” he says.
How have we faired on literature on art history or the forensic and Anthropology of Arts, the son of the revered doyen of Nigerian arts, Ben Enwonwu, says, “As much as possible, I write about the artist, history of his beginning and his contribution to art not only to Nigeria but also across borders. And this is the history part of art: how we can trace an artist’s trajectory; where he fits in and draw inspiration from?
“I don’t believe any artist is completely original; you must draw something from the past. I also believe, just like knowledge, no one is an island, one just has to see what other people have done. There is an existing body of knowledge; all everyone is doing is lifting it for the next person to take on and that is how knowledge expands. I equally try to put that in practice when I’m writing about artist’s work. I know that there is a scrubby of critical publications on artists.
“Although, in recent times, there has been few publications launched, yet there is still more to be done. I’m always looking forward to write more; of course, I’m willing to write as much as possible; to do my beat in the frontiers of knowledge. My role primarily is to document some of the happenings and innovation artists are making as well as exhibitions we see on our contemporary space.”
The Internet has remained a useful tool and all over the world, he reiterates, as a faster medium to advance knowledge. For example, “One can be in Nigeria, for instance, read and learn about artist’s techniques and what he does internationally. Even galleries are beginning to use the Internet to sell and market their works. I think, the Internet has made the world small; so smaller global village.
Through it, we have transported to galleries abroad; some of the major art collection in major museums abroad buy by just a click of a button. Some are made in such a way that one can have visual tour through the gallery.”
Enwonwu would like to correct an impression concerning artists. “Many people think when you talk about art, the only employment it provides are those in painting and sculpting, but there are art historians, curators, conservators, and journalists who write about art. These are jobs that would be created. And of course, when the employment is very good, and payrolls are high, the society is safer.”
In one of his publications in heralding a 2010 photography exhibition, Reconstruction In Reverse, he has the picture of Prof. Wole Soyinka on the cover. He explains why, “It is mainly to talk about colonisation; how Africans are using their art to tell their own stories and rise above stereotypes being foisted on them by the West. The first thing that comes to mind when the West talks about Africa is poverty and famine; imagery associated with Africa by West has always been with poverty, safari.”
He adds, “Africans has been looked upon as exotic on one hand; they think about African as a place with beautiful animals and lions; they don’t think Africa has cities and skyscrapers: They objectify female body and almost gave Africa AIDS; they say Africa is very corrupt. These are the things Reconstruction in Reverse with beautiful photographs mirrors. We can represent ourselves the best way; we don’t always have to be looked upon as people who are hungry and exotic only for entertainment. We have brilliant minds, beautiful places, great economists, mathematicians, and erudite scholars across the world.
“Nigerians are among the greatest people of the world. And it is high time we started telling our own stories and defining our own identities. Wole Soyinka as cover choice of the publication, for me, signifies the height of intellectualism in Africa. When you have an image of Wole Soyinka on the cover of a publication, the first thing you think about is Nobel Laureate who stands for intellectual attainment; activist, and essentially one who is fighting for freedom of speech and emancipation. His image was used as a metaphor to symbolise that.”
He equally brought to perspective his father’s illustrious career in art in Ben Enwonwu’s Life and Times in the 2008 exhibition catalogue text written by Ola Oloidi and himself. “We wanted to talk about his contribution to art. It was a way of preserving his legacy and what he stood for, his life and times, and defining moments when he made Nigeria proud. His career was full of many firsts: first Nigerian artist to gain international acclaim, first professor of Art in Nigeria, first Nigerian artist to be conferred Member of the distinguished order of the British Empire, first African artist to be commissioned to sculpt Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and first Federal Art Adviser; these were heights of his career.
“With his successes and achievements, a lot of Nigerian artists, including me, were able to follow his part. Before he came on the scene; a lot of Nigerian artists were looked upon as devalued of society. It was a profession that was ridiculed but he succeeded in giving substance to it. Again, through his successes, many artists were able to define their own practices. The exhibition was aimed at giving encouragement to those who come after him; the generation that has been influenced by him,” he says.
Omenka isn’t just a gallery; it is also a luxury-style brand quarterly magazine, online digital platform and iPad application, represented leading and emerging brand across Africa. Apart from artists it promotes on the gallery, it also represents other artists from other galleries.
Enwonwu explains, “What we do is to promote Africa as a whole. We started with the quarterly publication, but, because Internet is opened to broader audiences across the world, and, if you print a publication, there are as many copies as can be circulated across the world in hard copy; but, in Internet, you have an online presence and anybody anywhere in the world can view.
“So, we decided to have a website where we post stories every day about culture of Africa. We have different genres: arts, culture, luxury-lifestyle, fashion and design and music. We believe African is undergoing cultural reawakening and getting away from the effects of colonialism. We are beginning to identity and define ourselves and this is what Omenka Magazine is trying to capture.
“Its ipad publications and digital editions are ways of reaching out to as many people as possible across the world. We are no longer restricted to how many copies we can print. And through its well-tailored content, the magazine keeps abreast with the latest news on contemporary visual culture from the continent of Africa. This includes insider intelligence on international market for African Art, supported with auction report and transaction prices.”