Reverie at the Workshop – Motunrayo Akibu

It’s been ten years since my dad died, ten years since I last came to Nigeria. I got a scholarship to study Banking and Finance at the Brunel University of London , although my dad didn’t want me to travel out of the country because he believed so much in local content. My dad was a lecturer in the University of Lagos but he loved sculpting during the weekends, our backyard was always littered with unfinished sculpts, sometimes when his friends came they insisted he receive money for the ones they fancied. Some of his earlier works are currently at the National Museum of Lagos and various small art galleries. I remember being about eight when one morning dad woke me up by 4am to jog three streets away to Bubble’s Garden so we could watch the bats that lived in the mango trees return from their nightly shift. Growing up with my dad was adventurous.

Entering into our big compound in Onipanu, where the memorial was to be held took me back to the days. As a little kid I was always afraid of the “room.” My dad’s workshop could be seen at the far right side of the backyard made with blocks. I remember my dad locking himself in for days in the little room to sculpt, turning mortar and iron into beautiful creations. He’d come out only to eat and sleep, that’s how the first week of his annual leave went. My mom would grumble and complain about how he doesn’t have any time for anything but art.

The memorial was small, private. It was just a couple of friends and family come together in the living room to drink to his name and reminisce about the times spent with him. After dinner that night when everyone had settled into their rooms for the next day, I decided to visit the workshop. My dad had written in his will not to sell his works but to keep them for his children and grandchildren but since I haven’t been home since his death, I decided to check the room.

Dusting an old photo hanging just opposite the door, I recognized the person next to my dad as Ben Enwonwu. He was wearing a blue work jumpsuit. Dad’s face was plastered with his ever present smile, his chipped front teeth could be seen even with the grainy photo. Ben Enwonwu was one of the first sets of contemporary artists in Nigeria to become known through sculpts and painting. He is revered for his work in Nigeria and even Britain, so much that Queen Elizabeth II sat for him to sculpt her. Between 1973 and 1974, he painted three portraits of Princess Adetutu Ademiluyi. This caused such an uproar because Ben Enwonwu was an Igbo man and the princess was Yoruba, hence the portraits were widely seen as a turning point in the resolution of the two ethnic groups since the friction caused by the still fresh civil war. But after the death of the artist, it was as though the portraits disappeared with him.

Just last year while in London, I remember watching the news that the missing portraits were found and auctioned. The current owners, a family in London were unaware of its worth until it was appraised. The auction sales went up to $417,000 but an anonymous phone call buyer suspected to be Nigerian brought the piece at $1.68 million after an intense 20-minute bid battle. I imagined my dad smiling in his grave, happy that our art as he called it was still doing well internationally.

Another artist dad was fond of Ben Osawe, he was one of the most influential sculptors. His dad was a wood carver in the court of Oba Iweka II and that probably prompted his early interest in sculpting. In 1960, he represented Nigeria at the Commonwealth Art Exhibition where he gained recognition and popularity. My dad used to say Osawe’s sculptures seemed like they were meant to be liberated, that Osawe breathed life into the woods as if to liberate them. There’s still a piece of Osawe sculpt in my apartment in London, lying on the shelf waiting for someone else to appreciate it.

Dad always told us stories of Nigerian great artworks and kept a few at home for us to admire. He’d gotten most of them before the artists became popular so he could afford it on his salary. Our compound was dotted with the odd sculpt here and there and on Sundays when visitors came, he’d show off his small collection. The room was formerly a nursery then bedroom for us kids but when Kimberly moved out, he turned it to his private museum.

My favorite art piece has always been Nok art and I really don’t know why it appealed to me that much. I recall a painting of Nok art that hung on the stairs in a glass frame with golden handles, my brother Josh had broken it in a fight. We thought dad would be so mad but he took it well.

Nok art was named after the town of Nok were it was first found by tin miners before being brought to light in 1940 in Jos Plateau by archaeologist Bernard Fagg. The figure in the glass frame probably represents an important political person or ancestor judging by the elaborate hairstyles and jewelry on the neck of the model. I close my eyes trying to remember the picture in the glass frame in my head. The eyes were D-shaped with perforated and pierced pupils, and delineated with simple lines. The ears were placed at an angle close to the jaw while the mouth protruded outwards, with piercings in the middle to show an opening. Having the mental image now, wasn’t as scary as we thought it was then.

Nok art can currently be found in the Nigeria National Commission for Museums and Monuments, National Museum in Jos, Kaduna and Lagos. In the 1950’s and 60’s Bayard Rustin, acquired a vast collection which can currently be found in the Yale University Art Gallery.

Closing the workshop shed that night, I realized my decision was final, I made the right choice. The path to fulfill dad’s dream of having people admire and appreciate art will be my goal. His children didn’t just inherit a bunch of moldy artworks, but a passion and a living. Starting tomorrow the Odiche Amina Art Gallery would be born but first, I had a ton of cleaning to do.

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