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The British Deputy High Commissioner, Ms. Harriet Thompson, and a number of other important personalities gathered at the MUSON Centre on Thursday, 12th December to commemorate Ben Enwonwu’s legacy and contribution to African and Nigerian art. Ms. Thompson gave this year’s lecture on the subject of art as an instrument for peace, conflict resolution and socio-economic transformation, citing Picasso’s use of Guernica as a case study. Picasso expressed an outcry for peace in his Guernica (1937) painting. Guernica was a large scale painting he created after the German bombing of Guernica, a town in Spain. Today, the Guernica painting is one of the most powerful political images in modern art. Similarly, Ben Enwonwu used works like ‘Children of Biafra’ (1968-72) and ‘Storm over Biafra’ (1972) to comment on the terrors of the Nigerian civil war.

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The 11th annual lecture offered different perspectives on the issue of activism. Ms. Thompson spoke on the importance of art as a tool for expression and discourse, while Mr. Kolade Oshinwo, one of Nigeria’s most respected artists, pointed out that even though an artist can point minds to an issue, he may not be able to solve them. The talk was enlightening and mindful of several issues, especially at the point when the conversation was passed to the audience in a Q&A session that allowed guests to speak on the theme of the lecture.

A few guests had much to say on a myriad of issues that face art culture in Nigeria. Molara Wood in particular (a journalist, writer and critic) was part of the audience. Molara’s question was – how can we change the perception of African art, the fear that drives people to destroy manifestations of African creativity that they consider ‘fetish’ or disturbing? The critic’s question came after Mr. Alan Davis, a veteran architect, recounted an episode where an art project was scrapped many years ago because some of the paintings on display made guests uncomfortable. Another guest offered a contrasting but complementary point of view: not all art made in Africa is for Africans, so how can we change the stereotypical expectations that are placed on modern artists in Nigeria?

Ultimately, each question and answer contributed to the general discourse of improving, protecting and enabling a culture of art in Nigeria. In an address of her own, HRH Erelu Abiola Dosunmu sagely observed; ‘It is culture that breathes life into the arts.’ And truly it is. If Nigerian culture does not celebrate and foster creativity, there will never be room for it to be appreciated or used. The 11th Distinguished Ben Enwonwu Annual Lecture aimed to ‘spark a shift in our collective consciousness, resulting in a reinvigorated and revitalised population, restored civic pride and economic prosperity.’ The lecture succeeded in sparking a shift in this writer’s mind.

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The annual Ben Enwonwu Lecture is organized by the Ben Enwonwu Foundation (BEF). BEF was established in 2003 in honour of Professor Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu MBE, NNOM (1917-94), a respected and distinguished Nigerian artist. Today, Ben Enwonwu is considered one of the most influential African artists of the 20th Century. The 11th Ben Enwonwu lecture concluded with a provocative performance by Jelili Atiku, a contemporary multimedia artist.



Ben Enwonwu Foundation

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This article was first published on 16th December 2019


Tochi Onwubiko is a 'Jack' of many trades. A designer, book editor, lawyer and happy freelance writer. She enjoys drinking tea, sitting in quiet spaces, and reading thick books. She hopes to publish books one day. She also loves a good house party. If you know about any good books or parties, leave a comment on one of her posts.

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