|Queen Idia Mask Head (Image source: The Nation)|
•We need to save the Benin phenomenon for its cultural and commercial values
It may indeed be a sign of changing times that a land noted for its fascinating sculptural treasures made in various media is reportedly facing a crisis of sorts in the production of wood carvings. It is a cause for concern that Benin in Edo State, which formed the core of a famous ancient kingdom, may be losing its distinctive wood-carving capacity. This may well be true of carvings in other media too.
What makes the development particularly deserving of attention is that it is the wood carvers themselves that are sounding the alarm. A concerned university-trained Benin sculptor, Mr. Festus Enofe, who provided a history of the problem, was quoted in a report as saying: “Wood carving used to be carried out by Wood Guild called Igbesanmwan, when it was under the control of the Oba of Benin. Then, the carvers were working for the Oba. It was a part-time work, as the carvers did their farming occupation to survive.”
Enofe said: “After the Guild era, when carving became commercialized, it was booming – tourists were coming to Benin to buy carved works – but it has dropped now.” He blamed this on, among other things, the lack of an enabling environment for carvers. “There are no incentives, no encouragement to those involved in producing artworks,” he said. For a country that aspires to gain from cultural tourism locally and internationally, this is not the path to follow.
Other factors in this narrative of decline, according to Enofe, include negative taxes imposed on art patrons at the country’s international airports where customs officials allegedly often seize contemporary artworks under the mistaken impression that they are antiquities. Enofe also said: “Religion is a barrier to artwork. These days, people tend to see carvings as images of demons, which can attract bad spirits. It is an erroneous perception.”
Perhaps more fundamentally, another Benin sculptor, Mr. Emmanuel Uwumwonse, identified a critical learning gap as a contributory factor endangering the wood-carving trade. According to him, “When we started learning, we normally did it after school hours, especially during holidays. We went to the workshop to work with our father, to raise our school fees. These days, you hardly see children doing that. Children no longer do so because they do not see any future in sculpture.”
Clearly, modern conditions and consequences are at the heart of the problem. The economy of culture has not been modernized in tune with new realities. The truth is that the age-old traditional craft can no longer be realistically practiced in the old ways. The practitioners need new perspectives and fresh approaches.
Furthermore, the promotion of culture requires promotional space that is sustained by the relevant authorities. The importance of an enabling environment for the craft to thrive cannot be overemphasized.
Certainly, it is not that carving has gone out of fashion, considering that art schools and centres in the country still teach the skill and students still learn it. The missing link is that the structures of cultural promotion are weak and wobbly.
It is counter-productive that the concept of Arts Endowment Fund remains largely alien to official cultural managers at the various levels of administration in the country. That is the right path to take. As things stand, the fortune of fine art and artists, and by extension, the performing arts and artistes, is unduly tied to narrow commercialism which stifles a desirable flowering of talents.
It is a noteworthy testimony to the rich artistic ambience of the old Benin Kingdom that the internationally celebrated Queen Idia Mask Head, symbol of the 1977 African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) held in Lagos, is credited to Benin sculptural tradition. The original artifact was among those carted away by British invaders in the 19th century, and a replica had to be produced for the festival.
Regrettably, this richly creative tradition has been impoverished over time and may yet further decline without urgent remedial steps
Originally published as The Nation Editorial