Paris has the Louvre, New York MOMA. The London Museum is smack in the centre of England. There are as many museums in Florence and Venice as there are gondolas plying its waterways. Art aficionados and tourists flock to these institutions from time to time to admire a Picasso portrait, for instance, a Pollock drip work, a Michelangelo sculptural piece, a Constable landscape or a Van Gogh oil on canvas of miners feasting on potatoes at dusk.
Scholars and students of art, archeologists, researchers and restorers follow in their wake, stopping over for research purposes to better understand an art work, preserve a rare one or restore a precious masterpiece fast losing pigment and brush strokes by the original painter. With a rich heritage from as long as anyone can remember, those cities have become bona fide culture capitals in their own way basically because they have the institutions that serve more than what you expect from an average museum.
Having a replica of those great institutions in Nigeria has been festering for years in the mind of Phillip Iheanacho. His background is neither museums nor arts and culture. But the idea of having an all-encompassing art institution had taken root for some time, germinating gradually into what may become one of the most relevant such institutions in the culture sector in Nigeria.
The Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) is something never dreamed of before. Yes, there are fifty or so museums across Nigerian towns and cities, most of them headquartered in state capitals or places designated heritage sites. Many of them are near decrepit state, overseen by untrained civil servants and bureaucrats who know next to nothing about the technicalities involved in preserving one. Visitors are few and far between, drawing a mere few thousands in a year – far, far less than visitors to the Louvre in one summery month.
All that will change soon by the time EMOWAA opens its doors to the public from the second quarter of 2024. And, as its name suggests, it certainly will not be a repository of works from Benin alone. There will be art works from the West African sub-region – Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Togo on display.
Sow a thought, so the saying goes, and you reap a word. Sow a word and you reap an action. For Iheanacho the action now stands firmly near a similar edifice right in the heart of Benin City capital of Edo state. Called the Pavilion, EMOWAA is a glancing distance from the National Commission of Museum and Monuments at Ring Road in Benin. From the moment of conception to now as a reality on the ground, Iheanacho knew what he’d always wanted: an all-round art institution that will not only stage exhibitions but be home to in-house restorers of art works, venue for seminars and symposia, a residence for writers, filmmakers, artists, in short, a place where the creative types can blossom.
The choice of the ancient city is not for nothing. The city of Ogisos has a well-fostered reputation for arts and culture dating back to the 15th century. So, there couldn’t have been a better choice for the non-for-profit body to site the Pavilion. For Iheanacho, the idea of setting up in Africa similar institutions in Europe has come – and for good reasons.
“One of the things that has always frustrated me about our country is that we are a country with great culture, with great creativity but with very limited infrastructure to support creativity,” Iheanacho told journalists last week at Radisson Hotel GRA Ikeja, Lagos.
“Edo Museum of West African Art is about supporting creative and heritage management involved in the cultural and creative sector,” Iheanacho went on. “EMOWAA is partly a museum project but it is much larger than that. It is about creating infrastructure that supports the sector generally, that creates opportunities for creative types in the cultural sector and it is about creating the necessary infrastructure that all museums and cultural institutions across West Africa can rely on.”
So, in theory and practice, EMOWAA will be different from other existing museums in Nigeria today in that it will be “a living institution relevant and connected to the contemporary. It will expand public space and bridge traditional divides of heritage and living artists and artisans, demonstrating a strong continuum between past, present and future.”
Though Iheanacho did say the project isn’t so much about himself as it is about EMOWAA, it is almost impossible to write about such a grand project without a word or two about one of the brains behind it. Born in Lagos of Igbo parentage from Imo state, Iheanacho grew up in Jos. One question people frequently ask about his involvement in EMOWAA is how come he is neck-deep in the project since he is not Edo. Of course, Iheanacho cleared the air on that at the informal meeting with journalists last week in Lagos, as he has done severally at different occasions elsewhere. Having connections with the east, north and west, Iheanacho sees himself as a complete Nigerian. But beyond that is his fascination with EMOWAA and what he hopes to live behind for posterity, what he hopes to achieve with it.
“You get to a stage in life when you get older that you begin to ask questions not so much about what you are doing to make a living, not so much about what you are doing for your children,” sort of putting down all else in place of commitment to a cause, “but what do you want to do to give back and what you want to do and be remembered for?”
To make project EMOWAA see the light of day, Iheanacho knew exactly what to do and where to go. Meet and consult with stakeholders in Benin, starting with Governor Godwin Obaseki who was quite enthusiastic about EMOWAA and even showed a keener interest in making Edo state the cultural capital of the West African sub-region.
The royal palace in Benin was also consulted as with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, all of them indicating their interest to be part of the most ambitious cultural project in Nigeria once it starts to run.
“EMOWAA is a guest in the Bini Kingdom and is grateful to His Royal Majesty Oba Ewuare II,” a source from the project admitted. “Our explicit goal is to support and work with cultural institutions in Edo state and beyond, including the coming Royal Benin Museum to facilitate a thriving creative hub and tourism destination in Edo state.”
EMOWAA is an independent NGO but also “interrelated with other relevant bodies,” Iheanacho reemphasized to the newsmen, insisting that “for a museum infrastructure to work, you need to get to a critical mass. A place like Benin City which has a deep history, if it is to become a centre for culture, it needs to have multiple museums, multiple places that will be complimenting one another so that when visitors come, they come to see multiple things. Our idea is that we will focus on West African modern and contemporary art.”
More important is to work together “to reestablish Benin City as a cultural capital. It is not about one or the other. It is about cross-connecting and working together.”
For now, everything seems to be going swimmingly for the EMOWAA Pavilion in Benin City and those behind it. Designed by world renowned, award-winning architect, Sir Dave Adjae, the edifice stands proudly on 38, 000 square feet of interior space, complete with an exhibition gallery with views into the collection study area, 180-seater auditorium, conference rooms, conservation labs and a library. Of course, as such grand projects go, the landscaped exterior will be useful for informal gatherings and curated outdoor programmes.
All that, without doubt, is sure to change the cultural landscape of a city with a well fostered reputation as a place where artists thrived, spawning generations of bronze sculptors and wood carvers in the process. But then the British came around the turn of the 19th century, ransacked the city and depleted much of the art works which they took back to Europe. Many of those, in turn, found their way to museums and private collectors in the continent.
Now, the same works of arts looted centuries ago are gradually finding their way back from whence they were purloined. It is a good thing for the Nigerian and Edo state government but particularly so for the royal palace in Benin where some of the works were stolen from in the first place. As Iheanacho stated last week in Lagos, EMOWAA isn’t about stocking up on returned arts works from Europe or anywhere else for that matter.
What’s more? The board of EMOWAA boasts some of the best and brightest minds among its ranks. Apart from Sir Dave the world renowned architect, there is HRH Prince Ezelekhae Ewuare Crown Prince of Benin Kingdom, Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian artist, writer and photographer, Babatunde Adebiyi, representative of NCMM, Prince Babatunde Obaitan, Commissioner for Diasporan Affairs, Arts Culture and Tourism in Edo state as well as Dr. Myma Bello-Osagie, lawyer and managing partner of Udo-Udoma & Bello Osagie. All of them are trustees of the board of EMOWAA.
Partners in the EMOWAA project range from such reputable institutions as the British Museum to Oxford University and AG Leventis Foundations. NCMM and Deutsche Archaeologische Institute of Germany are also lending their support fully.
If all goes well as planned by the board and management of EMOWAA, visitors from the West African sub-region and the rest of the world will have the opportunity to stroll through the pavilion from June next year, revel in a sculptural piece from Nok or Ife, fsay a figurine or sculpted mask from Senegal or T he Gambia by indigenous artists as late as the 15th century down to contemporary art works in line with EMOWAA’s overall objective.
“Our ambition is to create a world-class collections facility and establish a centre of excellence for archeological science, conservation and museum practice in West Africa. The EMOWAA Pavilion will be a space for learning and (re)connection – a gateway between the sophistication of our shared past and the dynamism of our possible future.”