By Daniel Ojomi, Edith Brown and Prosper Ifeanyi
THE Department of Fine and Applied Arts, Delta State University (DELSU), Abraka, recently organised an art exhibition that had on display various works of art by students and lecturers of the department. Themed Beyond the Pandemic: Impression and Expression, the exhibition was held at the Bruce Onobrakpeya Art Gallery that attracted both students and lecturers, as well art lovers beyond the university community. It catalogued more than 40 works ranging from textiles, drawings, paintings, ceramics, sculptures, mosaics, and furniture, many of which were created during the pandemic. What captured attention the most was the artists’ vivid and intense portrayal of their impressions about and beyond the pandemic. Each section of the gallery had on display beautifully crafted works that tied to closely derived motifs ranging from the universal, cultural, domestic and even infrastructural concerns.
According to the gallery’s curator, Dr. Harry Bazunu, the purpose of the art exhibition, with such a wide range of works consisting of diverse thematic concerns, was to delineate what artists all around the globe (not only in Abraka) can do, what they have done and are still doing amidst the trammelling forces of the covid-19 virus. Of a larger implication is arts potential to thrive even in the most horrible social and economic conditions. This is not only captured in the theme of the exhibition, but also in the forms of artistic impressions and expressions that were on display.
The documentation and preservation of historical events is a major concern of the arts. Through artistic impression, which in themselves tell tales, art(ists) provides for the future what will become evidence of the past by documenting the present. The Covid-19 virus took humanity by surprise, and artists: poets, singers, painters, etc., have tried to document and preserve this time in human history through their works. Easily noticeable on display were the artistic impressions of the Covid-19 virus which the artists tried to limn in the various dimension of their artworks, depicting the various variants of the virus and the problems which the malignant virus continues to engender. These works not only show the artists’ knowledge about the virus but also inform guests at the exhibition the realities of the virus, thus performing a tri-function: aesthetic, educative and informative.
By taking a close look at the impressions of the deadly Coronavirus in the works, one is impressed how the artist is not only able to depict the realities of the virus but also critique society by making socio-political statements through Covid-19 art by highlighting how banditry, kidnapping, Fulani herdmen’s crisis, rape etc., (pandemics in their own right) have done more harm to the Nigerian society than the virus.
The ability to make something from nothing is God-like and the artist embodies this character trait of God. The Christian Bible gives an account of how God created the world from nothing in Genesis 1-3; similar stories are also found in Islam and extant in the folklore of African traditions. Beyond the virus, other forms of artistic expressions that depict the artist’s ability to create something artistic and beautiful from nothing were also displayed at the exhibition. It is evident that during the lockdown artists weren’t at rest or paralysed like most people were, as they still created things out of their imagination to capture the worrying phase the world was passing through.
One question the artists asked through the exhibition was: Do you throw away waste? The artist makes us understand that we can use what we consider “waste” to create artistic and functional works and even generate revenue from them. Evidently on display were works produced from discarded materials such as furniture pieces from metal drums, clothes and garments from cans, pieces derived from water sachets, grasses deployed for a 2-dimensional architectural painting, and metal used for creating the impression of flame; these were proof of the artist’s ability to create out of nothing, deploying a message of deeper essence: the need to recycle materials otherwise considered ‘waste’ usually poorly discarded mostly at the expense of the environment and man’s health and wellbeing.
From the myriad of artistic works on display, one finds pleasing representations of African cultural heritage through drawings, paintings and sculpture, which not only draw the attention and serve as a form of reminder to guests about African rich culture, invariably pulling their attention to the theme of cultural heritage and preservation. The curator showed sketches of Urhobo and Benin ancestral masks made with ink and pencil technique. Also there is a depiction of the Ovuvwe festival of the Abraka people in Delta State, whose thematic portrayal is that of valour and veneration of the gods.
Furthermore, a painting of the enthronement exercise of the Oba of Benin is also on display. He went on to expound on the Benin artworks and in doing so make a pointer to their classification, engaging William Butler Fagg’s (1963) classification of the Benin artworks. Fagg, who was an archaeologist, anthropologist, and ethnologist observed the Benin artworks in the British museum and classified them into the early Benin art, middle Benin art, and late Benin art. The early Benin art (15-16th century) were characterised by limited materials in production and they were lighter. The middle Benin art (16-17th century) was the most important period of the Benin art, as it was the period they had contact with the Europeans, particularly the Portuguese. This contact influenced their artworks. The late Benin art was characterised by abundance in materials and the people generated a mishmash of designs and different aesthetic experimentations and admixture were carried out; this was what Von Lushka called the ‘horror vacui’.
The exhibition also displayed beautiful paintings, ceramic, graphic arts and masks that shows a part of the artists’ personalities through their use of pen, brush and other media in showcasing their artistry. The artworks give exclusive access into the artists’ various influences that give impetus to these artistic expressions. It also shows the power to create from our reality. One needn’t search for art anywhere else to get it. One has to fine-tune himself and tap into the aesthetics and dynamics of his surrounding, because art is everywhere inscribed. Art reminds us (and continues to) that we as a nation have a history and also reminds us how far we have come in terms of civilization. The exhibition ‘Beyond the Pandemic: Impression and Expression’ enjoins us to have positive attitude to art, reminding us all to utilise arts’ positive virtues and harness them to the development of our economy.