Nige­rian artists keep sculp­ture in the fam­ily

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Princess El­iz­a­beth Olowu, 77, sits on the sofa in her small liv­ing room, rub­bing bronze sculp­tures with lemon juice to make them shine. Her el­dest daugh­ter Peju Layi­wola, 49, is show­ing off her lat­est con­tem­po­rary art sculp­tures on the screen of her Ap­ple lap­top. “Now I have evolved to other ma­te­ri­als but I started with bronze,” she ex­plains. “It was eas­ier for me, my mother al­ready paved the way for fe­males to be bronze cast­ers.”

It was bronze art that made the rep­u­ta­tion and the fortune of the an­cient royal king­dom of Benin, whose his­tory dates back nearly 1,000 years and which is now lo­cated in­side south­ern Nige­ria. In days gone by, only kings could own sculp­tures, which typ­i­cally rep­re­sented for­mer mon­archs or crea­tures such as birds and wild an­i­mals. A lu­cra­tive trade with Por­tuguese mer­chants was dis­rupted by the ar­rival of the Bri­tish in 1897, who as­sim­i­lated the king­dom into Nige­ria.

‘Sculp­tures ev­ery­where’

Olowu lives in a faded house in Benin City, now the cap­i­tal of mod­ern-day Edo state. There’s lit­tle in the prop­erty to in­di­cate her royal child­hood other than large dusty pho­to­graphs of a young girl in sump­tu­ous head­dresses dec­o­rated with pearls. Olowu’s fa­ther was king Aken­zua II, who ruled be­tween 1933 and 1978. She grew up in the splen­dor of the palace with her fa­ther’s eight wives and his many chil­dren. “As a child, I saw sculp­tures, shrines, bronzes, ev­ery­where in the palace,” she re­calls. “Art was part of the life of the peo­ple, through singing, danc­ing... I started with mud but I al­ways wanted to cast bronze. “My fa­ther gave me the go-ahead. He knew I was very adventurous.”

A sup­port­ive fa­ther

In Benin City, su­per­sti­tion had it that if a woman went into a foundry-par­tic­u­larly when she was men­stru­at­ing-she would cause an ac­ci­dent. “Or if she’s preg­nant, the child will turn into bronze and will never come out,” says Olowu, sit­ting straight-backed on her sofa. But she said Aken­zua II was a man ahead of his time and al­ways en­cour­aged the ed­u­ca­tion of all of his chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly his daugh­ters. Sup­ported by her fa­ther, then by her hus­band, Olowu quickly made a name for her­self across south­ern Nige­ria as the coun­try’s “first fe­male bronze founder”. Her works only fea­ture women-typ­i­cally preg­nant or sur­rounded by chil­dren, al­ways naked and with great sen­su­al­ity. Nu­dity wasn’t an is­sue in the king­dom. Princes and princesses were tra­di­tion­ally swathed in a sim­ple white cloth, of­ten barech­ested, wear­ing long co­ral neck­laces.

An­ces­tral art

Olowu de­scribes her­self as a fem­i­nist. She gave birth to eight chil­dren but al­ways kept work­ing, even when she was preg­nant, she says. Her daugh­ter, Peju Layi­wola, smiles. For her, fem­i­nism is more de­fined by women’s rights. She has also cast bronze in the form of women’s bod­ies, al­beit with sim­pler and more mod­ern lines.

But the con­tem­po­rary artist-who has ex­hib­ited in Dres­den and Madrid and has her own art foun­da­tion in La­gos, Nige­ria’s fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal-now fo­cuses on us­ing fab­ric with her sculp­tures.

With a doc­tor­ate in art his­tory from the Uni­ver­sity of La­gos, Layi­wola teaches and cu­rates at na­tional mu­se­ums, and re­mains faith­ful to the art of the king­dom of her an­ces­tors. She has also fought for the re­turn of the “Benin Bronzes”, which were stolen by the Bri­tish dur­ing colo­nial times and which largely re­main in mu­se­ums over­seas.

One of her most re­cent pieces is a large mu­ral in sculpted metal. “I wanted to mix Greek mythol­ogy and Yoruba mythol­ogy,” she says, flick­ing through pho­to­graphs on her com­puter.

“Their Zeus is equiv­a­lent to our Ar­mar­i­olum. The mer­maid has also a sim­i­lar mean­ing.” Olowu dusts her sculp­tures to give them their orig­i­nal shine.

“She is very close to her work, so I don’t try to con­vince her to sell it any­more,” whis­pers her daugh­ter.


Hostesses pose for pho­to­graph dur­ing the All Africa Mu­sic Awards (AFRIMA) cer­e­mony in La­gos Sun­day. 82-year-old Cameroo­nian vi­bra­phone and sax­o­phon­ist Manu Dibango, was rec­og­nized for mak­ing tremen­dous con­tri­bu­tions to African mu­sic, es­pe­cially for de­vel­op­ing a mu­sic style fus­ing jazz, funk and tra­di­tional Cameroo­nian mu­sic. The All Africa Mu­sic Awards is de­signed to rec­og­nize and re­ward artiste who have given African mu­sic the most cre­ative com­pet­i­tive edge in the global mar­ket within the year un­der re­view.

— AFP pho­tos

Nige­ria’s first fe­male bronze caster Princess El­iz­a­beth Olowu (right) poses with el­dest daugh­ter Peju Layi­wola, also an artist and art his­to­rian in her liv­ing room in Benin City.

Artist and art his­to­rian Peju Layi­wola an­swers jour­nal­ists’ ques­tions in Benin City.

Nige­ria’s first fe­male bronze caster Princess El­iz­a­beth Olowu, 77, cleans her bronze sculp­tures with lemon juice in her liv­ing room.

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