Monday, 4 May 2009

Woodcarving... A dying indigenous African art tradition

culled from Guardian Newspaper (Nigeria), Tuesday, April 21, 2009

By Anote Ajeluorou

It is instructive that painting dominated the Africa Art Exhibition entitled Voices from Within: African Art Expressions, which held in Enugu and came to a close last week Thursday. Out of the over 300 major artists across Nigeria that had their works on display, 85 per cent of them had works in painting. While it must be said that they were very impressive works of art, woodcarving took a small portion of the stands competing with ceramics and metal works to make up the remaining 15 per cent.
But this was not surprising as it has been the trend for a very long time now. Contemporary African art has, unwittingly, become synonymous with painting in recent times. Clearly, Africa's indigenous art form, which was essentially in wood, ivory and bronze carvings have given way to painting. Even the Benin woodcarvers have shrunken to mere roadside carvers mass-producing cheap commercial crafts devoid of any artistic depth and the finesse they were originally noted for.
Ironically, the number of woodcarving on display at the just-concluded Enugu show, though small, somehow managed to steal the show. If the African Art Exhibition recorded what might be called exceptional success, it was in the area of the woodcarvings, which only a few artists showcased. Co-curator and director of organisation, Ayo Adewunmi admitted this much to The Guardian, when he said that being able to bring out Cyril Nwokoli to show his larger-than-life woodworks gave the show its biggest publicity. Nwokoli jealously guards his works and is not easily convinced to show them to the public. He complained to being stampeded to show his finished works, a stampede that paid off with the interest his works elicited.
Across museums dotting the length and breadth of Nigeria, there's a rich collection of artifacts mostly in wood, a testimony to the creative ingenuity of the nation's
cultural forebears, who express the communal spirit in woodcarvings. Deities, masquerades, and every socio-economic and political lives of the people were intricately captured in wood forms. Carving in wood approximated to how the ancestors viewed the world and expressed it. There was a carving to express every phenomenon that was at the heart of the community, whether for good or evil. This way they were able to bridge the physical world they lived in and the 'other', slippery world of spirits, which they could only grasp for communal understanding through carvings in wood.

Carvers were therefore gifted artists who interpreted phenomena and brought the world of the spirits closer to the people for communication. In some societies, woodcarvers were priests, who mediated between the living and the spirits. Phenomena like twins (Ibeji in Yoruba), personal god (ofo in Igbo), shrines and gods were expressed in woodcarvings; they were the expressed tangible forms to realms outside their own.
Now, however, all that has changed in what Nwokoli described as a degeneration of the generation, a generation that has lost its vital life force and grip on reality. His 'Okonkwo', 'Ohafia War Dancers' and 'Cattle and Rearer' were compelling pieces of woodcarvings that caught the imagination of viewers at the show. Nwokoli spent seven years in the forest working on wood, and the outcome is a humbling one in artistic ingenuity.
He said laziness and lack of will are some of the reasons why artists no longer find wood as appealing medium of artistic expression. The year 1970, according to him, marked the beginning of degeneration in society generally, where young ones find it difficult to work in the farms to feed the nation. This applies to all facets of life, even leadership, he said, which has impacted negatively on the nation's development. "Most artists do not have the will, the faith and the spiritual muscles to work in wood," he stated. "Not many want to bend to till the soil; there are no real farmers any more from 1970 because it's the law of natural selection. Those from 40 years downwards, didn't study; they don't like to study. They believe in sorting out lecturers so how can they make good leaders, senators or whatever position they hold, whether in private or public?"
A female artist, who has traversed the sex barrier to work in wood to produce impressive pieces of art is Ndidi Dike. She echoed Nwokoli when she said the physical aspect of working in wood could be responsible for fewer artists involved in carving. "I think the lack of interest amongst men and women could be the physical aspect, sourcing of materials and it takes a much longer time to finish a wood work". Further, Dike said wood was not easy to duplicate in these days of commercialism to make quick cash for the artist working in wood. But this is not the case with paintings, which can be massively duplicated. Also, Dike identified the availability of market as another reason for the low interest in wood. On the other hand, the market for paintings appears very robust, she said.

For Adewunmi, lecturer and artist, the problem goes a lot deeper. Lack of trainers for younger artists to work in wood might just be the reason for the low interest in woodcarving amongst artists. He also argued that training in woodwork was not an easy task as wood may be difficult to source. For this reason most artists have taken to installation art as alternative to the trouble associated with wood, he stated. Like Nwokoli and Dike, Adewunmi also believes most artists do not want to work hard any more like their forebears who painstakingly carved intricate patterns that have continued to elicit awe thousands of years after. As a result, young artists seek the easy way out, and painting becomes the best medium to work on.
Religious bias is also a factor Adewunmi fingered to be responsible for the lack of interest amongst artists working in wood. Nevertheless, he said this was a direct fallout of colonialism and the conversion of the 'primitive natives'. He said it was the attempt of the colonisers to wean the natives from their primitive gods of their forefathers, which were usually represented by the woodcarvings in the various shrines. Even when the functionality of such art has moved on to serve social and aesthetic needs, certain people still view woodcarving in religious prisms. Islam, according to Adewunmi, still views three dimensional objects with some suspicion as connoting paganism, especially woodcarving and not compatible with the faith.
For Ikenegbu Okay, a sculptor specialist who used wood, metal and other recycled materials to install 'Nigeria Rebranded', wood has become scarce than it was when the ancestors worked in wood. He also argued that 'some ecosystem restrictions' regarding falling of tree and forest conservation efforts make it difficult for artists to appropriate wood for use. This situation, he said, didn't exist way back when the ancestors were carving. Now, he pointed out, metal was easier to get unlike then when it was rare and expensive, when 'it has to do with affluence'. He cited the case of Nwokoli, whom he described as 'artist of monumental works' that stayed seven years in the forest in order for him to have access to wood to work with.
In any case, whichever the reason for the low interest for the wood medium among artists, its 'warmth' as Dike describes its feel, stood tall in the few pieces on display in Enugu. Chikwe Eheli's Long Distance, Chris Ahuba's Nkem, Cliff Nwanna's Ugo, Eva Obodo's untitled piece, Iyke Okenyi's Hopes and impediments and Nwokoli's famous pieces show class. They stood as bridges between the works of the forebears that have become artifacts and what the future holds for wood sculpting. Although they might not have been as delicately, intricately and ingenuously accomplished as the forebears' artifacts, they nevertheless showed continuity in consciousness that is necessary in all human endeavours, particularly a cultural continuity that establishes a link in tradition. It is hoped that collectors and curators alike will shed their lukewarm attitude and see wood sculpting as the link in artistic expression between generations and the need to push it to the next one.

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