Read with a sense of humour.
Dear Ben Enwonwu,
It is no doubt that you were prolific and a genius in your lifetime. In fact, without you, art in Nigeria would have had less significance on the international scene in the 80s and now in the millennial. You are important and a big money making name like the Picassos and Van Goghs that auction houses now depend on you to make a living in Lagos and in London. If your family benefits from this money making part of your name, I have no idea. But, rumours have it that they are seeking for the enforcement of royalty laws on art produced by all Nigerian artists. Could this be that they are missing out in the secondary market actions?
Guess what, the above isn’t so much my headache and it is definitely not the reason why I am writing to you. Let me ask you, how much work did you really create in your lifetime? How can we trace them? You are like the polygamist who has children everywhere, one surfaces every time. Art history, proteges, collectors, and even your family boasts of the volume of work you churned out until you died. In the last five years or more, your works are always in auctions that have the sound of African art in it. Now they show up at art fairs. Sometimes, they even add these works to contemporary art categories when clearly they should be in the modern or post-modern art from Africa. Oh, wait! I don’t like labels so please forgive that last part. If you are really like what I have read or listened to people talk about, you must be rolling your eyes at me now. Even Bisi Silva will roll her eyes at me if she ever comes across this letter. Defining these particular labels caused a big scandal on her Facebook page some months back. Now, we all know we need more people to do proper research and documentation locally, we cannot continue to rely on a western definition of periods in African art. If not, we may kill ourselves soon.
Really, here is my major concern, I feel like your works are being manipulated, and not so original works are being sold. You see, the problem is, those who can actually identify your work, who have become experts on Ben Enwonwu and can certify them as original are in these circles where they are being sold. How dare we challenge them? I could be overthinking these things but there are more eyeballs than mine raised at these sales. My happiness on the British Pounds and Naira made in your name disappears when a new work surfaces as a Ben Enwonwu’s piece. I am afraid a big scandal is cooking up and your name is right in the middle. I hope this is just mere worrying on my side. Mark Rothko’s name and work were in a scandal recently, so, I know that no big name is untouchable. A scandal might be good for doing more research on your work, but if such does happen, some of the efforts to make art from Nigeria a top game will be set back by several steps. Remember Nigeria has an awful reputation for fraud already. Imagine this, banks outside Nigeria alert their customers when they try to buy my $2 magazine online once the store location is identified as Nigeria. Awful I must say but it is the reality for most Nigerian businesses now. We cannot afford to complicate things further.
Let me not wake your anger with this horrible news, you must know these things already. After all, the dead are said to see it all. Just know that we are building blocks on the foundation that you and others have laid here. There are names making us proud you should know. Some of them are artists like Nnena Okore, Njideka Akunyili, Jelili Atiku, Victor Ehikhamenor, Peju Alatise, Laolu Senbanjo, Emeka Ogboh, and Adejoke Tugbiyele. They are pushing the art as well as the narratives forward. While some of them may appear as people I know and have personal relationships with, they are indeed outstanding and Okwui Enwezor will confirm my selection is excellent. Of course, there are more names to fit in.
I met some members of the Zaria Rebels at an exhibition last year. You guys were indeed spectacular and rare in the history of the art movement in Nigeria. That exhibition had too many flaws, but, it was a privilege to see a large collection of works by the legendary Yusuf Grillo. We can’t complain about perfection when our ineptitude – that is the government and us lousy talkers in the art scene is the reason why an iconic artist in our history will end up in a car showroom for his retrospective show. The National Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Lagos are dead places so please do not ask about them. You should be happy you are not alive to see these things happening. I felt sorry that Demas Nwoko and Bruce Onobrakpeya were there to witness it. It must have been appalling to them. Or maybe not.
There will be more letters to you soon. If you ever come across Picasso, tell him there is still controversy on the elements and styles in cubism influenced by sculptures from Africa. Academic words are being used to manoeuvre this big influence in his work. He can not have the last laugh on this one, Africa is on a re-claiming level.
Shall I say continue to rest in peace?
Chief Critic, The Sole Adventurer.