Peju: Working to reposition visual art and touch lives

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Associate Professor of art history, University of Lagos, Dr. Peju Layiwola

PEJU LAYIWOLA, artist, Professor of Visual Arts and Head of the Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos speaks with Professor AHMED YERIMA on her current community engagements, her artistic practice, her work as a lecturer as she clocks 50

How was growing up and how you all began in the visual arts.
I was born in Benin City to a Yoruba father from Lagos State, and an Edo Mother from Benin City. My father is Babatunde Olatokunbo Olowu from a lineage of wealthy and successful businessman from Idumagbo area of Lagos State. My patrilineal great grandfather, Charles Olowu established lots of businesses in Benin. The Olowu family established the first cinemas in the old Midwestern region. The expansion of the successful cinema business grew from Benin to the delta regions of Sapele and Warri. Although they were popularly called Olowu Cinemas, they were more specifically named; Premier, Luzo and Wayside cinemas. Very little is written about this incredible pioneering effort in the history of Nigerian theatre arts. My mother, on the other hand, is Princess Elizabeth Olowu, a daughter of Oba Akenzua II who reigned in Benin from 1933-1978. She is an artist and one of the four pioneering students of the University of Benin Art School. She became renowned for being the first woman to cast bronze in Benin. This bridging of gender categories shot her into limelight in the history of women’s participating in the visual arts. I am the first daughter and third child among seven other siblings. We lived a simple life growing up in a nuclear family structure where every member had a significant role to play in the sustenance of the group. Even though both parents came from highly privileged backgrounds, they raised us as ordinary children — to work hard and succeed by sheer efforts rather than bask in the history and successes of our parents.

Our parents invested time and resources on our education and sent us to the best schools in Benin — I attended Emotan Preparatory/primary School, had a stint at St Maria Goretti College and finished my secondary education at the Federal Government Girls’ College Benin. I studied Art at the University of Benin and Visual Art history at the University of Ibadan. Although my stay at the St Maria Goretti College was very short, it was memorable. Under the care and supervision of Catholic Reverend Sisters, we learnt to bake and do needlework, skills, which I still possess till now.

My interest in art is derived from the great influences that Benin art, culture, festivals and history presented growing up in the city. My mother also had a strong influence on me. I not only learnt art from her at home, she was also my art teacher at the Federal Government Girls’ College, Benin. My principal, Mrs Josephine Ifueko Omigie was an art graduate of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. The cultural events organised by the school helped stimulate interest in arts and culture. We had an annual week-long competition on cultural activities that engaged every student in one creative activity or the other. I was also a member of the school choir and played the piano. Another motivating factor was when Professor Solomon Irein Wangboje came to my college and selected the best painting for the cover of his book, ‘Art for Secondary schools.’ I was really elated and inspired to see my art on the front cover of a book used by the entire school. When I finally opted to study Fine art, my parents were not excited at all. Even my mother who was an artist told me that art was not recognized in Nigeria and that if I wanted to be successful, it was better to study some other course like law. They felt I could do something more ‘prestigious’ and more acceptable in the Nigeria of that time. I insisted because I believed I had enough passion and skill to forge ahead.

However, they gave me full support while I was in school. I received the best student prize at the University of Benin, the same prize my mother had received 10 years before. My artistic project during the National Youth Service earned me a national award. By this time, I didn’t need a soothsayer to tell me I was on the right path.

One of your major contributions to the development of art in Nigeria is the Women and Youth Art initiative and the numerous workshops on self-development in the arts. What are the main objectives of this initiative and what would you regard as your greatest impact?
As an artist and academic, I believe one’s work should impact the community. I have found an avenue for exploring this notion through the art based, not-for-profit platform known as the Women and Youth Art Foundation, which I founded in 2004. The impetus for this began in Benin. As a young girl I will tag along with my mother to several community based programmes and workshops organised by the then, Bendel State government on poverty alleviation. Much later at Ibadan in 1995, I started a small women’s group comprising a few unemployed nursing mothers. We discussed how we could help ourselves by sharing skills among ourselves. So, we shared tips on culinary skills, childcare and arts within the group. Much later this group grew into a more structured platform with a wider outreach, engaging youth, women and disadvantaged groups in various arts and crafts for the purpose of economic empowerment. By 2004, the Women and Youth Art Foundation was founded with the aim of helping people set up their own businesses. We conducted hands on workshops, revived some of the dying crafts like gold and silver smithing, conducted therapeutic and exciting sessions for people living with disabilities, and created a critical mass of creative thinkers and followership for the visual arts, as tools for empowerment

In 2003, we recorded a set of art based DVDs inspired by the culture of watching home videos. Through this, I developed a strategy, which makes available knowledge about the arts to a large number of people. The adoption of this model for teaching art (a widely undersubscribed subject in many schools) has made knowledge readily available in a relatively attractive manner. The decline in the intake of students into University art schools, nationally, stems from the dearth of art teachers and adequate facilities in primary and Secondary schools. This invariably leads to improper art and ultimately excludes art from the curriculum at the foundational level. These teaching materials assist in filling this gap.

One major community project we have been involved is the US State Department Hillary Clinton Smartpower Project Grant, which hosted a California based artist, Brett Cook in Nigeria. The Women and Youth Art Foundation, in partnership with the Bronx Museum of Arts, New York, in supervising the artist’s project under this grant. Brett Cook, an African American worked with university students from different faculties in making the iconic mural at the University of Lagos titled, ‘Nurturing Peace, People, and Ideas.’ In a huge celebration of talents, pupils of the University staff school joined in a celebration witnessed by the US Ambassador, Terence McCulley. In continuation of our community engagement, this year we will focus on using agricultural materials for creative work and our target is to work with about 1,000 students from public secondary schools in Lagos State. In developing the psychomotor and entrepreneurial skills of the youth in Lagos State schools, we will work with animal bones, coconut shells, animal horns, and shells in making a variety of aesthetic and functional objects. We have evolved a system where secondary school students, university students and local artisans in Surulere can learn and share skills with one another with the purpose of enhancing the tourism potentials in Lagos State. This year long project is funded from the US consulate small grant 2017. To commemorate 13 years of community service, we plan a series of free workshops from 13-17 December on silk painting, tie and dye, general crafts, painting and ceramics for adults and children. Next year. we will host students of tertiary education various arts, crafts and history classes.

Your entire career has been spent at the academy in Nigeria. What would be the greatest sense of fulfillment for you?
Well, when I began teaching at the University of Benin, I was only 24years old and fresh from University of Ibadan graduate school. I was very hopeful and ready to make my own contribution to society. In 1991, teaching was certainly not an attractive profession for a young girl. First of all, teachers were very poorly paid just as they are today. As the best graduating student in 1988, the University of Benin retained me. So teaching came to me by default even before I could make up my mind about what profession to do. At that time, I was much younger than many of my students and had to step up my game to assert my authority. But looking back now, I can count my blessings. Rising to become a full professor of the visual arts at the University of Lagos bestows upon me added responsibilities. It has given me the unique opportunity of shaping lives. Many of my students have become really successful artists, some now professors in their various institutions and are able to hold their own- a few of them whom I am very proud of, and taught at either undergraduate and post graduate levels are Jude Anogwih, Tobenna Okwuosa, Nelson Edewor, George Edozie, Jelili Atiku, Bolaji Ogunwo, Kingsley Emeriemwen, Ganiyu Jimoh and Alao Lukman. But my teaching is not limited to university students. I have straddled different categories and classes of people within the society. I have taught pupils and secondary school students, illiterates, barbers, mechanics, tailors, petty traders and welders, masons who need rudimentary skills in the arts to earn a decent living at community based workshops. In both spaces, I have had great fulfillment.

Today, I come across a lot of youth telling me they are inspired by my life. As a female artist, I must continue to provide hope for younger females who are in search of role models particularly in a profession that has been male dominated for a long time. There are a lot of people, both male and female looking up to me for counsel and I realise that this is an enormous task. I teach them that there is a lot that can be achieved through passion, sheer hard work and dedication.

But this is also a privilege I have enjoyed from others. I have had great mentors-Professor Irein Wangboje who employed me at the University of Benin, Professor Cornelius Adepegba who was my doctoral supervisor at the University of Ibadan. Both of them died early in my career. God provided others who stood in the gap, At the University of Lagos, I was employed under the headship of Professor S. Adetoro whose sense of discipline was one to emulate. While some others may not have taught me, they have been able to support my career at various times- Professors Ola Oloidi, Abayomi Barber, Dele Jegede, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Rom Kalilu. The University of Lagos has been a great place to serve. It has provided a conducive platform for expanding my creative capabilities and has given the necessary support for the growth of my profession. However, there have been challenges in my fairly long career as a teacher.

Perhaps you could tell us about challenges facing the art school today?
There are several challenges facing education generally in Nigeria. There has been a steady decline in standards in the Visual arts as in other disciplines. These problems are multifarious and overwhelming! At the University of Benin art school, graduates of the college up till 1988 continue to speak glowingly about the crop of seasoned lecturers we had- Pa Omo Osagie, Osi Audu, Iro Eweka, Ademola Williams, Sammy Laye, Kweku Mensah, Akpo Teye, Emmanuel Ifeta, Irma Francis, Mr Onemu, Norman Rosen etc. As students, the university provided materials for our art projects and we had great facilities and adequate studio spaces. Today, there are very poor facilities for teaching art in almost all art schools in Nigeria.

How do you teach art adequately without models for drawing or painting, or teach ceramics without at least one kiln or run an art school without a proper gallery? Today, there are no technical staff for studio operations or basic furniture in many art schools. I can say this confidently because I have been to almost all the art schools in Nigeria. At Uniben, the university employed guild casters from Igun street as studio hands to assist students with projects in bronze casting. Establishing an art school requires a whole lot of equipment and facilities, purpose built studios with proper ventilation, proper staffing and lots of space. In many of the art schools I have been to in the West, they constantly change their equipment to the most up-to-date facilities to catch up with modern trends in the world of art. The availability of materials and opportunities that their students have sometimes makes one green with envy. I look forward to such a time. There is also a general lack of understanding about the requirements for the visual arts.

Lecturers are saddled with teaching so many courses because of the inadequate staff establishment positions assigned the profession. The poor remuneration of staff in Nigeria does not attract the very best. Any artist with a vibrant studio practice will not accept positions in a university where the salaries are poor. So many times universities are made to hire from the choices that present, which may not necessarily be from amongst the very best. There is also the issue of assessment of staff for promotion, where premium is placed on the number of published papers and not necessarily the quality of the artist’s intellectual and artistic output. On the part of the students, a lot of them did not opt to study art. Their marks could not qualify them to study law or some other courses so they end up studying art. Therefore more than half of their school years they are distracted and wondering about the fate that has befallen them. Students of art are so engrossed in practical work to the detriment of research. Art books no longer have the appeal they had. The Internet seems to have replaced books as students prefer to cut and paste information gathered from Wikipedia and dictionaries. Hardly do they have critical engagement with resources that would help them develop a language of their own. The craze to acquire degrees without the attendant rigour is overwhelming. The few students that excel by trying to beat these odds give us hope to remain in this profession.

How do you think some of these challenges or problems can be corrected?
First of all, it is one thing to identify a problem. Secondly, it is another to have the power to effect those changes. Poor funding of universities is a key problem. It also seems to me that there is an unspoken practice of privileging the sciences over the humanities. As long as there is no equity in the little funding that exists many of these problems will remain. There absolutely has to be a total overhaul of the university system. Proper funding is Key! Some other issues that come under one’s purview have been attended to. In terms of the curriculum there is a need to adapt new methodologies and trends. My mother was a pioneering student of the University of Benin art school in 1976. When I became a student over a decade later, it was the same curriculum that was in use and later handed over to me for my teaching in 1991. Hopefully, much of these have changed now. At the University of Lagos, it became necessary to adjust the curriculum to capture global trends in the art profession. For me, this was vital and became the main focus of my administration.

There is a need to employ teachers who have a mastery of their medium. Employing a lecturer to teach studio art when he or she does not practice is a setback to the system. There also has to be a system in place where foreign artists and scholars can interact with faculty and students for cross fertilization of ideas. Lecturers have to be funded to attend art fairs, biennales, art exhibitions and other art related events. These are some of the problems. The result is what we see today as declining standards. But we cannot fold our hands; we continue to do the best we can.

In what ways can the full potential of the art school be felt in the university and what impact have you made to make this happen?
I can only speak of my own experience as a teacher who has worked in at least three universities in Nigeria. At the University of Lagos, I have only added my bricks to those of others who have come before me. Working with a team of committed staff as we have here has helped make changes to our art department.

Also, important is the support we get from committed friends within the art community. If education should be salvaged in this country we cannot leave it to government alone. There has to be participation from the private sector. The central and important role the University of Lagos plays in the art-charged city of Lagos makes it possible to attract private/public partnership in art training. Over a three year period, I fostered links between a private NGO- Omooba Yemisi Shyllon Foundation and the University of Lagos in training over 1000 students from about 22 universities in art-based workshops. This is in addition to the US sponsored workshops by Brett Cook from which the collaborative mural evolved. We once enjoyed the establishment of an arts gallery located close to the lagoon front by the botanical gardens. This was a great place for the university community and visitors to come enjoy the creative expressions of students of Creative arts- theatre, music and visual arts.

The University of Lagos administration has been very receptive to suggestions. My proposal for the establishment of an arts and crafts Centre funded by TETFund was given priority by the university management. This concept when accomplished will invariably bring together students of different departments to learn skills that interface with the arts and help with job creation after school.

This is the era of interdisciplinary research. There must be a collapse of boundaries between disciplines. As an artist trained in metalworking, I am conversant with metal casting processes- working with non ferrous metals like copper and its alloys, gold and silver. I also use centrifugal casting systems, lost wax, sand casting methods in my work. There is a lot one can do with science students as this aspect of the arts lies very much in the domain of sciences. The arts and sciences interface in ways that we are yet to fully enjoy the benefits of what can come out of such a synergy. While my considerations may be aesthetically inclined, a student of science could tap into this expertise of an artist working in a familiar terrain. Students of engineering and chemistry can interact with the ceramics unit of the Department of Creative Arts in mould making, working with refractory bodies and compounding glazes from local resources. The same applies to the arts and architecture; both are two sides of a coin. The renowned artist Demas Nwoko has proven the unique link between art and architect in his impressive oeuvre of works. There is a huge potential for tourism using the arts. Universities can benefit immensely from increased revenue with the expertise that the visual art portends. Art students are trained not to be seekers of employment but employers of labour, and by the time they graduate, they have a good understanding of what art and entrepreneurship means. The Department of Creative Arts has helped transform the cultural life of the university by organizing amazing music and theatre performances and also changing the landscape with sculptures. There is more that can be achieved.

You have been quoted as saying that your “art draws material largely from the archives and historical episodes in Africa”. Can you shed more light on this statement?
History has always held a fascination for me and has greatly defined the trajectory of my art. I have conducted two major exhibition projects that draw on the archives. One directly refers to the sack of Benin by British invaders in 1897 titled, “Benin 1897.com” (2010) and the other, a public art project, “Whose Centenary?” (2014) was inspired by the history of the amalgamation of the southern and northern protectorates of Nigeria.

In both historical situations, Benin seems to be the location of the activation. My focus on Benin history as it pertains the looting of its priced objects began after two major international events I attended- first was the Benin travelling exhibition, “Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria” which was shown in Vienna, Paris, Berlin and Chicago between 2007 and 2009. I attended the opening and close of the exhibition in Vienna and Chicago. When I returned I began to think of ways of engaging theme of looting patrimony and what it means for Nigeria in this global discourse on art. My exhibition titled, “Benin 1897.com: Art and the Restitution Question” (2010) emerged. I will consider this one of my most successful projects and a major contribution to documenting local art traditions and projecting the views of a colonised people deprived of their art on various platforms.

The second project is the “Whose Centenary?” project. A collaboration of eleven other renowned artists on a public art project held at Igun Street, Benin City. The Nigerian government celebrated the amalgamation of both the southern and northern protectorates of Nigeria in a grand style. As artists we questioned the celebration of the centenary particularly as the amalgamation was carried out for the convenience of British administration rather than for the good of the people, in what later became known as Nigeria. So we took a second look at the date and saw that 1914 was the year, His Royal Majesty, Oba Ovonramwen, king of Benin, who stood against British imperialism joined his ancestors. So, I came up with a public art concept to celebrate the culture, costumes, dances and art of the Benin people. The venue was Igun Street, in Benin City- the home and ateliers of the Benin traditional bronze casters. Many of the artists on this project have really become well known internationally. Jelili Atiku and Victor Ehikhamenor had shown at the 57th Biennale in Venice. Jude Anogwih, Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Andrew Eseibo, Ine Valle, Burns Effiom, Jumoke Verissimo and Taiye Idahor have continued to expand on their artistic practice. This project, which included my mother’s participation, was a great collaboration between academically-trained artists and the guild of bronze casters. It was a multi-genre project comprising performance art, sculpture, site-specific paintings, photography, installation art and video art which was funded in part from the University of Lagos Central Research grant.

So what plans do you have for the future as you attained this milestone in your career?
I am grateful to the Almighty God for all he has made possible in the last 50 years. That I am alive today is the sheer miracle of God. Being 50 is a milestone in an individual’s life, particularly for those living in Nigeria with all its challenges. I am grateful for the kind of support I have received from my family, particularly my husband. It is also a time of stocktaking. In terms of my career, I will focus more on my studio practice and consolidate on helping to build a stronger community of creative thinkers amongst the youth. I have a couple of international engagement. I just concluded a prestigious artist residency in the Kunstsammlung Northrein Westfalen, the Museum of the State of North Rhine Westfalia, in Dusseldorf. My lectures and engagement in the last two months have helped foster better understanding of art from a non-European background. It has also expanded my understanding of knowledge practices in the arts. Next year promises better opportunities. As a recipient of the Raw Residency at Rhodes University in South Africa, I will be involved with creating a new body of art works. I am excited about this residency because of its unique structure. I will be working with a writer who would engage my artistic production in a literary form, while I do my own work.