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Portrait of a Nation enlivens Festival of Unity

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THE National Theatre in Lagos received a fresh breath of life with an exceptional art exhibition considered to be one of its kind in the  course of Nigerian art history. It was an exhibition of priceless portraits sourced from the National Collection courtesy of the National Gallery of Art. The show also featured works from the Society of Nigerian artists, the Universal Studios of Art and the National Council for Arts and Culture.These partnering agencies produced an exclusive art exhibition organised by the Southwest Zone of the National Gallery of Art and Jadeas Trust led by Yetunde Aina, daughter of the late renowned historian, Professor Jacob Festus Ade Ajayi. The exhibition was one of the highlights on the Festival of Unity initiated by the National Theatre.

THE opening ceremony of the festival held Friday, December 18, was declared open by the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who was represented by Dr. Olalekan Olumuyiwa Fadolapo, Registrar/CEO of the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria. Also in attendance were directors-general of the National Gallery of Art (NGA), the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC), the Nigerian Films and Videos Censors Board (NFVCB), the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC) and many other government functionaries, private individuals, dignitaries, guests, and culture enthusiasts.

The opening ceremony featured such entertaining activities as music, dance, drama, comedy, and street carnival, which were held at the open foyer of the Entrance ‘C.’ All performances took place on a massive stage with blaring state-of-the-art equipment and gadgets that projected all activities to the massive public.

As soon as the performances were over, the guests, led by the General Manager of the National Theatre, Professor Sunnie Ododo and the representative of the Information and Culture Minister, headed for the Exhibition Hall 2, venue of the exhibition. Mufu Onifade, the curator of the art exhibition, received and took them through the exhibits. 

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THE exhibition, titled Nigeria: Portrait of a Nation, was specially put together to ignite and enliven the maiden edition of the festival of unity initiated by the National Theatre under the dynamic leadership of its new General Manager/CEO, Professor Sunnie Ododo. But for this art exhibition, the festival would have held without the evident aesthetic valour of visual art representation. At the early planning stage, only drama, dance, comedy, music and carnival were considered as features of the festival. However, the resilience of Mrs. Yetunde Aina, who was committed to seeing visual art included, backed by Mufu Onifade, curator of the show, was all the National Theatre management needed to yield a respectable space to art exhibition. Thus, Yetunde Aina and Mufu Onifade should be commended for their sterling efforts that ensured that this show of high standard was put together – all in a period of four days!

The nucleus of the exhibition, including portraits of heroes/heroine of traditional and contemporary Nigeria, selected from the National Collection might not have made the show, but for express intervention of the new, dynamic director-general of the National Gallery of Art, Ebeten Williams Ivara. Not only did he give express approval to the show, he also graced the opening of the exhibition and wore a look of satisfaction all over his face.

In fact, the director-general had earlier in the morning of the opening day, visited the exhibition venue to see work in progress. It was his first time at the Lagos Office of the National Gallery of Art as director-general. He also took time to see the numerous art works in the National Collection. When he saw the appalling condition of the works, he was almost drawn to tears. This further convinced him to keep pushing for an edifice that will house the National Gallery where the works in the National Collection can be properly preserved and displayed for public consumption.

THE exhibits on display include the famous Queen Amina of Zaria, Oduduwa and Oba Esigue of Benin – all by Erhabor Emokpae; Herbert Macaulay by Kolade Oshinowo; Alhaji Shehu Shagari and General Muhammadu Buhari – both by Abayomi Barber. There are also General Aguiyi Ironsi by Edosa Ogiugo; Wole Soyinka by Olu Ajayi, and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo by Ebenezer Akinola. On display are also two magnificent sculptural pieces namely Abiku by Erhabor Emokpae and; Dancer by Ben Enwonwu. Apart from these ageless portraits, there are two paintings that extenuate Nigeria’s social life: Market scene by Kolade Oshinowo and an abstractive piece executed in beads on board by Jimoh Buraimoh.

The portraits bring liveliness out of the said great Nigerians. They are all captured in their real-life composure and mood. In Abayomi Barber’s Shagari, the former Executive President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is presented in his characteristic, resplendent white agbada (flowing robe) attire. He stands tall in an elegant manner that one may be tempted to touch his shining shoes. The posture is truly presidential! Abayomi Barber’s skill, draughtsmanship and dexterousness in painting gives birth to a Shagari painterly moulded on canvas for public satisfactory ingestion. Queen Amina of Zaria, Oduduwa and Oba Esigue of Benin are all works of high aesthetics. Although they are credited to Erhabor Emokpai, his signature is missing on the works whereas his sculptural piece titled Abiku is duly signed. What is responsible for this? How can unsigned works be attributed to an artist who is known for signing all his works? Answers to these and more questions may be revealed in the course of time. 

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Ojú Méjì (Born by Two); Acrylic on Canvas; 2014; Mufu Onifade

The Universal Studios of Art, chaired by one of Nigeria’s eminent contemporary sculptors, Bunmi Babatunde, was creditably represented by renowned painter/landscapist, Abiodun Olaku, and such others as Joshua Nmesirionye, Mufu Onifade, Fidelis Odogwu, Salako Olajide Peters, and others. Their array of beautiful works added quality and substance to this commemorative exhibition that debuted with the maiden National Theatre’s Festival of Unity.

The Society of Nigeria Artists (Lagos State Chapter) also held a respectable ground with an astonishing variety of their works on display. The artists include celebrated printmaker and legendary artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Chairman of the Society, Idowu Sonaya. Others are Ojo Olaniyi, Adeyemi Oluwaseun, Aghimien Eugene, Uche Nwosu, Israel Benamaisia, Animu Oboirien, Barak Elezieolu, Fomosara Raphael, Gboyega Grillo and Oluseyi Oyenukan.

Although the festival had its closing ceremony on Sunday December 20, the National Theatre management took a decision to allow the exhibition run for 30 days after the closing ceremony of the festival. This was done with the intent of allowing the public (children and adults) and international visitors and tourists to enjoy the show a lot longer. That decision only remained in the pipeline because the new Covid-19 protocols in Lagos State put paid to the plan. The Lagos State government had issued new guidelines that barred gatherings and events to forestall the second wave of the pandemic.

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