By Anote Ajeluorou
It was always the case that the arts got and flourished through royal patronage from time immemorial from Europe to Africa down the ages. In Europe and America, such practice still subsists and accounts for the blooming of the arts, with governments taking over the place of royal courts. But in Africa it’s not so any more, with royal courts and governments becoming ever so distant from the arts.
For example, the royal court of ancient Benin Kingdom, Nigeria, was renowned for its patronage of the arts, with the Igu bronze-makers supplying the royal court its decorative wares. It became a trade to which Igu bronze-makers became dedicated and they produced some of the finest artefacts that have continued to amaze the world. The same applied to other African royal courts. But the arts and artists fell into bad times ever since in parts or all of Africa. Patronage became scarce both from the royal courts and governments to the dismay of enthusiasts.
But in a rare display of mending the age-old broken bond between the arts and royalty, Agbogidi, Obi of Onitsha, His Majesty, Nnaemeka Achebe, last week in his Onitsha GRA home, agreed to be the patron of Enugu-based Life in My City Art Festival (LIMCAF). In Achebe’s acceptance to be patron of LIMCAF lay far-reaching affirmation that might yet impact positively in a sector often seen as an orphan not deserving of attention. But His Majesty’s open endorsement might yet open doors that had been locked against the cultural sector that often yearns for needed support. Achebe is also a strong art patron and enthusiast, who has a wide ranging collection of art works.
It was an uncommon display of humility as Agbogidi Achebe saw his acceptance of offer of patron as his duty and pleasure. According to him, “My instant decision to support the LIMCAF was naturally my duty and pleasure. As a royal father, I consider it a duty to support all laudable initiatives that can edify the human spirit and nature. Also, coincidentally, I share with all of you, and many more persons, a deep passion for the visual arts. This confluence of duty and pleasure has resulted in my happy participation. Thus, notwithstanding my many other commitments, I will do my best to remain part of this noble initiative, going forward”.
He also expressed pleasure at what LIMCAF was doing to situate Enugu as a centre for the arts and his plans for increased art patronage in his Onitsha domain, saying, “I am particularly pleased that the LIMCAF is contributing to the restoration of Enugu as the regional cultural centre for the South East of Nigeria. This is only the beginning as the LIMCAF can do more. As you well know, I am a strong advocate for bringing our arts and culture to the common man in our smaller towns and villages throughout this country, as it was in the past. Thus, here in Onitsha, we are leading our own quiet revolution or evolution in that regard. I already hinted at the palace project. We have also decided that visual art exhibition will become a permanent feature of our annual Ofala festival (this year’s Ofala falls on October 11 -12). Last year, some 50 renowned artists contributed works for the exhibition and we hope to double that number this year, including artists from other West African countries and Nigerian artists living and working abroad.
“Personally, I have commenced plans to eventually build a museum/cultural centre that will become the repository of my modest art collection and royal paraphernalia for the enjoyment of the general public. These measures, in addition to the various initiatives of the government and the private sector, such as the five-star hotel, shopping mall and Inosi Onira Park, will transform our quality of life and make this ancient metropolis more inviting to visitors. I am sure that LIMCAF can also be a catalyst in mobilizing consciousness and commitment in the artistic and cultural transformation in the entire South East, if not the whole country”.
Earlier, chairman of LIMCAF, Elder (Dr.) Kalu Uke Kalu, called Obi of Onitsha’s acceptance to be patron as a historic moment in the life of art in the country that called for celebration. He stated, “But there is not likely to be another day quite like today in the history of Life In My City Art Festival.
“For today must mark the first time in the history of the patronage and development of visual art and the arts in general in Nigeria, most certainly in Nigeria East of the Niger, when a royal personage – the towering traditional royal personage of an ancient but also highly modernised and still very relevant Nigerian institution of royalty, has accepted an official position as patron for the promotion of art.
“This, we know continues a tradition dating back to olden times when art only flourished under the patronage of royals. But then interestingly, today contrasts very much with those times, in that it certainly does not conform in any way with Samuel Johnson’s reputed definition of a patron as, quote “one who looks on with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help”
“Yes, Life In My City was very much like a man struggling for life in the water when we came to you in July 2012, but I dare say you had hardly heard of us at all, let alone look on with unconcern. Indeed, the very opposite was the case in that you had hardly finished hearing from us before you set the royal wheels in motion which enabled us to reach ground!
“Therefore today is not so much important for its semblance or continuance of a tradition dating back to ancient times, as it is important for a historic breaking of new ground. Where in these climes do we find one of similar, let alone of equal stature, openly accepting a position of official CONCERNED patronage of the arts beyond – well beyond the call of duty, cultural, traditional or otherwise.
“Agbogid! As we see it, Life In My City, as I have hinted before, is not a hobby. It is not something we are engaged in because time hangs heavy on our hands. It may have begun somewhat casually; it may have started as the dream and vision of one man, but now it is our collective dream and we seek your patronage at this stage of its development because you have been a practical player in the field even since your college days. Therefore, it is a big dream for art and for our young people”.
Kalu went on to enumerate the objects of Life In My City art initiative to include promoting art pan-Nigeria through an annual competition that offers young people opportunity to showcase and commercialise their productions, win handsome prizes and interact with the larger art community on a national and international platform, involving young people in an interactive visual art fiesta, including art teachers, scholars, writers, connoisseurs and collectors, which thereby exposes them and enables them to meaningfully advance their skills while expressing themselves on the state of their lived environment through their art and creating a notable national and international art tourism destination in Enugu to complement other such events and attractions in other parts of the country and thereby contribute through a fresh grassroots perspective to the growth of art and art tourism”.
Kalu further said the drive for LIMCAF was borne out of love for art and young people who ultimately benefit, adding, “We gather here today In the name of and for the sake of art, In the name of and for the sake of young people on a platform of creativity and the pursuit of inner development”.