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Why Awolowo’s statue is sitting down

Thursday with Abimbola Adelakun

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Piqued by criticisms that followed his 20-foot statue of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the artist, Hamza Atta, has since been on a damage limitation public relations whirlwind. The subtext of his PR is self-congratulatory and tone-deaf, an indication that it is perhaps futile engaging him further on why those who have oju ona – a sense of critical appreciation – decried his work as a piece of monstrosity. Atta slyly alluded to borrowing the idea of putting Awo in a sitting posture from the United States’ Abraham Lincoln’s statue (the one that sits at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington). The comparison of the Awo statue with that of Lincoln alone should have clarified to him why the thing he came up with attracted so much backlash and visceral reactions.

One, the Lincoln Memorial statue was intricately carved to be emblematic of the American essence, and therefore, the statue features American artistic traditions, cultural heritages that link their democracy to Greek and Roman civilisations, and other aspects of historical epochs that validate the nationalistic spirit they wanted to project. Lincoln’s statue is more than just a carving; it is a monument to America’s ideals. None of the details of the sculpture – from its sitting position to the angle from which Lincoln looks down from his lofty heights, to his unbuttoned coat – is arbitrary. They were planned and purposefully executed to communicate the American spirit.

Awo’s statue, on the other hand, feels forced, lacks verisimilitude, is disproportionate, expressionless, stark, and lacks historical/artistic traditions – Nigerian or Yoruba. The gaudy manner Awo’s name was inscribed on the platform, and the overall shoddiness of the work, rob it of the vitality one has associated with Awo. One cannot but wonder if any Nigerian art historian, especially those with a remarkable body of work, was consulted before the artist embarked on this project. Or, Atta simply worked with the blueprint handed him by overbearing politicians who consider themselves all shades of experts on Awo’s legacy? Atta should accept the criticisms, and not insist he be graded on a curve.

The Herbert Macaulay and Tai Solarin statues in Yaba and Sabo have far more life and animation. It would have been a testimony to our spirit of excellence as a people if Awo’s statue had improved on what subsists, and possibly set a higher standard of public art. Atta also argued that the shoes of his statue, despite its incompatibility with Awo’s Agbada, were a depiction of Awo’s shoes being too big to fill. Such a literal representation of a jaded idea is not only unimaginative, it is also an over-romanticisation of Awo’s legacy to the point of justifying his successors’ lack of higher aspirations. An artist tasked with making an “iconic” statue to commemorate a historical figure should have resisted the temptation of thinking the end of history had already been written.

For no fault of Atta, the placement of the statue, where it was backgrounded by bent wooden poles and crisscrossed electric wires that produce more darkness than light, is itself ugly. It is disheartening that many years after we started using wooden electric poles in Nigeria, we have not done much to improve our urban planning and design. Those electric poles are simply stuck in the earth with nary a conscious effort to make them blend into the environment more sublimely. Instead, they soon become an ecological nuisance. One could, in fact, ship the statue of Martin Luther King Jr that sits on the Washington Mall, in all its glory, to that space where they place Awo’s statue and it would be instantly degraded by the lack of aesthetics of that place.

For those who have tried to quieten the disquiet by reminding us that this is, after all, a mere statue and not a photograph, they should be reminded that statues are important, not just as works of public art but as iconisations of history, historical characters and the historical events they featured. Statues are therefore not innocent; they are quite political. They are inscriptions on public consciousness and the statues of religious symbols and other idols, are proofs they have a conditioning effect on people’s psyche. In post-apartheid South Africa, in 2015, minority students directed their anger at the statue of Cecil Rhodes saying his continued presence on their campus was a celebration of racism and it had to go. It did.

 Interestingly, beyond the hoopla of the failure of the art to elevate is the fact that Awo’s statue, in fact, presents an argument his creator did not intend. One, we failed to make an iconic art that would do more than attract basic criticisms. That reflects poorly on us as a culture.

Two, Awo’s statue, rather than a commemoration of a historical figure, now sits as a monument to the great promises that have been unfulfilled; legacies of a once roaring fire that have steadily burned into chalky ash; and the cloying taste of dusty memories as we sit in the dark and cobwebbed Nigerian room occasionally lit by sparks of nostalgia of the glory of our past empires.

While we awaken the ghost of Awo as a guardian spirit during a national debate on the terms of our nation’s continued existence, those of us in the South-West should also remind ourselves how far we have fallen from the tree that sired us. For instance, laudable projects such as the free education which Awo started in the old Western Region has been so badly degraded that what presently subsists – free or not – in Yorubaland is a bastardisation of the term. Education in the South-West, at present, is so diminished that it blurs the line of illiteracy. The children who are shuffled through the systems can barely rely on their certificated illiteracy to develop a path between learning and using the knowledge to solve existential problems.

Today, South-West Nigeria annually produces thousands of children whose low-quality training is attested to by their poor performance in national examinations. If our children cannot even be local champions, how can they compete with their counterparts when they move through a world that is shrinking and fast becoming virtually borderless? Education is not the only way we have fallen short. In terms of infrastructure and industries, how much have those who wear Awo caps and proclaim “Awoism” added anything to what the man achieved? If the South-West does not get its act together, a gloomy future awaits the present generation and several generations unborn.

By the way, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode defended Awo’s sitting position in the statue by saying he wanted to see Awolowo, “sit down majestically and actually looking at all of us and saying, ‘Okay, after 30 years, where are you?’ That is the reason why we did that because I wanted to see him sit down and not standing all the time.”

We hear you, Mr. Governor, except that Awolowo sitting down with that “mumu” expression on his face is also open to more interpretations. From the height of his seat, the late sage is probably wondering why is it that even though Olode is not yet dead, his father’s ojude is already full of overgrown weeds and almost desolate. He is probably aghast at how poorly the South-West has fared since he left. In some states in the South-West, the mediocre achievements of their “Constituted Authorities” who clown around in their overwhelming self-unimportance are largely based on hefty local and international loans that will enslave their citizens for four generations. Some of the governors have elevated frivolity and their “owambe” lifestyle into a governance culture. Lacking in shame and reflection, they turn the art of governance into a parody. If I were Awolowo too, I would just give an exasperated sigh, and sit down in frustration as I watch the betrayal of my ideals by my political successors.

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