It was a breezy morning during the so called August break, as I drove to the Omenka Arts Gallery to interview its curator, Oliver Enwonwu who himself is the son of the legendary late African artist Ben Enweonwu. The Omenka Gallery is located is located in one of Ikoyi’s most scenic locations, nestling quietly beside the lagoon.
I meet Oliver 30 minutes after I arrive, after we settle down for the interview. I watch closely for similarities in features between him and his famous father whom I have only seen in photographs, to me their resemblance is unmistakable. For someone walking in such big shoes Oliver is carving a sizable niche for himself as Director, Omenka Gallery, Editor, Omenka magazine, and President of the Society of Nigerian Artists.
ILT: Would you say since your father was Ben Enwonwu, this path was already pre-ordained for you to follow?
OLIVER…My path was a call; as a child, my drawings and paintings used to attract commendation. During my primary school years at St. Saviour’s Ikoyi I won prizes. Through my years at King’s College I became college decorator because of my artistic pursuits. Funny enough, even though I had a distinction as a science student, my love for art was so obvious.
I studied biochemistry in Unilag as a first degree; It was during my school years I actually had my first exhibition with Alliance Francais. My second degree was Applied Geophysics and I graduated at the top of the class. It became an internal struggle again. At this point, I wanted to prove that artists are not intellectually dysfunctional or intellectually lacking. Then I went to get a Masters in Artistry and the rest as they say is history.
I am currently President of the Society of Nigerian artists, I run the gallery, I am also publisher of Omenka magazine. I have come to appreciate my experience in other fields because they have rubbed off on my art. However, if I come back again I wouldn’t think twice about choosing art instead of running around in circles [even though I believe no knowledge is lost ], I would choose art over and over again.
ILT: What is your Ultimate goal for Omenka Gallery?
OLIVER: Omenka right now is ranked as one of the top ten galleries in Africa , eventually, I want Omenka to be ranked among the top ten in the world, to represent emerging and established artists. Even though Sotheby’s is an auction house and our’s is primary art market, I admire their long history. A business should not die when the progenitor has passed; there must always be a way to pass on the business. Permanency is the word, like Ford, Mercedes Benz, Sotheby’s have been on for over 100 years, I would want to emulate that kind of structure, that is, to pass on the Omenka brand to the next generation.
ILT: What are the challenges of running a gallery in Nigeria?
OLIVER: It is challenging not only for art galleries but for other businesses.I think the major problem is constant power supply; that is generating your own power supply, generating water and everything else. This scares away foreign investors because they don’t see structures in place. I am hoping that with the new government in place will live up to their promises and ensure power supply, it is not right that in this century, Nigeria or any other country should be grappling with constant power supply.
ILT: Do you think Nigeria has a conducive business environment that patronises the arts?
OLIVER: I think things are getting better in the art business in comparison to ten years ago in Nigeria. With the coming up of secondary art markets and auction houses, the prizes of art works are going up as high as #30 million. There is a lot of hope for Nigerian and African art when international auction houses like Bonham are devoting entire auctions to African art. Things are beginning to change; of course we need more clients, of course, we need more collectors because we have small community of collectors in Nigeria. Now, there is a growing attention on Nigerian and African art, it has never been this good.
ILT: Can you tell us about Ben Enwonwu Foundation?
OLIVER: The Ben Enwonwu Foundation was established 10 years ago in honour of Africa’s pioneer of modernist arts; Ben Enwonwu whose contribution is hinged on his legacy to visual arts in Africa and by extension the world. Before him, people were not proud to call themselves artistes in Nigeria but he brought with him dignity, respect and flamboyance and the quality of his work was incomparable. He was such a huge personality that was able to mix with an average person and still flow with ease in so called high and mighty circles. His coming made Nigerian artists able to define their arts and practise with all the dignity it deserves. The foundation was established to preserve his legacies; we do that through debates, exhibitions, lectures and so much more. These activities take place not only in Nigeria but internationally as well.
ILT: What are your thoughts about the development and sophistication of the art space in Nigeria, and Onitsha as a microcosm? Looking directly at Onicha art now, I am not trying to compare Bini art to Onicha art, but how can Onicha art grow?
OLIVER: Historically, the people of Onitsha migrated from Benin centuries ago, we share a lot culturally. Onitsha has rich art, take a look at the ‘Agbogo Mmuo’, ‘the Mask’, those can be preserved through conservation. We need to not only preserve their works but also supporting the modern artists. We have a number of brilliant and contemporary artists of Onitsha descent like Arthur Arinze, John Edozie and people with great galleries like Azubuike Agbogu. A good way to do that, is to have a museum located in Onitsha where these beautiful works can be displayed and preserved, so that the history of Onitsha can be traced starting from great artists like Ben Enwonwu to the present day John Edozie.
ILT: How are you connected to your roots?
OLIVER: First and foremost, Onitsha blood runs through my vein, I am first Onitsha man before I am a Nigerian, or global citizen. I am very proud of my rich cultural heritage. I always canvas for whatever that comes from that part of the country. I am proud of what InlandTown.com is doing for example, someone has taken the initiative to properly document Onitsha’s rich cultural Heritage and what Onitsha people are doing all over the world electronically, I must commend you.
ILT: Thank you for your words. How do you support upcoming artists? What kind of mentorship and support do they get from the foundation?
OLIVER: Personally I do that on a constant basis as the president of Society Of Nigerian Artists which is about fifty year old. It is an organisation that encompasses both visual artists and sculptors, . Also, as I mentioned earlier, the Ben Enwonwu Foundation gives lectures and workshops for artists. Through the gallery, we showcase works of emerging visual artists to encourage and mentor them, thereby exposing them to international art festivals; like the exhibitions in Dubai, Barcelona and others. Every year, we take them to Johannesburg to exhibit their works. Through Omenka magazine, we promote their works. Supporting upcoming artists is a cause that is very dear to me. During my time as an upcoming artist, I was privileged to have received tremendous support. This my time to give back to the art community.
ILT: What drives you?
OLIVER…my inspiration comes from God, Hard work and the belief that every man has his time.
ILT: How do you relax?
OLIVER: By reading
ILT: What words of encouragement would you give young talented people that want a future in the arts?
OLIVER: Avoid short cuts, go the long route, at the end of the day that is what actually makes the game. The game is actually in the chase , for instance the hunters instead of shooting rabbits straight which will be pretty easier, activate a chase using dogs; bloodhounds and greyhounds. The thrill is in the chase, before finally shooting the game. With this illustration, the long route in our daily experience in living is exactly what enables us to become successful. In the long run when you look back at your life, it is not what you acquired, but how you lived your life that will matter.