Tragic story of slave man, Benga, on canvas at Tokunbo

‘Work’ by Kamal Adisa

Remember the 19th century Congolese slave, Ota Benga, who was shown at an exposition and a zoo in U.S? His tragic memory is being revisited in Lagos at a group art exhibition titled Tokunbo, currently showing at National Museum, Onikan, Lagos, a few days ago.

The group exhibition of paintings, mixed media and photography by young artists, Lamiwa Abayomi, Kamal Adisa and Simisola Babalola include a piece that captures the derogatory and inhuman treatment meted on Benga in U.S. Almost lost in the other dominating texturised and larger size artworks on display, the small piece, which derives its name from the slave subject lays emphasis on two factors: Benga’s reshaped teeth and the zoo in which he was displayed among animals at two American cities of Missouri and Bronx.

The painting by Abayomi, though presents the facial features of Benga in scary expression, the real message represents an innocent man, who was mentally tortured and whose only ‘sin’ was being born an African dwarf.

After he was “purchased” as a slave, Benga (c. 1883 – March 20, 1916) became an exhibit for anthropology at what was then known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, 1904 as well as during an exhibition of human in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo. In fact, his teeth were reportedly reshaped by his captors to look like the incisors of animals. Out of depression, Benga died of suicide from gunshot to the head.

“It’s a tragic story,” Abayomi says, just as his teeth, as emphasised in the painting, revisit the part of the story where they reshaped and sharpened his dental setting. The scary facial expression, Abayomi explains, “is more of the emotion behind how he must have felt.” The young artist also agrees on, “the fact that his teeth, sharpened to fit the image of an animal, is interesting and inhuman.”

Among Abayomi’s other works at the exhibition is a depiction of ‘Lagbaja’ in portrait done with acrylic and watercolour on canvas.

The central theme of the exhibition, Tokunbo, according to Adisa “is our perspectives of Nigeria,” and perhaps any other related subject of a foreign influence, negative or positive. For Adisa, artistic expression lies in his experimental progression using collage of ankara fabric as canvas.

He experiments in painting on ankara. It’s not uncommon to see many artists using fabrics as components of paintings, but Adisa appears more adventurous in trying to paint directly on unprimmed canvas!

“The experiment didn’t work,” he discloses. Adisa didn’t give up and arrived at a gesso glued onto the same ankara. Thematically, he also paints “unusual things like a couple living regular life away from sad stories we are all used to.” Among Adisa’s unusual themes is ‘agbaya’, an adult playing on children’s playground.

He traces his experimental art to a piece titled ‘In the Beginning There Was…’

Babalola’s photography include captures from Epe, Lagos, and parts of urban Lagos, among others, expose of a young enthusiast, who is turning mere passion into what could generate future profession based on her creative depth in digital reproduction of the pictures. Among her works are a capture of passenger ferry at Olowo fish market, Epe, and disorganised bus park from Ojodu, Berger, a Lagos-Ogun border town.

During the opening of Tokunbo, a renowned legal practitioner, and father of one of the exhibiting artists, Tunji Abayomi, describes the special guest of honour Prince Yemisi Shyllon, as an African that has “taken unusual path in art collecting.”

Shyllon states, “I am here more because he has a lawyer son who chose art as a passion.” Addressing guests full of young artists and enthusiasts, Shyllon shares his background in art collecting. He recalls how visiting Yaba College of Technology several decades ago “inspired my interest in art. I owe Lamiwa and his generation a duty to see his work.”

While speaking on youth empowerment and the state of the Nigerian economy, Shyllon, a lawyer, stockbroker and an engineer, advises: “I urge you to add more professions to your first job.”

Disclosing that he has “over 7,000 pieces of art in his collection,” Shyllon says more patrons should come on board to encourage young artists like Lamiwa and his co-exhibitors.

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