‘Art not fetish’ seminar: Sculptors navigate delicate balance between art and religion

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  • * Museum managers tasked to deconstruct fetish tag on artefacts, modern sculptures

By Godwin Okondo

SCULPTORS Association of Nigeria (ScAN), a newly established subset in the larger body of Nigerian artists, held its first online seminar on March 3, 2022. The seminar touched on a sensitive issue about the religious views of different faiths and their perceptions of sculptures in places of worship. Are sculptures fetish and objects of idolatry that adherents should avoid or are they mere objects of admiration and decor that faith adherents should patronise? Or indeed, do sculptural objects advance the practice of faith with their presence in a given religious milieu? In fact, do sculptures infringe on any of the teachings of the major faiths, and how can sculptors navigate the slippery terrain and create a delicate balance that does not offend any faith? Should sculptors just create and be mindful only of their existential needs and not be bothered about the sensibilities of any religious faith?
The seminar had ‘Sculpture and Religion: Complementary or Derogatory,’ as theme. Discussants included the art collector’s view, Islamic perspective, Christian’s perspective, and the artist and professional views. Africa’s leading art collector, Prince Engr. Omooba Yemi Shyllon; Prof. Shehu Ismail of the Department of Fine Arts, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; Brother Charles Aiyeden of Peace House Revival Labour, Gboko, Benue State; Prof. Chris. N. Ebighgbo, sculptor/anthropologist at the Department of Fine Arts, Alex-Ekwueme Federal University, Ebonyi State, and the President, Sculptors’ Association of Nigeria (ScAN), Prof. Nelson Edewor, with seminar anchor and Chairman, Seminar Committee, Dr. Adenle John.
While welcoming guests to the seminar held on Zoom, Edewor said, “I welcome you all to this maiden, quarterly, online seminar of the Sculptors Association of Nigeria. This is a young association of professional sculptors in Nigeria. By God’s grace, it is now four years in existence, and we have been able to register with CAC. The association has gone ahead to participate and conduct different programmes such as seminars, conferences and exhibitions.
“Taking cognizance of today’s world, and what we may refer to as the new state we find ourselves as created by Covid-19, we have a new normal, which I believe is fluid enough for us to engage ourselves, and we believe that through this, we are going to open ourselves to new possibilities and ideas that revolve around our practice as sculptors”.
Prince Shyllon argued that there was a need to differentiate between religion and spirituality, saying sculptures have been a part of worship from time immemorial and that sculptures should never be seen to impede worship in any way.
According to him, “We need to differentiate between religion and spiritual beliefs. Religion thrives on sculptures. Visit different worship centres and see the various types of sculptures in representation of their gods, be it Christianity, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or the spiritual philosophy of the Yoruba. They use these representations to intercede on their behalf to their gods.
“Some also abhor the use of sculptures, like the Pentecostals. People are starting to disregard and distance themselves from sculptures. People should be educated for them to separate between the creativity of man from the spiritual beliefs of man. Creativity is completely different from spiritual beliefs”.
Prof. Ismail, who spoke on the Islamic view of sculptures, said, “There are many schools of thought regarding art in general. Painting seems to be accepted in some situations. Some believe sculptures are allowed, as long as they aren’t applied as a form of worship. There are some who still think it is permissible to mould for the purpose of decoration. Some believe people who make sculptures of human beings are trying to imitate God’s creation, and that is viewed as wrong.”
For Prof. Ebighgbo, “Going through the bible, you notice where Solomon did a lot of work on bronze, gold and wood. What I’m trying to say here is that the problem comes from the Pentecostals and the Islamic religion, because sculpture has been, right from origin and we have sculptures for decoration, recording, landmarks, and other things. The problem we are having is labelling sculpture as idol worship.
“We need to reorientate ourselves, so we can show what we are. When you go to the University of Benin, Benin City, there are sculptures that welcome you to the school. Sculpture is not idol worship. I am thinking that we should do something to show the difference between idolatry and sculpting for decorations or art”.
According to the man of God, Aiyeden, “We have many religions as we have the opinions of men, and races, but then Christianity believes only in a God that has revealed himself, and what he says about himself. God communicates everything he wants you to know about himself, and that is expressed in his creativity and many ways he has left upon the earth for us to reach him.
“Even if there is no artwork, man will worship other things. Man would exchange the real god for something he can hold. God didn’t condemn artwork and sculpture, but man is not allowed to worship them, and he also warns man about worshipping the works of his own hands, like animals and objects, especially anything that draws people, including money. A genuine Christian believes everything God has created is used to serve him for his glory.”
As special guest, Shyllon had the last word on the unique importance of the seminar. And in his characteristically blunt manner, Africa’s biggest art collector tasked museum managers in the country and indeed Africa to step up their efforts and step out of their comfort zones and go on evangelism drive to educate people of all faiths and individuals alike on the inherent beauty of art and sculptors and why they should not be demonised as fetish objects fit only for the bonfire, but huge economic resource that other countries have discovered for tourism while Africa continues to demonise theirs.
According to him, “Now, you asked a question: isn’t it my duty as a collector not to use my sculptural work as an idolatry piece? I’m sorry, we are talking about religion, which is about injunctions, codes, defining what you should and what you shouldn’t do. It’s not about the collector. The religion of the Muslims, according to those who strictly interpret the verse I read, states that you should run away from sculptures because they are idolatry. The religion here, in terms of the Pentecostals, is that you should run away from sculptures because they are idolatry, and that is why you would not go to any Redeem Church or any Covenant Church having any sculptural work that denotes anything spiritual or non-spiritual. So we should be very clear. This has nothing to do with the collector. If a collector is somebody who appropriates Ifa, or somebody who practises Confucianism, Hinduism, or Buddhism, he will use the sculptural piece for whatever he chooses without having any guilty conscience or any feeling that he has offended God. But if you are a Muslim, in the real sense of the word, you will not dare touch the works done by Dr. Ayodele, or if you are a Pentecostal.
“The other question by ScAN President, Prof. Nelson Edewor, is: what do we do, in terms of artists having to make livelihoods in the circumstance of this discussion? We are not here to expouse what one religion says against what another religion says. That would be a waste of time. I can quote sections of the bible that allows sculptures, as well as those that don’t. The solution is that those who are managing the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), are they religion-driven? If the are, why are they there? Maybe that is the reason why our national museums are what they are today, and I quarrel with the idea of people talking about restitution in a country where works will lose their value when they return.
“We have to find ways to make our national museums closer to the people. How do they organize conferences, debates and quiz programmes for schools? How do they visit churches to sell the idea that the works the in our museums are ethnographic objects? We should stop categorizing those works as demonic. There are works of art which the Qur’an describes as expressly idolatry, and I use the word with emphasis, and there are works of art that give pleasure, livelihood to creative minds, document history, emphasize the beautiful part of our culture that promotes tourism. We should educate them that tourism gives a lot of money to the world, and it is the second largest employer of labour in the world.
“America, at the end of 2019, made $1.6 trillion from tourism, which derives from art and sculptures. I have been to over 60 countries in the world, I can close my eyes and tell you what is in a particular park in Norway. We are being ignorant. We are not using what we have to generate wealth for our country, and the bad part of it is that oil will soon become a thing of the past, and our country and people will be in for it.
“The Arabic world have found ways around this problem. They have educated their people to build sculptures that deemphasize the interpretation of the Qur’an, and yet are able to attract tourists to their countries. That is what we should be doing, and I’m now enjoining the Sculptors Association of Nigeria to begin to educate people in government, private sector people, churches, and mosques otherwise they will continue to demonize and deemphasize the sculptures in our national tourism development quest, economic development, culture, tradition and identity.
“Please, don’t forget: your culture is your identity. If you don’t recognize your culture, you’re like a piece of wood extracted from the soil; you dry up and just become a piece of wood for furniture or for fire!”

President of Sculptors Association of Nigeria (ScAN) and professor of Fine and Applied Arts, Delta State University, Abraka

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