This past weekend, in The Guardian on Sunday’s “Artsville” column by my friend Toyin Akinosho—without doubt the most important arts and culture columnist in the history of Nigerian print media—I read with profound sadness about another incident of “restoration” of a legendary Nigerian artist’s work. Months ago, in “Art/World”, my erstwhile column in NEXT newspaper, I had called attention to the troubling decision by the owners of the National Theatre, Lagos to “rehabilitate” Erhabor Emokpae’s sculptural frieze on the Theatre building. This present case is no less distressing. According to Artsville, Engineer Yemisi Shyllon—an art patron whose collection of modern and contemporary Nigerian art is among the most impressive anywhere—had seen a “deteriorating” 1952 painting by Ben Enwonwu in an office at the University of Ibadan. According to him: “I went ahead to commission one of the very best of Nigeria’s restorers, Mr. Oyerinde Olotu, to restore the work at a whooping cost of N1million… After three weeks of arduous restoration and conservation work, the painting is now fully transformed…”
In a different age and on a different subject I would be the first to send a note of appreciation to the art patron, for doing something in country where no one cares about the maintenance of everything from human lives, to basic infrastructure and, yes, art. Yes, Engineer Shyllon has done a tremendous lot to support art and artists. But on this matter I feel differently. Because it is inexcusable for people to assume and perhaps believe that all it takes to restore works of art worth anything is to have another good artist touch them up with paint. The business of restoring and conserving works of art is not quite the job of just competent artists. The model of art restoration and conservation in today’s Nigeria, as the National Theatre and now Enwonwu cases make one terribly aware, is reminiscent of the age when Popes, Cardinals and collectors routinely hired artists to take care of deteriorating or “immodest” works, and we know what that did to, say, Da Vinci’s Last Supper. The question is why Nigerians have to make the same mistakes all over again.
I can understand the dilemma of someone who cares about art, and who is passionate about doing something about the sorry condition of works by important Nigerian artists. But the place to begin is not by simply having artists do the so-called restoration and conservation work, without I am sure the kind of exacting examination of the condition of the original canvas, sizing, paint, varnish, etc, before appropriate conservation and restoration can be done by trained hands. The truth is that the kind of intervention visited on the Enwonwu painting has more than likely caused more long-term damage to the original work that all the dust and humidity in that Ibadan office.
It seems to me that the Nigerian modern and contemporary art industry has grown sufficiently big for there to exist somewhere in the country a conservation and restoration laboratory. This very important work cannot simply be left in the hands of amateurs, which is what studio artists, no matter how talented, are. I would go so far as to suggest that invaluable works by an artist of Enwonwu’s stature must never be subjected to the so-called restoration, even by their current “owners.” We just cannot afford to let those who will come after us to wonder how come we were so damn ignorant, or uncaring about the long-term effects of our actions on works of art.