To support  the opinion of many that colonial rule has contributed to the decline in African cultural and traditional values, Professor Krydz Ikwuemesi has used the art of two cultures that are in distant geographical location and racial identity.

Ikwumesi, Associate Professor of Fine Art at University of Nigeria (UNN), Nsukka, Enugu State, brought the cultural trajectories of Igbo people, south east of Nigeria and Ainu community, an endangered minority of Japan on the scale of Igbo, Ainu cultures… Lessons in resilience of native art colonial/post-colonial cultural relevance and suggested that, comparatively, the Africans have lost more.  

The forum was the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF) Lecture Series V, themed, “Art and Culture among the Igbo of Nigeria and the Ainu of Japan in the Postcolonial Period:  A Critical Survey.” The lecture held at the Maryland, Lagos office of the Art Foundation.

The OYASAF Lecture Series started two years ago after observers noted that the foundation’s research-based and fellowship programme has largely benefitted, Omooba Yemisi Shyllon, the founder, disclosed to guests shortly before Ikwuemesi started his presentation.

The OYASAF Fellowship Programme has, in its four years of existence, hosted 16 researchers, all foreigners. Two of them “bagged their Phd after using the OYASAF platform,” Shyllon disclosed.

Two months ago, the first foreign guest lecturer for the OYASAF Lecture Series, Professor Albert Lavergne, an American scholar and sculptor from Western Michigan University, US, spoke on his work, Mother and Child, under the theme, “A Culture Awakening through Technology.

During his presentation, Ikwuemesi warned that the art of Igbo people ‘is in a sorry’ state. He linked the slide to what he described as, “cultural self-hate that is prevalent among the Igbo today.” Comparatively, the Ainu people, despite losing “territories and suffered economic and social hardship during colonial rule, did not lose their culture,” Ikwuemesi stated.

The Ainu people, whose origin appears Euro-Asians, struggled against colonial rule and survived. According to the guest lecturer, the people’s cultural resilience, as typified in their art, has “much to teach the world.” 

Ironically, the difference in population between the two cultures betrays anthropological logics of numerical strength as a factor in resilience of culture. The Igbo, a people of an estimated “30 million in population” compared to paltry “15,000 to 20,000 Ainu.” 

However, the art of the two cultures, he argued, have “transmogrified in postcolonial time.” He cited instances of native masks, gods, among other cultural contents that reconnect with the peoples’ histories. Also, post-colonial art, he added, reflect the growth influenced by several factors.

“In Igbo art, the limit of this situation is often reached in the artists’ receptivity to Western ideas. But for Ainu artists, the embrace of Japanese and Western influences seems more measured than suicidal.”

Faith, he said, was another common factor among the two cultures’ external influence stressing the intervention of foreign missionaries under Christianity. Again, the Igbo people, Ikwuemesi insisted, suffered more loss of native values. “Although a number of Christian missionaries lived and worked in Hokkaido, Ainu, the Christians there now are very few and far between.”

For the Igbo, he found a more explicit description in a popular theologian, H.D.A. Major’s assertion that, ‘when the religion of a civilisation dies, the death of the civilisation speed follows.’ Ikwuemesi argued further that such assertion “provides a good reason for the decline of Igbo art and heritage in post-colonial period.”

And in revisiting the Ainu-Japanese relationship, he noted an “imbalance” that has been to the disadvantage of the indigenous Ainu people. He cited Japanese “repression” against Ainu culture, which spanned decades. 

On the art of the Ainu, the traditional art form includes drawing, sculpture and textile. Alongside the nativity of the people’s art, which the scholar noticed during his visit to Hokkaido, “there also exist modern fine art tradition, including printmaking.” Though some form of art, he disclosed, were “in less traditional ways,” the Ainu flavour and contents “are in the themes.” He compared the Ainu and Igbo artists: “These artists, unlike their Igbo counterparts, are not university-trained, but they seem to be abreast with the fleeting realities of contemporary art.”

Whatever the Igbo lost to colonial power, witchcraft was not among, at least within the art context, so suggests Ikwuemesi’s critique of the people’s artistic behavioural patterns across generations.  Igbo art, he explained, still imbibes a certain level of representation.  “Realism and resemblance were not highly encouraged for fear of witchcraft.”

He also noted that Igbo artists implored representations in both human and animal figures as well as “organic and other forms” in abstraction. But Ainu art, he stated, applies “pure abstract forms and symbols.” And the commonality in inspiration, in this context, between the two cultures is witchcraft.  “For the same reason of witchcraft and other taboos rooted in religion.”

Part of the presentation says Ainu culture dates from around 1200 CE and recent research suggests that it is a complex that originated in a merger of the Okhotsk and Satsumon cultures.

In 2009, Ikwuemesi was awarded a Japanese Foundation Fellowship to research Ainu Arts in Hokkaido in furtherance of “my comparative study of Igbo and Ainu arts and aesthetics. The fellowship lasted from October-November 2009.

Ikwuemesi is a painter, art critic, ethno-aesthetician and cultural entrepreneur who studied art at UNN, graduating in first class in 1992. He is the founder of the Pan-African Circle of Artists (PACA) and Emeritus President of The Art Republic (also known as Centre for Arts and Cultural Democracy), Enugu. He has participated in workshops and creative residencies and has directed Afrika Heritage (the PACA Biennale), Overcoming Maps (PACA Study Tour of Africa), and the Mmanwu Theatre in Enugu.

Ikwuemesi has researched and published on aspects of Igbo arts and is presently engaged in a comparative study of Igbo and Ainu arts and cultures. In 2009, he researched Ainu arts and aesthetics as a Japan Foundation Fellow in Hokkaido. He is the editor of two major journals: The Art Republic and Letter from Afrika. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and was recently a Visiting Professor at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan. He has been a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies African Humanities Programme and is the coordinator of the Death Studies Association of Nigeria. A committed artist, he has held several solo and group shows and has published many articles on art in professional journals.

When the event was over, I knew that I should have spent my time doing something else because I did not see myself being friends with many of those I had met; especially as I knew that half of them would not talk to me or even say hi, if I saw them the next day. It was amazing to see how people thought that their looks – clothes, hairstyle, names etc., was what made them who they were.

In my opinion, being an African is an innate attribute – it is not only about where one comes from or merely about phenotypes; it is also about how one thinks, one’s sense of values and culture, and where one’s heart lies. Therefore, I left the place thinking that if these people are actually looking for their African roots (especially those in group two), why can’t they go back to their villages where they initially migrated from, and save others the trouble of listening to the same broken record? After all, it is said that “charity begins at home” and “sometimes what you are looking for, is right where you left it!”.

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