ANDREW IRO OKUNGBOWA who recently visited Revelation Tourist Palazzo in Benin City owned by the legendary music icon, Professor (Sir) Victor Efosa Uwaifo, writes of his encounter with the rich and diverse art and inter-play of historical forces and images on display at the centre
A visit to a friend, Eno Louis, musician, author, culture and art promoter of great note, was on the basket of what to do on this fateful Saturday during my recent visit to Benin City. A call was pulled through to him mid day to confirm the time and place for us to meet.
‘Please let’s meet at Professor Victor Uwaifo’s place at 4pm as I have a meeting with him today,’ was the response from the other end. Immediately, my journalistic instinct came to the fore, prompting a call back to Eno Louis to find out the possibility of getting the Prof to grant an interview to which he answered in the affirmative.
In fact, he has in the past explored the possibilities of one having an interview with him. Excited by the opportunity of finally conducting the long overdue interview, one set out one hour before the appointed time and arrived at Uwaifo’s resident where one was directed to the Revelation Tourist Palazzo complex that houses his musical studio.
One must confess that despite growing up in Benin and during one’s university days, spending four years at Ekehuan campus, which is just few metres to his resident, one has never visited or even come close to the gate except to admire the beautiful and imposing white coated façade from the distance whenever one drove or walked by the resident.
It was an amazing discovery on this day, first with the fascinating environment; the natural pull – airy and breezy – accentuated by the swaying flowers and trees. Then of course, the pocket of art works dotting the landscape, the air craft, the palazzo and the musical studio, I should say.
One was ushered to the office of the Manager and Curator the palazzo, Chris Osaretin Eburu, an ebullient man, urbane, engaging and of rich intellectual bent. An artist too, with flair for music as he plays the guitar and sings just like his master.
Few minutes later my friend walked into the office and after the exchange of pleasantries he walked one to the studio where he introduced one to Uwaifo and his nephew, Efe Uwaifo, who also has more than a passing interest in music as he is adept at the guitar.
After awhile one had to leave for the office to allow the Prof and Eno Louis to continue with their work after eliciting a promise from Uwaifo that he would create time to speak with one after the studio session. At the office one engaged Eburu on what the palazzo is all about.
After listening to him and reading through the promotional material of the palazzo one decided to explore its innards while waiting for a signal from Uwaifo. Eburu agreed to guide one through the palazzo and the over one hour tour turned out to be quite revealing, engaging and exciting.
All thanks to the rich knowledge and understanding of the exhibits and history on showcase and the animated manner as well as the story – like styled deployed by the curator in discussing the exhibits. He imbued the inanimate objects with life, talking about the past in the present and in a most awesome inspiring and fascinating nature.
One of the statements on the promotional leaflet of the palazzo describes it thus: ‘‘Revelation Tourist Palazzo, the gateway to Edo State in Nigeria, is the place to be. It’s educative, informative, inspirational and entertaining. There’s no science and technology, cybernetics or philosophy that can fit a soul to recognise itself or commune with heaven as the Palazzo.’’
Meanwhile, Eburu says the palazzo: ‘‘Showcases the past, present and also foretell the future. In the next 10 – 20 years our people who are alien to our culture need to be integrated to our culture, therefore, the palazzo encourages our visitors to imbibe and promote our cultural norms.’’
Furthermore, he says that the palazzo is ‘‘informative, educative, inspirational and entertaining. This is where the good, bad and ugly side of Benin history is kept. It is about Benin Kingdom, with all the materials researched and created by Sir Uwaifo in three dimensional art form and design.’’
Created in 2005 and funded solely by Uwaifo, it is home to the creative fecundity of this acknowledged master artist and his interpretation of history and happenings around him. ‘‘The works here show interplay of aesthetics and functionality. They help to tell stories and the history of Benin with many of them having both denotative and connotative bearings in capturing and telling the various dimensions of the Benin race.’’
The man Sir Victor Uwaifo
Eburu, who is a relative of Uwaifo and an artist himself, has worked with him for many years, even from the days when he was the pioneering commissioner for arts, culture and tourism in Edo State. He speaks in glowing terms of his uncle and master.
According to him, Uwaifo, who he describes as a master craft man, believes in African culture and what he has done with the palazzo is to protect and preserve that culture in its authentic and original forms through his creative ferment.
He affirms that Uwaifo is a thoroughbred artist and true master whose mastery of the art forms and contributions to humanity have been widely acknowledged both nationally and internationally, adding that ‘‘what he has not been able to achieve through the performing art he has achieved through the visual art.
Uwaifo, who is a professor of art and lecturer at the Fine and Applied Arts Department of University of Benin, is a great man to work with. ‘‘Working with the Prof is great, he is a man of intellect, a man to learn from, a chip of the old blocks, who believes in perfection.
‘‘A bridge builder, teacher and someone who I have learnt so much from. We are all musicians, he is the man we call virtuoso of the art. He is a legend of legends. He works tirelessly and he is a Trojan and an exceptional musician. He is a man that will live long and he prays for people to live long.’’
Enchanting tour of the Palazzo
The tour of the palazzo begins with the sculpted art pieces within the complex, these first provoke and whet the appetite of the visitor. These include sculpted pieces of Uwaifo, a water fountain, a horse, and a lion with a beautiful maiden relaxing in a cosy manner on the lion.
But beyond the aesthetics of these imageries, that of the lion and maiden, Eburu says carry a powerful message, with the lion representing the first world, Europeans and the maiden, the third world, Africa. Europeans coming into Africa with the message of love and winning the confidence of the people only to show later that they are thieves and spoilers, carting away the natural wealth of the continent.
By the entrance door leading to the open forecourt of the palazzo are sculpted pieces of a man (Epa), fully clad in Benin attire with full accessories, revealing the elegance and admirable nature of Benin traditional regalia.
One of the historically instructive works at the open forecourt is that of Igue Festival, which was instituted by Oba Ewuare the great (Ogidingan) with the celebration of Ewere leave (Ebe Ewere). Then as you explore further the various sections of the palazzo, you come across sections where some of the Benin obas are displayed in the splendour.
The list include Oba Ehenbuda (1578AD – 1606AD) and that of Oba Esigie on a horse back accompanied by a leopard, from which the oba’s sobriquet, Ekpen Nowa (Home leopard) is derived. Interestingly, when I paid a visit to Ekehuan campus that night I saw a replica of that same sculpted piece. A larger than life piece and on enquiry, I was told that it was crafted by Uwaifo for his under graduate project as fine art student then.
Somewhere also are the sculpted pieces of Oba Akenzua 11 and words of wisdom (Memorable quotes) by him, Oba Eweka and a section on the reign of Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, and scenes from the incident that led to the Benin Expedition of 1897, with some of the principal characters like Captain Moor, and chief Agho Obaseki captured.
Faces of the king jester – Akoromwon of Benin (1440AD – 1773AD) is another notable piece on display. Beside the colourful and glorious moments of the kingdom, Uwaifo also played back one of the horrible eras of the kingdom with the sculpted piece of Oba Kuoboyuwa, whose strident measures then brought a lot of sufferings to his people, leading to a mass migration of the people from the kingdom to other towns.
Then in terms of festivities, especially as it relates to passage of the dead in Benin Kingdom, is that of Oton (Okun). Isoton, a ceremony, which is performed mainly for noted personalities when they passed on. Then it was a time of heavy gyration with a masked personality carrying richly decorated box, with such items as emblazoned glass, bronze beads and colourful lace or damask material.
Then as children, we relished this ceremony and growing up as youths at times had the privilege of being selected to carry the box, dancing through major streets in the city down to Ring Road and back. I guessed the last of this ceremony one witnessed was during the burial of my late grandfather when Isoton ceremony was observed in his honour.
Also thrown in the mix are some historical artifacts from Uwaifo’s family collections such as gramophone, Dane gun, bicycle, and telephone. He also reveals that Uwaifo got his inspiration for his successful and noble musical career from listening to music from his father’s gramophone and that at age six he started dancing and that one of the notable influences from that era was the Ekasa dance step customised and popularised by him.
There are also a section devoted to the display of his rich musical collections while among his notable personal collections is the English acoustic guitar played by the musical maestro. He started playing this guitar at age 12 and later the double neck ‘magic guitar,’ with 18 strings, which is his signature musical instrument. He plays it with relish and high proficiency, rotating 360 degrees at the sound of speed.
The Hall of Fame section warehouses also a number of his personnel effects, such as the various certificates and awards received by him, including that of the national honour that was bestowed on him. A thrown back to his sporting days is also reflected among these collections, with Eburu revealing that Uwaifo was a noted high jump champion in his days.
His brilliant performance during FESTAC ’77 is captured in this section while you are also treated to some colourful portraits spanning three decades on the stage as a musical act and then capped with a number of his family portraits. Quite a rich content to feed on, as they give an understanding of his root and those things that both inspired and shaped his career and personality.
Independent Square is a section devoted to the history of Nigeria, with sculpted busts of many of the nationalists and heads of state of the country, from the past to the present. But not all of the heads of state are reflected in the square as the curator discloses that the palazzo needs funding to achieve some of these laudable projects.
You also catch glimpses of the slave trade era in the slave market section that has on display a number of portraits on the inhuman treatments that were meted to the slaves while the execution ground reflected on the public execution of criminals.
This is amply captured in the sculpted piece of the famous armed robber, Lawrence Anini and his gang. One recalls then some of the incidents of that inglorious era and the execution of the gang, which took place some distance away from Ekehuan campus. School was in section then as we were writing exams on the day of the execution. Torrential rainfall heralded the day.
One of the sections that still resonate with one is the captivating narrative on ‘Joromi’ offered by the curator. In a very dramatic manner he tells the story of the mysterious Joromi who had to wrestle with a spirit said to have seven heads. It was this story of conquest, he says, that inspired the internationally acclaimed classical rendition, Joromi, by Uwaifo. According to Eburu over 100, 000 copies of it were sold on the first day of its release and it was the first gold disk from any African recorded by Philips Record.
There is also the Hall of Fame 11 section where you find portraits of a number of famous world personalities such as Prof. Wole Soyinka, Nelson Mandela, and John F. Kennedy. Finally, the curator leads one to the inside of the aircraft for the Revelation Tourist Palazzo flight experience, a world of fantasy, one should say.
Eburu assumes the office of the pilot or head of crew as he takes one through the rudiments of the flight, welcoming you on board and giving a brief on the flight that is about to depart and as you arrived from the imaginary journey, he welcomes you with a song, ‘I have decided’ by Sheila Caesar, richly delivered by him and accompanied by the acoustic guitar.
Just when one thought to himself what an entertaining and beautiful way to end an enthralling encounter with the creative world of Uwaifo, he leads one through a narrow and somewhat dark alley to another section that is known as ‘city of blood’ where you vision is assailed by gory images of killings and bloodletting.
This section for one just robs you instantly of the good feeling and exciting moment that you had spent inside the aircraft and ignite emotional catharsis as you leave the palazzo with bad feelings as those images completely changed your mood.
I should think that this section should be buried within the other exhibits to allow one retain the good memories and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ fantasy created by the curator while you were closeted within the aircraft.
Other than this, Revelation Tourist Palazzo is a repository of some sorts to catch a glimpse of the creative energies and world of Uwaifo, who has shown over the years that he is an artist par excellent. However, some efforts need to be put into keeping the surrounding neat and making the façade more attractive while the government and private concerns should help to fund some of the projects and sustain this laudable outfit.
It is opened to the public from Monday – Friday and operates between the hours of 8am – 5pm while a token fee is collected for viewing. Picnickers are also welcomed to the palazzo as well as students, scholars and researchers as there are quite a number of resource materials to benefit from.
This is wishing the Prof a more productive and successful years as he has not relented in his effort at creating art works and musical performances of great import.
Despite the long hours spent and the effort of Eno Louis, one couldn’t get the promised interview as Prof. says he was tired and exhausted after the studio session. He promises to take one on some other time and one is looking forward to it with excitement and high expectation.
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