Pa Obayagbona, Joseph Alufa Igbinovia, 75, is a man of many parts. He is a repository of Benin history, art, culture and tradition and a master carver and sculptor to boot. Pa Oronsaye carved the replica of the 16 century Benin Kingdom Queen Mother Idia mask which was the totem and logo for the FESTAC ’77, also known as the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, a major international festival held in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977.

In this interview with Bill Okonedo, the artist’s mood is of despair with spurts of excitement as he recalls the pains, neglect and flashes of joy in his 75 years’ sojourn in this earthly realm.

Early life
My name is Igbinovia Alufa Oronsaye. I was born on January 1, 1949 in Benin. I am an artist. My specialties are carving and sculpting. My father was a farmer and trader. He is long since dead. He used to grow mainly yam, rice, maize and plantains and other crops on the side. He traded in fabrics in the off-season and they walked as far as to Onitsha and other cities and villages in pursuit of their trade.

My father had seven wives and my mother was the fourth. I started my primary education at the Benin Baptist Primary School on Mission Road, which is now Emokpae School. I attended many primary schools because we kept changing addresses. One of the other primary schools I attended was the Cherubim and Seraphim School located between the Second and Third East-Circular Roads, also here in Benin.

I finished primary school in 1966 and started learning the art of carving in 1957.

My mother apprenticed me to a prominent carver by the name of Sampson Okungbowa in the Igbesamwan area. Okungbowa was later given the traditional title of Obazoro of Benin Kingdom by the then Oba of Benin.

Okungbowa specialised in carving in blackwood and ivory.

Before I arrived there, Okungbowa already had four apprentices. I was number five. The first boy had spent four years in apprenticeship, while the second and third boys had spent about three years each and the fourth boy had spent two years.

In less than three months, my master declared that I had excelled above them all. My master said, ‘This is wonderful, you did not come learn, you came to teach.’

God created me an artist and blessed me with skills in the craft. I did not learn sculptural work, I only learnt blackwood and ivory carving. I veered into sculpting and found that it came naturally to me.

In 1959, after about three years of apprenticeship, my master said I had perfected the craft and that it was time to release me into the world of art and that I was to do my freedom (graduation) ceremony. He gave me a list of things to present as part of my freedom ceremony. It was an age-long tradition. I had to buy a goat, some tubers of yam, a bottle of gin, kolanuts, a packet of sugar and a bottle of honey.

Okungbowa so loved me because of my speedy adaptation and mastery in the craft. When difficult jobs came, he would assign them to me rather than to the older apprentices. Such jobs were usually translations from photographs. People would bring photos of themselves and request that life-size semblances be carved in wood. This carried on over the years until I graduated.

First job
I made my first considered big commission shortly after I graduated. An American gentleman who had heard of my craft came and asked me to carve him a small chest (box) in wood. I charged him twelve pounds, which he paid. Remember that we were using pounds as currency then before it was later changed to naira and kobo. So the American man paid me 12 pounds and it was a really big deal for me. He was, however, so impressed with the work that he soon came back and ordered for two much bigger chests for which he paid 60 pounds. It was a really big break for me. From my earnings on that job I bought myself a silver bicycle for 45 pounds. It was the talk of the town. People in the locality would gather and wave at me as I rode past.

I remember that I bought the bicycle from one Chief Legema’s shop here in Benin. I also remember that I paid the bicycle repairer one pound to assemble it.

I got popular from the testimonials that trailed my works.

In 1976, it was announced by the Bendel State Ministry of Arts and Culture that Nigeria wanted to stage the Second Festival of Black Arts and Culture, FESTAC. They looked around and said they wanted to do some carving, representative of ancient works.

The Federal Government saw the ancient 16th century Queen Mother Idia head carving at the British Museum in London, which was looted by British soldiers from the palace of the Oba of Benin in 1897 during the British military raid on Benin following a diplomatic face-off between both empires.

It was during the administration of General Olusegun Obasanjo as military head of state.

Loan request
The Federal Government asked to loan the famous Benin Kingdom Queen Idia head ivory carving from the British Museum and return it after FESTAC. The British initially agreed and charged two million pounds or so and the Nigerian authorities agreed to pay. But the British later had a change of heart and declined, claiming that the famous artwork was too fragile to be moved such a long distance.

In 1976, I made a wood carving titled Olokun, which is River goddess. I exhibited it at Ring Road/Akpakpava Junction in Benin. That was on November 4, 1976. The Arts Council heard about it. They had earlier announced that artists, particularly carvers, should bring their works for exhibition preparatory to FESTAC.

I took my Olokun carving to the Arts Council here in Benin and they were impressed. I put a N10,000 price tag on it. At that time, a Peugeot 504 GL air-conditioned salon car was being sold for N4,800. I was 27 years old when I carved Olokun. They were impressed. They said I would be able to carve the Queen Mother Idia ivory work replica which the Federal Government had decided to do as a logo and representation for FESTAC since the British Government was no longer willing to release the original work in their possession.

They invited five other carvers for the job. They gave the five others blackwood and they gave me ivory. I carved the first and it was near, then they gave me another and after I carved it, they said it was even better than the original work.

After my second carving, they took me to the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) studios in Benin and compared my work with the one on display at the British Museum. They said that at last they had got a true Idia replica. They took the artwork to the Head of State, General Obasanjo in Lagos and the whole world heard of it.

Failed assurances
They did not make me any direct promises; they just assured me that I would be well taken care of. The Bendel State governor gave me N1,000. The Federal Government did not give me any money.

As for my Olokun carving that they took, Bendel State Arts Council said the Federal Government had bought it and would pay me. To date, no money has come to me. They did not give me my money. I have been looking to the heavens in expectation since then.

I made some overtures in the court decades ago and gave up because it was all back and forth. They say you cannot fight government.

Unsung heroes
Nigeria has many heroes that can uplift the country but we have no regard for them. Nigeria has people that can make airplanes and cars and great technological and other inventions but they are not encouraged.

You are in my house, just look around you. I live in abject poverty. I sold my other plot of land to pay bills. As you can see, I have still not completed my house after many decades. The stress of disappointment and thinking made me develop high blood pressure. I had an eye operation. I have been in poor health.

I remember the late Mr. Taiwo Akinkunmi who designed Nigeria’s national flag. I remember he suffered too before government came to his aid.

Obasanjo awarded me a national award of MON (Member of the Order of the Niger) with no money attached to it. In Nigeria, when heroes die is when we stage big ceremonies. I got a letter for the MON award and they took me to Lagos, to the National Arts Theatre for the award. Can I go to the market and buy crayfish with MON?

Taiwo Akinkunmi who designed Nigeria’s national flag was eventually receiving a salary for life when the government eventually decided to rehabilitate him.

I have four children, two boys and two girls. The boys are artists doing carving and sculptural works. I taught them all. Tell Nigerians I am suffering.