I first met Ekpo Eyo (Fig. 1) in the 1960s during one of his visits to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where I was then an undergraduate and a studio major in the institution's Department of Fine Arts. He soon became a mentor and friend. Our frequent meetings at the National Museum in Lagos contributed significantly to my decision to become an art historian.1 I know of several other colleagues (black and white) who benefitted from his advice. Besides, he is world-famous for his outstanding professional and academic contributions to African archaeology, anthropology, art history, and museology, among others. Hence, despite his departure to the hereafter on May 28, 2011, Professor Ekpo Okpo Eyo's legacy lives on. As a popular eulogy in Efik (his mother tongue) would put it: Eye du ke esit nyin ke nsinsi (you will be in our hearts forever); obong (abasi) odu ye ago (wishing you God's blessings).
Born on July 8, 1931 in Creek Town, near Calabar, the capital of what is now the Cross River State of Nigeria (then a British colony), Ekpo Okpo Eyo (hereafter identified simply as Ekpo Eyo) spent his early childhood in the area. After attending the Presbyterian Primary School in Creek Town and Duke Town Secondary School in Calabar, he moved to Lagos (former capital of Nigeria) in the 1950s, looking for greener pastures. His appointment in 1953 as an assistant in the Nigerian Department of Antiquities, headed by British-born Kenneth Murray (1908–1972), opened the door, enabling him to proceed to the United Kingdom in the late 1950s for postsecondary education. There, he studied and received diploma in archaeology from the University of London as well as an MA degree in archaeology and anthropology from Cambridge University. He returned to Nigeria in 1963 and was elevated to the rank of archaeologist/anthropologist in the Department of Antiquities. Roughly five years later (in 1968), he was appointed the first Nigerian-born director following the retirement of Kenneth Murray.2 Ekpo Eyo assumed the post at a critical point in the country's history—eight years after she gained political independence from Great Britain and when postcolonial nationalism instilled in many Nigerians a new sense of pride in their country's cultural and artistic heritage. It will be recalled that some Nigerians distanced themselves from indigenous art during the colonial period because colonial masters misinterpreted its emphasis on stylization as a failed attempt at naturalism and hence “primitive.” Although many naturalistic portrait heads in terracotta and brass turned up in the Yoruba town of Ifè (as early as 1910), they were dismissed as the works of foreigners. In fact, the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius, who first brought Ifè art to world attention, attributed the portrait heads to the ancient Greeks who, according to him, might have settled among the Yoruba before the Common Era (bce). He then speculated that if a full figure in the Ifè style were to be found in Ifè, it would almost certainly reflect proportions similar to those of ancient Greek art (Frobenius 1968 1:348). Fortunately, a full figure turned up during one of the excavations in the city in 1957 (Fig. 2a–b), to challenge Frobenius's assumption. For, despite the naturalistic rendering of its anatomical features, the figure's head constitutes about a quarter of the whole body, thus conforming to the artistic tradition found in other parts of Africa (Willett 1967:49–50; see also Willett 1973:2, 5, 7; and Lawal 2004:143–49). Besides, the figure, like several other naturalistic Ifè works, dates between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries ce—much later than Leo Frobenius had imagined. Paradoxically, these so-called primitive arts of Africa (including those from Nigeria) became a source of inspiration for European Modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century, thus sparking both academic and museum interests in indigenous African art. In order to acquire more knowledge and advanced research methods for interpreting the large number of antiquities being discovered in different parts of the country, Ekpo Eyo decided to enroll in the doctoral program of the University of Ìbàdàn in Nigeria from where he earned a PhD in Archaeology in 1974 (Eyo 1974b).
Simply put, the Department of Antiquities grew so rapidly under his directorship that it was renamed the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NNCMM) in 1979. Through traveling exhibitions (both local and international), seminars, public lectures, publications, and community outreach programs (Eyo 2008:31–32), the NNCMM connected with the general public, in addition to popularizing art education in many schools. According to Alhaji Ibrahim Mahe, the permanent secretary of Nigeria's Federal Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and National Orientation:
[Ekpo Eyo] was a pioneer in many respects, whose initial visionary action plan transformed the NCMM to what it is today. [He] can be described as the doyen of museum administration in Nigeria. Indeed, his era remains what even the harshest critic would call the golden era of the National Commissions for Museums and Monuments. From a few buildings in Lagos, [he] oversaw the transformation of the Museums into a truly national institution with widespread presence in every part of Nigeria …
He is … a cultural colossus whose legacy would remain indelible in the annals of Nigeria's cultural administration…3
Needless to say, I benefitted from that legacy as well. After receiving a PhD in art history from Indiana University (Bloomington), I returned to Nigeria in September 1970 to begin an academic career as a research fellow in the Institute of African Studies, University of Ifè. A few weeks later, I paid Ekpo Eyo a visit. So pleased to see me back in Nigeria, he introduced me to most of his senior administrative and professional staff and urged them to give me direct access to all the collections because of the importance of my field of specialization to the goals of the museum. In short, that introduction got me off to a good start, enabling me to use many of the museum's facilities for my research.
In 1971, the University of Ifè (now called Obáfémi Awólówò University) appointed Professor Roy Sieber (1923–2001), my PhD dissertation supervisor at Indiana University, as a visiting faculty to allow him to continue with his research on Nigerian art as well as help lay the foundation for the creation of a future art department in the institution. The need for such a department had become necessary because of the university's location in Ifè, the city regarded by the Yoruba as the cradle of their culture and which had since become world famous for its antiquities.
Shortly after Roy Sieber's arrival in Nigeria, I drove him to Lagos to meet Ekpo Eyo and the three of us teamed up, meeting periodically at the National Museum in Lagos and its local branch at Ifè. Our discussions expanded my research capabilities, while at the same time paving the way for many of Roy Sieber's doctoral students to do fieldwork in Nigeria. One of them, Robin Poynor (professor emeritus of African art at the University of Florida, Gainesville), decided to write his PhD dissertation on the art of Òwò after listening to a public lecture by Ekpo Eyo at Indiana University (Poynor 1978). In short, during his tenure as the Director General of the NNCMM, Ekpo Eyo endeared himself to visiting international students and scholars by welcoming them with open arms and facilitating their field research. As Dr. Deborah Stokes of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (Washington, D.C.) recalls:
I had the privilege of meeting [him] at the National Museum in Lagos in the late 1970s and early 80s. He was most supportive of field work … to document the carving styles of traditional Yoruba artists in southwest Nigeria. He generously provided the platform for many researchers to come to Lagos and collaborate together while studying, sorting, and identifying the museum's extensive ère ìbejì collection of forty-five hundred examples by state, area, carving compound, generation, and individual hand. He granted me access to the Kenneth Murray photo archive and other cataloging materials for my own research on artistic style (Stokes 2011).
After his retirement from the NNCMM in 1986, Ekpo Eyo accepted a professorship in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Maryland (College Park) and, for the next seventeen years, taught various courses on African art and archaeology. In addition, he supervised many MA theses and PhD dissertations (Fig. 3). During the same period, he conducted archaeological excavations in Nigeria which enabled some of his graduate students to acquire professional field experience (Figs. 4–5). According to one of them, Christopher Slogar (now an associate professor of art history at California State University Fullerton):
[Professor Ekpo Eyo] wanted his students first and foremost to understand the local contexts of cultural production in Africa, and he invested much time and effort to organizing and accommodating the needs of his graduate students engaged in fieldwork in Nigeria. His generosity in this regard was unforgettable …4
…I am grateful for the patience and open-mindedness of his teaching style; the delight he took in telling stories… [and] the dead-seriousness of his observations …
I remember him asking me, about halfway through my first semester at Maryland, what I was doing the next summer … I nervously blathered something stupid about doing lots of research in the library of course, When he then asked, “Would you like to go to Nigeria?” I was stunned.
[In Nigeria, Prof decided that his students should visit some of the sites before we settled into our archaeological work in Calabar, so we went to the Oshogbo artist community, Benin City, and Ifè, among other places.
After we arrived at Ifè, Prof took us to the historical marker, protected by a tiny corrugated tin roof, which describes his 1969 excavation of a royal site on Lafogido Street, named after an early Oni [king] of Ifè. The site was not fully excavated because the then-current Oni, worried that the grave of one of his ancestors was about to be disturbed, asked Prof to stop his work. So he did, after revealing those beautiful and now famous terracotta animal heads. That gesture of respect to the Oni would be remembered, as was the good press over the excavation and the beauty of the finds themselves, which later brought Lafogido international attention in the “Treasures of Ancient Nigeria” exhibition. For as we disembarked our little bus, I saw the look of recognition on many faces.
Residents were calling out to one another, moving around quickly, spreading the word of his arrival. And then something happened that I, as a newcomer to Nigeria, did not expect and certainly will never forget. Spontaneously, the entire neighborhood appeared en masse before us, singing praises of welcome as they moved closer and closer. They all came out, young and old, to greet us so warmly. It was the most beautiful and joyous display of hospitality that I have ever seen (Slogar 2012:12–13).
In fact, I witnessed a similar reception for Ekpo Eyo by courtiers on his arrival at the palace in 1981 to pay a courtesy call on the new Oòni (king) of Ifè, the late Oba Òkunadé Síjúadé Olúbùse II (1930–2015). The reason for such a “joyous display of hospitality” can easily be traced to the zeal and empathy with which Ekpo Eyo had showcased the richness of Nigeria's antiquities and artistic heritage during his tenure of office as the director of the NNCMM. Even certain Muslim and Christian evangelists, who previously despised indigenous art, had a change of heart—a phenomenon also reflected in the fact that many of their converts now collect ancient and contemporary art for nationalistic, aesthetic, commercial, and other reasons.
Despite his busy administrative schedule, Ekpo Eyo did extensive fieldwork in different parts of the country. He conducted one of his earliest archaeological excavations in 1969 at Láfogídò in Ifè. As Christopher Slogar noted above, Ekpo Eyo was obliged to abandon the Láfogídò excavation after the then Oòni, His Royal Highness, Oba Adésojí Adérèmí (1899–1980) pleaded with him to stop it. In the words of Ekpo Eyo himself:
… Láfogídò was a former King of Ifè, and belonged to one of the four ruling families. His compound was about two hundred yards from the present Palace…. An earlier rescue operation had been conducted [at] the site in 1963 by Frank Willett, who found an elephant head. I later excavated a mythical animal in the same style.
Like the elephant, the mythical animal had a royal emblem on it and was placed on top of a globular pot that was inset into the edges of a rectangular pottery pavement. Underneath the pavement were the outlines of what could possibly be a burial site. I was so excited about the discovery that I invited the [king] to come and have a look, since he was kind enough to give me permission to excavate in the first place. He came along with his chiefs, but when he saw the arrangement—about fourteen pots inserted into the edges and five animal heads that were used as potlids—he became very agitated and decided that I should not continue with the excavation because he did not want the bones of his ancestors to be disturbed …. A shelter [was later] built over it (Eyo and Willett 1980:13; see also Eyo 1970:45–47, 1974:99–109).
Notwithstanding its suspension, the excavation (Fig. 6) was an eye-opener. Previous archaeological discovery of animal motifs at burial sites and sacred groves in the city was thought to confirm popular rumors of animal sacrifice during the funeral rites of a deceased Oòni (see Willett 1967: Figs. 41–45; Drewal and Schildkrout 2009:106–107). Not much was known about the metaphysical implications of such sacrifices. At Láfogídò, the realistic portrayal on potlids of elaborately adorned animals such as the elephant (from an earlier rescue operation), hippopotamus, antelope, and ram with royal emblems (dated twelfth/fifteenth century ce) recalls the frequent use of animal metaphor in the ritual symbols, regalia, and praise-poems (oríkì) of the Ifè monarch. For example, the antelope (etu; ìgalà) is hailed in Yoruba folklore for its agility and sharp horns. No wonder, the animal features frequently in many sacrificial offerings to speed up the delivery of ritual messages, or the journey of the dead, to the spirit world.5 And such is the value attached to the penetrative power of the animal's sharp horns that they are often used for storing charms (àse) intended to potentiate prayers by Yoruba kings (oba) aimed at promoting the well-being of their subjects (see also Adepegba 1986:53). By the same token, the awesome power of a king is often likened to that of an elephant (erin) (Fig. 7); hence an heraldic symbol of the animal is on the façade of the Oòni's palace at Ifè and on some of his paraphernalia of office. That metaphor also resonates in the proclamation “Erin wó!” (An elephant has collapsed!), often used to notify the general public of an Oòni's death (see also Eluyemi 1980:60; Drewal and Schildkrout 2009:54; 124–25; Blier 2015:320–23).6 The royal emblem on the forehead of the hippopotamus (Fig. 8) alludes to the might of the Oòni as well, especially since the animal's name erinmi translates as “elephant of the water” in the Yoruba language. According to a popular Yoruba myth, there is a big river underground that the souls of the dead must cross to reach the Afterlife (Awolalu 1979:56–57; Lawal 2012:224). Hence the phrase eni tó kú ti re òkè odò, meaning “The deceased has gone to the other side of the river” (Idowu 1995:206). Besides, it is significant to note that in the Yoruba town of Òwò, which has strong ties with Ifè, a mystical hippopotamus (erinmi) is a deity associated with death (Abiodun 1989:93). As a result, the question arises: Was this hippopotamus motif also expected to serve as a royal escort during Oòni Láfogídò's voyage across the chthonic river connecting the worldly to the otherworldly? A similar question comes to mind with regard to the ram (àgbò) and the royal emblem on its forehead (Fig. 9). Given the animal's use of its horns (especially headbutt) for offense and defense, the Yoruba associate the ram with bravery and protection. Hence a popular folklore identifies the animal as one of the gate-keepers in heaven (Abimbola 1970:257–60; Lawal 1975:225–31). Moreover, the Yoruba often liken distant rumbles of thunder to the headbutts of celestial rams.
To cut a long story short, the preliminary findings of Ekpo Eyo at Láfogídò have encouraged archaeologists and art historians to not only take a fresh look at Yoruba art in general and Ifè antiquities in particular, but also compare them to materials from other parts of Nigeria, most especially those from Igbo-Ukwu in eastern Nigeria where elephant and ram motifs (among others) have been found in a burial context dated to the ninth century ce (see for example Blier 2015:296–98, 322–26).
EXCAVATIONS AT ÒWÒ
Thanks to Ekpo Eyo's excavations at Ugbó ‘Lajà in the Yoruba town of Òwò from 1969 onward, archaeologists and art historians are now able to fill some of the gaps in the study of Nigerian art, most especially Ifè cultural and artistic relationship with Òwò, on the one hand, and between the latter and the neighboring Edo kingdom of Benin, on the other.
Located about 90 miles southeast of Ifè, the Òwò kingdom is said to have been founded ca. twelfth century ce by immigrants from Ifè led by one Prince Ojúgbelu (a.ka. Asere), a descendant of Odùduwà, the first king of Ifè (Ashara 1951; Smith 1988:51–52; Akintoye 2010:102–103).7 Because of its location near some of the busiest trade routes in eastern Yorubaland, Òwò soon became the hub of cultural and economic activities in the area (Akintoye 2010:102–103). The likelihood that it might be attacked by the powerful Edo kingdom of Benin (roughly 80 miles to the south) led Òwò to develop a strong military for offense and defense. Notwithstanding, Benin made many attempts to subjugate Òwò. On one occasion (in the early fifteenth century), Benin's army raided and occupied Òwò for some time, but was later ambushed and decimated by Òwò soldiers while trying to carry the spoils away (Smith 1988:51). Another raid during the reign of King Ozuola (1483–1514) was more successful because, as the Benin historian, Chief Jacob Egharevba (1968: 23), puts it, “the [Òwò] people submitted.” However, Òwò historian, Chief M.B. Ashara, disagreed, insisting that “Òwò was never conquered nor defeated by any kingdom” (cited in Smith 1988:51). Yet both Egharevba and Ashara concur that Osogboyè, an Òwò prince who once served as a page in the Benin palace, later returned home after the death of his father (Olówò Omaro) to ascend the throne in the sixteenth century. Osogboyè is said to have introduced to Òwò many Benin cultural and artistic influences—a phenomenon evident in the close similarity of Òwò chieftaincy costumes and court structure to those of Benin (Poynor (1976:40–45, 1995:92–94). Thus, as Robert Smith has observed, “What seems to emerge from these conflicting accounts is that the Òwò were able to maintain virtual independence for their capital and surrounding district, but that from time to time tribute had to be paid to Benin …” (Smith 1988:52). On the other hand, Adebanji Akintoye (2010:212), contends that the “conflicting accounts” may very well reflect a truce or an era of friendship between the two kingdoms intended to ensure the safety of Òwò traders in Benin, and vice versa. It is equally likely that the Ifè connection of the ruling Eweka dynasty in Benin reduced the tension between it and Òwò. For, according to the Benin historian Jacob Egharevba (1968:6), a civil revolt against the ruling Ogiso dynasty in Benin during the fourteenth century led “the people [to dispatch] an ambassador to the Oni Odùduwà, the great and wisest ruler of Ifè, asking him to send one of his sons to be their ruler).” As a result, Odùduwà allowed Prince Òrònmíyàn to go to Benin and establish the Eweka dynasty,8 which later introduced to Benin many aspects of Yoruba culture, including elements of Ifè art, especially during the reign of Oba Oguola (Egharevba 1968:11; for more details on the Ifè-Benin Relationship, see Ryder 1965:25–37; Lawal 1977:193–216; Ben-Amos 1995). Seemingly corroborating the story is a bronze figure in the Ifè style found in the Benin palace and dated ca. fifteenth century ce. It is said to represent Oba Ewuare (ca. 1440–1473), one of the monarchs of the Eweka dynasty (Willett 1967:89; Eyo 1977:97, 233).
In sum, Ekpo Eyo's excavations at Ugbó ‘Lajà in Òwò have shed more light on the Ifè-Òwò-Benin artistic relationship.9 According to him, the site might have once functioned as a shrine complex, unlike the cemetery at Ifè's Láfogídò. The Ugbó ‘Lajà dig also revealed an array of pottery fragments, iron implements, and polished stone axes as well as the remains of a mud hut with broken terracotta sculptures “and evidence of sacrifice here and there.” (Eyo and Willett 1980:14). As Ekpo Eyo puts it:
It appears that the hut was destroyed violently, because fragments from the same pieces of sculpture were discovered in widely separated areas. Fragments of one head …, for example, were found about thirteen feet apart, which tends to suggest that the work was smashed. The whole shrine might have been vandalized during a conflict between Benin and Òwò people, possibly when Benin was trying to subdue Òwò in the fifteenth century (Eyo and Willett 1980:14; for details of the excavation, see Ekpo 1976:37–58).
Terracotta sculptures excavated from the site include naturalistic portrait heads, busts, and standing figures. A close examination of the works (Figs. 10–14) reveals “affinities not only with Ifè art but to Benin art as well; there are also works that are in neither style. It is not clear whether the Òwò objects in Ifè style were brought or traded from Ifè or whether they were made locally at Òwò” (Eyo and Willett 1980:14; see also Abiodun 1989:91–115, 2014:240–44; Fatunsin 1992:94–107; Ademuleya 2015:216–22). Suffice it to say that the Ugbó'Lajà finds now provide a lot of data for interpreting some of the events mentioned in Òwò and Benin oral traditions and for taking a new look at different aspects of the cultural and artistic interactions between the two kingdoms.
What makes the Ugbó'Lajà site all the more significant, as Rowland Abiodun points out, is its “close proximity to important places such as the palace and Okitiasegbo, one of the earliest Òwò settlements,” thus raising “the possibility … that the founding Olówò [king] brought with him to Òwò artists and artisans from Ifè …” (Abiodun 1989:99–101).10
ARCHAEOLOGICAL EXCAVATIONS IN CALABAR
Equally ground-breaking are Ekpo Eyo's archaeological investigations in Calabar (the capital of the Cross River State) during the 1990s. They were intended to gather more information about a number of ancient terracotta vessels and figures that had turned up in the 1970s and 1980s during building and road constructions as well as rescue operations in the city. Unfortunately, the age of the finds could not be determined at the time (Ekpo 1977:36–38, 1984:58–60). Eyo's first excavations in the Ndidem Usang Iso district uncovered several ceramic headrests, anthropomorphized pottery, terracotta bowls, iron blades, and bells, among other artifacts, dated to about the ninth century ce (Eyo 2008:23). Made with the coiling technique, many of the finds are distinguished by their elaborate decorations, featuring concentric circles, interlaced patterns, spirals, zig-zags, chevrons, herringbones, crosses, arcs, arrow points, and stars, among others (Fig. 15). The ritual functions of certain vessels are apparent in the stylized human motifs on their bodies (Fig. 16). His 1996 excavations at Abasi Edem Street unearthed similar ceramics as well as a terracotta figurine dated to about eighth–tenth century ce, while another, in 1999 at Old Marian Road, yielded artifacts dated to about sixth–eighth century ce (Eyo 1999:11–12, 2001:15; Slogar 2007:23).
In the 1990s, Ekpo Eyo also returned to his previous investigations of the ancient anthropomorphized monoliths (alapatal and atal) on the easternmost (Ekoi/Ejagham) part of the Cross River State, close to the Nigerian-Cameroon border. The monoliths are said to represent dead priest-chiefs and/or legendary ancestors (Figs. 17–18). They were first documented in 1905 by the British District Officer, Charles Partridge, and later studied by Philip Allison (1968:34) who, on the basis of local oral traditions, tentatively dated them to the sixteenth or seventeenth century ce, when commercial transactions with Europeans would seem to have spurred an economic boom in the area (Eyo 1995:374–75). However, and to Ekpo Eyo's surprise, the excavations he conducted in the Bakor villages of Alok, Emangabe, and Enkrigom yielded dates ranging from 200 to 500 ce, indicating that some of the stone monoliths might be contemporary with or even older than many of the Calabar ceramics (Eyo 2008:30; see also Clarke 1997). Besides, certain decorative motifs on the monoliths recall those on the ceramics as well as the nsibidi/nsibiri, a pictogram (Fig. 19) used, from time immemorial, by an exclusive Leopard Society (called Ekpe by the Efik and Ngbe or Egbo by the Igbo) in different areas of southeastern Nigeria to transmit coded messages not only among its members, but also between the physical and metaphysical worlds (Eyo 1986:101–102, 2008:48–49; Slogar 2007:18–29; see also Amaechi 1977:1–8; Dayrell 1910:113–15, 1911: 521–43; Carlson 2003; Kalu 1980:76–83; Macgregor 1909: 209–19). The pictogram also appears on masquerade costumes, the walls of the Society's shrines and lodges, as well as on the blue cloth (ukara) wrapped around the waist or worn like a toga to identify members in public (Figs. 20–22).
Simply put, Ekpo Eyo's field research in Calabar and Bakor in the 1980s and 1990s is significant in the way it has helped to fill in some of the gaps in the timeline of ancient Nigerian art. Before then, the art of the Nok culture (ca. 900 bce–200 ce) was followed by that of Igbo-Ukwu (ca. 800–900 ce). The lacuna between the two traditions has now been filled by the Bakor Monoliths (ca. 200–500 ce) and Calabar terracottas (ca. 500–900 ce). In addition, the appearance on the Calabar terracottas and Bakor monoliths of decorative motifs comparable to present-day nsibidi/nsibiri pictograms almost certainly confirms the antiquity of the latter.
In view of its use to circulate secret information among initiates, it is not surprising that the pictogram spread to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, where some African captives might have employed it for a similar purpose. For instance, in Cuba, where the descendants of captives from southeastern Nigeria now constitute a sizeable part of the population, both the nsibidi and a secret Leopard Society (called Abakua) have survived (Figs. 23–25), even though in modified forms (see Thompson 1984:227–68; Miller 2009).11 The availability of new archaeological data from Ekpo Eyo's findings, as well as the postcolonial cultural revival in the Cross River State and other parts of Nigeria, have since opened a new door for both synchronic and diachronic studies (see, for example, Miller 2009).
Apart from the publications already cited in connection with his major excavations, Ekpo Eyo has authored other books and articles to enrich the interpretation and appreciation of Nigerian as well as African art. Because of space limitations, only two of his books will be mentioned here, given the international impact of the exhibitions they accompanied (other publications are itemized in Slogar 2012:13–14).
The first, Two Thousand Years Nigerian Art, was published in 1977 in connection with an exhibition of the same title organized by Ekpo Eyo and held in Lagos (Nigeria) the same year as the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ‘77). A follow-up to the First World Festival of African Art and Civilization that took place in Dakar (Senegal) in 1966, FESTAC ‘77 attracted a multitude of visitors from different parts of Africa and its Diasporas as well as from the Americas, Europe, Middle East, Asia, and the South Pacific. Formally opened by the then Nigerian Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo, the FESTAC's “Two Thousand Years” exhibition drew attention to artistic development in Nigeria from ca. 900 bce to the early decades of the twentieth century. The African American congressman Charles Coles Diggs (from Michigan) was so impressed by and proud of the works on display that he urged the Nigerian Government to let it travel to the United States (Eyo 2008:33). Consequently, the exhibition was renamed “Treasures of Ancient Nigeria: Legacy of 2000 Years” with a new catalogue co-authored by Ekpo Eyo and Frank Willett, who had also conducted excavations at Ifè (Eyo and Willett 1980). The exhibition first opened in January 1980 at Michigan's Detroit Institute of Arts and then traveled to the Legion of Honor/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (California) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), among others. Such was the impact of the works on American viewers that Mark Stevens of the Newsweek was moved to write in the October 1980 edition of the magazine:
This exhibit … includes good examples of Benin work, whose excellence has long been recognized. Most exciting, however, is the display of works of other sculptural traditions in Nigeria, some newly uncovered. They prove that Nigeria … has an immensely rich and varied artistic tradition. …
Of particular note are the Ifè bronzes. These were cast from about the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries [ce] … The heads, most of which are life-size, portray the Onis, or rulers, of the city. Made after the ruler's death, the bronzes originally bore the dead sovereign's crown.
The bronzes are astonishingly realistic portraits. (They should alter the widely held view that African Art includes only the expressionist and masklike figures that influenced Picasso.) At the same time, they have classical grace; their magnificent dignity—it is truly royal detachment—transcends the particular. A convincing conjunction of the real and the ideal is found only in great art, and then only rarely … The authors of the catalog, Ekpo Eyo and Frank Willett, have a field which is still new to explore—and it promises to be a great one (cited in Eyo 2008:34).
In fact, the enthusiastic reception of the exhibition in the United States soon spread across the Atlantic, causing several European museums to ask the Nigerian National Museum for permission to host it. As a result, the exhibition began a six-year world tour that ended in 1986 (Eyo 2008:35), making Nigerians and Diaspora Africans very proud of their artistic heritage. Not only that, the interest generated by some of the exhibits led Ekpo Eyo to organize a well-attended International Symposium on Yoruba Carving Styles: Ere Ibeji12 to which I was invited to present a paper.
Any tribute to Ekpo Eyo would be incomplete without mentioning, however briefly, his service to the museum profession. He was one of the founding members of the Archaeological Association of Nigeria as well as the West African Archaeological Association. In 1970, he served on UNESCO's Committee that drafted the Convention on the Illicit Transfer of Cultural Property. In 1974 he was a member of UNESCO's Committee for Restitution of Cultural Property Illicitly Appropriated During Colonial Times and Their Return to their Countries of Origin. In 1975, he was appointed one of the trustees of the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation for Research Related to Man's Origins. Between 1976 and 1978, he served as the president of UNESCO's Organization for Museums, Monuments, and Sites in Africa, and, between 1976 and 1980, as vice president of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee. He was on the Advisory Committee for the legendary exhibition “Africa: The Art of a Continent” held in 1995 at the Royal Academy of Art, London, and in 1996 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. He also contributed entries to the catalogs of these exhibitions (Eyo 1995:374–75, 1996:9–14, 138–39).
No wonder Ekpo Eyo received many awards for service to the profession. As far back as 1975, the French Ministry of Culture admitted him into the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, in recognition of his services to the arts. In 1980, he was recognized as a Fellow by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) at its meeting in Mexico, the same year that the Nigerian Government honored him as an Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR). In 1984, he was named a Regency Fellow by the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. And in 2004, at the Thirteenth Triennial symposium on African Art hosted by Harvard University, the Art Council of the African Studies Association (ACASA) presented him with the Leadership Award (Fig. 26).13
So it is that Ekpo Okpo Eyo had already become an international icon by the time of his death on May 28, 2011. In addition to other events currently being planned to commemorate his legacy, the Calabar Museum Society, in collaboration with the National Museum (Calabar), has started an Annual Ekpo Eyo Memorial Lecture in his honor.
Once again, Professor Ekpo Okpo Eyo: Eye du ke esit nyin ke nsinsi (you will be in our hearts forever); obong (abasi) odu ye ago (wishing you God's blessings).
I would like to thank the following for their contributions to this article: Robin Poynor, Rebecca Nagy, and Leslie Jones for their insightful comments on the first draft of this article; Bassey O. Onyile and Victor Ekpuk for introducing me to eulogies from Nigeria's Cross River State; and Christopher Slogar, Eli Bentor, Christa Clarke, and Jordan Fenton providing illustrations from their personal archives.
Dr. Emmanuel Okechuwwu Odita (one of my professors at Nsukka) also encouraged me to become an art historian.
See “Ministry, CBAAC Mourn Eyo.” June 10, 2011. https://bivnze.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/ministry-cbaac-mourn-late-eyo/
Another student (Christa Clarke), corroborated this statement in a eulogy to Professor to Professor Ekpo Eyo dated June 10, 2011. In it, she says that such was his generosity that he paid for her trip to Nigeria in 1989 by hiring her to create drawings of some of the carved stone monoliths in the Cross River State. See also Slogar 2005.
I once witnessed the sacrifice of a kite (àsá) at a burial ceremony of a local chief for a similar purpose.
It should be noted, however, that the elephant motif is not exclusive to the Ife monarch, other Yoruba kings (Oba) are also identified with the animal. See also Drewal 1992:187–207.
According to the tradition, Prince Ojugbelu died on the way, but his son, Imade, continued until the group eventually settled in present-day Òwò. It should be noted as well that, although less popular, another oral tradition alleges that Òwò was founded by “Olówò” (Lord of Òwò):also from Ifè and one of the sons of Òrúnmìlà, the Yoruba Divination deity (Abiodun 1989:93).
Another version of the legend identifies Oranmiyan as the son of a dethroned Benin monarch, Imadoduwa, who had sought refuge in Ife and, by stroke of good luck, got elected as its ruler and became known as Oduduwa. But no sooner had he ascended the Ife throne than words came from Benin that he should return and reclaim the throne. Turning down the offer, Imadoduwa/Oduduwa, asked Oranmiyan (his son by a Yoruba princess) to go and represent him. After a brief reign, Oranmiyan abdicated the Benin throne for his first son Eweka and returned to Ife (Eweka 1991).
Although most publications refer to this site as Igbó'Lajà, the people of Òwò call it Ugbó'Lajà.
Rowland Abiodun (1989:03) has also suggested that “While the making of terracotta sculptures has since ceased at Owo, its spirit survived in the [naturalistic] ako, a second burial effigy whose institution may be as old as five hundred years.” For more details and illustrations, see Abiodun 2014:178–203).
Ère èbejì refers to Yoruba carved memorials (ère) to deceased twins (ìbejì). The symposium was held at the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, April 8–9, 1988. Professor Wande Abimbola and the famous Yoruba carver Lamidi Fakeye (1928–2009) were among the paper presenters.
ACASA Newsletter (Spring/Summer 2004) 69:13.