• Tony Igele

How the Oba of Benin banned my father from sculpturing – Osareti

Freedom of art would sound odd today but not in the ancient Benin kingdom where the artist needed permission from the Oba to practice, says Obasohan Osareti, a painter and sculptor whose workshop is located at Cane Village, Maryland, the National headquarters of Cane Weavers Association of Nigeria.

•Osareti Obasohan (inset) and his works

Osaretin’s artistic history runs down his ancestral roots and is as remarkable as the product of his creative endeavour. His father, Obasohan, from Isiemwenro, was also a carver and sculptor. In those days, art was a closely guarded trade and people could not practice it as freely as they did today.

There was an officially recognised family of carvers from Igbasama, who used their arts to serve the king, Oba of Benin. The artists who worked with brass came from Igun. All those people jealously guarded their arts and did not allow artists outside their clan to carve or sculpt.

But Obasohan was highly gifted and gaining wide patronage. Around 1926 they reported him to the Oba, saying he was practicing the art without belonging to their family. The Oba therefore summoned Obasohan and ordered him to cease from carving.

During the colonial era when white men came, Obasohan took his case to the District Officer. After his visit to the District Officer, one of the Oba’s loyalists and messengers of the white man present during Obasohan’s visit to the D.O went to the Oba and told him about the visit.

The Oba summoned Obasohan again and made him swear not to carve or sculpt again even with the permission of the District Officer. That sealed his carving career.

Obasohan’s son, Osaretin, was only a lad when he heard this story concerning the frustration of his father’s talent as an artist and decided to carry on from where his father had stopped. Today, that dream has been fulfilled. The various works of art in different mediums capturing local scenes and radiating peace are all evidences to the realisation of that dream. His workshop which doubles as showroom at the U-Turn under the Maryland Bridge at the Ojota end is called Edo Art Centre.

Most prominent in Edo Art Centre is the work Oseretin calls different faces of mask. It is tall, black, and actually has many faces. It is the kind of art works one sees in the lounges and receptions of big hotels, banks, airports, and even in homes of some people who know the value of artworks.

Osaretin makes sales every day. “God always brings people who come to buy my works. I am happy with the money I make from my arts every day,” he says. Osaretin emphasises God in everything he does. There is the invisible hand of God in his work.

Few meters away from Edo Art Centre, sat two other young men from Delta, Isaac Akpofure and ThankGod Ibrirhe, weaving wonderful furniture just from canes. their products range from sitting room chairs of different designs, to beach settees, dinning sets, different baskets for storing clothing items, mirror frames, cupboards, room dividers, baby cots as well as cane beds for adults.

There is a set of eight cane seats weaved in upholstered design. Apart from their aesthetic beauties, they are less cumbersome and lighter to move about. Isaac reveals that the canes they use in weaving furniture are brought in from Edo and Delta, because the canes in Lagos forests and other nearby places are not as matured and good as those that come from Edo and Delta.

The soft speaking artist, Isaac, also goes to a school for the mentally and physically handicapped, at Surulere Lagos, to teach craft every Monday and Wednesday.

But for the engine sounds of vehicles passing nearby and the vibrations of others passing atop the overhead bridge, the Cane Village is as peaceful as the works of art on display and under creation.

Just as one finds Hausas in majority at most ram or cattle markets and Igbos dominate the electronic market at Alaba, Benin and Edo people predominantly occupy this art and craft community known as Cane Village, Maryland.

Besides cane furniture and other artworks, there are also different sizes and qualities of foot mats for cars and homes made of coconut fibers. Osaretin says the foot mats, as simple as they appear, are all imported from India, United Kingdom or Korea, and they are very costly. According to him, a certain Indian man was using the coconut fibers in Badagry to weave foot mats but since the Indian returned to his country, the coconut fibers in Badagry have been wasting and Nigeria has been importing foot mats and brushes made of such materials.

In all, the peaceful scenes depicted on the painting seem to sip into the environment and into the visitors despite the surrounding noise. The beautiful Benin and Edo songs the women artists there sang as they weaved are equally soothing to the mind. The Maryland Cane Village is truly an unexplored goldmine on account of the human skills and peculiarity of the environment. It is a tourism

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