By Pelu Awofeso: Day I Met Artist Who Carved FESTAC ’77 Logo
The CBAAC Building (Broad Street) houses objects exhibited during Festac’77
The memories of FESTAC‘77 fill Joseph Agbonifo Alufa, 68, with pain and sadness. Agbonifo, who lives in Benin-City, says he feels used and dumped after he “saved Nigeria from disgrace”.
Then 28, Agbonifo, was the artisan commissioned to carve the now familiar Ivory mask — popularly called Queen Idia mask — adopted as the emblem for the 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, which Nigeria hosted in the first quarter of 1977, pulling 19,000 participants from 59 countries, from Angola to Australia.
“That time, Nigeria requested to loan the original mask from the British government to be used for the festival but it refused,” Agbonifo recalls at the opening event of FESTAC’s 40th anniversary commemoration in Lagos on 6 Nov 2017. “They demanded the sum of two million pounds to do this and an additional one-million pound to insure it; besides, they even said the object was too old and fragile to be taken overseas. That was when I was asked to carve a new one, which I eventually did.”
He was not paid for that national service. “Before I did Queen Idia, I had already carved the Olokun, which was taken to the Onikan National Museum. It was not returned and I have not been paid for that either,” Agbonifo says in a separate interview.
The Head of State at the time — President Olusegun Obasanjo — was Guest of Honour at FESTAC’s opening ceremony. “We wanted a symbol which was taken away from here [by the British punitive expedition to Benin Kingdom in 1897],” he said, while explaining why his administration hosted the festival. “We even said, ‘lend it to us’, but they refused; we said ‘alright, the expertise that made that one can still remake another’, so we got Agbonifo to do it.”
I life-size replica of the Idia mask inside the CBAAC building 0 broad Street
Most Nigerians know the individuals who designed the country’s national flag, who composed the national anthem and the pledge; but this is possibly the first time the public would know the identity of the man who produced the FESTAC logo.
“He is living in abject poverty,” says Osaze Osemwegie-Ero, Edo State Commissioner for Arts, Culture, Tourism and Diaspora Affairs. “I had to bring him here all the way from Benin-City so Nigerians could see his plight and help him.”
After a colourful dance parade –at UNILAG’s Sports Centre — involving contingents from around Nigeria, Agbonifo was awarded a plaque as one of a handful of “Festac heroes”, including musicians Sunny Ade and Victor Uwaifo who participated at the epochal 1977 festival.
“A poor hero I am,” Agbonifo says, downcast. “The house I started to build in 1981 remains uncompleted till date. Nonetheless, I am grateful to God that I am alive to witness this gathering.”
FESTAC was organized by the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC). The FESTAC @ 40 activities continue at the National Theatre and climaxes on November 9 with an international symposium.