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Artists Share Nigerian Culture and Creativity during Visit to WSU

When visiting artist Mathew Ehizele was asked how his sculpture was progressing at the Worcester Center for Crafts, he broke into a wide smile and responded with an enthusiastic “excellent!” Even while admitting the challenges of working in an outdoor environment with the dodgy New England weather, Ehizele embraced the situation. “I am very happy to be here, and to be working on this piece. I am blessed with this opportunity.”

The sculpture in question is a metalwork piece that depicts the Nigerian cultural tradition of Igbabonelimhin (meaning “clappers for the spirit”), a masquerade ceremony that has been celebrated for generations. Participants of Igbabonelimhin wear brightly colored costumes that conceal their identity and perform an acrobatic dance that involves body twisting and suspension in the air. “I wanted to capture the abstract nature of the performance,” explained Ehizele during a talk he gave on October 9 titled, “Art and Higher Education in Nigeria,” as part of the University’s focus on increasing its involvement in art and global education.

Ehizele was invited by the Visual and Performing Arts Department [1] to create his sculpture and share the process of creation with students, faculty and the public. He and fellow Nigerian, Michael Akhaine Osebhajimete, an artist, researcher and leader in higher education, led the session.

“Bringing these artists to Worcester and the WSU campus offers an opportunity for learning and for understanding the global reach and effects of art in our world,” said Adam Zahler, chair of the Visual and Performing Arts Department.

“I produce works that speak to me from my native background and often use materials that are available and affordable. This is the reason why I resorted to the auto technician workshop for used and discarded auto engine parts. I found the similarities with human body kinetics,” said Ehizele. The sculpture is awaiting finishing touches and then staff will determine exhibit options.

Plans are also underway for hanging the paintings by Osebhajimete, a teacher and head of the Painting Department at Yaba College of Technology who visited Worcester State along with Ehizele. He has also been focusing on Igbabonelimhin in his own work. “What I want to do is catch the movement of the masqueraders, although it is impossible to replicate,” he said. “They move so fast, you don’t even see how it is happening. It is like they are in a trance.”

Ehizele and Osebhajimete’s art is part of a larger effort to preserve and promote Nigerian culture in an increasingly modernized society. Even the traditional methods of making Igbabonelimhin masquerade costumes have been affected by the convenience of a contemporary lifestyle. “Most people nowadays find it easier to buy materials and use whatever they want to use,” said Osebhajimete, who is also researching and reconstructing the traditional Igbabonelimhin costumes.

At a farewell ceremony at the Worcester Center for Crafts, the artists thanked Worcester State University for its hospitality and the support from the faculty of the Visual and Performing Arts Department. “I am excited to share what I have learned and the work that I have done here with my students back in Benin,” said Ehizele. “This has been a great experience.”

Lyn Branscomb and Christine Hickman contributed to this story.