Obiageli: UNESCO’s posthumous award on Okigbo is honour for Nigeria

Obiageli at UNESCO MoW plaque unveil

Obiageli Annabel Ibrahimat Okigbo is the President of Christopher Okigbo Foundation (COF). The Oxford Brooks University-trained architect is the daughter of Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo, a poet, teacher, and publisher, who died in 1967, fighting for the independence of Biafra. She spoke to OMIKO AWA about the recent posthumous UNESCO award given to Okigbo in recognition of his literary works, her art and foundation.

…The Ministry Of Culture Failed To Do Right Thing By Okigbo

What does it mean to be the daughter of Okigbo?
I feel I just happen to be his daughter; it could be anybody else. I thank God that I have the skills and ability to carry and promote his legacy. It’s a very big shoe to wear and a heavy mantle to carry.

And how have you been making the shoe to fit your feet?
I have always tried to focus on the essentials, which are his poetry and written works, to put them in print and protect them for posterity, so that even when I am no longer here, the legacy will still be on. I am focusing on these areas, while other people could take on other areas. I have been doing this in the past 15 years and when the main objectives are achieved, I will leave it for the next generation to carry on. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) entry and recognition of his works has achieved a lot for the foundation. This will now make me to start looking into his other areas such as promoting young people and their creativity.

What are the things that motivated UNESCO to give the Posthumous Award to Okigbo?
We started the journey in 2002 and that process led me to establish my foundation, the Christopher Okigbo Foundation (COF) in 2005. I started going around to meet his friends –– Professors Chinua Achebe, JP Clark and Wole Soyinka, who told me about him, his immortality and his works. I also traveled around universities to visit Okigbo scholars; I did not realise that they exist at Harvard, Colombia, Nigeria, and all over the world. It was during this period that I discovered that what people have been saying about my father is true. So, I thought of a way for all of us to come together and have a common voice to say that this is who he was, this was what he was worth and this is what he deserves.

It was then that someone told me about the UNESCO Memory of the World (MoW); they open their entry every four years, but normally you apply through your country’s Ministry of Culture. But because of the situation of the country, I used my foundation (COF) as an institution to apply for it. I went about this with the help of Prof. Chukwuma Azuonye of Massachusetts University, Henry Louis Gates of Harvard and Prof. Wole Soyinka; these were the ones behind my intellectual and academic proposals. Joie Springer, the woman in charge of MoW programme also guided me. The body nominated Okigbo in 2006, but announced the nomination in 2007. This then means that Okigbo papers, that is, his actual manuscripts with me have been nominated for the award and these would go into the Memory of the World (MoW) register.

The award did not thrill me that much until I went to their exhibition in 2010 in Korea, where I saw the first printed Bible, the 2000-year old Chinese manuscript, the works of William Shakespeare, and other great works, where you see Christopher Okigbo also displayed. A lot of people that came for the exhibition were wondering, ‘who is Okigbo?’ (He is) a young African, who is sharing such great platform with the greats of the world! With this, he became the first Nigerian and African to be so recognised. We decided to unveil the plaque at his 50th anniversary because if we keep waiting till we have our own structure, we might end up not doing so. It is for this reason that we launched it at Cambridge House, Ibadan, to make people see it and know of it.

How is your organisation handling the plaque and other documents now that you do not have a structure?
I see myself as a custodian until the day we will have a proper culture ministry in Nigeria and we will hand it over. They will own it; it is for Nigeria. I am only doing this because the Ministry of Culture did not back the process. Normally, it is the responsibility of the ministry to do this and because they did not do it, UNESCO has to find a way of recognising Okigbo’s works; they name COF as an Island. On the MoW register are names of countries and COF has to be presented as a country to be able to get the nomination and recognition for Okigbo. If the Ministry of Culture had done the right thing, it would not have been so.

Is Okigbo the first to have been so treated?
So, far yes. We are like an Island. COF was first listed under Belgium because I live there, but I did not like that. So, I had to change it. If you now go to the records, COF is listed as a country. From the look of things, the plaque is now floating, which is the reason I have to put it where I want. I’m praying that one day Nigeria will own it. The plaque is for Nigeria; it is a recognition and honour for the country.

With UNESCO recognizing Okigbo’s legacy, what are the foundation’s plans of projecting Okigbo to young people?
Now that we have protected his actual works, we are moving on promoting creativity, poetry, painting, music, writing, all that Okigbo stood for. The Mbari artists inspired this move. We also look forward to having a resort in a picturesque area around Ndemili in Akwa, Anambra State, where all the artists can come and have residences and do their work. We shall be having a yearly poetry event and also give prizes and awards.

Why the choice of Ndemili and not Ojoto?
In fact, Ojoto was the first place of choice and my reason is that William Shakespeare was from a tiny community in Wales. Nobody knew it and because of his works and popularity, tourists troop there in their numbers every year to see where he lived and his surrounding. This encouraged small business holdings to spring up in the community. It is now a tourist centre. So, you just don’t think of today; for, with time, COF will make it happen. We will open up the community, showcase Okigbo’s local home and the culture of his people. It is going to be another tourist destination.

You lost your dad when you were three years old. How were you able to trace everything about him?
Funny enough, I began to get information that trigged other things from his poetry. In that same 2002, I started dabbling with painting. Dr. Pius Okigbo (Uncle Pius, he was like a father to me) told me that my father was a great poet. He had earlier given me a copy of his book and each time I opened the book, I never understood anything in it. But in one of the days I was painting, something happened, which I cannot explain and the book just became like a guide for my art, which brought my late father and I together. I went back to his poems and began to see things from a different light. After that, I had an exhibition ‘Tapping into the Known’ at the Brunei Gallery, London. It is an exhibition of poetry, paintings and installations. It was as if when I began, we could talk through the art. It was after that that I took it on to project his legacy.

How were you able to have a conversation with him, when he died years ago?
It happened while I was at home. I had already gone to the Ojoto River to see the river and read one of his poems, ‘Mother Ojoto.’ I came back and started with my painting, when the apparition came and said: ‘I am proud of what he had done and that the book is the testimony of his work and I should go and do mine.’ After this experience, I phoned Prof. Achebe to tell him my experience and he confirmed that it was my father that could have said those words to me.

How did you know it was your father, when you went to Ojoto River and read a poem dedicated to the River goddess? Could that not be a visitation of the River goddess?
It could have been anything, but my interpretation shows it was my father because he came with a staff and said, ‘his book.’ The image was very big, but the voice resonated. He came at night and in a hood; I did not see his face, but heard him clearly.

Was that not a motivation for you to work?
No; it rather made me weak and relaxed from wanting to push for more of his works to be known. His coming took over a lot of pressure off me because I had nothing to prove to him. I was just busy really doing my thing; so, whatever I have achieved is my own contract; it is between me and myself. Before then, I was up and doing and was never tired of the vision, in terms of ‘I do not owe anybody anything.’ But now I have to work more because of my conscience.

What inspired you into painting and not writing, as most people would have expected?
It was Okigbo’s poems that inspired me to do what I am doing – painting. I exhibited at the first solo show of Art X in Lagos, and would, in 2018, present another exhibition in London. Recently, I have been drawn to ceramic, but painting is my major. I started from abstract art, being an architect and then moved into painting and drawing.

It seems painting has taken over the architecture side of you, or do you design?
No; I am still into architecture. I am only showcasing my passion in the arts through painting. I am not yet at that level where I make huge money. The first money I made was used to get another phone and a few things for my kids and me.

Does painting pay more in Europe than in Africa?
No; it pays more here in Nigeria. For, in Europe, you have to be a star to make the millions, but in Nigeria, many of the painters and artists live off their works. You see them in street corners and open spaces making money, but the reverse is the case in Europe.

How do you get funding for COF?
It has been a very big challenge. It’s a labour of love. The people involved put in their energy, time and personal donations.

When you remember the reasons behind your dad dropping the pen for the gun, don’t you feel aggrieved and desire to call for a change in the system?
No; it does not stir the spirit of agitation in me because I do not see the correlation between what happened then and what is happening now. If you ask a lot of people on the street, I do not think they have ever read our history to know what happened then. I am not engaged to that kind of thinking, but if by tomorrow there is a force that would take away people’s freedom, justice and integrity, I will fight that force. Okigbo’s poetry is dedicated to humanity; it goes beyond any ethnic agitation. One of his poetry is dedicated to Patrice Lumumba. Okigbo stood for people’s rights, justice and freedom and anything that would go against that, he would surely do.

How do you see your father based on what you have heard people say about him?
I see him as somebody who was thorough. He was a renaissance man. He was very much an Igbo man, very much loving the poetry of his contemporaries; he was very much a cosmopolitan man. He never limited himself.

What does your mum say he was to her?
The funniest thing is that while I go searching for my dad, she said, ‘I don’t know where you are going to look for him; just look at the mirror. You look very much like him.’ She said I walk and talk like him.

How did your dad’s contemporaries see your search?
They really taught me the real meaning of love and friendship. They opened their arms wide for me, but at the beginning, it was difficult for them, especially Prof. Achebe. It took him nine months after my introduction to open up and talk to me. This was because nobody had really talked about me to them. So, the timing was really tough. Achebe invited me to Germany, when he was given the Peace Award. Then, months later, he called me for a chat. His family members were there, persuading him to talk because he has been carrying the pains of Okigbo’s death for years. And he did talk. I was 35 years old, when I set out to look for my father. I had built a personality of who I want to be and never to walk under anybody’s shadows.

When do you hope to write your own book and what will it be on?
Each time I come to book events or people get to know me as Okigbo’s daughter, they will give me their poems to critique, and I would just be there looking at them! I like art and, physics and architecture are combinations of that, and those waiting for me to write might wait till eternity. It was in course of looking for my father’s record that I realised why my mother was sad about me. She was sad because I never liked reading non-science books. In fact, I enjoyed analytical books. But my daughter enjoys reading literature and poetry; she would critique them, but that is not my turf. She is a literature buff; that is her beat.

What would be your reaction if someone looks into your eyes and calls you the daughter of a rebel?
We all have our different opinions, but if that comes, I see it as the person’s cup of tea. I really do not get myself involved in such issues.

Has there been a time you felt abandoned and without a father?
As a child, yes; I felt ‘why should my father leave us?’ But as an adult and an artist, I now understand better. And if there is any course to defend humanity, justice and integrity, he will do it again!



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