Abolore Sobayo’s day was disrupted by a shocking phone call. The visual artist, fashion designer and politician has recently focused on community art, with hundreds of children from low-income families benefiting from his art center, Jelosimi Art Center in Oshodi. During the phone call, a colleague informed him that one of his most important works of art, an installation called “Community”, at the famous Ile Zik bus stop along the Lagos- Abeokuta, had been demolished.
It wouldn’t be the first time Sobayo’s artwork has been moved from its original location. His iconic statue of Afrobeat legend and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti has already been moved from Allen Roundabout to Opebi Allen Roundabout to allow for the state’s traffic decongestion exercise. However, in the case of the “headless statue of Fela”, entitled “Liberation”, he was duly informed so that he could supervise the dismantling and reinstallation of the work.
For this installation called “Community”, he was completely taken aback by the process. Although upset by the news, he took the time to explain the situation on Wednesday February 9. “After that, I went to the site to see what was on the ground and saw that the works were really demolished. I felt bad as an artist and I felt bad as someone who created a piece of art that was loved by some in the audience,” he began, pouring out his heart.
The facility has more than aesthetic significance for the state; it is also a cultural heritage forming part of the state-commissioned projects to mark Lagos at 50. “‘Community’ is an art installation with a great show of unity in Lagos,” he said.
Although this is a commissioned project, Sobayo considers this work to be one of the highlights of his portfolio as a visual artist. Of course, the interdisciplinary artist made a name for himself as a successful politician when he was elected to represent Ogunoloko Ward in Isolo/Oshodi Local Government Area, Lagos, as head of the council from 2011 to 2014. The Yaba College of Technology graduate was born and raised in Oshodi, where his commitment to community art projects stems from a place of deep passion.
“I will surely miss the piece as I will be reminded each time I pass by this road. The community is about community life in Lagos State and also served as a form of documentation with the maps of the 57 local government areas and LCDAs. Are the works of art and intellectual property in the state safe? I have more questions than answers.”
Meanwhile, the damaged facility had been vandalized several times in recent years – first in 2019 when the perimeter fence was stolen and in 2020 when the metal pole bearing the state logo was removed by strangers. He would have drawn the attention of the authorities concerned to these developments in order to secure the work. For him, the recent demolition shows no respect for the artist’s right to creative work.
“It is important that information about relocation or demolition be communicated to the artist because often artists have created these works and even if the works had been acquired and commissioned by the state, the artist still has a right intellectual property on the artwork.The artist should be informed of any changes made to the artwork.The artist would be able to advise properly on how it would be moved without damaging the artwork, rather than going forward and forcing the removal or destruction of the works and wasting the funds used to create the works.
“One of the things I wish we could examine is the value we place on art. Art should not be seen, especially public art should not be seen as furniture or bus stop park that can be demolished. It is absolutely wrong for anyone to tear down the public arts. I think the artist as a stakeholder should be involved in such decision making.
It is unclear whether there are any laws that protect public art in Nigeria. But in other climates, most disputes over public art between the developer or state and the artist revolve around whether the art can be moved, altered, or even destroyed. For example, in the United States, developers pay dearly if they violate artists’ rights. The most important federal law in this area is the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), which grants moral rights to artists for works of “recognized stature.” The law grants artists continuing rights to works that have been sold and prohibits “the intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of such work that would be detrimental to [the artist’s] honor or reputation” and “prevents any destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any destruction intentional or by gross negligence of this work”.
For Sobayo, one of the things he learned from a situation like this was how to move on. “It happened to my work and I wouldn’t appreciate it happening to another artist’s work,” he explained. “Looking to the future, that is what I would like to push and hope to advocate for a law that protects public art not just in Lagos but across the country.”
In a press statement signed by the Lagos State Task Force Press and Public Affairs Director, Gbadeyan Abdulraheem, the demolition exercise was allegedly conducted to rid the state of criminal elements who rob commuters caught in traffic along this axis and use the installation area as a hiding place. “Commuters who constantly criss-cross this axis have claimed that the suspected thieves – after committing their illegal acts usually rush to the canoe monument erected to beautify the city,” reads in part.
The “Canoe Monument” is a cultural landmark for the state. The UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage of 1972 considers monumental sculptures as cultural heritage and under article 4 of the convention, each state signatory to the convention has the duty to “protect” and to “conserve” historical monuments. .
Instead of piling up its remains like abandoned fish cartons, the facility could be saved for proper relocation and installation.