The world keeps changing . Usually for the better . But change also blows away some good things. There’s not much we can do about that. But then there are people that refuse to let the past be; people that keep remembering the way things used to be – the traditions and cultures that change is blowing away. Tony Enebeli is one of those people. His art holds on to the past. You’ll find though that it holds on only to the good bits of the past. Most of his art focuses on the tradition of people in the Anioma area – their festivals, cultures, habits, daily life – all those things that modernity has eroded. Some of these festivals are if not forgotten today and emasculated version of what they used to be. His Ukpalabo series deals with the major ceremony in his village. The point in the year when all members of the village living outside the village are expected to return home.
To mark the occasion, the oldest women in the village, followed by a procession, walks into a hut and breaks a gourd. To many people living in the cities, this sort of activity isn’t even a memory it’s just something that is alien. To a few it’s a distant memory. These festivals, like many aspects of Enebeli’s themes are fast disappearing. His works are almost records to show that these things once existed; testament for a future generation. Some artists might choose to capture the good and the bad. Enebeli seems to want to capture only the good.
His themes deal with the more pleasant aspects of our past and ignore the dark underside of the recent past. Even the patterns on the work seem wholesome. It’s almost as if he’s on a mission to seduce you with the past rather than scare you. The festivals are joyous, the people vibrant, the patterns pleasing and uncomplicated. The end result is that his works tend to look pretty. The first thing that struck me about Enebeli’s work was its beauty. I wanted to own it, to take it home with me, to have it hanging on my wall. Years down the line that impression hasn’t changed.
His works seem to have the ability to seduce. He leaves the dark, complicated side of the past to other artists. The artist, Enebeli is like his works – uncomplicated and easy to get along with. He admits his passion for those festivals he dwells on and says his mission is to build a bridge between the old traditions and the new ways so people can see where they are coming from and can better appreciate where they are going.
He insists the past isn’t just about the shrines and the occult but also about the wonderful festivals that brought people together. For Enebeli his role isn’t merely to capture the past but to expose those tenets that made that time so precious. Enebeli didn’t get any formal art training. He apprenticed with Bruce Onobrakpeya for many years . In the process he became, like Onobrakpeya, a printmaker. Like Onobrakpeya, he works with cast and foil, creating a mould and using a mix of glues to create the artwork. His style is radically different from Onobrakpeya’s though. Enebeli decided at an early stage to explore Nigerian tradition . He however was clear on what he wanted to achieve and saw the recreation of these festivals and events as a tool, a tool to uncover the gems that a fast disappearing from Nigerian society – sharing, caring, harmony unity.
Enebeli continues to explore old Nigerian traditions. And the more he explores, he says, the more he finds that looking back is usually the best way to look forward.