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  • Eye Du Ke Esit Nyin Ke Nsinsi!Remembering Ekpo Okpo Eyo (1931–2011): Administrator, Archaeologist, Scholar, Teacher, Mentor, and Friend
  • Babatunde Lawal (bio)

I first met Ekpo Eyo (Fig. 1) in the 1960s during one of his visits to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where I was then an undergraduate and a studio major in the institution's Department of Fine Arts. He soon became a mentor and friend. Our frequent meetings at the National Museum in Lagos contributed significantly to my decision to become an art historian.1 I know of several other colleagues (black and white) who benefitted from his advice. Besides, he is world-famous for his outstanding professional and academic contributions to African archaeology, anthropology, art history, and museology, among others. Hence, despite his departure to the hereafter on May 28, 2011, Professor Ekpo Okpo Eyo's legacy lives on. As a popular eulogy in Efik (his mother tongue) would put it: Eye du ke esit nyin ke nsinsi (you will be in our hearts forever); obong (abasi) odu ye ago (wishing you God's blessings).

Born on July 8, 1931 in Creek Town, near Calabar, the capital of what is now the Cross River State of Nigeria (then a British colony), Ekpo Okpo Eyo (hereafter identified simply as Ekpo Eyo) spent his early childhood in the area. After attending the Presbyterian Primary School in Creek Town and Duke Town Secondary School in Calabar, he moved to Lagos (former capital of Nigeria) in the 1950s, looking for greener pastures. His appointment in 1953 as an assistant in the Nigerian Department of Antiquities, headed by British-born Kenneth Murray (1908-1972), opened the door, enabling him to proceed to the United Kingdom in the late 1950s for postsecondary education. There, he studied and received diploma in archaeology from the University of London as well as an MA degree in archaeology and anthropology from Cambridge University. He returned to Nigeria in 1963 and was elevated to the rank of archaeologist/anthropologist in the Department of Antiquities. Roughly five years later (in 1968), he was appointed the first Nigerian-born director following the retirement of Kenneth Murray.2 Ekpo Eyo assumed the post at a critical point in the country's history—eight years after she gained political independence from Great Britain and when postcolonial nationalism instilled in many Nigerians a new sense of pride in their country's cultural and artistic heritage. It will be recalled that some Nigerians distanced themselves from indigenous art during the colonial period because colonial masters misinterpreted its emphasis on stylization as a failed attempt at naturalism and hence "primitive." Although many naturalistic portrait heads in terracotta and brass turned up in the Yoruba town of Ifè (as early as 1910), they were dismissed as the works of foreigners. In fact, the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius, who first brought Ifè art to world attention, attributed the portrait heads to the ancient Greeks who, according to him, might have settled among the Yoruba before the Common Era (bce). He then speculated that if a full figure in the Ifè style were to be found in Ifè, it would almost certainly reflect proportions similar to those of ancient Greek art (Frobenius 1968 1:348). Fortunately, a full figure turned up during one of the excavations in the city in 1957 (Fig. 2a–b), to challenge Frobenius's assumption. For, despite the naturalistic rendering of its anatomical features, the figure's head constitutes about a quarter of the whole body, thus conforming to the artistic tradition found in other parts of Africa (Willett 1967:49–50; see also Willett 1973:2, 5, 7; and Lawal 2004:143–49). Besides, the figure, like several other naturalistic Ifè works, dates between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries ce—much later than Leo Frobenius had imagined. Paradoxically, these so-called primitive arts of Africa (including those from Nigeria) became a source of inspiration for European Modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century, thus sparking both academic and museum interests in indigenous African art. In order to acquire more knowledge and advanced research methods for interpreting the large number of antiquities being discovered in different parts of the country, Ekpo...


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