Inside the mind of a creator: A chat with Oriiz Onuwaje….

Waist mask of Iy’Oba Idia, c. 1517–50
‘Iyoba Idia’s visage is the most widely known face of an African Royal Woman …’ (Nkiru Nzegwu, 2005)
Queen Idia’s face conveys the considerable determination and allure that has inspired centuries of respect for her role as an astute leader of the Benin kingdom. This icon was one of four created in her honour by her son, Oba Esigie, who led the kingdom to the height of its prosperity in the 16th century. All four were worn each year in a ceremony by a succession of Obas up until 1897, when they were taken as the spoils of war from Oba Ovonramwen’s palace and brought back to Europe.

Preserving culture and tradition in the Modern World is becoming more difficult than ever. The fast life of getting answers from the tap of a button, instant food order and delivery can make one forget the Ideas that form the bonds which held his ancestors together.

Yet, there are people who go all the way to preserve the legacies of their ancestors for posterity. Their aim is to never let these beautiful lifestyle fade to nothingness, using the same technology as a means of preservation. One of these people is Oriiz Onuwaje.

Oriiz is the Editor and Production Lead for Alizarin Crimson Limited — publishers of Masterpiece: The Art of Fine Living ( whose content caters to diverse creative dimensions within the technologies that undergird leisure and the finer things of life as demarcated by taste and knowledge. Also, as Executive Producer and Content Originator and Developer, his very recent work The Benin Monarchy: An Anthology of Benin History (2018), a classic and most comprehensive publication on the history of Benin Kingdom is a firm attempt to glamorise and package African history for a global audience.

Ibiene caught up with Oriiz to know what made him take on this huge project and what makes him tick. Here’s how the conversation went;

Ibiene: Is there a difference in culture awareness in Nigeria between your growing up days and now?

Oriiz: Indeed, there is a gulf of difference between what obtained in the cultural eco-system in the late 1960s and today. During my formative years, it was fashionable to identify and promote one’s cultural ‘mentality’ without ‘sticking out like a sore thumb’.

I remember spending hours practising Bini dance steps for the visit of President Gnassingbé Eyadéma in 1974, please note, at that time, we were in Warri and not Benin City! we had occasional parades of various cultural presentations that showed our connections to our roots. As time progressed, our cultural ‘awareness’ became outdated and began to give way to Western-centric cultures.

Ibiene: “THE BENIN MONARCHY: An Anthology of Benin History” is a clear statement in packaging and presenting African history. What influenced your decision to take on this massive project?

Red Book Cover

Oriiz: I have always believed that the narrative of Africans and the Black race have not been properly packaged and presented to the world because others always told our story. So, when the opportunity arose, I saw an opportunity to package and present a slice of African history to the world, not a massive project.

Ibiene: Part 2 of the book “The Obas and the civilization of great Benin” comprising 7 chapters written by various contributors presented a sophisticated society. What are your thoughts on the influence of traditional rulers especially with more attention on democratic governance? Do you think their influence is still strong?

Leopard head hip ornament, 16th–19th century. Brass, 20.3 cm
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Oriiz: As aforementioned, today, in our society, we have jettisoned our culture for western culture, and this has negatively affected democratic governance where greed (which negates being ‘your brothers (sister’s) keeper) is now the hallmark of democratic governance. In my opinion, the traditional rulers have no influence on democratic governance; they have no constitutional roles; therefore, are at the mercy of ‘elected’ ‘subjects’.

We imbibe Western democracy and cultures without considerations nor understanding who we are as a people. I concede, as people we did not run perfect systems (there are NO perfect systems), however, certain aspects of our culture suited us better than what we practice today as democratic governance. (1) Being ‘your brothers (sister’s) keeper. (2) we had our OWN very effective EFCC; in our culture, greed and avarice were dealt with effectively and efficiently.

Ibiene: The Benin Red Book offers a thrilling awesome experience in art appreciation. How far do you think Nigeria has gone in realising the value of her exceptional Art?

The Oba with Chiefs Osa and Osuan, with Europeans in the background
Brass plaque, Benin, 16th-17th century
Location: Oba Palace, Benin City
Photo: Oriiz Onuwaje

Oriiz: There are some individual and very scanty institutions who realise that our Art has value. In my opinion, as far as corporate Nigeria is concerned, Art has little or no value. The burden of educating ‘our society’ on the rich benefits of a developed Art eco-system rests on those individuals and institutions who know the value of our exceptional Art.

Ibiene: Why did you choose to document this rich culture in a book instead of a documentary?

Figure of a hornblower, c. 1504-50.  Copper alloy, 62.2 x 21.6 x 15.2 cm.
Location: Brooklyn Museum, New York

Oriiz: The number of videos competing for our attention is obscene; for example, the number of people who use YouTube is roughly 1,300,000,000. Three hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute! Almost 5 billion videos are watched on Youtube every single day. With numbers like these, the attention span to savour or sample repackaged African History in competition alongside other ‘juicy’ material, may be greatly diminished.

Being tactile by nature, the thrill of the sense of touch is always there, and maybe a genius can make the 7 kgs of History into a documentary.

Do you have any question or comments for Oriiz? Do share in the comment section.

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