Nigerian Artist Reimagines Cleveland Museum of Art's Atrium

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A new piece of art is on display that links the Cleveland Museum of Art to the world using music, sculpture and African imagery.  When you step inside the museum, you can’t miss it.

Nigerian-born artist Emeka Ogboh says a life-long fascination with sound began with primitive instruments he made as a boy.

"Like empty cans," he said. "You put stones in it, and it becomes like a rattle. Also, you get a big can of milk powder, empty ones. You put a plastic sheet over it and tie it hard, then it becomes like a kind of drum."

Young Emeka also loved to draw, on paper, on walls - he even made his own comics. Those were the early indications that he was headed towards a career as a multimedia artist. He started making a name for himself in the art world creating installation pieces that incorporated the sounds of his hometown of Lagos. Sounds from cars, buses, taxis, the engines of dozens of power generators in a city with a chaotic electrical grid. Most people would hear this as noise.

"I no longer use the term noise," Ogboh said. "I mean noise is really like something people find unpleasant. I found music, I found a symphony, in the so-called city noises.

The artist’s ability to fill large gallery spaces with compelling sound and imagery attracted the attention of curators at the Cleveland Museum of Art who commissioned him to produce a piece for the vast, three-story atrium space that bridges the museum’s original 1916 building with a 1971 addition.

The Cleveland Museum of Art's Emily Liebert [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]

"And I can still remember the expression on his face when he walked into the atrium for the first time," said Emily Liebert, the museum's curator of comtemporary art.

Once Ogboh got over the initial shock of this daunting space, his eyes quickly moved from the glass roof to the floor below, where people were walking, lounging and talking at tables.  It reminded him of an Ama, or village square, back home in Nigeria. He started sketching some ideas.

"In these village squares you normally have a tree," he said. "The main function of the tree is to provide like shade. So, I wanted to bring a tree to this place."

He designed a 30-foot tree, made of steel and aluminum, which was recently installed at one end of the atrium. Covering the tree is a brown and orange quilt that hugs the trunk and branches like bark. Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi was part of the curatorial team that brought Ogboh to Cleveland.  He smiled as his hand moved across the rough fabric of the tree.

Emeka Ogboh describes the crafting of the traditional Akwete cloth to Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]

"It's one of the oldest textile traditions in West Africa," he said. "It's made by the women of Akwete, a village in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. And the women often learn the skill from their mothers."

The fabrics for the installation were hand-woven by Akwete women [Cleveland Museum of Art]

Adding to the atmosphere of this metaphorical village square is the sound of a specially recorded choir singing folk songs from the ethnic Igbo culture.

"I've done some work with choirs, and I started thinking it would be a cool idea to also bring the folk songs to this place, sung by an Igbo choir," he said.

For hundreds of years, western museums have procured pieces of world culture and put it on display. Liebert said this is very different.

"I think one of the things that happens is that the objects are being divorced from their original uses," she said. "So, for example, a mask that's worn for a sacred performance is then put on a pedestal inside a glass box. There's not that disconnect here."

For the next four months, the feel of a traditional Nigerian gathering place will fill a space where contemporary Clevelanders gather.  They can look-up at a giant tree, touch a hand-crafted textile that covers its surface and listen to the sounds of a choir singing ancient folk songs that continue to resonate with modern ears.  

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