Legendary institutions almost always start from very trivial incidents. As a child, Newton Jibunoh had a much adored younger sister named Edith. In his stammering, the young Newton could not get to grips with pronouncing the name Edith. What always came out of Newton’s mouth while trying to call his sister Edith was the word “Didi”. Everybody else started calling her Didi!
The monumental Didi Museum that stands on 175 Akin Adesola Street, Victoria Island, Lagos owes its birth to Newton’s mispronunciation of Edith as Didi! Take it from me because I am not a dispenser of Fake News!
The story of the roots of Didi Museum may be long but I can cut it all short because I heard the heart of the matter from the horse’s mouth, that is, the very personable Chief Newton Chukwukadibia Jibunoh – “building engineer, desert adventurer, environmental crusader, arts collector, museum owner, social activist”, and above all else, a “desert warrior.”
Born on New Year’s Day in 1938 in the pastoral town of Akwukwu-Igbo in present-day Delta State, Newton doted on his sister Edith until the kids lost their parents quite early, within months of each other, in 1943. Their mother, Zipporah, died first only to be followed soon after by their father, Samuel, with Newton really having no clear memories and impressions of them.
While in secondary school, Newton suddenly got a message that the principal needed to see him. The young boy was very afraid that he may have committed an offence, as that could only have necessitated the summons of the school principal. He was frightened beyond words when he met the principal. The message the principal had for Newton was quite devastating: his beloved sister, Edith, had died, aged just 13.
Edith was born on May 11, 1941 and died in May 1954. Newton would later ask to know where his sister was buried, but nobody could tell.
He set up Didi Museum to immortalise Edith, whom he used to call Didi.
The other dimension of the young Newton’s immersion in art started when as a choir boy he used to accompany the white missionaries and their acolytes in the mission of burning native idols. A precocious lad, he discovered that the missionaries did not always burn all the gathered idols and deities. They kept some aside which they took away.
It was in the course of his studies and travels abroad that he discovered that the idols carted away back then had found accommodation in the British Museum!
Newton Jibunoh decided to be going to the villages to be collecting the idols as artworks. The range of such iconic artworks collected from the 1960s to today can serve as a befitting testament to Nigeria’s very first private museum, Didi Museum.
Newton Jibunoh inspires in the company of royalty as the late Emir of Kano Ado Bayero, Ooni of Ife Sijuwade and Oba of Benin Erediauwa helped lift the Didi Museum innovation.
Legendary Nigerian artists, notably Ben Enwonwu, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Solomon Wangboje, Demas Nwoko, Yusuf Grillo, Uche Okeke, etc, have passed on the baton of brushes to the younger ones such that Didi Museum is significantly hosting the new generation artists, Uche Okeke and Ayoola, in a pivotal exhibition entitled ‘Journey to Mastery’ which opens at 5pm on April 18 and closes on April 27.
The ‘Journey to Mastery’ exhibition lends pride of place to Didi Museum as the quintessential one-stop home of Nigerian art.
The United States-based modern master Olu Oguibe has just sent a message to me in regard to Newton Jibunoh who “gave me my first one-person exhibition. Say hello for me.”
Newton Jibunoh is fond of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s twice-told story of how the first visiting white men gave out Bibles and asked Africans to close their eyes for prayers, whereupon after opening their eyes they found out that their lands and belongings were gone.
Jibunoh was in the team drafted to go to Britain to help retrieve Nigeria’s artworks before FESTAC 77. Of course, the British authorities stated that Nigerians could not take care of the works that had earlier been taken from their land.
With the refusal of the British to hand over the works for the FESTAC colloquium, Jibunoh went to the Oba of Benin who told him of the artworks hidden in Isele-Uku. The Obi of Isele-Uku in the end gave Jibunoh the needed replica.
Jibunoh laments in hindsight that the British authorities may indeed be right in not releasing the artifacts because the works domiciled in Nigeria’s National Museum have since been destroyed!
Towards the cause of righting the wrongs, the Oba of Benin wants Jibunoh to set up a world-class museum in Benin City.
Jibunoh is at liberty in giving out his collected works freely to be exhibited across the globe, for instance, in the branches of a Nigerian bank in the UK.
“Artworks must be exhibited, not dumped,” he asserts.
He reveals that the climate control system put in place in Didi Museum is not enough to preserve all the works.
The fulfillment of his drive comes in the realisation that he helped to end the fad back then of decorating Nigerian house with European lilies and landscapes. Artworks are now all the rage.
The new age artists, Uche Edochie and Ayoola, mounting the ‘Journey to Mastery’ exhibition at Didi Museum from April 18 o 27 are on the cherished throve of extending a compelling tradition.
The dream that started out with the young Newton calling his younger sister Didi has in the end turned out a full-blown revolution in the world of art.