You Know Ladi Kwali, but Do You Know Constance Affiong Ekong?
Hardly has any sector in Nigeria seen more contribution from women than the arts. When pottery, for example, is mentioned, one’s mind immediately goes not to any male potter or artist but to Chief Ladi Kwali, the preeminent Nigerian potter, whose portrait adorns the back of the Nigerian 20 naira note. Virtually everyone in Nigeria knows Ladi Kwali — because virtually everyone in Nigeria has seen or held the 20 naira note in his or her hand. But few people know Constance Affiong Ekong.
Chief Constance Affiong Ekong (1930–2009) was an artist, designer, and patron of the arts renowned for several reasons, including for being the first Nigerian woman to study arts abroad and for establishing the first private art gallery in Nigeria. She was born to Efik and Ibibio parents in Calabar, Nigeria, and studied art and costume history in England, at the Oxford College of Arts and Technology, Saint Martin’s School of Art, and the Central School of Art and Design, in the 1950s. Being the first woman to have a solo exhibition in Nigeria, at the Lagos Festival of Arts Center in 1958, and a founding member of the Society of Nigerian Artists, Afi is widely recognized as the pioneer of modern Nigerian art. Her rise to fame was largely due to her works being featured in numerous exhibitions at home and abroad. She produced and appeared on a Nigerian television program, Cultural Heritage, where she talked about and promoted Nigerian arts and artists, and, in 1965, opened the Bronze Gallery in Lagos, the first private art gallery in Nigeria.
In 1962 President William Tubman of Liberia honored Afi with “The Star of Dame Official of the Human Order of African Redemption,” in recognition of her various efforts and initiatives in promoting art and women’s education in West Africa, and in 1963, she was featured in an essay in the New York Times as an example of the “New African Woman.”
Women, as ever, continue to make immense contributions to pottery and the arts, and Art Tech District, as always, continues to elevate indigenous talent, traditional or modern, by proper documentation and advocacy, ensuring that the names and outstanding contributions of eminent pioneers are never forgotten.