Custodian Interview: Kelechi Anabaraonye

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Kelechi Anabaraonye

In a country with extraordinary natural and human resource reserves, preservation of these resources is, surprisingly, the last thing on most Nigerians’ minds. Kelechi Anabaraonye, a young political scientist with a burgeoning interest in our countries’ colonial past, however, is staunchly focused on preserving these buildings that he insists tell stories; stories which, in his words, we have been ‘lackadaisically been running away from’. Read on to learn more about Kelechi’s favourite buildings, his vision for tourism in the city of Lagos and how preserving Nigeria’s cultural artifacts would help keep our country’s history alive and solidify our collective identity.

First of all, tell us about yourself. Who really is Kelechi Anabaraonye?

Kelechi Anabaraonye is a native of Ezinihitte-Mbaise and a political science student of the University of Lagos with a huge penchant for colonial history especially colonial structures.

How did you get into architectural photography? 

It all started in 2014 when I got my current phone [iPhone 5] and all I did was walk around Lagos Island, taking photographs of these buildings on streets like Broad Street, Catholic Mission Street, Igbosere Road, Campbell Street etc which was a year and some months after I had graduated from the prestigious King’s College, Lagos who also boasts of colonial architecture as well.

Whose work has been most influential, both to your studies of African history and your photography?

I’d say Gillian Hopwood and Marc Riboud of which I discovered the latter first. Coming across his photographs of Africa gave me so much inspiration of which I started writing tales on my Instagram page attached which just non-architectural photographs of which the stories were set in War-torn Biafra [Eastern Nigeria].

Tell me about your favourite series you’ve done or photograph you’ve taken. What inspired it and what did you like about it?

Ah. I have so many photographs that I look like and I’m like, was this really me that took this photo? But I’d say I took some recently, one is of the Holy Cross Cathedral, another of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Old Government Printing Press, Old Secretariat, and I think of the CBAAC building. But there’s one iconic one that I have never shared and don’t think I’d share anytime soon, of the Old Government House. But to talk about one I’d say of the Holy Cross Cathedral despite the fact that I’m Catholic but people are always inclined to preferring the Cathedral Church of Christ structure over the Catholic Cathedral. But there’s something about likening such structures. I rediscovered details when I took the photo. I was more inclined to understanding the flying buttresses although the Cathedral Church of Christ boasts of such but for the Catholic Cathedral it’s more detailed and the pinnacles are more or less exquisitely designed and could pass for maybe the Cologne Cathedral or even the French Gothic cathedrals in France which the Holy Cross Cathedral took after the architectural style. The cross above the main entrance was looking too beautiful in my eyes so I took out my phone, stood gently and quietly took a few shots of course with the clear skies. I always pray to God whenever I have waka or in between the day plan a quick waka that the beautiful skies be in favour of the photographs I’d take. But I was in awe at God’s beauty when I took the shot.

How has your study of political science influenced your passion for colonial architecture and its restoration?

I was really interested in being a politician but after the whole drama leading to the 2015 general elections when I was moving to 200 level, I was like this is a no for me. I cannot do this so with the research I had done since 2009 on history, colonialism including I built on it, and kept on taking photographs of these buildings and of course, in Nigerian politics and the constitutional development course I did, it brought me to the fact that oh yes, the Europeans. And of course, you cannot mention British presence in Nigeria without mentioning some colonial structures.

Religious establishments form a big part of your work. What exactly is it about them that you find resonant?

How is it that we look down on very old Church structures in this country? The burn brick constructed buildings? I don’t get it. Look at the entranceway of the Holy Cross Cathedral, or the two towers at the St. Peter’s Church, or even the inner gothic pillars of the African Church Arch Cathedral Bethel. I have discovered something at some church buildings which we ignore, even the church members ignore as well which is the pipe organs that are installed in these churches. I came to the realisation that these churches really are an offset of the Europeans because if you go to any European cathedral, you must find a pipe organ installed in the church building and it’s to note that they are regal and properly maintained.  I have also discovered something that leaves me astonished about these church structures, the altar area. I did a comparison of altar areas of the Holy Cross Cathedral, St. Jude’s Cathedral, St. Paul’s Breadfruit, African Church Archcathedral and the Cathedral Church of Christ and I found that the construction and design is to match up other church buildings across Lagos, like a healthy unconscious competition. But these churches made sure that they constructed not just their exterior but their interior as well especially for the Anglican churches, the area around the altar. You can undoubtedly compare them to other cathedrals in other African countries and of course other former colonies in the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia.

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Inside the about 71 year old Norman-Gothic [and as pointed out by @orinayo_ , and with research done, there's largely any difference between the neo Gothic and the Norman Gothic as possibly applied in the church's style] Cathedral Church of Christ. It has undoubtedly for 71 years beautified the skyline of the Marina and its clock tower has been a timekeeper for Lagosians who have lost track of time or are carried away by the hustle and bustle of the busy street and surrounding streets. In November of 2000, the Women's Guild Auxiliary Society of the cathedral embarked on a new project of acquiring a new organ for the cathedral after deciding it was necessary to replace the old 4 manual pipe-organ that had served the church for quite a long time. Work begun on the installation of the new organ on the 9th of January 2009. The dismantling of the old Abbott & Smith organ took quite a short time. The organ had served the church for over 70 years. Built by Mssrs. Oberlinger of Germany, the "New Oberlinger Organ" as named by worshippers in the cathedral had 64 stops and a total of Three thousand twenty seven pipes and is supported on a steel structure built into the wall behind the quire section of the church to balance its heavy weight. The new organ also has Spanish Trumpets installed. Tidbit: The original mechanism of the former clock was wildly inaccurate by modern standards, losing or gaining up to 10 minutes per day. The new clock mechanism looks much smaller and modern and most suprisingly, does not possess the big gears and machine parts that most cathedral tower clocks abroad possess. The new clock's mechanism is also linked to a ring of eight bells on the last floor of the cathedral's tower to strike the hours, so that the time can be heard throughout the suburb of the Marina. #LagosLiving #inlivingcolour #forcolonialstructures #colonialfootprints #victorianlagos #InToAfrica

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Are there any interesting themes, patterns or observations that you have found in the course of your work that you think are worth discussing?

The need to actually not alter parts of these buildings especially when there’s a restoration project going on. Also, there’s need for state governments to install commemoration plaques at the listed sites and properties to show tourists or visitors that these buildings are cherished despite the quick succession of many other of these type of buildings by so called contemporary buildings. We also need to discuss the fact that there’s the National Commission for Museums and Monuments which last listed a building in 1982, the Old Secretariat which they have never made moves to restore it. On the other hand their most recent law, dating back to 1979 states that any alterations to these sites and buildings or demolition takes a fine of 500 Naira, in 2017?

Why do you think that the restoration of colonial architecture is important? How is it cogent to understanding present-day Nigeria? 

It is important because these structures are tourism potential. There are lots of foreign expatriates in Lagos and I discovered during a tour organised by Legacy 1995 that most of the tourists were foreigners and I got to realise that Nigerians don’t cherish their history. Even schoolchildren don’t visit Badagry as used to before. If these buildings are restored, it can be converted to educational centres, cultural spaces for the celebration of built heritage of the country.

You’ve stated previously that heritage and history are very important to you. How do you reconcile the violence of colonial history with the beauty of its architecture?

It was during the book launch of Buhari’s book last year that Tinubu said that “a country doesn’t know its history doesn’t know where it’s headed” and he gave the United States as an instance. You cannot claim as Ambode always does to “foster tourism” and you’re doing away with the history of the city or a place. In which developed city does that happen? If you go to Cuba, you’re being told its history and the buildings which are a major part of it, you get to see them in reality, you’re faced with history, which is the same for San Juan in Puerto Rico, Brazil, Macau, Hong Kong, Mexico and so many other countries with rich history dating centuries back. Lagos cannot excel as a world class tourism city without its past, and I’m not sorry to say so. If the government keeps on looking aside when demolition of historical structures takes places in its own environment, then they are not ready to welcome tourists. Where do you want to take tourists to in Lagos? The Oba’s palace? Is that all? Muson Centre? What’s all about that? Or the National Theatre that was almost sold by the Federal Government and was to be converted to a mall? And a structure that’s not properly maintained. This country is not just a joke, the government is a bigger joke.

Do you think a focus on colonial history might contribute to the obscuring of pre-colonial architecture and history?

I once had a conversation where the lady was talking about the oppression and subjugation of whites towards the blacks. There’s something I’ve noticed, Nigerian politicians make it feel like the ills of colonialism is a prerequisite for not restoring these structures but what is an African country without European involvement in any aspect of its society. Nigerians travel to Senegal and South Africa and revel in the colonial structures in these places. Are you going to ignore the fact that these buildings were constructed by Europeans, of European style? Will you ignore that in Goree and St. Louis in Senegal that they’re of French colonial architecture? Or that in Cape Town, the buildings there are originated from the the Dutch of the Netherlands? So are you going to ignore the Boer War? Or the apartheid period of South Africa? Yet they restored all these buildings and tourists swoop in their cities like flies including Nigerian tourists. These buildings are of styles that have survived even the ignorance of Nigerians, the oldest of which is the old palace of the Oba in Lagos dated back to 1670 built by the Portuguese during Oba Gabaro’s reign.

 Do you have any ideas on how these buildings could be repurposed?

Yes I absolutely agree that if we can take charge of knowing about our colonial history especially in terms of built heritage then we can better look into our pre-colonial architecture which has also greatly been ignored.

Whenever asked this sort of question I resort to what Lima’s City government did by inviting private firms, individuals and apportioning all the colonial structures that had not been restored or in the brink of demolition to be restored and then converted to art spaces, house museums, museums celebrating colonial history or colonial architecture.

Finally, is this just a hobby or is there an end goal in mind? If yes, what is it?

It has always been a hobby but so far I think the end goal is to see to the restoration of all colonial structures across Nigeria no matter the storey or its current state. Because these buildings tell a story, stories we have lackadaisically been running away from. I also think, that part of the end goal is to have a colonial structure across certain cities which will be made museums or in other instances, house museums, if I get the finance and support for it all because we cannot always wait on the government. Look at the Olaiya House scenario.



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