Nigeria: 30 Years in Defence of Relevant Art

It was Nigeria’s first professor of Theatre Arts, Ebun Clark, who aptly captured the wider context of the gathering artists and enthusiasts of the arts a fortnight ago. She said those who attended the occasion were indeed “lucky” to be there as such a serene ambience for reflection was not available in some other parts of the country where killings, kidnappings and destruction of property were taking place at that hour.

Professor Clark, widow of the celebrated poet and playwright Professor John Pepper Clark, spoke at a session with the sub-theme “How Did it all Go Awfully Wrong?” at the 23rd Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF). With theme A Fork in the Road, the festival took place without any special arrangement for the security of the participants and guests who wined and dined after intellectual discussions. Such an occasion would certainly be a luxury elsewhere in the country. The venue of the important festival in the in cultural calendar of Lagos, nay Nigeria, was the Freedom Park in central Lagos. The park itself used to be the ground for the old Broad Street Prison built by the colonial masters.

Three books were reviewed at the vigorous session in which Professor Clark made her remarks. They are Formation: The Making of Nigeria: From Lugard to Amalgamation, by Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi; The Politics of Biafra and the Future of Nigeria, by Chudi Offodile and The Riddle of the Oil Thief, by King Bubaraye Dakolo, Agada IV, the Ibenananowei of Ekpetiama Kingdom, a first class monarch in Yenagoa Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. King Dakolo himself graced the session with his impressive entourage. In his brief intervention from the floor, the king , a scientist, said the story embodied his novel is the story of a witness to the injustice and inequity visited upon the Niger Delta. Talking about how and when things went wrong, eminent dramatist and poet Professor Femi Osofisan, who chaired the session, posed the pertinent question: are people really making efforts to build a nation? He put the matter like this: nations do not build themselves; it is the people who nations. So it is not enough to talk about how things go wrong. Are there genuine efforts to put things right?

Other sessions of the festival featured discussions on Mentorship, Publishers’ Forum, Visual Arts Day, Readers’ day, Nollywood Tales, Evenings of Music, Literary Activism Day, Culture Icons Day and Book Trek.

Important statements were also made by some of the guests and participants at the various sessions. In his keynote address at colloquium on the Culture Icons Day entitled The Choice at the Oritameta (a crossroads), writer and journalist Kunle Ajibade posited that “we must do less of agonising and more of organising. This will require a lot of hard work and serious thinking. The walk on this road will not be easy. And as we go down this road, we must defy the god of tribalism, nepotism, bigotry, opportunism, crass materialism distractions etc. It will demand discipline and a sense of history.”

The foregoing is just a taste of the offers on the typical menu of the yearly book and art festival.

Indeed, it was an exception in today’s Nigeria rather than the rule to have some persons gathered solely to celebrate books and their authors; works of arts and their creators as well as reflect on the centrality of arts to all-round development.

In materialist terms, the social structure is such that only members of the elite can afford the luxury of devoting quality time to reflect on the arts. Worse still, in the present situation not a few members of the same elite are overwhelmed by their environment; they cannot even talk seriously about arts what with the socio-economic, political and security issues competing for their attention.

So, it is a huge challenge attracting public interest to such a festival.

Meanwhile, the point that is seemingly lost on the policymakers and the public alike is that in finding a comprehensive solution to the multi-dimensional crisis afflicting the nation, arts and culture have a primary role to play. To neglect this reality is to further deepen the contradictions that Nigeria has to contend with in the search for genuine development.

Despite this disabling social climate, the 30-year old Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) has staged the cultural show, LABAF, for 23 years as its flagship programme. Other activities of CORA include Arts Stampede, Arthouse Forum, Lagos Cinema Carnival and the Lagos City Arts Guide. Without the resources and bureaucratic structures of the federal or any state ministry charged with the responsibility to promote arts and culture, CORA has consistently provided the forum for writers, visual artists, artistes, producers, art patrons, academics, students, arts aficionados etc. to engage in productive conversations and other interactions.

Far more than officialdom, CORA as an engine for cultural advocacy, has brought into focus the problems and promise of the culture sector. It foresaw the prospects of a lot of the good news in the sector today. Some artists who used to accompany their aunties and uncles to earlier editions of the CORA Arts Stampede have emerged today as bright stars of the art nationally and internationally. A number of creative persons have had their careers shaped on the platform provided by CORA.

This is simply because CORA consciously celebrates creativity by employing the force of examples.

This year’s BABAF, for instance ,was designed to honour the veteran actress and culture advocate, Dame Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, who turned 80 earlier in the year. One of the high points of the festival was when Ajai-Lycett read her 2012 essay entitled “Restore, Renew” which speaks poignantly to the reality of Nigeria today. She said inter alia: “The country has spent more than enough decades reviewing and fiddling with our body politic, that to my mind , it is time for action if the professional and political investment in the careers of our leaders of thought are not to turn back at zero risk to all of us. A sense of commitment is called for in order to transform our life into a semblance of stability and sanity, and hopefully , build a feeling of confidence in our people… “

In the last 23 years, leading lights of the of the culture sector, who reached similar milestones were honoured by dedicating editions of LABAF to these creative giants including visual artist Bruce Onobrakpeya, novelist Gabriel Okara, novelist Chinua Achebe, playwright Wole Soyinka, poet John Pepper Clark, playwright Femi Osofisan, author Yemi Ogunbiyi, playwright Ahmed Yerima, literary critic Abiola Irele, literary theorist Biodun Jeyifo, poet Odia Ofeimun, poet Niyi Osundare etc.

Significantly, CORA has provided the platform for the interplay of theory and practice on the issues confronting the art and culture sector. Students are often invited to the mentoring sessions and are encouraged to be part of the conversations.

So, why and how did CORA emerge in the Nigerian arts community? The Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) imposed on African countries in the 1980s wreaked enormous havoc beyond the socio-economic sphere (such as the shrinking of the middle class and widening of inequality). The negative effects of the components of the SAP were also felt in the cultural and intellectual sectors – funding of public education was reduced and the production of knowledge was downplayed in the policy arena. The economic climate was abysmally unfavourable to publishing. Books and artworks were not listed among the “essential commodities.” Important segments of the society were reduced to cultural deserts. For instance, the Harare Book Fair, which was a huge cultural attraction to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe in the early days of independence had lost its colour by the end of the 1980s. In Nigeria, the necessary investment in culture and the arts was not considered a priority of economic management. Meanwhile, the debate over the appropriateness of “art for art’s sake” in the post-colonial setting raged among writers and literary theorists. The regular conversations on these trends among some journalists and artists and enthusiasts metamorphosed into the idea of CORA. Among the originals of CORA are Toyin Akinosho, Yomi Layinka, Jossy Ogbuanor and Tunde Lanipekun. The initial programme of CORA was the organisation of Arts Stampede at the Festac Town family residence of Akinosho in Lagos. Various themes on art forms were explored in these periodic gatherings over groundnuts and palm wine. The stampedes have been moved at different times to the National Theatre in Iganmu, Lekki, Ajegunle and other parts of Lagos. It was even once held in Ibadan, Oyo State.

Akinosho, a geologist and publisher, was joined later by Jahman Anikulapo-Kuti, Culture Advocate and former editor. The duo constitutes the dynamo of CORA.

The evolution of CORA is a study in the unwavering commitment to a cause and clarity of purpose on what is to be done. Unlike the amorphous structure of the early days, CORA now has a board chaired by distinguished art patron and businessman Chief Kayode Aderinokun and a board of trustees headed by the Festival Honoured Guest this year, Ajai-Lycett. Another sign of promise in the profile of CORA is the increasing role of younger elements such as promising artists, advocates and enthusiasts. They feature as volunteers in running programmes. Some others stage performances and engage the older elements intensely in conversations as panelists. It is more than a cliché to say that they are the future of CORA.