Sunday, December 20, 2009

Call for National Endowment for the Arts

Abati's views exactly coincide with my thoughts on the weakness of our government in not having a special fund set aside for the Arts and Humanities. Without a fund of this nature, one of the logical consequences is that, as a nation we cannot expect long term sustenanace of truly prodigious talent in the arts.

Happy reading

Guardian Newspapers

Friday, December 11, 2009

Lessons from the Kennedy Centre
By Reuben Abati

THIS week in Washington DC, United States, politics extended a warm handshake to culture in typical American tradition, as President Barack Obama at the 2009 Kennedy Centre Awards honoured five icons of the American cultural establishment: Grace Bumbry, the opera singer, Dave Brubeck, the jazz musician, Mel Brooks, the writer and director, Bruce Springsteen, the rock star and actor, Robert de Niro. The Kennedy Centre Awards is one of the major recognitions of the contribution of cultural figures to the definition and promotion of American culture and spirit.

To an ordinary American, the Kennedy Centre event may seem routine, for at every turn, the American political establishment acknowledges the value of culture and its capacity to humanise, even more importantly, its embodiment of the essential American spirit. So it is that prominent American actors and actresses are sent to the war-front to inspire the boys and cultural figures see themselves as national ambassadors. Brubeck and Springsteen were cultural ambassadors for the US during the Cold War years. They used their music to sell America.

It was both fear and respect for arts and culture that resulted in the McCarthy inquisition of the fifties when artists who showed any kind of Communist leaning were labelled enemies of the United States. Without any doubt, America has had its own difficult moments and there are probably many Americans who distrust the Political Establishment's seeming romance with the Cultural Establishment. But the understated truth is that, either overtly or covertly, writers, actors, journalists, sportsmen, film directors, scholars, indeed anyone involved in the art of cultural expression are co-opted into the American Project.

It is not necessarily America's nuclear warheads that define it, but Coca-Cola, CNN, its architecture, its musical geniuses, poets and so on. No Presidential inauguration for example is complete without poetry and music. Because America does not joke with its cultural producers, it is able to capture the world through their genius. On Sunday, December 6, it was not just five performing arts icons that were honoured in Washington, DC, it was the entire American cultural establishment. The honorees were treated to dinners, to performances and to Presidential attention and tributes. An American President who listened to Brubeck's music as a young man, another President who had read Robert Frost or Toni Morrison, or Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams or F. Scott Fitzgerald is likely to have a sense of nation and a bigger sense of humanity and of the American Age. "We worked really hard for our music to be part of American life and our fans' lives... So it's acknowledgement that you've kind of threaded your way into the culture in a certain way. It's satisfying", Bruce Springsteen, 2009 Kennedy Centre honoree said.

The first stanza of this statement may be borrowed and put in the mouths of any major Nigerian artist or cultural worker. The difference is in the second stanza: the absence of acknowledgement, the kind of acknowledgement that America showers upon its cultural icons. Nigeria may be a problematic country (no regular electricity supply, corruption walking on high stilts, ethnic dissension, sectarian crises, doubts about the country itself), but it is way ahead and ranks with some of the most privileged countries in the world in the area of human talent. Cultural producers advertise the infinite capacity of human imagination and the creativity of individual talent.

Nigeria has more than a fair share. This after all is the country of Orlando Martins, the Nigerian who acted in British movies more than 60 years ago. It is the country of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, J.P. Clark, Ben Okri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Niyi Osundare, Hubert Ogunde... We have men and women could beat the drum so well even spirits would assume human form and dance. We have fine artists who can turn space into living images - this is the country of Ben Enwonwu, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Chris Ofili, Akin Fakeye, Yusuf Grillo, Aina Onabolu, Ladi Kwali... Our rich cultural lives have been transformed into a thousand lyrical images through sheer artistry.

For generations, ordinary Nigerians have had their lives enriched by home-made music of various genres. It is with great excitement that Nigerians, who know, recall the music of Rex Lawson, Osita Osadebe, Oliver de Coque, Sir Warrior, Nico Mbarga, Inyang Henshaw, Bobby Benson, Roy Chicago, Victor Olaiya, Zeal Onyia, Ebenezer Obey, Orlando Owoh, King Sunny Ade, Sonny Oti, Dan Maraya, Shina Peters, Prince Adekunle, Haruna Isola, I.K. Dairo, Ayinla Omowura, Yusuf Olatunji, ... If these were Americans, they would have been honoured many times over and properly iconised for their expansion of the scope of human freedom and creativity. Recent successes in the movie industry in Nigeria, that is Nollywood, have generated much interest appropriately and it is a phenomenon that is worth celebrating.

There has also been similar explosion of talent and genius, albeit of uneven and tentative quality, in the hip hop genre. Nigeria can equally boast of sports men and women, architects, journalists and so on who over the years have helped to define the Nigerian spirit and shape identities. Next year, when Nigeria celebrates its 50 years of independence, a few of those cultural workers will be remembered, their posters will be displayed, but it shall be a hollow recognition put together for effect, not necessarily because there is a proper acknowledgement in official corridors of the value of the arts as great vehicles for national development.

Every serious country treats its artists with respect. As it is in the United States, so it is in Germany, the United Kingdom and even modern-day China and Japan etc. It is not an accident that those societies where cultural workers are oppressed and their art, repressed are often underdeveloped or jinxed. The scope of human freedom in a society can be measured through the quality of environment for cultural expression. The attitude in Nigeria over the decades in official circles, has been to treat cultural workers as beggars or interlopers who must be controlled. Cultural symbols are left to waste, opportunities for constructing the architectonics of our collective heritage are squandered. Nigerians know about Elvis Presley. In the United States, he is revered in god-like fashion. When Michael Jackson died, Nigerians mourned as if a part of their lives had been excised.

At the 2009 Kennedy Awards event, President Barack Obama, following in the footsteps of his predecessors, since 1978 and even longer, acknowledged the supremacy of the cultural side of things: "These performers are indeed the best. They are also living reminders of a single truth - and I am going to steal a line from my wife Michelle here - the arts are not somehow apart from our national life, the arts are the heart of our national life." There are Nigerian performers too that are truly the best in conveying the truth. Excellence is represented by the poetry of Soyinka, J.P. Clark, Christopher Okigbo, Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Ogaga Ifowodo, Funso Aiyejina, Tanure Ojaide... Nothing can be more soul-lifting than an encounter with an Onobrakpeya or Enwonwu. Fela is Nigerian. But there is no official monument in his honour. There is no official library where anyone can access the evergreen works of our musical icons.

Bobby Benson used to be the soul of party life in Lagos. His club on Ikorodu road (Caban Bamboo/Hotel Bobby) was the epicentre of culture. In another country, that building would have been preserved and a proper cenotaph erected in Bobby Benson's memory. But it has since been pulled down. It became a watering hole for miscreants and an urban planning nuisance. Soon, it will be replaced by a church or bank - two signs of the times. Fela used to live in a place known as Kalakuta Republic around Mushin. It should have been preserved. But no one has thought of that. All our artistes, dead, dying and living, have been forgotten. When they are remembered by the state, either at public events, or during the annual National Honours Awards, or the equivalents in the states, they are treated as if they are being done a favour. The gesture is more about the politician, or ethnic politics, or profit, not the artist.

Hence, many of the artistes are not even interested in the acknowledgement of their contributions by governments that have failed the people. China Achebe rejected his National Award for example. The Nigerian Establishment can learn a lesson or two from the way America treat its cultural heroes and this, in spite of American contradictions. Our country must move from the Age of Darkness to the Age of Enlightenment and beyond. It is only in the Dark Age, where Nigeria seems trapped, that government would put a noose around the neck of a Ken Saro-Wiwa and snuff life out of him, without proper trial, without fair hearing.

It is a sign of Darkness that in 2009, a government agency called INEC will use public funds to place newspaper advertorials to abuse Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka for daring to criticize electoral commission and its boss. The D.O Fagunwa family had a memorial event for the writer a few days ago, at the University of Lagos; there was no official acknowledgement. Our ballot box-snatching, vote-rigging politicians, who should know, have never heard of D.O. Fagunwa. So, don't ask them about Amos Tutuola either, or Christopher Okigbo. The spread of cultural illiteracy is worsened by the refusal to teach history in Nigerian schools. In many states, history is not in the curriculum. A country where history is a taboo subject buries its own memory and commits the sin of forgetting.

Nothing prods the memory and our conscience more than culture and the arts. It is why America reads poetry at every Presidential inauguration. It is why the streets of America are littered with stone-marks of historical locations and moments. It is why the Germans preserve the birth places and living quarters of their cultural icons. It is also why the struggle for saving Nigeria must be pursued in addition to other necessary battles at the cultural front. There is a National Museum in Onikan, Lagos. It is more famous as a parking lot; with about N100, you can park your car there while sorting out business in the neighbourhood. On weekends, the grounds are hired out for those endless owambe parties. There is no point attempting a comparison with the equivalents in other parts of the world.

Another sign: recently, Prof. Dora Akunyili, the Information and Communications Minister drew the ire of Nollywood actors and producers when she accused them of portraying Nigeria negatively in their movies, by focusing on voodoo and crime. This is typical Nigerian response to culture and the arts. But the expectation that culture must serve the purpose of propaganda, as dictated by officialdom, is wrong-headed. The starting point for government should be in the shape of more meaningful engagement with the cultural sector.

Nigeria cultural producers need encouragement in the form of policies, initiatives (such as Endowment Funds) and institutions which promote talent and freedom, not restrictive laws which are targeted at the exact opposite. Now and again, we hear stories of Nigeria's "best" living in penury, completely forgotten by the society that they had served so well with their talents. If Dave Brubeck, 89, and Mel Brooks, 83, were Nigerians they would have long been forgotten. The difference is one of culture and social values.

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