Questions about the utility of art often feel wrong-headed. Artists demand freedom, and often consider the will and space to do whatever they like integral to their art. But art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The artists and the work they create have an audience, and this audience, whether the artist likes it or not, have expectations. Even when there are no expectations from the audience, the artist is often influenced and affected by the prevailing conditions of the places where they live and work.
Nigeria is going through its worst recession in years, and the social future of the country hangs in the balance. A seven-year-old boy was burnt to death in Lagos for allegedly stealing a purse in mid November, and images of him were shared over social media. This is the country we live in: whatever is left of our conscience has been eroded by hunger and an anger that is impotent in the face of power. So did all these find their way into our art, and if they didn’t, what does that say about the artists and their work?
The Nigerian reality has always been fractured, with glaring gaps between the classes, ethnic groups scattered across the country and little hope that anything political would begin to mend those gaps. But while the politician can afford to ignore these gaps, the artist can’t, because his work, if they must be of any value, lies in these gaps. A. O. Scott, a critic with the New York Times, in an essay titled “Is our Art Equal to the Challenges of our Times?” asked these same questions of American art in 2014. In his introductory essay, he stated:
“Serious art and popular entertainment, in their diverse ways, offer refuge and distraction. Their pleasures and comforts are not trivial, but essential. Art is the domain of solved problems, even if the problems are formal and the solutions artificial.
But if art, ideally, floats free of the grim reality of work, need and sustenance, that reality is nonetheless its raw material and its context. Intentionally or not, artists in every form and style draw on and refashion the facts of life that surround them, and the resulting work takes its place among those facts.”
It’s not easy to ascribe a social value to art, except in retrospect, but in a world where little else offers hope, and after a year that at many times felt like an apocalyptic story scripted by a dedicated surrealist, anything that demands a space in public life should be scrutinised for what it offers. And since the place of art in our public life isn’t subject to doubts, its utility should therefore be appropriately examined.
In questioning arts in Nigeria, what I hope to take a quick look at are the films, visual arts, books, Performances and songs produced in country in the past year. Do they reflect any of our current realities? If we cannot prescribe to artists what they are to produce or not produce, we can at least take a deep look at what they’ve done with their freedom.
2016 was a good year for Nigerian films, with the spotlight on Lagos at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) one of the highpoints of a Nollywood industry that has long enjoyed popular acclaim but little critical consideration. The industry has been seeing increased quality in production on a consistent level for a while now, with increased focus on technical aspects of production backed by the funds and know-how to make it happen, so the feature at the TIFF was less of a validation and more of a recognition of what has been an industry that seems to have survived its growth pangs and is now ready to take on subjects boldly with finesse that has long been present in just a few movies in the short life span of the industry (shout out to Tunde Kelani and others who kept this quality going).
In ‘76 and 93 days, the industry made its best case for an ability to document with style. Both movies are far from perfection, but the care put into the story telling and performances are such that we can expect movies to be made durable enough to survive the wear of time. This bodes well in a present where one can only imagine what would have happened if there was an artful representation of the horrors individuals and families faced when the current president was military head of state in his first stint as head of the country. Film and television, of all cultural production, still reaches the largest part of the country; it therefore represents the first hope for the creation of a memory that can withstand the whitewash that is routinely offered personalities responsible for the state of the country.
Of course movies can be censored, as Biyi Bandele’s Half of a Yellow Son adapted from the Chimamanda Adichie novel was for a while, but censorship can be a signifier of importance. Short films like Umar Turaki’s Salt and Udoka Oyeka’s No Good Turn, covered the Ebola crisis and Boko Haram terror to varying success. But both represented attempts to at least grapple with present realities that one hopes more and more Nigerian films will engage.
One of the greatest achievements of the year is Abba Makama’s Green White Green, a quirky film that looks at the history of Nigeria and what it means to be Nigerian, to be modern, to be cosmopolitan, to dream, to love, and other elements that refuse stereotypes while working with those same sterotypes that we’ve grown familiar with. It’s also remarkable in how it’s aware enough of the film industry to satirise it, and yet glory in its better parts. If this film alone is what you watch from Nigeria in 2016, you should have a good idea of how great future of Nigerian film is.
2016 was by no means a critically triumphant year for Nollywood. There were still ‘big-budget’ flops like Kunle Afolayan’s CEO that provokes a head scratch as to what their artistic vision is beyond showing the capability of the actors to jet across cities in the world in what is becoming a trope for Nigeria’s new-nollywood. But even in these, there exists a technical and artistic competence that suggests that when the industry finds that perfect story, it’ll be ready to tell it in ways that will both achieve popular success the likes that the industry is used to, yet excel critically enough to stand the weathering of time.
This was the year Wizkid became a truly global brand, Yemi Alade continued her ascent to the top of African pop, and Tekno’s Pana became, arguably, the song of the year. But the greater news of the year lies in the increasing rise of alternative music. Lindsea Abudei released And the Bass is Queen, Adekunle Gold released Gold, and Aramide released her debut Suitcase. Asa had her first proper show in the country since she became a superstar, and even lesser known newcomers like Ric Hassani found an audience for their work. This is also the year we realised our focus on popular music has made a lot of us sleep on two-time grammy-award winning percussionist, Lekan Babalola.
For all this widening of what was already a diverse Nigerian music field, the question of the social utility of Nigerian music still persists. But those who ask for Nigerian music to be that of activism in the mold of oldies like Fela underestimate the duty of mirth in a nation where hope is dead to a lot of people. Many think we’re not angry enough, and that is true, but how potent is music in channeling this anger?
Much of Nigerian pop music is about the creation of a fantasy—primarily sexual, often financial. To listen to our popular music is to assume or primary desires are sex and money. We want Folake to give us love and we also Oluwa to answer the call. But once you take a look outside what is considered popular, a wide range of emotions is revealed.
For a long time now popular Nigerian music has had a lyric problem. The beats are infectious in their ability to induce dance, but the words mean little. Alternative Nigerian acts, however, don’t have the luxury of hoodwinking their audience with spectacle. Their music is now closer to the storytelling roots of the highlife/juju genre of the hey-days of Nigeria’s happy music of the 70s and 80s. Joy and introspection are not mutually exclusive, and it seems the artists are now discovering this.
In this newfound introspection and desire to put it to song lay the hopes of those who want more conscious Nigerian music. As these alternative artists become popular, perhaps we’ll also revisit artists like Aduke, Nneka and Asa, whose songs we appreciate but do not exactly pay attention to the import of their words. “There’s fire on the mountain and nobody seems to be on the run.” “Where did we go wrong?”
Digital sales are trending up, with consumer revenue spending on the Nigerian music industry estimated by PricewaterhouseCoopers at $51 million. There’s nothing really to worry about beyond the artists getting paid for their work and finding the space to produce even more work. Nigerian music has always mirrored the ease and struggles of the country and, going by the recent developments in the industry, there’s no need to worry about a loss of that ability.
The year has witnessed virility in the visual arts that will only increase in importance when viewed in retrospect in years to come. The country gained solid representation and performances at international fairs like the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, and the Dak’Art 2016, to the inaugural Art X Lagos later in the year. Artists found abundant spaces to showcase their work. And residencies now exist for artists, part of which made it possible for Victor Ekpuk to return to Nigeria for his first solo exhibition in over a decade. And he is just one of the many artists who made a return to the country to present their work, including Yinka Shonibare. This suggests that there’s now an active community of artists in Nigeria with an audience interested enough in what they want to say to warrant a reverse of what has been, by default, a flow of artistic talent out of the country.
These activities and achievements have been infused with glamour that is contradictory to the traditional Nigerian view of the artist as someone at the bottom of the social order, disheveled, living from hand to mouth. Of course this doesn’t mean that the artists are flush with cash, just that the image is now one that is appealing from the outside as to compel a younger generation that would have been scared off being artists to engage in it arts. This development is neither bad nor surprising. The arts in Nigeria will always be the preserve of either those who have the economic means to engage in daily flights of fancy, or the semi-possessed ready to appear crazy to bring to life whatever tortures their imaginations, no matter how bad the conditions are.
One implication of this increasing appeal of the visual arts is that a lot of works created in the country now appear like they’re the product of a singular consciousness. Of course exceptions exist, as one could point to the work of an important photographer like Fati Abubakar or a maverick like Victor Ehikhamenor, but to make weekly circuit through Exhibitions in Lagos is to experience art that does little to challenge one’s vision of the world. Whether this is a function of curation or creation is difficult to say. But without a doubt, art in Nigeria that is capable of holding the attention of the viewer and invoking awe is in the minority.
Of course notes in exhibitions often consist of statements about the artist’s intent to examine, provoke or radicalise one aspect of the culture or the other, but rarely do they have the ability to do anything beyond impress with their aesthetic appeal. The primary consumers of visual arts in Nigeria are other artists/creatives and a growing class of people (middleclass?) who can now afford to patronise the artists. It therefore represents the best hope for the home of radical thought and experimentation because it doesn’t require mass appeal to be successful. There should be more Nigerian artists challenging the Weltanschauung with work that is strong enough to provoke a reaction from the audience that will lead to great conversations.
There’s no doubt about the viability of Nigerian art, as various sales in art markets and auctions across the world showed in the year, the greatest of which is the sale at Sotheby’s Contemporary auction of “Drown,” by Njideka Akunyili Crosby for $1.1 million. But the social value of Nigerian art won’t be measured in dollars. It will be in how many artists take the pain to translate the Nigerian experience in ways that are both reflective and critical of it, putting out work that at once documents our existence and opens it up for conversation and examination by a future generation.
Nigerian literature has always been invested in the struggles of the Nigerian soul, even in ways that can seem detrimental to style and form. 2016 was as good a year for the art of the written word in the country as any, with the release of a slew of novels, including Abubakar Ibrahim’s NLNG-winning Season of Crimson Bloosoms, which, along with Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday takes an authentic look at northern Nigeria. There were also stylistically accomplished/daring offerings like Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like a Mule bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, and Igoni Barett’s Blackass. These along with other novels released for their Nigerian audience like Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Tree and Jowho Ile’s And after many Days, and genre offerings like Leye Adenle’s Easy Motion Tourist, Toni Kan’s Canivorous City, and Tade Thompson’s Rosewater represent a diverse year of books.
The openness of the internet and the ease it offers to creating short stories and poems enables more young writers writing their realities in short stories and poems that travel to places where they probably wouldn’t get to if they all had to wait for a book deal. There’s now a multitude of voices telling the stories of Nigeria, and in spaces so visible those who insist on a single-story of this country are simply betraying their bad intent.
Poetry used to be the social vehicle of many activists of old, but it’s become increasingly difficult to find written poets who have the skill and knowledge to render the social realities in ways that are accomplished and subversive enough. Performance poets are of course the exception in this, as that field includes Titilope Sonuga, Dike Chukwumerije, Wana Udobang and Efe Paul Azino, who actively produce work that does all of what the Okigbo’s of the past tried to do but deliver it in a medium more accessible to this performance driven times. And perhaps it’s this same dictate of the age that makes poetry even more personal in ways that are closer to the audience than is possible in the traditions of written poetry.
The poet is now more of a bard than a scribe, and as long as this involves the breaking down of language and exploiting it in ways that will enable us see ourselves in more clearly that we would have ever imagined without the help of the poet, then it is good. Twice Titilope Sonuga performed at the Ake Arts and Book Festival this year in Abeokuta, and on the two occasions the audience represented language deployed by as masterful a wielder as anyone in ways that touched their realities that are perhaps unprecedented by the written traditions.
Writers, of all the class of artists in Nigeria, can always be trusted to write in ways that try to grapple with the Nigerian condition. Whether this would be done as artistically as possible is going to be the question going to the New Year.
On January 18 2016, Jelili Atiku, performance artist and 2015 Prince Claus Laureate, was arrested after a performance titled Aragamago Will Rid This Land of Terrorism in Ejigbo, Lagos for, among other things, “committing felony” with his art. It was later revealed that he was arrested based on the complaint of the traditional ruler of Ejigbo, Oba Morufu Ojoola, who felt that the performance was aimed at him.
Performance arts, and theatre in particular, has a long history of getting under the skin of people who would rather have live in power with their conscience unruffled. We will therefore always be in need theatre’s unique ability to entertain and delight, rile and agitate people. But for a long time it seemed theatre never recovered, like the other aspects of Nigerian culture, from the artistic famine of the military years.
Theatre and performance arts didn’t really die, but it’s been in an extended state of coma and now exists as an underground—which is where its best work is done. Figures like Segun Adefila and Wole Oguntokun among other members of a young-ish generation of theatre practitioners are still actively involved in productions all year through Crown Troupe of Africa and Theatre Republic. Qudus Onikeku’s dance performances have become one of the definitive experiences of the arts scene in Lagos and with initiatives like the Footprints of David in Bariga, the conveyor belt of young practitioners seems to remain oiled. Ibadan Play House a group grown out of the ever-vibrant performance community of the University of Ibadan also had a steady flow of performances in the year, including Jungle Justice, which was brought to Lagos in October.
The British Council sponsored Lagos Theatre Festival 2016 featured 109 shows, 35 companies. The diversity, the humour and youth of the performances at the festival, represent some of the best signs of life for theatre in the country.
It’s no good to land in Kirikiri Maximum Security Prisons every time you walk on stage, but if there’s any indication that your art carries has some tangible effect in the world, incarceration is only beaten by having people in the future draw strength and inspiration from your work (obligatory RIP to Prince and Bowie and everyone we lost this year). Jelili Atiku was released and he continues to perform his art, but that introduction to the New Year was a sharp contrast to how the rest of the arts community is now being feted by the political class.
Time for great art
2016 has seen a general increase in engagement with the arts, but this must now be accompanied by constant scrutiny. Artists cannot continue to go around resisting criticism, as they are wont to do now, laying claim to an artistic freedom that shrinks from responsibility.
Nigeria is that country where a little boy can be burnt to death for petty theft and there’s no outrage, but rather some vocal support for the act, where millions are eager to participate in ponzi schemes, watch it go comatose, and still hope that their funds will return. There are no forecasts that present a bright hope for the coming year in Nigeria, there’s no political will to begin a change in the Nigerian psyche. In a place like this, artists cannot be comfortable with creating art for art’s sake.
Now, while the prevailing conditions are threatening to most parts of the Nigerian life, they are ideal for the arts. I write with a belief that the next year will be remarkable in the quality of art that will be produced and its impact. Artists would find their voice, there would be more spaces to showcase what they create, and the audience will pay attention. The tools, talent and conditions for these already exist, so we can only hope that 2017 will be coupled with the will to do more, to make sure the moment doesn’t pass without birthing great art. It would be tragic if we get anything less.