- Written by jidewura
- Category: Diaspora
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Confront any man and he will confess that the process of choosing a suitable bride can be a fraught, if not altogether perilous trial of judgement. It is a dance between the bitter-sweet realism of singleness and the unspoken reveries of a future utopia; it is a challenge to aspire to more than the certainties of an adequate but incomplete status quo, and to unravel the synergistic mysteries of two becoming one.
So too, one may proffer, are the choices that face a suitor to one of the many maidens for which the motherland, Nigeria, is seeking husbands. The cry has gone out for partners in development, and the Federal government’s economic and regulatory reforms have laid some foundations from which preliminary introductions can progress. Yet when the beauty parade of opportunities is arrayed before expectant investors, there is always one maiden left out of the party. Overshadowed by the glaring allure of black gold and beclouded by the diaphanous plumes of natural gas, the arts remain the forgotten element in the developmental master plan. But with as much to offer a discerning suitor as its more outwardly enticing siblings, the time has come for the veil to be lifted off the transformational potential of the arts in Nigeria.
There is no denying the rich and strong cultural legacy that the arts have bequeathed to the nation. If we define ‘the arts’ in its most inclusive form to embrace visual arts, sculpture, literature, music and drama, we can trace its influence in defining and reaffirming our cultural heritage well back to Nigeria’s pre-history.
In pre-colonial societies, the prevailing art forms tended to be panoptic communal practices by which social and religious norms were perpetuated and traditions bestowed from one generation to another. As primarily oral peoples, our art forms (dating back 2000 years) included the oral (folk-lore) traditions through which histories, wisdom and entertainment were shared.
In contrast to written literature, our "orature" (to use Ngugi wa Thiong’o's phrase) would often be communally composed and performed, to the accompaniment of music and dance; even in the absence of the enlightenment provided by the written word, our social fabric was still being knit in a time-tested and cohesive yarn. As a compliment to the oral traditions, the visual arts afforded a medium for social dialogue and religious worship, often taking the form of symbols, styles and motifs, usually used as part of expressions of homage to certain deities. Examples of this are the ona shrine paintings in Yoruba culture, which was paralleled in Igbo culture by the uli body and mural art. Furthermore, masks and carvings played a central role in complex ceremonial events through which important social, religious, and moral value systems were maintained.
Thus the arts performed a functional as well as an aesthetic role in society. Far from being a luxury affordable only to a select and wealthy few, the arts in general were a means of self-declaration shared by all and without which the very essence of society and community would have disintegrated.
The dawn of the colonial era saw rapid changes in the forms of artistic expressions in Nigeria. Christian missionaries dispelled traditional masks as fetish, yet western artists embraced such so-called African “tribal” art, inspiring the new artistic movements of “primitivism” (describing western reaction to ‘tribal arts’) and more indirectly, “cubism”. If not fetish, then Nigerian visual artists were certainly regarded as “unschooled”, lacking the literal interpretation of nature which was the hallmark of European “naturalistic” art movements of the time. Nigerian visual artists in the colonial era therefore sought the validation and respect afforded by formal, western artistic training. Pioneers such as Aina Onabolu, Akinola Lasekan and Ben Enwonwu trained abroad and attained mastery of the western artistic techniques, initially put to use on more ‘modern’ (or naturalistic) works.
From an early stage, the skill of Nigerian artists in different media could not be overlooked. As far back as 1903, Nigeria’s first modern artist, Aina Onabolu, had started work as a portrait painter, obtaining commissions from several colonial governing officers and public figures. In 1924 a set of palace doors, the work of a Yoruba sculptor, Olowe of Ise, was exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley, England. Depicting the historical event of the arrival of a British Captain in 1897, these doors were celebrated as masterpieces of West African art, later to be acquired for the British Museum collection in exchange for a British-made throne. In 1937 the work of five Nigerian artists (including the young Ben Enwonwu) was displayed at the Zwemmer Gallery, London to critical acclaim. By the 1950s, art was sufficiently popular to be taught at tertiary level (thanks mainly to the educational foundations laid by Onabolu and Keith Murray, a British art administrator).
In tandem, writers such as Chinua Achebe had burst onto the literary firmament with novels such as the seminal social commentary, Things Fall Apart. In the music arena Fela Sowande (the father of modern Nigerian art music) was blazing a trail with compositions such as The African Suite (1944), a fusion of West African music interpreted in the European classical idiom. In all spheres of artistic endeavour, Nigerians continued to excel. By the time the whisper of independence had risen to a fierce cry, there had evolved a more radical visual art form that came to define the post-modern or contemporary era in Nigerian arts – the journey of self-discovery and self-preservation using the hybrid vehicle of traditional influences and western techniques, modified and crafted to reflect the artist’s own particular religious, cultural and social orientation.
From this canter through early Nigerian art history, it is evident that the arts have always been a form of discourse between the artist and society, a statement of where the society has been, is, or wants to go. As Dele Jegede said, “..artists, philosophers and writers among others fall within the vital bracket whose responsibility it is to encapsulate social thought in physical, abstract or textual forms.” It is the role of artists to preserve the best of our past culture and heritage, our sense of self and identity. But more than that, the arts should help us articulate a vision for our future, such as to give vent to our clamour for development and progress in a manner that upholds, rather than uproots, our societal and cultural footprints, and steers us away from the cul-de-sac of cultural monotheism exemplified by the ubiquitous western global brands.
The battle to reinstate the arts at the very centre of cultural life is the battle for the very soul of the nation. Nigeria’s inexorable march into the millennial age must be matched by the efforts of a vibrant artistic sector in helping to coalesce the disparate notions, from all ranks and outposts of society, of what the forthcoming chapters in our exciting history will portend. Our economic and financial blueprints must be accompanied by a plan for the development of a social and cultural vision which is borne of the collective, unspoken but nonetheless heartfelt imperative of self –definition that we all share.
A properly conceived culture policy (supported by a mix of public and private investment) will act as the cement to bind the building blocks of employment, healthcare and education that are central to the country’s development. Investment in the arts will help create a context in which the morally corrosive and socially divisive impact of the unfettered marketplace can be ameliorated by the promotion of the universal bonds derived from our shared past and present.
So, the bridal parade of opportunities has commenced and hopefully the arts may now at least have earned an invitation to the party. But its case for selection has only here been introduced. In the forthcoming issues of NigerianAffairs, we will explore in greater depth the personalities and current practices that define contemporary Nigerian art, exposing the rich seam of untapped resource that the Nigerian art scene has on offer.
March 30 2006
Last Updated ( Sunday, 05 February 2012 02:35 )