An interview with Professor Nkiru Nzegwu. The article was first published in Thisday on August 1999.
In the U.S. there is hardly any such thing called "Nigerian art." People talk about African art, and when they get specific they talk about "Yoruba art," "Mende art," "Akan art," and so on. The idea of African art that is predominant in the United States is traditional art. It is seen as the only true authentic art of Africa, all others are seen as adulterated. There is a psychological investment in portraying Africa, its art and culture as backward and still in the dark ages. The value of the portrayal is that it amplifies the advanced, technologically-developed nature of Western culture.
By Kazeem Adeleke
K.A. You have two anthologies to your credit: Contemporary Textures: Multidimensionality in Nigeria Art, and Issues in Contemporary African Art; what is your professional background in art and art history?
N.N. In a nutshell, I have a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Ife; a Masters degree in Philosophy with Aesthetics as the area of specialization from the same University; and a Ph.D in Philosophy from the University of Ottawa. Presently, I am an Associate Professor of Art History, Africana Studies, Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of New York at Binghamton. I have taught Art History for the past nine years, and I have guest curated four major exhibitions at The Power Plant: A Contemporary Art Gallery, A Space, and the Art Gallery of Ontario all in Toronto, as well as Mitchell Museum in Cedarhurst, Illinois.
Q. When did the ideas for the books start?
N.N. The ideas for the books started when I decided to commit my efforts to writing about and providing historically grounded interpretations of artists' creative philosophies and the salient ideas and conditions influencing the creation of paintings, sculptural works, installation and mixed media works. I resolved that the local context of the art and artist must be central in my writing as it is in the writings of the art of European, Canadian and American art.
Issues in Contemporary African Art is the first in the series to be published, but I had been working on Contemporary Textures: Multidimensionality in Nigerian Art for a much longer time, since 1994 to be precise. One of the things I faced, and still continue to face, in teaching African art history in the U. S. is the absence of good relevant textbooks for teaching contemporary art. Of the few available ones, you will discover that the treatment of Africa and its art is inadequate. The focus is externalist, by which I mean, the books are written for an external audience. The authors of such books, "Safari Scholars" as they are usually called, typically do not know as much about the local histories, politics and condition their subject matter. They never stay long enough to have a deep understanding of Africa and its art.
When a nation's art is written from an externalist perspective, two things happen: the write-up tends to be very descriptive, and the approach does not squarely place the art works within the historical, political and social milieu that inspired them. For example, the theme of Nigerian Civil War is prevalent in the works of many artists, but we do not get to hear the stories that inspired those paintings or sculptures. An externalist lens fails to accord adequate attention to a history that is strategically placed to enrich our understanding of both the work and the artist's objectives. Yet, revisiting the psychic impact the war created in individual and collective consciousness would have provided a unique insight to the reason for the continuation of these themes 10 and 20 years after the event.
Q. What accounts for why Nigerian art is still seen as just traditional and nothing beyond that? Why does traditional art get more attention than new developments?
N.N. In the U.S. there is hardly any such thing called "Nigerian art." People talk about African art, and when they get specific they talk about "Yoruba art," "Mende art," "Akan art," and so on. The idea of African art that is predominant in the United States is traditional art. It is seen as the only true authentic art of Africa, all others are seen as adulterated. There is a psychological investment in portraying Africa, its art and culture as backward and still in the dark ages. The value of the portrayal is that it amplifies the advanced, technologically-developed nature of Western culture.
Another reason for the emphasis on traditional art is that collectors and museums, who are the main owners of such works, are more interested in enhancing the value of their collections than in promoting contemporary paintings and sculptures. Additionally, most of the art historians who are members of the Art Council of African Studies Association specialized in traditional art and are rarely interested or knowledgeable about contemporary art. Since scholars cannot write about art works they have not studied, little attention is paid to Africa's modern art.
Lastly, art exhibitions in the United States are influenced by, and shaped by the interest of funders, who tend to privilege traditional arts. When you consider that a lot of the publications on African art are tied to exhibitions, and are to be found in exhibition catalogues, it becomes clear why there is a dearth of publication on contemporary art. These conventional exhibitions are sometimes funded by collectors, or are paid for by foundations and endowments created by major collectors who want to circulate the sort of image of Africa that accords either with works in their collections or their voyeuristic desires. The bottom line is that the availability of monies to fund such initiatives exert a scholarly pull on art historians to privilege the traditional over the contemporary.
Q. What is the impact of this bias?
N.N. First, there is a narrowing of the conceptual space of Africa's art. This creates the impression that Africa and its art have not progressed past the 19th century. To all intents and purposes, Africa is still trapped in the past, a situation that enables some Western scholars to indulge their imagination.
Secondly, this shift to the past encourages bad scholarship. The language of analysis and the descriptions of these traditional works are superficial, at best. Conventional wisdom shows that to access information in the "oral library" of a community, a researcher must have the relevant language to pry open the conceptual tools, historical data, and social significance of the art. The problem is that most of these Western scholars do not possess the necessary linguistic tool. If a scholar does not speak Igbo, for example, he or she cannot access critical artistic terms and the philosophical rationale for the creation of ikenga for example. Consequently, scholarship would decline because the relevant archive of information is inaccessible. This point has repeatedly been made by numerous African scholars. It is only in African studies that European and American scholars think it is okay not to learn the language.
Thirdly, another impact of the privileged focus on traditional art is that contemporary art completely drops out from view. I remember going to the National Gallery of Canada sometime in 1989 to inquire about the possibility of doing an exhibition of contemporary African art. After my proposal, the official I had an appointment with looked at me blankly and said, :"Is there anything called contemporary African Art?" Unfortunately, outside of Africa, a vast number of people do not know about Africa's modern art. They are more familiar with masks, ibeji, ikenga or akua'ba statuettes which they treat exhaustively as African art.
Fourthly, because of the inadequate global exposure of the full range of Africa's art, a stereotypical image is created of what is modern African Art! Voyeurism defines the forms. Representing Africa's modern art are works by people like Cheri Samba, Sunday Akpan, Kane Kwei--the Ghanaian carpenter who produces pineapple, Mercedes Benz, and rooster coffins, and Middle Art, creator of barbershop signs and patent medicine seller signs. Add to this mix the works of Oshogbo school.
Q. What happens if an artist doesn't fit this bill?
N.N. Then his or her works are seen as derivative of European modernism. They are portrayed as weak copies of European or white American art. Now, the reason that an international audience thinks that these stereotypical forms are African is because they have been widely disseminated as such. Jean Pigozzi, and André Magnin have done a "wonderful" job of marketing these forms and images as the authentic modern African art. The 1989 blockbuster exhibition/festival Magicians of the Earth served this purpose too.
Q. But, if what the educated artists do is described as derivations of Euromodernism, doesn't that raise a lot of problems?
N.N. Yes it does. At the very least it inverts historical logic. For starters, we should revisit how modern art began, and remind people again of the central role of African sculptural and two-dimensional forms in initiating European modernism. What should be realized is that the construal of modern art as a European invention without adequate account of the role of African art and aesthetics is designed to establish that Europe sets the pace for other cultures to follow. But this narrative is patently false and diversionary. It is more designed to hide the fact that modern art is a provincial extension of African art. Moreover, it is baseless to suggest that modern African artists are merely copying modernist forms. That proponents of such claims never provide any hard evidence is proof that they simply imagining their case to be true.
Thirdly, modernism as a historical concept defines a set of conditions that is socially specific. There is no one set of conditions that is true of all societies and at all times. What is truer to reality is that each society defines its own modernity and these conditions do not all necessarily overlap. In my work on Aina Onabolu, I have examined the very different sociopolitical conditions under which Onabolu created. If one closely attends to the social processes of the time, and understands the defining traits of Euromodernism, one quickly realizes that the political conditions of Onabolu's creativity, namely, his rejection of the idea of a universal historical truth, speaks about a postmodernist condition than a modernist one. This does not imply that Nigeria went through a postmodernist phase as Europe was going through its modernist phase, but that the conditions of its own modernism is different.
Q. So, what is being done to correct some of the shortcomings in the teaching of African Art?
N.N. Some of the things I have done is to give greater prominence to Africa by highlighting the range and influence of African forms, symbolism and iconography on the art and creative expression of different regions of the world: Canada, USA, the Caribbean and South America.
Additionally, I have started a slide bank, which will be available on the Internet, that will showcase this influence of African art on a vast number of artists. If you study the works of Caribbean, African-American, and African Canadian artists, you will find profuse utilization of African images and symbolism in their work. When you employ a relational framework of analysis you discover how pervasive African art symbols and imageries have become. Interestingly, these connections are hardly talked about in the major publications on art. There is no attempt to systematically bring out the African influences on world art, or even to name them. If you name them, you will see how much the imageries and symbolism have been appropriated by others, as was done by Europe during the first half of the 20th Century. If you don't name them, you will fail to see that Africa is not just a geographical space; its artistic contributions have successfully traveled around the world.
Q. But don't you think these biases have continued until now because art historians especially those in Nigeria have not been able to publish books to debunk the Western notions about what African art should be?
N.N. Well, let's say that serious art history came about from artists' reading shoddy evaluations about their work. What is peculiar to Nigeria and different from other countries is that many art historians today began as artists. Nigerian art education did not stress the importance of art history as a discipline. It presented it as a component part of the overall training of an artist and integrated it as a sub-discipline in the Fine Arts or Fine and Applied Arts departments. For this reason, there are no art history departments in Nigerian Universities.
The present move towards training and becoming art historians has had to be done by some trained artists who felt that the historical development of Nigeria's art deserves scholarly attention. Consequently, many trained outside Nigeria, some with their own personal funds and resources. By the second half of the 1980s, Babatunde Lawal, Ola Oloidi, Chike Aniakor and Dele Jegede had returned to Nigeria on the completion of their doctorate degrees, but those who received their Ph.D degrees after them felt no such compulsion especially since they received no institutional support for their training. In fact, it wasn't until recently that the University of Ibadan, through the Institute of African Studies, began to offer Ph.D. degrees in Art History. Prior to that, a doctoral program in art history didn't exist.
With this background in mind, we need to realize that there are very few historians in Nigeria, and who, because of their small number, cannot produce the amount of publication to debunk the staggering amount of work produced by Western art historians on Africa.
I have often heard some artists ask off handedly, "Where are the art historians? Why are they not writing?" The irony here is that the posers' of the question know that art historians are not produced locally. The few who are art historians today have had to either give up their art practice, or seriously limit it. When you consider the amount of teaching the few art historians in Nigeria have to do, it is a wonder that they are able to publish at all. The way I see it, people should attend more to the limitations of the Nigerian educational system in the arts and lobby for its transformation, rather than raise vacuous questions.
Q. But since the early 1970s when artists began making incursions into art history, one would have thought that by now there would be so many books written but that is not the situation.
N.N. Point of correction - by the early 70's, the only Nigerian art historian I knew of with a Ph.D. was Babatunde Lawal. Rowland Abiodun had a Master's degree. Chike Aniakor and Ola Oloidi were yet to complete their training and Dele Jegede had not even begun his own programme. I am not sure when Cornelius Adepegba completed his, but it is unrealistic to expect that there would be so many books written by now. Moreover, the Nigerian educational system does not have a policy of "publish or perish", which would have compelled the production of publications. However, given that the teaching load of lecturers is extraordinarily heavy, the university cannot make unrealistic demands.
Q. But the situation is still the same. Books on contemporary art are still few.
N.N. I, too would have liked to see a lot of articles and books published and I sometimes tackle some of the older scholars for not doing more. For example, I would have loved to see Dele Jegede's and Ola Oloidi's Ph.D. dissertation published as a book, but then you have to contend with the fact that getting a publisher is not as easy as we would like to admit. At the local university presses, you have to contend with the problems, policies and politics of publishing. I do not know what these constraints are within the country, but I know what they are externally.
Q. What are they?
N.N. First of all, there is a disinterest in art historical writings that speak too intimately of Africa. If a manuscript demonstrates a very intimate understanding of Nigerian art, for example, the press is worried about the marketability of the work. Can it sell the books? Who is the audience? Will the identified audience buy the books? The general impression is that there is no clear constituency to buy such books, after all, Nigerians are economically impoverished. Why should they be concerned about a country that is not considered a vital partner of the U.S? Presses usually fail to see that there are a lot of art departments in the United States that offer African art history that could use the books. Besides, quite a number of Nigerians and Africans who have lived in Nigeria, teach these courses and are very well placed to explain the "intimate details" about the country and the continent. Because presses do not attend to the issue of global transformation, the typical response is that there is no market for the books.
Contemporary Textures: Multidimensionality in Nigerian Art was submitted to over 25 presses. They all turned it down. Many commended the article's level of scholarship, but felt that the topic and theme would not be of interest to their audience. Also, the idea of having colour plates did not go down well, since it would raise the overall cost of publication.
Q. So where did the funding for the book come from?
N.N. From Nigeria, from the Okeke Family Foundation run by C. Nonyelum Okeke of Ajumogobia & Okeke (Law Office). Before this funding breakthrough, a group of us, mainly Nigerian professors had formed a publishing collective called International Society for the Study of Africa (ISSA). The objective of ISSA is to publish the sort of manuscripts that are relevant to Africans and African scholarship, but that American presses may not think are relevant to their American audience.
Q. The situation you described about the U.S. press is the same here because publishers will not touch art books on the ground that there is no market for it. Moreover, there is the general notion that buying books on art is what you embark on when you are well fed.
N.N. The situation is not quite the same. The devastated state of the Nigerian economy is very different from the robust U.S. economy. Unlike in the U.S. where a press will select a manuscript that meets its objective, print and market it, a Nigerian press functions more like a printer. It will print the book if you can pay the printing cost. This brings me back to the lack of art publications in Nigeria. If you consider how "highly" paid lecturers and professors are, you will then understand why they cannot publish books. It is very difficult for a badly paid lecturer to raise the money required to print the books. Remember that first of all they have to have raised the money to do research in order to write the book.
Q. But how is it done in the United States and other countries?
N.N. If you are in a research level university, you have a reduced course load to give you time to do research. Then, there are various grants and fellowships both within the university and from funding agencies that you can apply to for funds. Once your manuscript is completed, you will submit it to a press, usually a university press for review, to determine whether it will accept it for publication. The press then convenes a panel of peers and experts in the field to review the manuscript. The goal is to establish whether or not the work advances scholarship. If it does, the manuscript is accepted for publication. In the Nigerian context, you find that most universities do not have enough funds for administration, hence virtually nothing goes to a university press. In this present state of penury, scholarship has taken a back seat in educational matters. It is no longer a pre-eminent concern as it was in the old days.
Q. What is your comment on the general notion that art matters only when people are well fed?
N.N. Now when people state that they miss what it means to be a culturally developed person. The success of any nation globally is dependent on how it views intellectual growth knowing that the humanities (of which art and art history are included) is a vehicle for making strides in national development and for producing culturally developed persons. You need this element of intellectual worth to be able to envision ennobling standards of social life, and to hold one's own in international community of nations.
To raise the issue of what is a culturally developed person is to raise the question of what kind of a society we have. Societies that have underscored one component, such as technological growth are culturally unbalanced. They lack the ethical imperatives, moral values and aesthetic sensibilities that are necessary to balance and humanize the products of technological innovation. In the United States, for example, the humanities and the arts are very well funded even as the science and technological sectors are critical areas of attention. The two major sectors are seen as interrelated and mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive.
Let's take the Internet for example. Initially, it was an environment that was hospitable only to computer programmers and software developers. But as the Internet became a popular medium for the average user, it soon became clear that artists were needed to create visually pleasing web sites and portals. A computer scientist may know the nuts and bolts of creating a web site, but they lack the artistic flair and the aesthetic understanding to create products that would attract visitors to the site. The same is true in economics. You may have the best product but if it is not attractively packaged, and well-advertised, you will loose your market share. The bottom line is that art is critical to selling products, which is why companies in the United States invest heavily in creative advertising.
Now to whose who insist that art history books are irrelevant given the present state of economics in Nigeria today. What these people miss is that art visually codes history in a way documents do not. Let's take for example the cartoons of Akinola Lasekan from 1934 to 1966. What is striking is the ingenious way the publisher and editor of West African Pilot conceived the cartoons as visual editorials. They became the usual complement of the day's editorial. In a period where few could read and write, many grasped the political polemic of the day through Lasekan's satirical cartoons. If you study these cartoons that spread over a period of thirty years, as I have done, it tells you a history of Nigeria that explodes a lot of fashionable myths about ethnic balkanization that people hold today. As a daily chronicle of events, the cartoons are particularly useful in revealing that there was a high level of national consciousness that seems to exceed what we have today. In short, they tell a different history of Nigeria that gives us an enriched understanding of life in the late 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. You need a keen and critical understanding of history to push the country much further and the cartoons provide an invaluable visual record of this.
K.A. There has been some discussion in the art scene and some people are of the opinion that artists who go back into culture to bring out forms and ideas are not actually helping the development of what they call modern art.
N.N. "What is old is new and what is new is old". This maxim tells us that new forms are extensions of old forms that have been transformed. This goes back to people's understanding of history, not just Nigerian history, but global history too.
Europe wouldn't have made its dramatic change from realism to abstraction without the artistic forms of Africa. While European artists mined Africa's artistic tradition, they also relied on aspects of their own artistic tradition. From the combination of the two they came up with what has been called "conceptual art", an important aspect of modern art. Even today in the United States, homes are built in the style of colonial architecture (pre-American independence) and classical architecture, which is Grecian (ancient Greece). Artists and architects all over the world recurrently mine the popular forms of their artistic traditions; why is this is a problem in Nigeria?
Clearly, when artists draw from their artistic tradition, they hardly engage in a literal rendition. Their contemporary forms are mediated by their present reality, hence are contemporised translations. How the nsibidi forms are incorporated into paintings and sculptures today are not the way they would have been displayed in the Ekpe houses of the 1890s and the 1930s. Liberties are taken in the process of retranslation, and incidentally, some artists do not even know the meaning of the forms and motifs they have incorporated into their work. For some, these motifs are purely aesthetic, hence they are engaged in extending the forms artistically. When inspiration is drawn from traditional sources, it confirms that truth of the maxim that what is new is old. Some of what people may think is a new invention may have been used before in a different configuration and setting. You use the past to push forward your history. So long as people are moving progressively in time, their invocations of the past constitute transformations, and should never be read as static.
Q. But the term 'modernism' has come under criticism for not being an appropriate description of present artistic development in Nigeria.
N.N. What do these critics understand 'modernism' to mean? How are they reading "modern art"? Is 'modernism' synonymous with the paintings and sculptures they see around them today? I do not have the full arguments, hence cannot comment substantially on this debate.
However, I use Euromodernism with the "Euro" prefix to flag the modernist art development in Europe. Euromodernism is subject to the specific cultural conditions and artistic politics in Europe at the material time of development. The same conditions do not hold true in Japan, Korea or India. Hence what Indians may construe to be modern art may not necessarily overlap with Euromodernism. I defend the right of any country or region to use the term "modern art" or 'modernism', provided that relevant qualifications are used to show that a nation's or region's modernism in art is different from Euromodernism. If the problem these critics have with 'modernism' is that Europe invented modernism, then we ought to bring Africa into the picture; for without Africa there would be no Euromodernism in its current flavour.
Personally, I prefer to see more Nigerian terms in use, because they speak eloquently about aspects of our contemporary culture and social reality. I'm partial to terms like "Omo dumping", "wayside art", "wet-on-wet" school, "nka", "ona", etc.
Q. What about the term "modern art"? Are there any problems with the expression?
N.N. In the discipline of art history in the U.S. or Europe, modern art refers to the artistic development from 1906, (taken as the inception of conceptual art), to the 1960s. From that period on, a different artistic movement known as "postmodernism" was believed to have commenced. In Africa, by contrast, people tended to use the term "contemporary art" to describe the artistic transformations that began just before the turn of the 20th century. American art historians find this use disconcerting, because they assume that "contemporary" is the "here and now", very recent works. What they fail to grasp, and is being pointed out is that (a) Africans reserves the right to name its artistic reality the way it wants; and (b) that in Africa, the expression "contemporary art" functions more like "modern" in modern art. "Contemporary art" is a technical term that describes how a specific region has chosen to organise and represent its artistic sphere. Often, when African artists and historians use the expression "modern art", they use it interchangeably with "contemporary art". Still, this use is different from Europe's and American art historians' use of it. For this reason, it tends to generate dispute and contestations which, I see as healthy.
Most of the art historians I know in the United States, whose area of research is contemporary African art, take as their main objective, the explication and elucidation of the works of specific artists and the prevailing artistic issues in different countries. Very few, I would say, are engaged in disputes on nomenclature that do not illumine what artists are doing.
Q. There is a great problem with funding for the art in Nigeria. In spite of all the talk about policy on endowment for the art, which has still not seen the light of day, nothing is being done to keep the art going. What is the situation out there in the United States?
N.N. Let us put it this way: there is a clearly defined policy on funding and endowment in the US, the only problem is that it is under siege. The Republican controlled Congress had spearheaded drastic cuts in the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). At that time the conservative values in the contract with America and many congressmen were diametrically opposed to the radical values of the vocal gay segment of the art world. The Christian Coalition that defines the right wing philosophy of the Republican Party were enraged to discover that public funds supported the exhibition in which appeared Serrano's, Piss Christ, a picture in which a crucifix was being sprayed with urine. To compound matters' this controversy erupted at the same time the gay erotica exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe was touring. The hard-hitting, in-your-face politics of the homosexual artists did not go down well with a vast section of the American public. The idea that public money was funding exhibitions that the moral majority perceived as obscene, created a backlash against the arts.
Under the combined influence of Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives and Senator Jesse Helms in the Senate, the budget of the NEA was radically slashed. Since 1994, it has been an uphill battle trying to restore funding for the arts. The majority of artists who are not part of the radical hard-edge politics put up a convincing case that the entire arts industry is being penalised wrongly for the actions of a few radical artists and their curator friends. It is an indication of the convincing nature of their argument that art practitioners were able to thwart the attempt of right wing Republicans to dismantle the NEA.
Q. You mentioned gallery just now, how do they operate there?
N.N. There is a distinction between public and commercial galleries. Commercial galleries work with artists to market and retail their works, while public galleries are merely a space where the works of significant artists are exhibited. Public galleries do not exactly market artists, they collect the works of artists whom the curators believe are historically significant figures. Most of what I am about to say refers mainly to commercial galleries since that seems to be the area of interest.
Major commercial galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC and Ottawa (Canada) tend to take 70% of the price of a work while artists get 30%. In some places, specifically moderately placed galleries, the cost share distribution is 60 - 40. What artists in Nigeria may see as an unfair distribution comes from the high cost of the services galleries provide. In working with a commercial gallery, an artist is paying for marketing services, placement of works in the collection of reputable collectors, boosting of one's reputation, ensuring that he or she becomes a significant artist. When you define the gallery's role in this manner, you begin to understand why commercial galleries are located in high traffic, commercial prime real estate areas. Their overhead cost is staggering and they have to recoup their investment in providing exclusive service to their artists.
It is worthwhile to note that commercial galleries do not represent just any artist. They tend to work with a group of artists, after having defined a niche that reflects the interest of the gallery owner or director and the interest of a well-defined clientele. Galleries tend to work with artists who have talent and lots of dynamism, are critically concerned about their professional growth, and have prospect. They organize exhibitions for the artists they represent, collect the money for purchases, prepare press kits both for art critics and art historians, and work to place the works of their artists in major museum collections, and to place their artists in major exhibitions. At the end of the stipulated deal or contract, the artist may choose another gallery to represent his or her interest, or he or she may stay with the initial gallery. Once a deal is signed, and depending on the terms, the artist refrains from selling their works except through the gallery. If a buyer happens along, the buyer is sent to the gallery to purchase the work. Unless it is part of the agreement, the artist does not undermine the gallery by selling his or her work personally.
As the reputation of the artist increases the basis of gallery/artist relationship may be renegotiated. Interestingly, the more important an artist becomes, the closer they work with the galleries that manage them. It is to their advantage to maintain a certain level of exclusivity and mystique.
Q. What have you seen in Nigerian galleries and the mode of operations?
N.N. In terms of cost sharing, what I have seen is the reverse. Galleries often take between 20-35% of the share price while the artists take 65-80%. Given these figures, it may seem that artists here are quite astute and are coming out way ahead of the game. But that's not the case.
First, artists here have a free trader mentality that, I believe, in the long term hurts the profession. There is often an obsessive need to sell that which are not fully aware of how they may be shortchanging their careers. Many fail to consider the importance of quality and the maintenance of consistency. Because someone is prepared to buy the work, they automatically assume that excellence in standard has been attained. Yet, the more undiscriminating are the buyers and audience the quicker the artists' decline. Moreover, the absence of constructive criticism which gallery owners and art dealers provide means that the level of art development in Nigeria will not rise as rapidly as one would hope for.
On the other hand, there is an absence of real gallery owners and art dealers. Quite a number of art dealers are hardly knowledgeable about the arts and are not doing much to inform themselves about the profession. Consequently, there are insufficient visits to the artist's studios to understand what artists are doing. Critical discussion with artists to challenge them is rare. Dealers' repertory of art is narrowly limited to Lagos, the negative result of this that their own reference frame is equally limited.
With this in mind, one can see that art dealers and galleries cost share of 20-35% seems reasonable given the level of service they provide. It constitutes a reasonable cost for the provision of an exhibition space and client list.
Q. How can we re-envision the role and place of the arts in Nigeria?
N.N. One of the most effective arguments of the art lobby during the US congressional cutback on art funding was that art is a high income generating industry. For too long art has erroneously been treated as a charity case. We must re-envision role and place of arts in Nigeria in order to define it as a profitable industry.
First and foremost, we need to understand that the art industry can be a formidable employer. Professionals are hired to fill different roles as curators, museum and gallery directors, conservationists, theatre directors, conductors and musicians in an orchestra, ballet companies, dancers, choreographers, etc. By virtue of the activities, performing and visual arts generate a lot of tourist traffic. Take the Caribana, the Caribbean Festival in Toronto, Canada, it reportedly brings in about $2 billion to the city of Toronto. This is through high hotel occupancy rate, brisk restaurant business, sightseeing and utilisation of city resources by tourists and festival visitors.
Major museum/galleries and performing arts centers are prime development projects for cities. The reputation of a city today depends substantially on the cultural (art) environment it offers to its visitors and workers. It is not unusual in the United States to find people who turned down attractive job offers just because there is no quality cultural life in a city.
Unfortunately in Nigeria, we don't see the arts as a viable economic sector. For this reason, government pronouncements on the art are meaningless because officials lack the vision to translate the proposals into reality. Ironically, where there are officials with the vision, you find that there is inadequate funding for the arts, or that incompetent individuals have been given the mandate to implement policies.
If the art industry here in Lagos were to be better organised, you can increase tourism. Cities like Cincinnati, New York, Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles heavily market their art centers, hence represent themselves as centers of culture. Chicago prides itself on the historical importance of its architecture and tours are regularly organised to educate people on the history of architecture and the historical significance of the buildings. Some cities market their orchestras and conductors, and compete with others to secure the services of a world famous conductor. Even though the artists and musicians are not city employees, the city contributes in making things possible for the development of the arts. This is done through funding for the arts, favourable land acquisition policies, zoning laws, including guaranteeing of loans for the development of art centers.
Q. So what you are saying is that in Nigeria we have a problem of marketing?
N.N. The problem is more than marketing. It is a problem of conceptualisation. There has to be an understanding of what to do with the arts and how to use it. One of the saddest things in the art sector is the derelict state of the National Theatre, Iganmu and the sad state of works in the national collection. The venue is an appalling waste of prime space. Workers are listless and unmotivated. This translates into low productivity and declining state of the art. It is in this context that one can understand the scathing critique an African American judge levelled at the Nigerian contingent at the recently concluded Panafest. The judge found that the artistic level of the dance troupe had not progressed much since FESTAC '77.
It is a truism that a government cannot be the exclusive funder of the arts. So the arts have to be administered in such a way that they should generate money. I am not saying that we should dispense with government support, but that whoever is in-charge should be imaginative, and come up with ways of redirecting the arts and generating funds. The picture is bleak once there is overdependence on a government with little resources. The sad fact is that a dependency culture creates paralysis and stymies art development.
What needs to be done is this: since the government cannot realistically fund all the needs of the art sector whoever is the director or section head should be able to negotiate a measure of flexibility and autonomy to be able to market their product, enter into contract deals without incurring untoward debt, renovate and transform the space to bring it up to par, and effectively utilise existing bi-lateral and multilateral cultural exchanges while exploring new avenues of exchanges.
The problem in the past is that there has been too many corrupt and inept official running the show. If N10,000 is allocated for construction, N7,000 ends up in various pockets while N3,000 is used to put up a ramshackle structure. There is no pride in working for the nation as exists in other countries. The philosophy of public officials is to work for the self while occupying an official position. This mentality means that officials use state funds to enrich themselves rather than using it to serve Nigeria. Because we are so busy stealing from the national purse, we fail to understand that we are creating greater and greater poverty for ourselves, and for the national polity.
There are a lot of cosmetic touches that could be done as one tackles the structural issue of raising the level of artistic worth in Nigeria. The latter must be done in a methodical way, as the issue of artistic merit cannot be addressed by playing ethnic politics. We seem to have a foggy notion of what arts and culture are about and so have been unable to develop the artistic potentials of the diverse cultures that make up Nigeria. Technical excellence is a prerequisite of a well choreographed dance. The sad fact is that the audience tends to settle for minimal standards of excellence.
There are a lot of fairs, cultural and artistic happenings that Nigerians could participate in that would act as the catalyst in raising the standards of excellence. Unfortunately, the global embargo of the past five years have meant that Nigerian representatives could not participate in these fora.
Q. But the complaint is that there is a communication gap between the nations and groups hosting those events and Nigeria.
N.N. People don't get information when they fail to seek it. And if you do not seek it, then you do not find, and you do not deserve to get it. You have to be out and about. You have to establish connections and contacts and make it known that you are interested in such ventures and that you have a reputable contingent to send. When you become a force to contend with, as South Africa obviously is today, you will automatically be notified, because organisers know that you will send a professional quality team. When Nigeria earns the reputation of sending amateurish representatives to professional events, no organiser of events would be interested in dealing with the country. The issue really is not that there is a "communication gap", but: what are you doing about it? Nobody is going to come knocking on your door, especially when you are artistically irrelevant.
There are resources out there that someone in-charge of culture and the arts should know. Let's begin with the mundane task of getting the National Troupe to some venue abroad. You could negotiate a deal with the airline carrier of that nation, or any other one that flies to that location. You could tell them that you have a troupe of thirty that need to attend some event in the country to which they fly and could they sponsor the trip. This is done worldwide. They may offer the troupe substantial rebates that would lower the travel cost. You don't have to wait for the government all the time to present you with estacodes and tickets before one does what is right.
You have to talk the corporate language when you are negotiating with those in the corporate world. Don't always come across as a charity case. You have to tell them what's in it for them. You also have to learn to sell certain rights to them. Certain companies are very interested in being portrayed as socially conscious, or art conscious, work with them on those basis. Certain companies in Nigeria are already demonstrating social responsibility and responsiveness to the arts, the problem, in my view, is that it is not well coordinated to the point that those companies are benefiting substantially for their efforts.
Q. So how do you evaluate the development of Nigerian art?
N.N. In my view, 1985 to 1994 (the period of the banking crises) was the saddest period in Nigerian art. It was a time when mediocrity ruled and a lot of crap was sold as art. It was despairing to watch the quality and level of art decline. Though there were exhibitions everywhere, and the code word for them was "sold out", standard declined as many people moonlighted as artists. It was staggering to watch some "money-miss-roads" shelling out a lot of money for worthless products.
Two main things happened in this period. Nigerians lost a sense of what it means to collect art. Art collecting is a form of investment. One buys good quality works, invests in the artist's growth and reputation, creates a pool of works with either historical, artistic or aesthetic significance. As an investment, one manages one's collection to the point that one could sell it off to raise significant capital for some project, or one could donate it to an educational institution to facilitate the growth of art history as well as the name of the family that owned the collection.
The second impact of the boom is that artists to a great extent became lazy. They knew that whatever they put together would be sold, since there were a lot of ignorant monied people and who would buy the works, anyway. Now, I am not saying that all artists became lazy. Unquestionably, there were some you could rely on to produce works of commendable quality. But they were few and far between. You could rely on some of the older artists like Gani Odutokun, Obiora Udechukwu, Olu Amoda to produce exacting works, since they were not dependent on the fickleness of the public. But to a great extent, they were literarily overshadowed by a lot of noisy charlatans who dubbed themselves artists. Now that things have cleared up, we are able to count the real artists from the ineffectual ones. Those who are left standing are those who consistently sere concerned with issues of quality in their work.
Lately, I have become excited over the quality of works I have seen, especially those of younger artists. There is greater attentiveness to the technical quality of their craft, colors have improved way beyond the five primary colors. There is greater understanding in the use of colors, and there is an awareness that you can use colors to create the illusion of depth. The themes are getting more meaningful, and they are addressing socially significant themes. I am impressed.
Q. So what is your advice to Nigerian artists?
N.N. One of the things I will encourage them to do if they can, is to establish a presence in the Net. The Internet is a leveler; it expands the range of one's audience. If they are able to work with people who have Internet sites, they could enhance their profile and their audience. For example, you had asked me about Olu Amoda's exhibition, which I did not see. Had it been on the Internet, I could have seen it because he would have captured the global audience, not just the Nigerian audience that came to the exhibition. I have told some artists who are planning exhibitions that if they send me slides of the works to be exhibited, I could put them up in my site so that they could simultaneously have a local and global exhibition.
I am in the process of completing an extensive web site with a gallery section for exhibiting artists' works. By September 1999, the site should be up and running.
A word of caution however: Artists should be wary of what is being promised to have their works on the Internet. An artist may be asked to pay an up-front fee for the privilege of having a page. Some artists may be promised or expect sales which may not be forthcoming. Others may be promised or expect instant publication or inclusion in publications. Artists have to be realistic about what is being promised.
The fact that a work does not sell or was not included in print publication does not mean it did not influence people. Equally too, it is possible for one to receive solicitation to participate in an international exhibition from the works and write-ups on the Internet.