Art has made Nigeria a major contributor to development of world civilization — Prof Jerry Buhari

Posted: October 28, 2011 in arts/culture

Interview with Professor Jerry Buhari, of the Department Fine Arts, Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria, Kaduna State as he speaks on the forthcoming 8th Ben Enwonwu Annual Lecture Series, themed:  Beyond 2Dimensional Art, place of the art in Nigeria, as well as the cultural and economic impact and potential of Nigerian art.

 

How would you describe the Ben Enwonwu distinguished lecture?

I situate it on an edu-cultural platform where the legacies and heritage of Nigeria’s culture is sustained, in this case, through a memorial of one of the founding fathers of modern African art in the person of Prof Ben Enwonwu

You are going to deliver the 8th Ben Enwonwu Annual Lecture; personalities such as Prof. Wole Soyinka, Dr. Christopher Kolade, Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, Prof. Yemi Oshinbanjo and Mr. Donald Duke, etc. have all delivered the lecture in the past; what do you intend to address in your lecture?

The past seven lectures, with the exception of the 6th, by Prof. Yemi Osibanjo, titled, “The Responsibility of Privilege”, though not necessarily in conflict with the rest, have explored the terrain of culture with specific focus at different levels, on the visual arts. In a sense, one can see the past lectures celebrating the legacies of human creativity that Ben Enwonwu stood for, practiced and propagated.

My lecture would address current directions of the visual art with specific reference to my area of specialisation-painting. In my paper I have tried to see how the line between painting and other forms of the visuals arts have blurred. I also thought that I should address the function of art beyond aesthetic appreciation and or art beyond commodity.

How would you compare Nigerian art now and the past?

The past can be considered simply to suggest Aina Onabolu/Ben Enwonwu era, and the “present” to include perhaps the 90s to date. But the past in art historical terms can be pre-western contact. Periodisation of history (into Past and Present (Now) can be subjective and problematic. But since you ask for my opinion I would see the present as commencing from the middle 80s to today. This period, in my opinion saw the outburst of contemporary art practice, promotion/consumption and appreciation in an unprecedented manner. It is in this period that we saw a dramatic growth in indigenous art appreciation, collection by individuals and corporate organisations who are Nigerians, exhibitions, as well as the opening of many private galleries; even the featuring of salons, auctions, art competitions with handsome/beautiful prizes, etc. The growth and development is still on. I must however quickly add that this is only looking at the beautiful side of the coin; But we all know that when we consider the present in our young history we immediately refer to the 1900 and commence our present history with Aina Onabolu.

Where would you place Ben Enwonwu in the context of modern and contemporary art?

I think more articulate and authoritative scholars have done justice to this question. I will however rest on the grounds that I am one of the artistic sons of Enwonwu; and would say that he stands out clearly as one of the founding fathers of modern African art. His legacy continues to inspire both practice and critical theory within the continent and beyond. I think many contemporary Nigerian artists are agreed on this.

The indices of international auctions of African art in the past 8 years point to the rising value and appreciation of African art; what is your appraisal of this trend?

Indeed. This is a development that has come to us sooner than I expected and in the most ambitious dimension. Well, what do you expect? Anything Nigerian is always big and ambitious. But I see in some of these auctions an indiscriminate selection/inclusion of works placed auctions without the use of certain critical but basic considerations. For example; the quality of materials used, the age of the works and the need to always seek to authenticate the originality and source of works. This raise questions about documentation, movement, scholarly and professional review of works in order to place them on reasonable historical perspective for posterity.

Talking about exhibitions and events, what kind of synergies do you think could be established with the art community in this part of the world?

This is a very good question. You must always consider two scenarios in approaching the question holistically. First you must recognize the existence of an indigenous art practice, appreciation and challenges that are independent of what obtains outside the geo-cultural boundaries called Nigeria. This is a fairly autonomous environment and it exists almost independently. By the way the same obtains even in the most advanced cultural centres of the world. The second scenario is looking at Nigerian art as part and parcel of the global community. If you do this you should expect that we are able to respond to and dialogue with new (different) ideas and practices. In my humble opinion it is always important to see any issue of Africa’s quest for development from these parallel perspectives. The issue of globalisation is fanciful and attractive, almost compelling. But as Ali Mazrui would insist this works best with economies and societies that share all aspects of development without one being over-dependent on the other. The reality is not the case. I have more to say on this but this is not the place.

Having said this, art exhibitions in Nigeria have evolved from showing an indiscriminate collection of works by artist/artists to thematic presentations. Exhibitions have grown from documentation with basic information like posters, fliers and one slot TV or radio review to elaborate catalogues with critical essays and well-informed newspaper reviews. Some exhibitions today enjoy professional curatorial direction. These developments have enhanced a deeper appreciation of art beyond art as objects of decoration.

We need to encourage greater networks of collaborations among the different stakeholders like among artists, the arts associations, government galleries (we only have one at the moment), private galleries, collectors, patrons /sponsors and art lovers. The collaborations should be organic, holding programmes that are structured around Nigeria’s cultural calendar in response to the global.

What impact has art made in the socio-economic system of Nigeria in the past decade?

This is a very good question and would require the Minister of Trade and Investment to answer. In fact I suggest that we pose the same question to every area of our economy? We must be able to answer this question and it demands an urgent or emergency response. I also think the question require a critical survey and scholarly attention.

But having said that I can say that a number of art graduates have found employment in different areas of our economy apart from the most important one- self employment. Perhaps this is an area we need to consider very critically in evaluating the relevance of art in national development. Art practice has given birth to private art galleries, rise in collectors, auctions, competitions, improvement in the quality of living of the middle class Nigerian. Art has made Nigeria a significant country in the world culture map as a major contributor to the development of world civilisation. I can go on. Unfortunately it is difficult to fully appreciate this in an intensely materialised society like ours.

With regards to supporting visual art, what is your assessment of the contribution of the government and private corporate institutions?

I think this is a question that immediately generates heated response from different people and quarters. It would seem to me that there appears to be no coherent consensus on even what we disagree on. But I will take the liberty of answering you with a personal opinion and respond like this: One, the support for the visual arts in Nigeria has improved over the years but without direction, coherence or intelligent strategy. Government still seems to find it difficult to understand, appreciate art as a very significant factor in national development like any other aspect of our human endeavour. In 21st century Nigeria we are still talking of creating a foundation for the arts. We have intellectualised the discourse to the joy of government that would prefer it stays like that as long as it is possible. In a great country like Nigeria where we have built and continue to build great and mighty architectural edifices, it is difficult to explain why we have no single cultural building that defines who we are and on what foundations we base our development. This is most unfortunate, unacceptable and inexcusable. But perhaps of most regrettable situation is that we have a visual arts sector run by square pegs in round holes.

The support of art from the private sector has also improved considerably. But this appears to be tilted towards certain sections of the arts, like music, dance and film, etc. This is generally good development but the visual art is the under-dog. Here I will blame the weakness in the structure of our professional organization of the visual art sector. We are not sufficiently coordinated to harvest the funds available and the rich environment that we have. Our leaderships have grown along narrow-minded visions centred on self. This appears to be our unfortunate history. A friend of mine always would remind me,” In life you do not get what you deserve but what you bargain for”. I think we must improve on our bargaining power and pursue group rather than selfish interest.

The other issue about support for visual art is that government agents/agencies who disburse these public funds do it as if the funds come from their pocket. This leaves the beneficiary uncomfortable and unable to conduct himself/herself with professional dignity. Part of the problem here is the absence of a structure of funding artists and art programmes, defined guidelines that one can apply to. Of course the other problem has to do with the quality of leadership and the politisation of leadership positions in these critical organs of government.

What are the challenges confronting art in Nigeria? Any suggestions for improvement?

Like any area of the nation’s life, our challenges are diverse and numerous and would almost appear insurmountable in view of the environment under which we operate today. Perhaps the only thing that keeps us hopeful Is, “No condition is permanent”. But let’s start from the root challenge to the top: First our modern cultural perception of art is prejudices with negativity. We all know that in traditional African/Nigerian society the artist is a distinguished member of the society who seats with kings to articulate the visions and missions of their society. Two, training: art as a subject in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions is an endangered subject. It equally follows that finding art teachers will even be more difficult. It is simply incredible today that art still thrives against all odds. The answer may rest in the nature and spirit of the creative people engaged in the practice. It seems that art blossoms even in the most difficult terrains; look at what is happening in the comedy, film and music industries today… Three, I have said earlier that government does not have a coherent, stable and accessible structure and environment for art and artists to function, particularly with the level of vibrancy and challenges we face today.

Looking at the situation proportionally, support of the visual arts still remains at the level where it was in the 70s.

Who will hear you? What is it that we don’t know or not already spoken? Everything today in Nigeria is considered under the criteria of politics (without credit?). The word politics has become a very dubious word that has come to mean more negative things than positive. The current government started with very good signs of showing interest and recognition of the visual art in its Transformation Agendas. What is the government’s strategic plan for the role of the visual arts in this agenda? What time frame should we be looking at? Who should we consult or hold responsible to actualise the President’s pronouncements? On our part I ask the question? Who will go for us? These are questions to me that beg for urgent answers from all of us.

I will therefore summarise my request to government as follows: Give us an Art Foundation that is well funded and run by a credible professional board. Give us a two art galleries in Abuja and Lagos that are removed from the civil service structure and mentality. Professionals of proven track record should run the galleries.

To the private sector; I think they are always ready to fund any organisation that is sound, credible, articulate and purpose driven. In my humble submission, it is possible to draw support from the private sector and achieve so much more that the current government structures can offer.I want to believe that what the private sector wants to see is an art organisation that is focused and able to articulate an attractive project.

What is your projection for Nigerian art in the next decade?

It is difficult for me to say, particularly if you will like to take me on on this ten years down the road. But I think I will translate the question to hope. What do I hope (dream) Nigerian art or the art in Nigeria should be in the next decade? I will therefore respond like this: (1). Before the end next decade I hope to see the opening of two befitting art galleries worthy of the size of this great nation declared open, each in a 50-hectare landscaped property somewhere in Abuja and Lagos in a scenic place outside the two cities. (2).              In the next ten years I hope to see the establishment of a foundation for the arts by the federal government run by a Board of Trustees with professional integrity and ethics where all the various sectors of the arts have a clearly defined fund to draw from: (3). I like to see art schools receive better structures, facilities and teaching staff: (4)  I like to see at least two major private institutions dedicate a handsome fund to the promotion of the visual arts annually, like what Guinness use to in “Unity in Diversity”. (5) I like to see art collectors/patrons open art galleries of the Guggenheim profile.

Advertisements
Comments
  1. Samuel says:

    My mentor will never disappoint. Great words from a great man!

  2. Andy O. Ehanire says:

    Excerps :1. “The other issue about support for visual art is that government agents/agencies who disburse these public funds do it as if the funds come from their pocket. This leaves the beneficiary uncomfortable and unable to conduct himself/herself with professional dignity. Part of the problem here is the absence of a structure of funding artists and art programmes, defined guidelines that one can apply to. Of course the other problem has to do with the quality of leadership and the politisation of leadership positions in these critical organs of government.”
    2. “In a great country like Nigeria where we have built and continue to build great and mighty architectural edifices, it is difficult to explain why we have no single cultural building that defines who we are and on what foundations we base our development. This is most unfortunate, unacceptable and inexcusable. But perhaps of most regrettable situation is that we have a visual arts sector run by square pegs in round holes.”

    Food for thought.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s