‘Go back to the President’
Eighteen years after he left for greener pastures abroad, Prof Dele Jegede has come home for an exhibition. He relocated to the US in the heat of the June 12, 1993 political impasse. Jegede, who teaches Art at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, is in the country for his first solo art exhibition, Peregrinations, holding at the Nike Art Gallery, Lekki, Lagos. He spoke with Assistant Editor (Arts) Ozolua Uhakheme on why Nigerian artists must return to the President on pending fundamental issues affecting the arts; his 18 years self-exile and the need to produce works that must go beyond the cosmetic.
Eighteen years after you relocated abroad, you are holding your first solo art exhibition in Nigeria. How much of your experiences will be reflected in the show?
I would have satisfied my conscience that as a creative artist, I have given expression to the fullest of my ability to the issues that have continually made me uncomfortable regarding the Nigerian nation. But I am not unique, indeed, in this feeling that the Nigeria that I had anticipated, unfortunately, is an aborted country. It has not grown to the extent one has anticipated. And I don’t know what the solution is in one specific term.
But I know that I will be deluding myself if I, think that my art will suddenly ginger them into doing the right thing. I also think that if I in my capacity as an artist can voice my concern just as other million Nigerians can do, then we will get to a crescendo. It would have sickened me to sit down and do nothing knowing well that I have the capability to express these feelings in this medium. I am not deceived into thinking that there is a new Nigeria because Dele Jegede held an exhibition that talks about issues of national interest.
What are your expectations of the Nigeria project?
We have stumbled hopefully on the right path. Given the issues we have just gone through historically in the last few weeks particularly the elections, I can say emphatically that what we have witnessed in the performance of INEC deserves commendation because the leadership of INEC has proven that it is doable. If everybody who is saddled with a responsibility of shepherding this country in his or her own little way would take it to the extent to what Prof. Attahiru Jega has done, I think collectively we will begin to mend our ways. I am not disappointed in some leadership of political parties that had the opportunity to let people know that is not a do-or-die affair or political parties that initially said they are not going to contest whatever the outcome is and yet on the way of abrogating that ideals. And then, the post election violence that was unleashed on people is condemnable. When political leaders say if you rig, you are going to pay with your blood, of course the blood they are referring to is not their blood or that of their children. It is the blood of the poor people.
What trend can you identify among Nigerian artists during the 18 years of self-exile? Is there significant growth in terms of quality?
I cannot say emphatically yes or no because the much I have been familiar with are through the reports of art writers such as you. Agreed I have been in and out of the country attending events such as ARESUVA, Grillo Pavilion festival, I hope my colleagues, especially the younger generation will begin to see art as a very potential area that can be used to consciencetise the nation to issues that are of concerned to them. I do not necessarily expect people to have the same kind of approach. But I hope we will have among us a group of artists who will be concern enough about issues that go beyond cosmetisation of presentation of art.
Is there any strong link between your cartoon series in the defunct Daily Tines and this solo art exhibition content wise?
I hesitate to say yes, but indeed, I know it is. That link is me. If I will look at my cartoons you can find that kind of link between it and my paintings, especially for this show. They are issue-based and I feel very passionate of them. But for this show, the issues are divided into three main thematic areas: Africanism, political environment in Nigeria and Abuja series. It sickening to find that people sell their property to pursue their political agenda and such people will come to say they are serving the nation? And yet we cannot claim that there are no examples of those who have laid down their lives and contributed intellectually to the growth of this nation in the days when it was customary for people in authority to derive pleasure from having programmes that contribute to the upliftment of the society. I am sure you remember the likes of the late Chief Simeon Adebo of the old Federal Civil Service in the 70s. Unfortunately, today, Nigerian politicians eat the bones around their necks. Nigerians have not done enough in exerting pressure for social change as it is happening in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and the whole Arab world. In fact, the lesson from the uprising is that power belongs to the people.
What is your impression of the quality of art being produced by Nigerian artists in recent time?
Well quality is relative. I will go more in line with the concept or ideas of art. If I could I will favour art that is powerful at the conceptual level, which is not illustrative and representational. We should figure out ways of producing art that elevates.
UK-based Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare said in a lecture recently in Lagos that he is not concerned about representation in his works, but more on about the politics of representation. What is your take on that?
Unfortunately, I was not at the lecture and have not read the report in papers. However, we are speaking along the same line. Yinka has expressed himself in a particular medium we are familiar with. But it took a while for him to get there. But it is unrealistic to expect every Nigerian artist to do same. If you look at the US for example, the percentage of artists who are successful is really negligible compared to the number of artists that graduate from art colleges every semester and not yearly. In the US, it is not unusual to find an art graduate who still pumps gas to make a living.
I hope we will get to a point where it is not the quantity of art that an artist produces but rather we should be looking at the power of the idea of art and the content, which does not have anything to do with whether it is reality or abstract. Importantly too, the National Endowment for the Art should be a sine qua non for progress regardless of how limited it will be made on the Nigerian art. And this is the time for everybody to get together and go back to the President in a transparent manner on the need to start a fundamental restructuring of the sector. We should be thinking of leaving a legacy, and that deals will putting in place structures that will facilitate growth and development of the art.
You were at the maiden edition of ARESUVA at Abuja and it is currently undergoing review for some reasons. How can it be re-engineered to compete favourably with other global art events?
What you are having as ARESUVA has unfortunately been infected by the usual malaria that are parasitic and sometimes very deadly. There is so much that goes on in the civil service that I am still surprised is referred to as civil. It is not civil. Everything hangs around the budget, the budget… there is this absence of quality ideas. From my stand point, the first ARESUVA was very successful. Although, when I was contacted three months before the event, I felt it was not proper. I came in with that kind of skepticism despite my conviction that it was a good idea. I learnt it is going to be biennial in subsequent editions. But I will take it when I see it. And it is not impossible for this thing to happen without hanging on to budget. In fact, people depend so much on the government and unfortunately, government business is nobody’s business. Again, there is the culture of impunity, culture of lack of respect for other peoples’ right, and it is me, me syndrome even in government. The average man on the road also manifests this syndrome. It is a national tragedy.