Monday, May 9, 2011

I am as free as Picasso

I am as free as Picasso’
Last year, London-based Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare, Member of the British Empire (MBE) unveiled a scale model of Nelson’s ship HMS Victory in a bottle at Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. He spoke on his 30-year sojourn in the UK, his belief in African culture and his dream for Nigerian artists, among other issues, at a lecture in Lagos. Assistant Editor (Arts) OZOLUA UHAKHEME was there.

AFTER 30 years sojourn in the UK, internationally acclaimed Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare returned home to a warm reception by his kinsmen and professional colleagues last Wednesday in Lagos.
The event was the Articulate lectures series organised by Bisi Silva’s Centre for Contemporary Arts, Lagos at the Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos.
With nostalgic feelings, he poured out his heart sharing his decades of artistic practice in the UK and used slides to illustrate the presentation that was laced with conviviality. E ku role, Eku joko; he greeted the audience, including his elated aged mother, Mrs. Shonibare, who was flanked by other relations. Expectedly, he acknowledged the assistance of Prof. Grillo Yusuf who he sought his advice before travelling, saying: “Thanks for having me. I have not been here for 30 years. I managed to build a career for myself.”
From his old works such as Deep Blue, to Double Dutch, Diary of a Victorian Dandy, Vacation, Alien obsessive-Man, Dad and the Kid, The Swing, Black Gold, How to blow up two heads at once, The crowning, The confession and Nelson’s ship in a bottle, Shonibare unveiled for the first time the diverse content of his collection to the expectant local audience. In fact, his talks and works were in consonant with the contextual underpinnings of his collection-global politics, freedom, colonialism, identity and culture.
Despite the long years of his stay in the UK, the artist who feels at home speaking in his local language, Yoruba, still believes strongly about the sanctity and relevance of his roots. And he sees art as a potent tool of propaganda, which he said, is being used by the West. “America at a time used art to challenge Russia during the Cold War. Art is very powerful in the West and the government used it as a tool of propaganda. Adolf Hitler thought modern artists were mad men and rebellious,” he said.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Shonibare paints mostly on Ankara fabrics, which is common among Africans. The choice of Ankara, he said, is a means to reassert his African identity among the Europeans. “I decided to paint on Ankara fabrics as my own way of reasserting my identity, which is, however, a mixture of culture. But I am a Lagosian…… In my works, I could have painted like any Briton, but I have to speak my mind… I am doing my own revolution. When I first got to England, I was very interested in global politics, so I started doing works that challenge the system,” he recalled, adding that he is not different from people on the streets carrying on campaigns for revolution.
He described artists as more serious political animals who are concerned with the goings on in the society, but expressed their feelings through media. At the college, a teacher once asked him why he was not doing authentic African art? He replied, saying, ‘I am a modern man,’ stressing that in Europe, there is an expectation and they feel Africans are primitive. At that period, people were no longer talking about modernism and the big museums were showing only the big artists at the detriment of non-Europeans and women. Driven by the fight against colonialism, a post-colonialsm movement, comprising those wanting to empower the colonised, emerged.
He recalled that instead of showing his work, Diary of A Dandy, in a gallery, he took it an underground station into interrogation and challenge the people. He said though his works are very critical of the society, but are never aggressive because there is a lot of humour in them. He cited How to blow up two heads at once to show that no man wins a war as both parties are losers.
Reacting to the absence of his works in collections of Nigerian art collectors, Shonibare said it is unfortunate that Chris Ofili and he are hundred per cent collected by Europeans, lamenting that “it is our heritage that we are losing to them.”
“Art collecting in America and Europe is a legacy for the people. My works in their collection can’t find their way to Nigeria. And I can’t divulge the figures about my works. Lots of museums collect my works in the ratio of private 60 per cent and public 40 percent. I do collect myself. I remember buying a painting from a German artist for 5,000 pounds, which I later sold for 70,000 pounds.
Beyond, the use of Ankara fabrics, observers wondered why his works are not reflecting enough of African culture. “I am free like Picasso and we are all global. My work is not about representation but the politics of representation. I am not using fabric to represent Africanism. Unfortunately, the legacy of colonialism is everywhere in the country.”
His dream for Nigerian art and artists is for Lagos to have a befitting museum that will raise the quality and standard of art practice in the country. The content of my work is a continuum of global art,” he explained. Present at the lecture were artists, collectors, gallery owners, student artists and admirers that included Prince Yemisi Shyllon, Prof. Yusuf Grillo, Chief Joe Musa, Emeka Udemba, Olu Amoda, Ndidi Dike, Mrs. Bolanle Austin-Peters, Wale Shonibare and Dr. Demola Azeez.
Shonibare was born in London and moved to Lagos, at the age of three. He returned to London to study Fine Art, first at Byam Shaw College of Art (now Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design) and later at Goldsmiths College, where he received his MFA - graduating as part of the ‘Young British Artists’ generation. Shonibare has become well known for his exploration of colonial and post-colonial themes.
His work explores these issues through the media of painting, sculpture, photography and, more recently, film and performance. With this wide range of media, Shonibare examines in particular the construction of identity and the tangled interrelationship between Africa and Europe. Having described himself as a ‘post-colonial’ hybrid, he questions the meaning of cultural and national definitions.
In 2004, Shonibare was shortlisted for the Turner Prize and in 2009, he won a commission for the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, for which he unveiled in 2010 a scale model of Nelson’s ship HMS Victory in a bottle. He has exhibited at the Venice Biennial and internationally at leading museums worldwide.

200m dollars intervention fund is no threat to Endowment for the Art
Twenty-three years after the coming of the Cultural Policy, the creative industry is yet to witness its effective implementation. Instead, the policy is being constantly reviewed. The Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Alhaji Abubakar Sadiq Mohammed, explains the stages the policy is passing through to get the government’s approval. Assistant Editor, Arts, OZOLUA UHAKHEME, reports.

IN the past few years, the Cultural Policy has been undergoing series of reviews. What is the update on the policy?
The Cultural Policy is a key feature on the table of the ministry. Since I asumed duties, we have made frantic efforts to ensure that the policy is approved and launched by the government. You will recall that when the policy was reviewed, it was sent to the Federal Executive Council (FEC) and there were observations raised as to the financing of culture.
And when I assumed duty, I saw the need to convey a stakeholders’ forum, as to guide us on issues that relate to tax and incentives. After the stakeholders meeting, there was another committee of experts drawn from stakeholders who produced a final report.
At the forum, there was also a discussion about the National Endowment for the Art. It was a law that was promulgated in 1991 and, of course, it was not effective for whatever reason. But, we also felt that we should look at it and inputs were made. Not long ago, we intended sending the draft to the FEC, but we realised the need for the Ministry of Justice to have input into it. So, we sent the draft of the amended copy to the Ministry of Justice. We are receiving preliminary reports from justice ministry asking us to send an officer to them for discussion.
In fact, we feel strongly that for us to underscore the importance of the funding for the art, that law on art must go a long way. And if the policy is taken along with the law at the same time, at the FEC, the understanding of it all will be better. That was why we felt we should carry them along. As soon as we get the inputs from justice ministry, we will include that and send to the federal executive council.
In fact, the policy is one of the most important priority areas of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation.
For how long has the draft been with the Ministry of Justice?
The policy has been with the justice ministry since January. And I don’t know how long it will take them to complete their contributions. I thought the Ministry of Justice would respond with their input, however, we will follow up and ensure fast tracking of their input into the policy.
What is the update on the National Gallery of Art Bill? Also, what is the position of the ministry on the pending case involving NGA’s embattled DG and EFCC now that the acting DG has been confirmed as substantive?
The NGA Bill sent to the National Assembly is a privately sponsored bill and we are in touch with the culture committee and the leadership of the assembly on the need for the passage of the bill. When the House is through with it, it will then go to the Senate. In fact, we are waiting for it to be listed in the order of papers.
As for the suspended DG of NGA, Chief Joe Musa, we did not replace him until his tenure expired. The government is at liberty to appoint or reappoint him. And if he wins the pending case and comes back, he will get his benefits.
Will the President’s $200million intervention fund for the creative industry not be a draw-back for the realisation of the Endowment for the Art?
Well, to me, the President’s intervention fund is a complementary effort. In fact, it is a stop gap measure and it is one source fund. But the endowment for the Art is a multi-source, which is more enduring. The President is very passionate about the creative industry and is ready to support it because of the contributions it has been making to the economy and national growth.
Endowment for the Art is an enduring process where the art will be continually sustained through various instruments. So, the intervention fund from the President is just a complementary initiative and I hope that the law will be able to bring a sustainable framework that will make not only entertainment but all the creative industry viable and profitable.
At this period of electioneering campaign, arts and artists are used by political actors. And there is a seeming disconnect between your ministry and stakeholders in terms of programming. What is responsible for that?
I will not say there is disconnect between the ministry and stakeholders. But, the way the ministry relates with stakeholders can be different from the ways they can be used for political purposes. For us, it is an enduring relationship you build and you continue to sustain through some instruments of useul mechanism. For this, we know clearly and why and how you want to use them. No matter how you want to be sure, we are with them and will continue to be with them. No matter what promises that were made, they have to be within a certain government framework. They cannot be in isolation. The relationship between the stakeholders and the ministry will continue to grow and of course, a two-way affair.
One reason I may adduce for that impression is may be some small confusion. For instance, in the entertainment industry, once it is purely a creative art there seems to be more inclinations to other ministries than the ministry of culture. I feel strongly that the entire creative industry should be domiciled completely in the culture ministry.
Is this a mere wish or the ministry is truly working on how to redress this?
No, it is never a wish. We have started discussing with the ministry of information for instance, because we feel strongly that we have to sensitise the people. The bureaucracy there has to be sensitised so that it is not seen as we want to take away what you have. That has been the problem. We want them to understand that as long as they hold on to it, there will be no way there can be substantial progress. Of course, the stakeholders outside don’t have a real feel of such ministry and they feel strongly that they don’t belong there.
We have started talking and they have agreed and we are writing a proposal on the other aspects of culture ministry that should be incorporated into the ministry.
How effective is the government using culture as diplomatic tool for laundering Nigeria’s image abroad.
We will use culture as a diplomatic tool to launder Nigeria’s image. Except for paucity of funds, there are several programmes to launder Nigeria’s image. The major challenge is insufficient resources but there are several ideas to correct image problems.
What are the preparations to present Kano City Walls for UNESCO listing?
At the moment, we are only sensitising stakeholders about the enlistment plans. And we need to bring up the walls to a stage when the UNESCO assessors will not have much problem in considering it for enlistment.

On the President’s trail
After traversing the country for two months, taking about 10,000 shots of President Goodluck Jonathan's campaign rallies, a photo-journalist, George Esiri, has showcased 52 of the shots. The photo exhibition, entitled: The People’s President, was held at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre, Abuja. It ran for three days. Assistant Editor (Arts) OZOLUA UHAKHEME was at the opening.

Goodluck Jonathan at the various campaign venues and the tortuous trips across the country, Reuter's photo-journalist, Mr. George Esiri, dared the odds to make history. He explored the creative elements of photography to document the visual attractions in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) campaign train, which flagged off in Nasarawa State in February.
From the colours of Calabar, to the beauty of Benue, the exotic Lagos Eyo masqueraders and the flowing agbada of Southwest, he mirrored the diversity of Nigerian culture. He simply captured the energy, colour and character of Nigerians in The People’s President.
In attendance at the opening were the President; PDP Acting National Chairman Dr. Mohammed Bello; Senior Special Assistant to the President on Research, Documentation and Strategy, Mr Oronto Douglas; Special Assistant to the President on International Affairs, Ken Saro-Wiwa Jnr, some members of the Federal Executive Council and the public.
To the President, the colours of the exhibits are quite symbolic, as they tell of a bright future of a country that has hope. "It also tells me that if we collectively work together, we will transform this country. I am happy to be part of this Nigerian project, to play our little role to see that we collectively recreate a country for our younger generation and for children who are coming up should take certain things for granted.
"We feel sad that up till this time we still talk about electricity supply and potable water. We believe that the bright colour we have seen is a sign that surely all of us will change this country for the better," he assured the viewing audience.
Leading the pack of photographs is Warri 2007, which shows the late President Umar Yar Adua and Jonathan both decked in traditional Urhobo white attire and bowler hats during a campaign tour of Delta State. The exhibits are not all about politicians as there are shots showing excited placard-carrying crowd, artistes in performance, Police on duty, rural women, children and first ladies. Bright and colourful as they look, the photographs do not carry captions to assist the viewers situate the messages of the exhibits within time and place. This missing link would have been filled if the exhibition brochure was made available at the opening.
Esiri was inspired by the fact that it was the first time a politician from the Southsouth zone would be campaigning for the post of the President of this great nation. Yet, it was never a rosy trip across the zones. "You know, it was hectic, harrowing and tough because at times I will travel with a pair of trouser, and T-shirt for a week with my bag, laptop and camera. There are some states I got to and I won't get a hotel to stay. It was stressful but I thank God that any state I went to, I ate any food I saw. The trip was not moin moin," he said.
He recalled that of all the expereinces, two instances at Yobe and Zamafara states remained unforgetable. Continuing, he said: “Twice, I had it very rough in the hands of security details while I was trying to get very good shots of Mr. President. This was at Yobe and Zamfara states. At those instances, the security guys pushed me and I fell on the ground from where they pounced on me. And in the process, my camera lens got broken.”
But, driven by the conviction that President Jonathan is making history, he defied all obstacles of funding, harsh weather and hostile security to carry on with the project. Today, he has brought to the viewing public some selected shots showing the brilliant colours, costumes, dances, and other trappings of the rallies. His interest in President Jonathan dates back to 2007 when PDP was having its campaign tour of Delta state. "When Mr. President went to cast his vote in his home town last Saturday, April 2, I was there. When his father died, I was there. ut unfortunately, at the swearing-in at Abuja in May, I could not cover him," Esiri recalled the journey so far.
The ex-The Guardian photojournalist took advantage of the last campaign to accomplish his task. "I told myself, now I will complete my mission. I met the SA to the President on Research, Documentation and Strategy, Oronto Douglas for funds and he said there was no budget for that. I said to myself, I would take care of it," Esiri revealed, adding that 200 years to come, people from the Southsouth zone will say this is the first time a man from that zone is campaigning for the post of the President of Nigeria."
Continuing, he said: "For weeks, I had to go on the road. Sometimes I covered two states in a day. Sometimes, I crossed three states getting to another state at 12 midnight. But today, I am happy with these photographs on display. I am happy that I have done something that will be part of the history of this nation."
Not minding if the President wins or loses in the election, he assured himself of continuing with the documentation. On how he was able to select 52 out of 10,000 photographs, he said: "I won't lie to you. It took me five days to pick the choice pictures for this show because there are some strong pictures. In fact, I was confused. On the fifth day, I just started choosing because I have a big bank of photographs. It took me time to choose before going to print. Nobody choseEsiri worked with the Vanguard newspaper from 1986 till 1988 before leaving for The Guardian. He was at The Guardian from 1989 to 1990, and then moved to Prime People where he won the NUJ Photographer of the Year Award 1990. He was in Denmark on invitation as the only African photographer to document some stuff. He later joined Reuters where he worked for the past 10 years covering the creeks, the militants, the North when there were crises. In 2002, he was among 100 photographers in the world to document Africa, A day in the Life of Africa. The book is out and it's on the website. If arrangements by the party work out fine, the photo exhibition will go on tour of the federation.

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