By dele jegede

i. In the last ten hours or so, presentations have been made, discussions had, and views expressed on topics that have been spurred by this intense, one-day conference on dele jegede, who happens to be my humble self. My very esteemed friend, Salah Hassan started us off on the problematics of Africa’s modernity, using Ernest Mancoba as exemplar paradigm. He is followed by many whom I am proud to call colleagues. Moyo Okediji’s eloquent poetics remains, even as I speak, quite moving, even challenging. And the citation before the presentation of the book, by Tunde Babawale, Professor and Director-General of CBAAC, Lagos, who flew in specifically for this occasion from Lagos, was totally unexpected and gratifying. And to all of you who have found the time, energy, and resources to be here, my unqualified gratitude and appreciation is due. I am indeed beholden to all of you.

But I would like to single out two individuals for special thanks: my wife, Adejoke Jegede (who does not write her name in small letters), and Toyin Falola. But before them, let me acknowledge specifically the presence of two individuals who are not art scholars but who were here mainly to give me support: Gbenga Agboola from Houston, and Ben Bosah from Columbus, Ohio. Since she married me (and not the other way round) thirty-eight years ago, Joke has been my pillar of strength, my other brain, and my unrelenting critic, through thick and thin. Joke, thank you!

How do I thank Toyin Falola enough? Of course, many of you here have taken the words out my mouth. Toyin Falola has been described, quite appropriately, as the man who hardly sleeps; as a generous individual and an incredibly prodigious scholar. And more. Here, therefore, is my call to all of you: please stand up and appreciate Toyin Falola. On our way from the airport yesterday, Michael—our young friend who came to fetch us on the orders of Toyin—gave me a hint of the direct impact of Toyin’s work on an unsuspecting audience. Michael knew that UT has been preparing for a very important conference. He suspected that the person who was being honored must be very important. He then asked if I knew that person. I confirmed that it was my very self. He was shocked! He had thought that a conference this significant must be for someone who was no more!

One of the most touching aspects of this conference was the extent to which Toyin has gone in his drive to ensure that it was not just a conference but a recognition and bestowal of honor. As we had informal dinner in his room the previous evening, I listened to a piece of music that was specially composed for me, with my oriki and more. I was moved beyond words. Toyin is truly endowed. If he had not been a historian, or an academic, he would have been a jester. You should see Toyin disrobe you, over the phone, with acerbic humor. No one is too big to be brought down by his mouth. And yet, Toyin is perhaps the most protocol-conscious individual I have seen. Those of you who have received his e-mail would readily attest to his brevity and reverence. He gives you the impression that you are his boss. He is profusely consultative and communicative. Yet, he is a taskmaster. He can be brutally efficient and uncompromisingly principled, especially when it comes to things academic. He goes after you with a relentless zeal once you have agreed to be part of a project that he is working on. He is a brilliant individual, one whose attainments would make us question our own productivity. He seems to have a compulsion to produce; to be busy; to get things done. On our way to this venue, I asked how he has managed to be this prodigiously productive. “I love work!” was his answer. For someone who took only twelve years—from 1976 to 1988—to move from a bachelors degree to full professor, work must have a different meaning from what we all know it to be. When I asked him a while back if he would be willing to write a short note for my exhibition catalog, he obliged by sending fifteen typed pages two days later! And he was still writing. He ended up writing more than I did for the catalog. Does he sleep? He says he will take his accumulated sleep when he’s dead.

ii. In 1986, I was 41. In 1986, I had one wife. In 1986, I was in my tenth year on the faculty of the University of Lagos. In 1986, I had been cartooning for about 14 years, save the four-year sojourn in the United States. In 1986, General Ibrahim Badamasi  Babangida was in his second year as the new military despot. It had been only three short years since Babangida’s predecessor, another military tyrant’—General Muhammadu Buhari—toppled the reluctant civilian president, Shehu Shagari. In 1986, at the National Theater, I had my fifth solo exhibition since leaving Zaria 13 years earlier. It was my first solo exhibition since defending my dissertation at Indiana University in 1983. For me as a professional artist, art scholar, and socially alert citizen, this was a turning point. Like many others of my generation, it was impossible to abstain from ruing the Nigerian situation then.

In 1986, I captured the mood of the nation from my personal perspective in a thematized exhibition, “Paradise Battered.” A few months ago, I took another look at what I wrote: my manifesto, so to say. And I found that nothing much has changed in the situation that I deplore bitterly in the exhibit and the accompanying catalog. If it were possible to turn up a notch or two degrees the intensity of the depravation that was beginning to characterize the average Nigerian person at that time, we would realize that relative to global developments and national aspirations, Nigeria of today is, indeed, in a much worse situation than the one that captured our imagination then. Permit me to share some of my thoughts with you, as I sought to draw attention to the impending social malaise:

Paradise Battered, the title of [the]exhibition, proceeds from the stand that our heaven is our earth; that paradise does not exist in illusion—in that visionary world of dreams and masturbatory blissfulness. But, as recent events have proved, this paradise has been so assaulted, battered, vandalized and looted, and by Nigerians themselves, that whatever indignation our colonial beginnings may have rightly entitled us to is immediately annulled. We have no moral justification to harp on our colonial past when we are still in a colonial present.

This was in 1986, long before the current mindlessness of celebrating a centennial anniversary took possession of the president and his group. But I digress. Let me continue with my 1986 manifesto:

The paradise has been battered for him who was retrenched on Grade Level 02 on the eve of the night that his second wife gave birth to their eighth child…. Our paradise has been battered by the absence of motivated and purposeful leadership 25 years after our independence. ….We crave for the transfer of technology when we have not been able to mend and maintain our leaking roofs; when we demonstrate incurable profligacy and an embarrassing ineptitude in solving local problems….The result of a battered paradise manifests itself in the benumbed demeanor of the downtrodden who, with blood-shot or yellow-fevered eyes, erect shanties and personal cathedrals to their Gods, only for a hibernating council bulldozer to launch at and chew up.

There are innumerable examples in today’s Nigeria that paint a vivid, even if painfully depressing picture, of the nation-state. As we converge here to analyze and cogitate, Nigerian universities have been on strike for weeks, forcing a national paralysis of unimaginable magnitude. There is indeed a plethora of ills that Nigeria has wished upon itself. If you chose to focus on infrastructure alone—on roads that are literally broken, or electricity generation that has become a national albatross, or on non-availability of clean, portable water, you would have your fill. We have not considered the massive leakage in the oil sector, or the breakdown in law and order that has become a national signature. Boko Haram has become an untamable force that continues to inflict devastation on innocent souls by the hour. I know that many of us who travel to Nigeria would be more apprehensive now than we were in, say, 1986: kidnapping has become a thriving industry.

Still on my manifesto, I was struck on re-reading it how much Baudlairian I sounded. The beauty of course, is in the fact that today, more than a quarter century later, the applicability of my principles would appear to be on course, especially with regard to what I thought the role of the artist in his or her society might entail. Back to 1986 again:

I belong to my period and I am interested in the landscape of socio-political nuances which people and events always contrive to paint in unending successions. I am not a synthetist, neither am I a revivalist. The rich artistic traditions of this great country are monumental edifices to the spirit of artists and craftsmen working assiduously to reify those collectivities which constituted their bedrock of social harmony….I have no infatuation with preserving or reviving the past in my work. I do not have to bend over backwards to borrow anything from the past which does not blend with, or express the sensitivity of the present. I am a now artist expressing now values in a now language.

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Two years ago, in 2011, I had my first solo exhibition since relocating to the U.S. in 1993. In my statement in the accompanying catalog, I remained no less committed to the social relevance, the directed and purposefully focused bite that art has the capacity and capability to have in society, especially one such as Nigeria. Indeed, relocating to this country also tested the relevance of my previous manifesto. In an entirely different locale and culture, what came to the fore was the assertion of selfhood and a determination to deploy my creative talents in affirming my individuality and, by extension, my Africanness. I was determined to ensure that nothing I do will contribute to my marginalization, or the demeaning of my ancestry. Ultimately, of course, I found a latch in popular culture: in hip hop and the light-heartedness that occasionally comes from unexpected sources, such as the print media and television. The decision to have my most recent exhibition in Lagos was accompanied by the realization that Nigeria forever remains a fertile ground for the committed artist. A good part of the body of work that I created during this time was focused on Nigerian issues: politics and especially the depressing situation in the Niger Delta, where international companies continue to collude with the Nigerian peoples in committing unmitigated transgression. Here is my 2011 statement:

My art is cathartic. It is an averment of my personal aesthetics: an articulation of the pangs and anxieties, the socio-cultural bemusements and conflicts, and the political conundrums and economic predilections that have continued to assault my sensibilities as a Diasporic citizen. In recent decades, my creative temper has become increasingly apathetic to the production of art that cosmetizes. The social, intellectual, and emotional tensions imposed by voluntary exile—the contradictions inherent in living in an adopted home but incapable of, or unwilling to, sever the umbilical cord to my ancestral roots—are confronted, addressed, but remain unresolved in my art.

My canvases function as receptacles: archives for deeply personal visual soliloquies that are uttered on those occasions when the need for visual pungency trumps the desire for the promulgation of beauty. In the two intervening decades since my voluntary peregrinations, my work has become a platform for parsing the anguish that is a concomitant of the aborted dreams that Nigeria emblematizes. From the Niger-Delta imbroglio and the government’s shocking tepidity in responding to the massive environmental degradation that has become a perennial issue, to the political charade in which political actors out-compete themselves in plundering the collective wealth, Nigeria has become—or should become—the politically sensitive artist’s canvas. In contributing to the efforts to conscientize the citizenry to the squandering of Nigeria’s human and natural riches, and in stemming the promotion of the culture of self-aggrandizement by the political class, I stand for an art that nags our social conscience.

iii. A mere six years after Her Imperial Majesty sutured the two Protectorates of Southern and Northern Nigeria into what would, under the administrative watch of Lord Frederick Luggard, become Nigeria, a 38 year-old man from Ijebu Ode sailed to Europe in pursuit of a dream that had by then become an obsession. The heroism of Aina Onabolu, the purveyor of Nigeria’s modernism, has engendered an inordinate amount of literature (and rightly so), which revolves around two central axis—of image and nation. Many scholars, foremost among whom is my irrepressible Ekiti friend and the intellectual oracle of Nsukka, Ola Oloidi, have constructed inspiring narratives on modern Nigerian art, using Onabolu as the exemplar pivot.

But beyond our attempts at historicizing Onabolu, so much remains to be written with particular regard to creative activism which, as we all know, is central to our gathering today. For a man to have single-handedly initiated and sustained the introduction and teaching of art in select high schools in colonial Nigeria was perhaps the very first act of heroic activism. He pursued this goal even when the odds were greatly against him: the colonial administration, on the one hand, had no illusions about its mission. In the scheme of civilizing the natives, a key objective was how to enforce compliance with Her Imperial Majesty’s laws. Learning to read, write, and produce local interpreters were certainly regarded as by for loftier than training the children of idol worshippers how to become modern artists. On the other hand, Onabolu faced challenges, even if subtle and at times unvoiced or incoherent, from his own society, which did not accord art any serious recognition. Thus I am—indeed all of us who are artists or art scholars from Nigeria are—beholden to Aina Onabolu’s vision and creative activism.

Belonging in this pantheon of creative activists is Nigeria’s first and preeminent cartoonist, Akinola Lasekan. Indeed, Lasekan or Lash, as he was popularly called, was an accomplished painter in the realist mode, a publisher, and political cartoonist who believed fervidly in the politics of the then NCNC, of which his mentor, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, was the eminent leader. Using Dr. Azikiwe’s West African Pilot as his platform and overcoming the obstacles that publishing simple lines presented at that time, Lash set the standard with the acidity of his cartoons.

A critical ingredient in the arsenal of any artist of integrity is imagination. It is is a paean to the criticalness of an idea, which aerates powerful visions of nationhood, infusing it with a desire to mobilize the citizenry towards the attainment of fictive subjectivities. Imagination encapsulates the abstract imperatives that are inherent in the creation of image and the development of nation-state. It inspires compelling dreams around which cascading nuggets of ideas coalesce, and spurs individuals to creative heights that often produce historical monuments. Whether viewed from an imaginary prism or from the outposts of realism, imagination is the DNA of our norms and ethos, our political footprints, our cultural integrity, and our collective endowment. The absence of imagination stifles cultural growth and stultifies a robust embracement of those ideals that foster national pride.

Thus, we are stunned when we see the extraordinary quantity of African art, artifacts, and sacred objects that are displayed in Euro-American museums and galleries, in squeaky clean vitrines, on walls or pedestals, swathed in the latest accessories that modern museums can offer, sitting, hanging, or standing solitarily under the effulgent aura of museum lights. Occasionally, in public museums or private collections, you come across items that are either so large or fragile or both, items that are supposed to be so powerful that you set your gaze upon them at your own peril, and you wonder how they could have left Nigeria. As you gawk at the sculptures and other paraphernalia of Nigerian culture in a different context in a distant land, you cannot but wonder how they were acquired. Who facilitated their removal and approved their exit? How did such huge camels pass through the eyes of our immigration needle? What happened to those overzealous immigration officers at our airports, the same ones who routinely targeted my luggage whenever I travel out, threatening to dispossess me of my prized kola nuts? What we should not take lightly are the dire consequences for a nation whose national treasures are permanently in museum vaults and on display walls, in private hands, and public institutions in distant lands.

Unfortunately, our treasures are not the only commodities that are now in foreign countries. Our intellectuals—some of our best minds—are also abroad. The economic debacle of the Babangida Years led to an unprecedented seepage in the country’s intellectual wealth. Since the mid-80s when the first Andrew checked out, hundreds of Andrews and Adrians have taken permanent residence outside of Nigeria. Today, some of the best Nigerian curators, art critics, art historians, art teachers, artists, and academics are in voluntary exile in European and the United States. The expatriation of the country’s intellectual property and intellectuals is a debilitating combination, one that has, quite unfortunately, not received the attention that it deserves. But while human migration can be stemmed or even reversed, the repatriation of national treasure takes more than statements of intent or public lectures or beautifully crafted and well-rehearsed interviews by officialdom.

The global visibility that Nigerian art has enjoyed in the last two decades, one might argue, is one of the benefits of Nigeria’s dilemma and political problems that have their roots in the 80s.. The adversity that propelled the renaissance of contemporary Nigerian art also, ironically, catalyzed the growth of a new tribe of Nigerian art critics and art historians who have since become critical voices in the shaping of canons and epistemologies about the African Diaspora. The westward migration of Nigerian scholars, which started in a trickle in the early 1990s with the exit of Rowland Abiodun and Babatunde Lawal from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife had, by the end of the century, become a deluge as prominent Nigerian art students and scholars felt sufficiently incentivized to leave the country. Today, many Nigerian scholars appear eager to go into voluntary exile in exchange for the opportunity to simply experience the challenge of creating without pandering, and teaching without palpitating. Nigeria should of course regard it as a major compliment that perhaps many of her best art scholars are in the United States. Indeed, one may be justified in claiming that the most productive group of Nigerian art scholars are now in the United States.

iv. As this august moment has revealed, however, it is one thing to create; it is yet another to characterize, historicize, or narrate. The construction of a cannon, or the admission and classification into a global narrative of the art either of an artist or a group of artists, or of a people, is dependent on factors and structures that are often outside of the influence or control of artists. This event, which was imagined, organized, and realized by a historian, exemplifies the fluidity of boundaries and the advantages that can accrue to artists, especially at the global level. At the onset, the evolution of African art history owed much to a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, ethnography, archaeology, history, and linguistics. But the times are changing. There is no better index of such a change than what has just happened here at the University of Texas at Austin, with Toyin Falola, the preeminent global historian marshaling a pace, and initiating what I am hopeful will become a global initiative.

— Address by Professor jegede at the Book Presentation and Conference on “Art, Social Struggle and the Nation-State” University of Texas, Austin, September 21, 2013.

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