By Yemisi Shyllon
Art in Nigeria has come a long way. However we must unabashedly acknowledge that our modern and contemporary art has mostly been driven by the private sector. In so doing, the private sector is contributing to proving Lord Frederick John Lugard (1926) wrong when he stated among others that:
“In character and temperament, the typical African of this race-type is… His mind is far nearer to the animal world than that of the European or Asiatic, and exhibits something of the animals’ placidity and want of desire to rise beyond the state he has reached. Through the ages the African appears to have evolved no organised religious creed, and though some tribes appear to believe in a deity, the religious sense seldom rises above pantheistic animalism and seems more often to take the form of a vague dread of the supernatural.”
Starting from the earliest times to the present, art and artists in Nigeria have moved from one level of experience to another. As Nigerian politics and economy develop, so has the art. Art does not exist in a vacuum. Since it is a product of people and society, it reflects the yearnings and aspirations of its age and clime. Such reflection can provide an index on which the development of art tradition can be based. If by development, we mean the progressive improvement or amelioration of a condition or situation, art development, then, would refer to the dynamics of the sociology of art and how it is evidenced positively or negatively on the art ecology. The development of a given art ecology naturally depends on a number of factors. These factors include the consecrative agencies such as galleries, museums, historiography, art criticism, and the socio-psychology of the environment. In discussing the problems of art development in Nigeria, one should therefore critically assess some of these factors, the role of government and our public institutions.
The problem of art development in Nigeria derives from the ineptitude in the administration of art and indirectly from the ephemeral interest of government. Since the culture sector is poorly funded, it is easy to lay all the blame for the sorry state of affairs in the sector at the door of government. But a critical look at the issue will also question the effectiveness of those in art administration in terms of proffering and execution of ideas in a way that can engender creative and imaginative system of generation of funds. From the public museums and galleries down to art councils, there is need for improvement. Most people do not even know where our public museums and galleries are, their importance and what they represent. With a system of education that does not effectively promote heritage studies, Nigerian museums, including the newly-built ones, remain dead ends. They smell of neglect and despair and give little or no courage to anyone to regard our past and heritage with much enthusiasm. As (Aisha Labi) a Nigerian artist put it:
The fact that the museums in these parts do not encourage much visitorship simultaneously underscores our society’s loss of its past and logically its loss of its future. For in reality, there is only the past and the future. The present is but a fleeting realm that can be claimed by no one. If the Nigerian society continues to regard art and culture as luxurious entertainment, we will remain an uprooted people, with neither memory nor desire. If the culture sector in Nigeria is poorly funded, the onus lies on those who accept to be appointed art-culture administrators to try to make the best of a bad situation, while also exploring various possible means to make our lethargic governments more responsive to the needs of art and its role as a socialising agent.
Education and Art Development
First we need to find out what education means. Education has been defined by Jonathan Sacks, in his book, the Politics of Hope, as “the pursuit and attainment of experience, excellence and mental, moral, and physical development through informal, formal or organised processes or systems of instruction, association and learning.” Put differently, people get educated to enable them come to terms with the challenges of existence and to gain the ability to adapt creatively to the demands of society. Education is not magic but it helps to add meaning to existence. In this his book The Politics of Hope, Jonathan Sacks highlights the goals of education as a social commitment:
The general decline in the quality of education in Nigeria is one of the greatest misfortunes of post-independence Nigeria. It can be attributed to many factors, including poor funding, poor quality teachers, bad attitude and lack of commitment of some teachers, non-improvement in the educational curriculum, misconceived educational policies and religious fundamentalism. These factors have contributed to the degeneracy in the educational system, a situation which has transformed education itself into “magic”, in the sense that it is geared only towards the attainment of personal needs, especially those bordering on bread and butter, as against the advancement of knowledge, the improvement of the human condition and the perpetuation of mankind.
For education in Nigeria to effectively conduce to art development, it has to be positioned to recognise the peculiar needs of the industry so that it can contribute to the amelioration of those needs. Such education must be imbued with the capacity to enable social development in general and art development in particular. It must be a system of education that is able to broker understanding and dialogue between the artist and the society. In other words, I do not advocate a system which insulates the artists from the rest in the ecology of education. Yet this is actually what is in place, that is, an education system that does not allow much conversation between disciplines for the overall benefit of society. Since the Nigerian concept of development is largely predicated on science and politics, art seems to be downgraded in the nation’s educational system. From about the 1980s, it appears that art is no longer given its pride of place in Nigeria, as it is not adequately taught in many primary and post-primary schools. Although art is usually in the curriculum, art teachers are either too few or they are often diverted to teach other courses because our educational policy makers believe that art is not very relevant to human and social development. This has not only succeeded in destroying a vital aspect of education for our young people, but has also truncated the creative ability, vision and aspiration of generations of Nigerians who have passed through the Nigerian educational system in the past 30 years without art as an effective part of their curriculum. The creative instinct that art imbues at the formative stage of people goes a long way in fertilising their developmental potentials in any field of human endeavour they find themselves in later years.
In view of the above, how can we reposition art education in Nigeria to transcend its overbearing concern with art pedagogy and assume a more practical role in social development and economic reconstruction? Indeed, there is need to invigorate art education curriculum to produce scholars and art educators that can respond to the demands of their time and environment. Art education should be empowered to help in relocating art to the centre, away from the periphery, so that it can become a major instrument in our politics of development, and thus be able to propel its own (art’s) development for the benefit of the creative industry and our society. In doing this, we will be proving wrong, some philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in his assertion that:
“Africa is a timeless place in which there are no art, letters or social organisation.”
Historiography is as important as the creative process. Along with art criticism, it is a factor that links one art epoch to another through, the instrumentality of the narrative. In any environment where art is engaged as a real humanising enterprise and as a driving force of culture and civilisation, the importance of art history to the rooting and perpetuation of the resulting heritage cannot be denied. It has been described as one of the consecrative agencies in the art ecology. From colonial times until very recently, Western anthropologists and art historians bestrode Africa’s socio-cultural terrain, and told the story of the continent’s history, culture and development as if the story belonged to them. Even in the aftermath of colonialism and in the postcolonial mélange, the study of African art is still unfortunately led by Western scholars and West-based African scholars. Although many Africans have trained in various aspects of the humanities and social sciences, not very many have carried out globally insightful and meaningful research on aspects of African studies, including art, its sociology and history. In Nigeria some of the major exhibitions and publications on the evolution of art in the country have been undertaken by so-called “intimate outsiders”. Where this is not the case, we have seen a level of role-reversal with studio artists taking on added responsibilities as theorists, critics and historians. Although this is not an absurdity, it raises some questions about the effectiveness of the art historian in Nigeria vis à vis the large number of people who now hold degrees in that discipline in the country.
From 1960 to the present, most of the major exhibitions of modern Nigerian art have been organised or curated by studio artists or galleries and a few Euro-American scholars. For example, the 1960 independence exhibition was organised by some of the Zaria Rebels, so also was the visual arts aspects of FESTAC ’77 (Nwoko, 2005). In the 1980s and 1990s, most of the major developments in the art scene were due to the exertions of studio artists. In the south of Nigeria, for instance, five art groups were founded in aid of art propagation; they include Aka circle of Exhibiting Artists, the Visual Orchestra, Omenka Group of Artists, Ona and the Pan-Africa Circle of Artists (PACA) whose membership spread is beyond Nigeria. All these were founded by studio artists and their activities were also sustained by studio artists. Even where the groups had art historians in their fold, as is the case of Ona, Aka or PACA, planning and strategy still depended on the vision of visual artists.
Aka is a success in several respects, but its demise is sad. There are many other groups which have waxed and waned in the last two or three decades. The exploits of Otu Ewena, the Best of Ife, Aftershave Workshops, Harmattan and OYASAF Workshops, and other similar art groupings and activities have not rested squarely on the shoulders of critics and historians. Thus, the general picture that can be painted is not one of a situation in which the art historians have taken a lead. This is worrisome for an art ecology which counts many arts historians in its folds. But, must the art historian or critic initiate and lead art projects for him/her to be worth the name? Not exactly; but he must be abreast with happenings and nurture the ability to tell the (hi)story of art with all the vigour and commitment it deserves. Achebe (1987:124) reaffirms the importance of the story as the survivor of action:
The Relevance of Art Criticism
Art criticism deals with the hermeneutics of art. It is not fault-finding. Rather, it the creative and insightful appreciation of a work of art for the purposes of analysis and interpretation. According to C. Krydz Ikwuemesi,
Criticism could be broadly divided into five parts: constructive criticism, destructive criticism, detective criticism, sympathetic criticism, and totalitarian criticism. These are not water-tight compartments, nor do they encode hard and fast principles which the critic must adhere to. In practical terms, criticism is merely an open market to which everyone can bring his/her wares, but the wares and their prices ought to have a human face…10 art expo cat
In modern times, criticism has become as sophisticated and complicated as art itself. Although its continuance depends on the existence of art, it also relies on the availability of some extra-artistic determinants in its role as art’s purveyor. In this regard, newspapers, magazines and journals are very useful platforms for art criticism. In recent times, the internet has changed the face and heart of the modern world and the critic faces more challenges as he or she struggles for relevance in the hustle and bustle of the art world. And the challenges are daunting, given the socio-economic reality in these parts which have not allowed any real development to take place in most spheres of human endeavour, excepting, perhaps, the economics of politics. In other words, criticism of Nigerian art is either as developed or under-developed as the country itself. it is another consecrative agency in the art world and is a contributing factor to the situation of art in Nigeria today.
However, Nigeria remains relatively fortunate in its tradition of art criticism. There are some good number of artists in the history of Nigerian art who have been able to combine practice with theorisation. Although the visual-verbal tradition goes back to Aina Onabolu, Akinola Lashekan and Ben Enwonwu, it was with the emergence of the radicals of Zaria Art Society in the 1950s that the artist-critic-historian tradition began to emerge in bold relief. The phenomenon later crystallised with the activities and writings of Uche Okeke and other artists beginning from the 1970s. Thus, the artist-writer phenomenon is a common feature in the Nigerian art scene. Although the artist-critic pattern is one that Nigerian artists continue to exploit, only few artists actually make a success of such combination. But criticism of Nigerian art, at best, remains a drop in the ocean when compared with the number of activities in the field. What kind of condition do they operate in and what other complementary factors, including art journals and newspapers, have aided their work?
As for journals, the greatest problem in the history of journal publishing in Nigeria is the issue of longevity. Most journals published in Nigeria have not lasted long enough to influence the art criticism tradition. Poor funding, lack of professionalism, and bureaucracy (in the case of public-institution-based journals) have been some of the greatest misfortunes of art journals in Nigeria. The situation has contributed to the usually short life span of most publications and the epileptic issuance of others.
Society as a Factor
The perception of art in Nigeria is very poor, in spite of the progress made in art appreciation in the last few years. We must acknowledge that there are many art institutions in Nigeria today and that more galleries and art centres are springing up. Also many more activities and festivals have become part of the art calendar in Nigeria. But to a great extent, art and society in Nigeria are still divorced from each other. If art and aesthetics have no place in the general scheme of things, their appreciation will remain the exclusive preserve of a few elite. This situation is in contradistinction to what obtained in pre-colonial times when art belonged to almost every western educated elite. Today art is more of a luxury and not necessarily the conscience of society. This is why everything in these parts is so sterile. The sterility of the concept of society and development in these parts is, in part, the child of the severance of art from society. One could see the effects in our highly dehumanised roads, in our austere homes, the highly-utilitarian public buildings, the recklessly defaced public monuments, and the macabre politics that is common in Nigeria. Not even science and technology are allowed to be complemented by art’s salve. Of course, the problem is not entirely a Nigerian one. But if there is any place where the separation of art from society has taken a great toll, that place is Nigeria. Yet, there is art in everything, including politics. When science and politics terrorise the human psyche with their products of destruction, art can come to the rescue. The Nigerian society, with its usual crop of bread-and-butter leaders, does not appreciate this fact and as a result, art in Nigeria is trapped in the darkling corridors of underdevelopment. Furthermore, with the prevalent triumph of materialism and the suffocating religious revivalism that have encircled Nigeria in recent years, much of the liberal spirit that art needs to propel itself is largely absent. In a subtle way, there is a connection between this problem and the problem of our education system.
Some people would readily point at hunger as the bane of our situation. Hunger may be part of it. But what of the ineptitude of the leadership of the culture sector? What of the anti-art attitude of government? For too long, government and society’s conception of art and culture is circumscribed by raffia-wearing dancers and pedestrian local crafts. There are very few credible sustainable art festival organised by government; no national art exhibit where the state of art in our country can be measured, enjoyed, visited, and celebrated. There are very few institutions or systems through which excellence in the arts can be duly rewarded. Public art institutions and organisations are caught in the web of bureaucracy. The Nigerian artist thus becomes an endangered species of sorts, with little or no encouragement from a society whose understanding of art remains strait-jacketed and interpreted from the myopic lens of imported religions. When the problem of nescience is added to the situation, we are faced with a state of anomie which impacts most negatively on art. A good number of our artists have been lost to religious fanaticism and art as a whole is being impeded by much fanaticism in terms of the dwindling perspicacity of its vision and subject matters. As we know, overbearing religiousness presupposes orthodoxy, which is one of the greatest enemies of art. One is therefore pained to see how religion is being used to destroy the psyche of Nigerians to art. In this wise, I am left with no other option than to display here, some few slides of the interplays and cohabitation between religion and art from times long in some widely acknowledged religious spaces of the more developed world.
In the height of the afore displayed slides, I join others in condemning the unwarranted mutilation of the masterpiece mural by Demas Nwoko titled “The gift of talents (1962)” in Teddar Hall, University of Ibadan by misinformed religious jingoists. Indeed this exhibition of religious overzealousness by fundamentalists is not an isolated case in Nigeria and therefore we must cry loud against those perpetuating their ignorance in this sense.
All told, the problem with art in Nigeria is not an isolated case. It has been the same in much of Africa. It is only a by-product of the prevailing social situation where in the African continent development is defined along the lines of politics and science…
— Exerpts of an address delivered by Prince (Engr) Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon BSc (Engr), MBA, LLB, BL, D.Litt (Hon), CCS, ACS, FNSE, FIoD, FNIM, FNIMN, FCIM, FNIAE, COREN, at the Freedom Park in Lagos to Art Stakeholders in memory of a late friend and co-art lover on Saturday, 23 November 2013