Saturday 20 August 2011

A National Gallery of Art without gallery
 By Tajudeen Sowole Friday, 19 August 2011 00:00

Director-General of National Gallery of Art, Muku Abdulahi
As the new Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Edem Duke, settles down to confront myriad challenges facing the sector, he will soon discover one of the ministry’s unfinished projects, which has, however, become an embarrassment to the culture sector.

THE national gallery of a nation is the repository of the people’s modern arts. It’s also a source of education on the diverse cultural heritages of the people servicing domestic and international tourism; a window through which the rest of the world learn the history of a nation; a medium for ethnic harmony, particularly for a country facing the challenge of political instability.
Established in 1993 via Decree No 86, the National Gallery of Art’s (NGA) duty, according to the document that set it up, is to collect works of art of Nigeria’s origin to “serve as a repository for Nigeria’s creative spirit and promote appreciation” of the people’s art.
To a commendable extent, there are indications that the NGA has been collecting quite a lot of works. However, the challenge facing the parastatal is lack of space to display, and by extension preserve the works.
On several occasions, the Director-General of NGA, Muku Abdullahi had lamented that the NGA could not collect as much works as it should because of lack of gallery space to display or house the works. At its administrative office, a block of flats in Abuja, art pieces were either packed inside the offices like building materials or mounted to fill spaces, that are not in sync with the works, just to house the works.
In 2007, during a stakeholders’ meeting in Lagos, the then Director-General of NGA, Chief Joe Musa, hinted of plans to build a national gallery in Abuja. In fact, he showed participants a draft drawing of the proposed edifice, which he said was waiting for approval of the National Assembly.
After 18 years of NGA’s existence, what exactly is the state of development on the now elusive national gallery building? Abdullahi in a telephone chat, few days ago, disclosed that a fresh process took off last year with the search for a piece of land in Abuja. He debunked the belief that NGA had already secured hectares of land in the federal capital city, several years back, for the proposed building.
“There was never any land for the gallery anywhere until last year,” Abdullahi asserted. He explained that after President Goodluck Jonathan’s meeting with artists in Lagos last year, the government gave NGA about one and a half hectares of land, which the management thought would not be enough for the building. “We got more than one hectares of land last year – for a temporary use – after the president’s visit to Lagos, but we need more than that. A process is already in place to get about five hectares along the Airport Road, for a permanent structure. We have done a letter to the FCT in this respect.”
Abdullahi, however, added that new drawings of the edifice would be ready “as soon as we get a land; it’s the land that comes first and not the drawings.”
CURRENTLY, the NGA is performing below its statutory functions; it’s like a mere administrative unit of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation. Even in the absence of a befitting national gallery, the Lagos outlet — the Aina Onabolu Building, within the premises of National Theatre, Iganmu — has been very idle in areas of regular and permanent exhibitions of these works. Also, the deplorable state of the permanent exhibition hall for works of some masters at the National Gallery of Modern Art, inside the Entrance B of the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, has become an eye sore.
Abdullahi, however, attributed the troubles with these two outlets, to paucity of funds. “It’s not as a result of insensitivity on the part of the NGA management,” he insisted. He explained that the damage of the ceiling of the Aina Onabolu Building last year, for example, has been a major setback for exhibitions. He expressed surprise that “the POP ceiling of Aina Onabolu Building, which almost collapsed during a show last year, was part of a major renovation of the edifice in 2008.” The D-G argued that the challenge of getting fund to repair such a recent renovation contributed to “seemingly” lack of regular exhibitions. He claimed that the leaking roofs of the gallery, inside the National Theatre complex “has been restored,” and assured that the works are safe from damage.
It is also worrisome that this day when the Internet has become a crucial source of information – particularly for tourists, researchers and others interested in the creative sectors of Africa – the inability of NGA to effectively deliver on its mandate shows clearly on its website, not a single collection is displayed on the website to indicate that the NGA actually exists in the context of a repository of the nation’s art.
Abdullahi admitted this failure, but explained that the site was already being reworked “to have the works of artists, bio and other information,” as parts of the pages. Still on the collections, an average of about 30 works, he said, were being collected from artists every year. He however said, the gallery had not been collecting recently for lack of fund; “we just paid half of the ones we collected.”
DESPITE the ‘ritual’ of every new minister’s visit to parastatals of Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, the building of a national gallery edifice was hardly on the priority list of the past culture helmsmen. As expected, Duke also observed this ritual, two weeks ago, in Lagos when he visited parastatals under the ministry in Lagos. However, how much of priority he would give to the building of a national gallery edifice is yet to be ascertained. The minister has the challenge of making the Federal Government’s Public-Private Partnership (PPP) work in ensuring that the dream of building a national gallery is realised.
Apparently frustrated by government’s inability to live up to its responsibility, some artists and other stakeholders, had launched a rescue mission. Under the group known as the Visual Arts Society Of Nigeria (VASON), artists, collectors and gallery owners, few months ago, in Lagos came up with the idea to build a “Visual Arts Repository.” This institution, they stated, would aim at “establishing a repository for the promotion, preservation and conservation of visual arts in Nigeria.”

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