Saturday, 8 October 2011

SYLVESTER OKWUNODU OGBECHIE (2008)


Challenges of culture as an enterprise
(Discourse. First published in 2008)
By Tajudeen Sowole
It amounts to arrogance to lay claim to a cultural heritage that is devoid of economic value, particularly in a fast changing world.
  Though this view has always been articulated by artists outside the art academia, the gathering at the Centre for Contemporary Art, CCA, Lagos on Saturday, March 8, 2008 which had the U.S.-based Prof., Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie presented a proposal, however, brought onto the table a shift.
  Organised by the Bisi Silva-led centre, the presentation by Ogbechie titled Managing Nigeria's Cultural Patrimony: The Need for Social Entrepreneurs, enjoyed a relatively impressive attendance of artists and other stakeholders alike.
  As this event came a week ahead of similar one, Business Models for Art Crafts at the Goethe Institut, Victoria Island, Lagos, it is becoming clear that apostles of 'art for art' may soon have to look elsewhere for followers.
Save for the Osogbo breed of artists such as Nike Okundaye, Muraina Oyelami, Rufus Ogundele , Jimoh Buraimoh, Kehinde Balogun, Bisi Fabunmi and Zaccheus Oloruntoba, as well as  efforts of Bruce Onobrakpeya – who is a bridge between the academics and the informal settings – the enterprenuerial potentials of art would have remained hidden in Nigeria.
  Towards the end of last year, one of the leading private cultural centres, Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos stressed that culture could be incorporated into the mainstream global economy, during its announcement of Corporate Council for Arts and Culture to the public. The project, which was in collaboration with Guarranty Trust Bank (GTB), according to the Managing Director of Terra Kulture, Bolanle Austen-Peters, was “to develop and advance partnership between the corporate community and arts and culture practitioners. The platform to achieve this, she added, is a proposed board to be made up of active and committed art supporters across the country.”
  Apparently, the art and culture landscape is getting more exciting. However, like every evolution, it comes with some ego factor and suspicion.
  At the CCA event, Ogbechi must have perceived this air of suspicion among the artists as he started his presentation by stating that his proposal has not brought anything new, but to energise the potentials available in evaluating artists' works. He noted that the volume of artefacts and other cultural objects of Nigerian origin carted abroad as well as the prowess of artists here showed that the nation's strong cultural heritage is not in doubt.
  But unlike the western countries where culture, in the presenter's words, has been "monetised", back home, the works of art are grossly undervalued. And when such works find their way across the seas, Ogbechi said, they are equally underrated. He cited an example of one of late Ben Enwonwu's works that "was sold in London recently for 400 pounds." If a Enwonwu could be so under valued, the damage looms larger for the lesser known artists, Ogbechi argued.
  Western museums, he noted, have arrogated to themselves the authority in validating and evaluating African cultural objects and other contemporary works of African origin. And for those who so believe that Benin bronze works in their possessions are treasures to value, the professor did not have cheering news for them: "Any post-1897 Benin bronze work are considered inferior in western countries".
  If words means a lot, art as a "commercial" endeavour is not something most people from the academics, back home, are so passionate about. But Ogbechi, who is of the department of History of Arts and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara, U.S. spoke in clear term: "Nigerian artists are not commercial enough". The fragile state of African art at the global level, he noted, has extends to the Diaspora. "African-American culture is undervalued in the U.S., that of the Caribbean are not better, same for the Blacks in Britain."
  And he went full circle by observing that lack of branding of his motherland's huge art resources is the key factor here. Branding and monetisation, he stresed, is achievable only if there are museums that can fit into the fast changing world, particularly in the context of global enterpreneur of African arts.
  Corroborating a known fact that the museums are not really there in the country to project artists, his emphasis, however, was not on the more active and visible outlets like the art galleries. Having assessed the state of the National Museum, Onikan Lagos, and dumped the management of the edifice into trashcan, Ogbechi presented examples of what museums should look like. One of such, which he showed his audience is a prototype of a proposed African Museum to be built in New York. The museum, according to him, is projected to the cost about 100 million Dollars.
  At this point, the core of his proposal became clearer as he stated that with half that amount, Nigeria could have a museum of similar standard. Works of arts in the museums here, he noted, are badly managed as he cited the Onikan museum and Ladi Kwali Pottery Centre as terrible example of how not to preserve artists' works.
    He also tried to promote what he called Anchron K
nowledge System (AKS), a design which he said is geared towards organising information on global African art with focus on specific needs and requirements of cultural management. He explained: "AKS proposes that in the information economy, global African art and cultural knowledge in all forms represent a major cultural heritage with direct financial and equity value that needs to be actively managed. It provides a systematic structural program of knowledge management designed to educate clients on how to enhance the equity value of different forms of global African arts and cultural knowledge."
  During his presentation, regular incursions from some of the artists were enough to send the signal to Ogbechi that he will have his hands full of responses at the break.
  But the nature of the responses, perhaps, to his disappointment, were more of comments, which appeared to have punctured his approach in articulating his proposed project. While no one disagreed with him that works of art are undervalued, his proper understanding of the local scene was challenged.
  For example there was a strong opposition to his proposal about offering better management, in terms of infrastructure, to the Ladi Kwali Pottery Centre, Abuja. According to the argument of one of the artists, there are several other hidden pottery works in other parts of the country yet unexposed. It is not a wise investment, she argued, to keep promoting one form of pottery wheen diverse others are abound elsewhere.
  In addition, the respondent warned that bringing in government as Ogbechi's proposal suggested is like looking for more trouble as nothing would be achieved at the end of the day.
  While outlets such as workshop, seminars and conferences were suggested by another member of the audience, of which Ogbechi agreed, the feeling was in the air that some resource individuals and groups from the Diaspora, had, in the past, had taken the artists, back home, for granted in matters like this.
  As the atmosphere got thicker with suspicion, Ogbechi assured that his mission here is "to collaborate with others" to ensure that the collective aspiration of artists is achieved. He however warned that, this collaboration would work, only if stakeholders drop the "I too sabi (complacency)" attitude. Some collectors, gallery operators and artists, he said, claim to know all, stressing that, artists' intellectual assets are of no immediate and future value without proper documentation and preservation.
  Having had a traumatic experience in a similar project tagged Nollywood Foundation, which he said is currently a litigation matter in the U.S., – between him and his partner – Ogbechi was not prepare for another sour experience, just as the stakeholders in the art gallery business were also on the alert.
  So far, his presentation was another wake-up call to the danger ahead if African art is not built into the huge global cultural enterprise.
 But the immediate survival of the artist is another factor as Silva, in her advice, warned artists to look beyond their chase for "five, ten thousand Naira" as value for their works.
  Ogbechie has an extensive scholarly background in Classical, Modern, and Contemporary African and African Diaspora arts. His research evaluates Alternative Modernities and the colonial and post-colonial conventions of representation in the arts and visual cultures of African and African Diaspora populations. His book, Ben Enwonwu: Making of an African Modernist is forthcoming from the University of Rochester Press.

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