Friday 14 December 2012

In Calabar, academics seek stronger value for art

By Tajudeen Sowole
 A call has been made for the nation’s academia to tap into the dynamics of the economic value of art and culture for them to contribute to the non-oil revenue drive
Guest Lecturer, Prof dele jegede, during the Eleventh Distinguished Lecture and Fifth National Symposium on Nigerian Art in Calabar, Cross River State.
This much formed the core of discussions during the twin events Eleventh Distinguished Lecture and Fifth National Symposium on Nigerian Art organised by National Gallery of Art (NGA), which were held recently at the Mini Theatre, Cultural Centre, Calabar, Cross River State.

Speaking on the theme ‘Imagination’, the guest lecturer of the Distinguished Lecture and art historian, Prof. dele jegede of Miami University, Ohio, U.S., took the audience through the revered and rich art history of Nigeria – ancient and modern.

A day after, Prof. Ola Oloidi of University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Enugu State presented the lead paper on the theme ‘Re-branding Nigeria through the Arts’.

In his presentation, jegede argued that the absence of imagination stunts cultural growth as well as truncates the ideals on which the nucleus of national pride is built. He also noted that the best, and perhaps, the largest collection of Nigerian artefacts such as the Benin objects are not in private or public collections at home in Nigeria, and warned of increased human intellectual flight. Reason: standard in the art academics of Nigerian universities has been on the decline!

The self-inflicted cultural injuries, he insisted, appears to be making the era of looting of Africa’s cultural objects by foreigners during the pre-nation state Nigeria a child’s play. “National museums and their local branches have fallen prey to the vicious machinations of contemporary predators who, often with the connivance of local collaborators, have continued to plunder our national treasures and, in the process, exposed the vulnerability of our museums,” he stated.
Hon Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke (left) and Director-General of NGA, Abdulahi Muku during the lecture.
Perhaps, replenishing the lost treasures was achievable from one generation of creative buoyancy to another. However, jegede was disturbed that “some of the best Nigerian curators, art critics, art historians, art teachers, artists and academics are in voluntary exile in Europe and the U.S.”

As if responding to the recent growth of contemporary Nigerian art within the fractured academic system, jegede, indeed, commended the prowess of artists at auctions at home and in the Diaspora. He cited the last sales of the Lagos-based ArtHouse Contemporary auction house as an example.

Although not convinced that the current state of Nigerian art academia can sustain the prospect and the growing interest in the nation’s art, jegede, a former director of the Centre for Cultural studies, University of Lagos (UNILAG), Akoka, (1989-1992) expressed surprise how the union body, Academic Staff Union of University (ASUU) has been weakened from being a respected pro-active group in the 1980s to the current state of complacency.

He noted, “ASUU professors are now very comfortably paid. But the academic environment – teaching and research in particular – which constitute the core of contention is in shambles”.
The art departments of tertiary institutions, he argued, have been victims just as other sections of the academia.  He, for example, faulted the structure on which the art departments are established, arguing that they seem to be based on non-relevance to issues of national development and prospects.

He charged, “There are art departments in Nigeria with shacks as painting studios, verandahs as sculpture workshops, and tubs for the practice of fashion and textile design. What passes for graphic design in many areas revels in ancient lettering practice.”
jegede said private initiatives outside the academics appears to have taken over the primary responsibility of the NGA, saying the absence of a befitting national gallery remains a challenge.

In conclusion, jegede reopened the debate over terminal degree in art practice as he dragged National University Commission (NUC) into the issue in what has been described as ‘Ph.D-syndrome’ in Nigerian art academic environment. He did not exactly fault the NUC’s directive that university teachers must get Ph.D, but blamed art departments of institutions for not making a distinction between doctoral degree in studio practice and art history.

However, he brought in the U.S. example and argued that the issue should not be about whether MFA is good enough as terminal degree for art teachers, noting, “In the U.S. two of the country’s academic gateways – College Art Association (CAA) and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASDAD) recognise the MFA as embodying the highest levels of competency in professional practice and academic integrity in studio art and design, and its equivalence to terminal degrees (such as the Ph.D, the Ed.D) in other fields.”

Perhaps, the status of terminal degrees for various disciplines should not have been vested in the NUC. jegede argued that the university regulatory agency “should not have the last word on what terminal degrees belong to which field.” And in a situation of possible review of the nation’s academic structure for teacher’s competency-test or criteria, jegede recommended “a credible independent national body – independent of NUC and the departments of art and design in tertiary institutions, but consultative to them. Such a body, he said, should comprise of experienced intellectuals to set regulators of standards, saying, “We owe our country to ensure that rather than emphasise acquisition of prefixes without fixes, our degrees are competitive with the best that similar institutions have to offer globally.” 

During various inputs from members of the audience – largely dominated by heads of art departments from across Nigerian universities – the NUC-phobia appeared real in some sections of the academia. For others, however, it was not impossible to wriggle out of the NUC directive, yet maintaining a reasonable sense of independence that works with the peculiarity of individual art department.

And what appeared like a recurring question put forward by a section of the audience remained unanswered: If the MFA has lost its potency as a terminal degree in art academia, what is the assurance that Ph.D would not go the same way?
During his opening address, the Director-General of NGA, Abdulahi Muku had stressed the commitment of the agency in making art part of the non-oil revenue generation sector of the country. Activities of NGA such as the yearly Distinguished Lecture and Symposium on Nigerian Art as well as other programmes, Muku said, were geared towards “the transformation agenda of the current administration”.
On behalf of the National Assembly, Hon Moruf Akinderu Fatai commended the NGA, noting that “in spite of the budget constrains”, it has been able to organise some of its important programmes.
Art patron, Omooba Yemisi Shyllon (left) and Representative of the National Assembly, Hon Moruf Akinderu Fatai in Calabar.

While citing NGA as “one of the most important parastatals of government”, the Hon. Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke reminded participants that the lecture was about giving artists and other stakeholders in the academia an opportunity to make input into the core economic areas of development. The eleventh edition, he said, was “more significant as it is holding in the month of the Calabar Festival.”

Shortly before Prof. Oloidi presented his paper, chairman of the event, HRM, Igwe Nnaemeka Achebe, Obi of Onitsha said the theme ‘Rebranding Nigeria Through Art’ was a timely intervention. He stated, “Yes, we can rebrand Nigeria through art if we have the right structure in place”. He urged NGA to take advantage of the growing prospect of Nigerian art and strengthen artists’ creativity. 

Other presentations at the symposium were from Dr. Funke Ifeta, Prof. Osa Egonwa, Prof. Jacob Jari, Dr. Olakunle Filani, Prof. Frank Ogiomoh and Dr. Peju Layiwola.

The last edition of the National Symposium on Nigerian Art was held at Yaba College of Technology (Yabatech), Lagos, two years ago. The fifth edition scheduled to hold in Maiduguri last year was cancelled.

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