Friday 21 June 2013

Still empty-handed, artists seek role in National Transformation

By Tajudeen Sowole
Despite being ‘used and dumped’, artists marked the 50th anniversary of thier professional body propagating ‘National Transformation Agenda’
A cross section of the audience listening Guest Speaker, Republic of Benin-born art activist, Romuald Haxoume during the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA)-organised Distinguished Lecture Series.

It was the Society of Nigerian Artists {SNA}-organised First Distinguished Lecture Series themed The Role of Art in National Transformation, held at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Victoria Island, Lagos. The event was one of several activities to mark SNA’s 50th anniversary.  

But the guest speaker of the lecture, a Republic of Benin-born art activist, Romuald Haxoume traced the backseat position of arts in the development of Africa to the inability of the creative professionals, particularly artists to identity their roots and have a clear identity, 

Ambassador Arthur Mbanefo chaired the lecture while the Director-General of National Gallery of Art (NGA), Dr Abdullahi Muku was the Special Guest of Honour.

The argument of Haxoume was the central focus of his
Informal lecture, Hazoume’s presentation, which also had a near crude, perhaps “rude” tone took African leaders to the cleaners on the neglect of art. He said if renowned creative professionals such as late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Bruce Onobrakpeya, for examples, are well known abroad, even more than presidents, “we can use art to repair our reputation abroad”.

And when he chided “politicians for using artists and dumping them”, he probably was not aware that Nigerian artists have been used recently and now dumped, During the presidential campaign of President Goodluck Jonathan arts and culture professionals were actually ‘used’ as hypes to boost the former’s chances ahead of the polls – and now dumped.  It will be recalled that artists such as Onobrakpeya, Nike Okundaye, Kolade Oshinowo and others were among art culture professionals that, on more than one occasion attended the now infamous Presidential meeting in Lagos. 

Given his harsh words for African leaders, the guest lecturer would probably have seek amendment to the words used in the theme of the SNA lecture if he had known that the word ‘transformation’ is the most commonly used, and perhaps abused by political office holders in the Jonathan administration, under the slogan ‘Transformation Agenda’. 

Ahead of the event, the president of SNA, Oliver Enwonwu, actually, disclosed that the theme of the lecture was a conscious effort to “key into the transformation agenda of the federal government”.  

Currently, the visual arts sub-sections of art and culture is completely shut out of federal government’s ‘intervention funds’ for the creative industry. And more worrisome, the yearly Art Expo event organized by the National Gallery of Arts (NGA) is a shadow of its prospective early editions of 2008 and 2009. Also, a national gallery of art edifice – the main reason for setting up NGA – was among the demands of SNA during one of the meetings Jonathan had with artists in Lagos. But there is no sign that the federal government is committed in anyway. 

Hazoume is one of Africa’s middle-generation of artists who are currently making impact across the world.  He is well known for using sculptural pieces made of found objects to generate contemporary and traditional art, largely filled with social commentary that confronts the people and policy makers. Most pronounced in his work is jerry can or rubber container widely used for carrying premium spirit (petrol). In fact, Hazoume’s work is more celebrated for the jerry can-and petrol related theme, which is inspired by the smuggling of fuel from Nigeria to Republic of Benin.

Being a traditionalist of Yoruba origin, who promotes the cultural value of his African identity, Hazoume started the lecture with harsh, but honest and sincere words for his host country. “Nigeria’s reputation abroad is so bad,” he said with concerned passion shortly after he claimed: “I am a Nigerian too”. Hazoume however expressed hope, noting that there are changes based on what he saw within Lagos and across the border. “Lagos has changed, really changed from what I used to know; gardens everywhere,” he noted and “commended the governor” of the state.

“The way to development of a nation is to recognize the artists,” Hazoume stressed. 

The trajectory of Hazoume’s slavery themes, which his art is known for, in broader context, beyond the 15th century Transatlantic slave trade also formed a nucleus of his lecture. 

Hazoume argued that slavery, in the real sense of the word has not stopped in Africa. He illustrated his argument with one of his works that depicts a snake eating its tail. “We did not stop slavery. It’s like a snake eating its own tail”. The self-slavery, he noted, remains the challenge in Africa’s underdevelopment.  
Romuald Haxoume, speaking during the Distinguished Lecture Series.
He showed few of his works, particularly of the gasoline canisters, as well as others from his native Yoruba themes. Quite of creative interest are sculptural series he explains as depicting women status by the hairstyles.
Formed in 1963 by young artists from art schools across the country, SNA has four zones; West, East, Middle Belt and North.

Mbanefo, in his opening speech charged the professional body to take a critical look at the ongoing change rise in the value of art. He warned that artists should not swallow art auctions hook, line and sinkers. “Speculators could destroy the innovativeness of art”, Mbanefou stated.  

On art appreciation and patronage, one of Nigeria’s leading patrons, Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi urged young artists to keep working more and concentrate less on the who sold what at auctions.

While noting that SNA and NGA have a lot in common Muku said “integration of art in our national life should be embraced. He therefore used the occasion to stress the commitment of NGA in organizing a biennale for Nigeria as “Abuja Biennale, which has a role for SNA to play in collaboration with NGA”.

And as questions were raised, silently over the choice of a foreign artist as guest speaker at SNA’s 50th anniversary, one of the founding fathers of the body, Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya’s brief recap of the past five decades of  the association seemed to have an answer.    

Onobrakpeya recalled that “when we formed SNA 50 years ago, it was not recognized.”  The body, he argued, has since made progress. “And that we have a guest speaker from Republic of Benin for the 50th anniversary showed that SNA is expanding its horizon”. 
As much as the lecture was rich and thought provoking, something seemed not quite inadequate in the informal presentation, some artists present at the event observed. While accepting the fact that the guest speaker was not a user of English language, provisions should have been made for translator. Documentation of such a crucial lecture, they argued, is very important.  

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